I entered the United States in Roosville, where British Columbia meets Montana. At first sight, the grass was literally less green on the US side of the fence. But that first impression did not reflect my experience in Montana. While I did not find a box filled with gold coins in the so-called “Treasure State”, I found intriguing climate and land use innovations. Arguably, I found them where I least expected it.
With a population of just over 1 million and a land area of 147’000 square kilometers, Montana is the third least densely populated state in the US. Its political significance primarily lies within its characteristic as a “Purple State”, contested by both Republicans and Democrats. It’s also one of the states where buying a gun seems easier than recycling batteries, according to my own experience. Agriculture is the main source of income, followed by tourism, forestry and mining. It is that richness in natural resources which gave Montana its nickname.
I left the Continental Divide Trail at the old mining town of Basin. From there, my itinerary took me over hardly ridable terrain in thick and steep forests, through grizzly bear habitat, and seemingly infinite farmland with zigzagging dirt roads and countless mud holes. Over Bear Creek Trail I found my way down to Paradise Valley, a stunningly beautiful stretch of land at the northern end of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is world-class fly-fishing territory. And it is prime ranching land.
It is in rural areas like these where I expected to meet more climate sceptics than anywhere else on my trip. To my surprise, my actual experience was quite the opposite. Not only did many people appreciate the value of telling the stories of how climate change is impacting nature and livelihoods. While I rested from cycling, I also had the opportunity to meet with local entrepreneurs who develop nature-based solutions for a more productive, resilient and climate-positive ranching and farming sector. Their drive and passion to realise economically attractive ranching in harmony with nature was inspiring. Here is a snapshot of the work of three individuals who made a particularly strong impression on me.
Fixing soil health with regenerative agriculture
Vernon “Vern” Smith has lived in Paradise Valley for over 30 years. He is a farmer and rancher turned regenerative agriculture entrepreneur. His career change comes from having seen the devastating downstream effects of heavy use chemicals and fertilisers. “We are lucky to live here in the pristine Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But we are Ground Zero for this downstream pollution, all the way to the ever-increasing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico”, Vern said. “Our cumulative effects of not worrying about the environment has led to a pretty ugly global picture. To change this, we need a paradigm shift.” Vern put words to action: a few years ago, he sold all his cattle and started Regenerative Land Solutions, together with his son Ford Smith. The solution uses a stable compost extract, which farmers buy to restore the so important micro-biological life in the soil, often damaged by overgrazing, tilling, and excessive use of fertilisers. .
“Traditionally, farmers have overlooked soil health and just increased chemical input to maintain productivity. But fixing soil biology is now becoming the new frontier”, Vern told me. And the benefits of doing so are multiple. By moving from chemicals to such nature-based solutions, farmers not only increase their yields and produce more nutritious food, they also reduce their input costs and enable soils to store much more carbon. Indeed, research by Project Drawdown suggests that such regenerative agriculture practices are among the top global climate solutions, even before more commonly heard of solutions such as offshore wind or electric vehicles.
“There is not a lot of money in ranching”, Ford, Vern’s son, told me. While growing up on the ranch, all he wanted to do is leave. With regenerative agriculture practices, farming can become more profitable again. “And on top of it, it gives farmers the opportunity to be a solution, rather than the cause of environmental issues such as climate change and species loss. I believe this is particularly motivating for younger generation to stay in farming. In this sense, regenerative agriculture is a good model to sustain rural economies.”
Resilient ranching in top predator country
Malou Anderson-Ramirez lives in the Tom Minor Basin, not far away from Vernon Smith. She is a third-generation rancher. In this part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that means doing business in top predator country: it is wolf and grizzly habitat. The presence of those predators can be costly to farmers, as livestock is exposed to attacks. To get compensated by the government for lost livestock, a carcass has to be found within 48 hours –not an easy task given the huge size of a typical cattle ranch in Montana.
Climate change is adding to the challenge, too. Over the past decade or so, warmer winters have led to an unprecedented mountain pine beetle infestation, killing vast amounts of mountain pine trees in higher elevations. Before the epidemic, Grizzlies were feeding off the protein- and fat-rich nut of the pine tree to get ready for hibernation. Grizzlies are good at finding new sources of food, so with the trees gone, they have adapted and are now increasingly coming to lower altitudes to find their food – precisely the landscape where farmers keep their cattle. The result has been an increase in human-grizzly conflicts.
Malou’s innovation combines low-tech solutions such as cattle herding and colored fencing to deter predators with high-tech solutions. The latter consists of a microchip placed in the livestock’s ear to monitor vital signs. If information related to heart rate, body temperature or respiration goes off the norm, the farmer receives an immediate alert to his/ her smartphone, which enables him/her to find and report the carcass quickly enough to qualify for the government compensation.
Despite the fact that grizzlies and wolves are protected species, some farmers still aim to solve the problem by shooting them. The work that Malou and her family are doing works to conserve these species alongside ranchers, which comes at a time when climate change makes both more challenging.
Rotational grazing and soil carbon sequestration
I met Lill Erickson in Livingston, at the entrance of Paradise Valley. Lill is the Executive Director of the Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE). WSE is a collaborative platform for farmers, ranchers, small business owners, conservationists and civil society to engage and help maintain – and sometimes restore – the largely pristine Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, while invigorating the rural economy.
Rotational grazing is the key word here: instead of keeping livestock on feedlots, they are sent back on the grassland, where they graze rotationally to avoiding desertification of land, thus enabling natural fertilisation of the soil. This is how bison grazed the landscape thousands of years ago, applied to modern cattle ranching. The benefits are many, including improved biodiversity, increased water storage capacity and drought resilience of the soil, as well as improved carbon soil sequestration, which has huge potential to combat climate change. WSE is helping to monetise those ecosystem services for the benefit of the local ranchers that are investing in rotational grazing, including by working with private sector companies seeking to purchase carbon offsets and contributing to preserving this unique ecosystem.
Those types of nature preservation and climate partnerships between ranchers and the private sector can help improve the business case for climate-positive farming, which is essential to get to scale. Lill is optimistic that the model could expand across the rural West. “We are convinced that what is happening here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, could serve as a model for other places. What we are learning from ranching in harmony with nature could be applied across the rural West where the circumstances are very similar.”
The lessons I learned from my visit to Paradise Valley is that sometimes we have to look elsewhere than Silicon Valley to find impactful climate and sustainable development innovations. As a matter of fact, Palo Alto seems to have troubles investing into the solutions we need to turn the tide on global warming and its ripple effects. Other sectors might seem more appealing to investors, but the truth is we will not solve climate change without building sustainable rural economies.
I left Montana through Yellowstone National Park, where I crossed the border to Wyoming. Together with Glacier National Park and the Grand Teton National Park, this was the “tourism section” of my journey. In my next post, I will tell you more about the climate impacts within the parks, innovative approaches to species conservation, and why National Parks could help depoliticise climate change.