Mule Tracks Cattle Company
Photo © Anne Sherwood
(This article was published in Big Sky Landmarks, the journal of The Nature Conservancy of Montana)
Kevin Koss loves working on his family’s remote cattle ranch in Montana’s Missouri Breaks country. It’s a starkly beautiful ranch set in the dry pine-studded badlands of the Larb Hills.
The days can be long and lonely and the weather harsh. The Koss ranch is 65 miles from the nearest paved road and about that far to the town of Malta, the Phillips County seat. But for Kevin, his young family and three generations of Kosses before him, this ranching life is the only one for them.
“I love the outdoors and being my own boss. I enjoy the wildlife and I love hunting,” says the 37-year-old father of two. “And we have great neighbors – these are people who would drop everything they’re doing just to help out another neighbor.”
True to the cow-man that he is, Kevin “knows every characteristic of each of our 500 or so cows,” said his wife Brenda. “He lives for this. If he couldn’t ranch every day, I’d have a depressed man on my hands.”
This 35,000-acre ranch, like much of the land in southern Phillips County, is home to an amazing assortment of wildlife, including a permanent herd of 200 elk as well as healthy populations of grassland birds -- mountain plover, long-billed curlew, sage grouse, burrowing owls and many songbirds. Within two miles of the ranch are bighorn sheep.
“A big part of why I love ranching is all the wildlife we have here,” said Kevin. “And we have all the wildlife here because the ranchers have taken care of the land. If you take care of the ground, it will take care of you.”
The Koss’s ranch management has not gone unnoticed. The Koss ranch, along with eight other ranches in the area, has been certified for sustainable range management through Montana State University’s Undaunted Stewardship program.
“The Koss ranch is a strictly grass operation, so they do a lot of rotating cattle through the huge pastures. They don’t feed hay, so they have to pay attention to their grass,” said MSU’s Brent Roeder. “That means good noxious weed management and keeping their stocking rates in line with the land’s carrying capacity.”
“Some people think cattle are destroying the land; that’s not the case,” said Kevin. “Well-managed cattle grazing can actually enhance grasslands. In our grazing system we’re always moving the cattle and we try to leave about half the grass in any one area.”
Another way the Kosses are enhancing their own grasslands is by grazing some of their cattle on the Conservancy’s Matador Ranch grassbank. Begun in 2003, the grassbank was set up to provide ranchers with incentives for conservation and good management. The grassbank currently allows about 13 participating ranchers to graze their cattle in common on the Matador. The ranchers pay to graze but get deductions in their lease rate in exchange for conservation on their home ranches. In its first year, the grassbank also provided a relief valve for ranchers whose grazing lands had been impacted by years of drought.
Now the grassbank grazes 1,200 to 1,600 cows on the Matador’s 60,000 acres of public and private land each year. Cattle are grazed in large herds and moved frequently to give the forage a chance to rest.
“I think the grassbank has worked pretty well,” said Kevin, “especially for some of the smaller operations here that depend on it.”
The Kosses, who have participated since the program began, qualify for substantial deductions to the lease rate because their own ranch is native unplowed prairie and good sage grouse habitat, and because they’re certified through the Undaunted Stewardship program.
“The Kosses are good stewards who produce a lot of conservation that’s a joy to reward financially,” said Linda Poole, the Conservancy’s program director at the Matador Ranch.
The grassbank, while financially beneficial for the participants, has also had other impacts. It provided the incentive for the rancher certification and supported MSU Extension’s creation of Montana’s first Weed Prevention Area.
“We've made a lot of tangible accomplishments at the grassbank, but I think the intangibles might have greater benefits for conservation," said rancher Dale Veseth, who worked with the Conservancy to set up the grassbank.
One of those intangibles is that it got the ranchers thinking about the benefits of marketing their cattle in common.
“You’re going to get a better deal if you’ve got a larger herd to sell all in one place, rather than buying from each individual ranch,” said Kevin.
But an even greater outcome has been the realization that the ranchers, if they speak as one voice, will be heard and can make a difference. The trust and relationships developed through the grassbank led to the formation of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance. About two dozen ranch families are participating.
“It’s been a long slow process,” said Dale. “The relationship and trust built between folks helped us create the Stewardship Alliance and that has allowed us to work more cohesively as a community. It's allowed us to become more organized, and more goal-oriented, and that has made it easier for other people to work with us."
Among the accomplishments of the Alliance is a rancher-developed wildlife conservation plan spanning over 1.5 million acres of the northern Montana prairies. Now federal and state agencies are using that effort to jumpstart incentive-based conservation of prairie dogs and ferrets. And, the state of Montana is considering the plan as it develops prairie dog management recommendations for the region.
The Alliance has given encouragement to the ranchers who have been worried about the future of ranching in south Phillips County.
There’s a huge gap between the ag value of ranches and what they sell for on the market. So, local ranchers are pretty much priced out of the market.
Recently a developer made the Kosses a “very lucrative” offer to purchase the ranch, but the Kosses don’t want to sell.
“All I’ve ever wanted to be was a rancher,” said Kevin. He hopes one day to pass on the ranch to his children, six-year-old son Kendall and one-year-old daughter Kennedy.
“Kendall wants to be a rancher like his daddy and his grandpa Kelly. He loves going with them to go fencing and moving cattle,” said Brenda.
These days, Kevin spends a lot of time in his truck driving to meetings, but he feels it’s worth it. He feels hope in the group’s efforts to explore how conservation collaborations can strengthen the local economy and revitalize family ranching.
“I get stressed out about all the meetings, but we have to do it. By ourselves we don’t have a prayer.”
The group is bringing in outside experts to explore such topics as estate planning, ranch planning to improve profit, how to derive income from wildlife and ways to add value to their grass-fed beef. And perhaps most importantly for Kevin, “we want to figure out ways to transfer our ranches to our kids.”
At a Conservancy and Alliance-sponsored meeting last February  in Malta, speakers from around the West told the 50 attendees about rural partnerships that have supported ranching and conservation. Becky Hyde, owner of the Yainix Ranch in Oregon, told the group about Oregon Country Beef, a cooperative of 80 ranch families that markets their natural beef at premium prices.
At a subsequent meeting of the Alliance, members decided to set up another community meeting relating to options for land transfers that can help local ranchers stay in the business and expand when opportunities arise.
That day was a pivotal one for Kevin. “I felt the group had made enough progress that we might have a future here in ranching.”
There’s a long way to go, but by working together, ranchers are creating a vibrant future for the wildlife, people and prairies of northern Montana.
Photos © Tana Kappel