Somewhere along the line, we came to accept this idea that Montana is a battleground—that farmers and ranchers are at war with environmentalists, as though agriculture and
environmentalism were diametrically opposed. But ask folks from either group what they believe in and you’re likely to get the same answer: they want what’s best for Montana.

“We all have a lot more in common than people might think,” says Laura Nelson of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA). “We believe working lands and ranching lands are some of the best places to care for wildlife, clean air, water, and grasslands. Ranching, conservation, and community make a winning team in rural Montana.”

RSA was born in 2003, when several ranch families across northern Montana came together to solve some common problems. Since then, RSA leaders have worked alongside professional consensus builders, technical experts, business professionals, and staff of agencies and conservation groups to develop strategies to meet the needs of Montana’s wildlife, while also protecting ranching traditions. Members have had the satisfaction of their input being requested and respected on wildlife issues. More than anything else, the RSA wants to offer hope for the future of rural communities, with a stepwise plan to build good outcomes for all involved.

“This is a huge recreational area for hunting and fishing. This particular area is one of the last intact grasslands in the world,” says founding member and current RSA Board President Leo Barthelmess, addressing concerns beyond ranching operations. “It’s all got to work in concert if we’re going to have stable communities.”

At this stage in RSA’s evolution, the group recognizes that economic instability and the continued out-migration of young people threaten the long-term viability of agriculture on the northern prairies. Because Montana’s rural communities and the abundant wildlife here are sustained in large part by ranchers, the challenge is to create a vibrant, profitable, sustainable future for ranching in this region.

“It’s a benefit to all of us for ranchers to care for these lands,” says Nelson.

Prairie ranchers have something unique to offer the conservation world: a proven workforce of low-cost, high- return, site-savvy land stewards who love and understand this demanding landscape. Groups such as The Nature Conservancy have learned that lasting, large-scale conservation is only feasible with the participation and leadership of people who own or manage land.

“Livestock and wildlife can coexist. The RSA works with other organizations with the hope of building something sustainable for local families and future generations,” Barthelmess explains. “Instead of tearing each other down, we need to build something together.”

When it comes to doing what’s right for Montana, there aren’t two sides of the fence—we’re all on open range. For more information, visit ranchstewards.org.