Danielle Norris: Grass Growers


Montana Afoot and Afloat students meet with Sheldon Carlson, Blackfeet buffalo manager.

     A lot goes into our perception of the West, and a conversation with two Montana grass growers can help clarify what actually shapes the landscape. Our WRFI group was lucky enough to speak with both a bison herd manager on the Blackfeet Reservation and a conventional cattle rancher near the town of Choteau, both along the Rocky Mountain Front. Sheldon, the Blackfeet Buffalo Herd manager and Lane Yeager, the rancher, have similar sounding job descriptions but do things very differently for very different reasons.

     Sheldon, as manager of the Inter-Tribal Bison Herd oversees the population of 515 animals and growing. He spends most of his energy maintaining water sources and fencing on the property. He also makes sure the bison are keeping a healthy weight by feeding them hay when they’re looking slim. With an abundance of help, he moves the entire herd from winter to summer pasture over the course of several days at the change of seasons. When other bison herds around the state have a surplus of animals, Sheldon can add to the Blackfeet’s herd. Unlike many ranching operations, the bison aren’t given shots or vaccines, or protected from predators like wolves. The two-year-olds are harvested for multiple purposes, including consumption and spiritual use. The meat is given to families or individuals in need on a regular basis and in special circumstances, like the recent fires affecting the town of Fort Butte. Because of the spiritual significance of the bison to the Blackfeet, hides are gifted to Tribal Council members, cut for the Sundance Ceremony. Hooves are used in a mating dance. The tongue is used in ceremonies. The bison also provide a source of income to the tribe through meat sold to restaurants in California and hides sales. As a member of the Blackfeet Nation, Sheldon’s heritage influences how he sees bison in the landscape and as an inherent part of his tribal life.

     Heritage is also a big reason why Lane Yeager continues to raise calves on his family’s seventh generation ranch. His main task is “turning grass into cash.” He similarly maintains fencing, facilitates calving, and controls weeds on his property. Calves born in the spring are weaned and shipped to feedlots in the Midwest around October of the same year. They’re given vaccines and growth hormones during their life on the ranch and feed mostly on native grass pasture. Some land is utilized as irrigated hay fields and sold to other farms. One of Lane’s greatest challenges as a rancher is dealing with wildlife damage to fences and pasture, a legitimate problem for a property surrounded by land managed for wildlife.

     What can we learn from comparing these two grass growers? How can we understand the similarities and differences among individuals making a living on and from the land? Both Lane and Sheldon are raising controversial species in a controversial landscape. Buffalo, despite being a native species to the Montana prairie, are legally considered a livestock species and not managed in the wild by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lane argues that cattle have replaced bison in the ecosystem here, and many ranchers fear the potential of bison destroying fences. Others argue they are a critical part of this place and should be reintroduced in the wild. Cattle, on the other hand, receive criticism for overgrazing. Despite the land use issues relating to the two species, Lane and Sheldon are motivated by their love for this landscape, the one they work and live on. Listening to and connecting with people and their stories should inform our perception of what is seen as right or wrong when developing a land ethic because people, like Lane and Sheldon, are an important and fundamental part of the land.

    How can we capitalize on the common goals of such individuals to conserve the Rocky Mountain Front?


Sam Kinney: How to love


Sam Kinney floating the Mighty Missouri River

What is a land ethic and what does having a land ethic mean? To quote the famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” This quote highlights the disjointed relationship between humans and the land. We have no ethical value system that addresses our relationship to nature. We view the environment as property, a resource that exists solely for human use and economic gain, “entailing privileges but not obligations.” This stands in stark contrast to our ethical and moral views that deal with human to human relationships. The question then becomes: Can we extend our moral community to include all parts of the environment, and if so what would that society look like?

One culture that we have been introduced to on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course that has a very different way of interacting with the land is the Blackfeet Tribe. They place intrinsic value on the land and they see themselves as interconnected with their environment, as opposed to our views of the land as property and ourselves as conquerors of the land. One difference between the two cultures that I noticed was that the Blackfeet have a deep spiritual connection to their place and they care very deeply about every aspect of the landscape. In contrast, our society is lacking a deep connection to and knowledge of place, and in turn, we have little to no respect or care for our environment. Could it be that having a spiritual connection to the natural world could be one way of expanding and extending our ethics to the environment?

On this trip we have been having many powerful experiences that have helped us to build a deeper connection to this place and the world around us. It is hard not to feel connected to the landscape when you are deep in the Scapegoat Wilderness literally being blown up and over mountain passes, standing atop them, wind flying through your hair, overlooking the junction of where the plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The wind breathes life into us. Or when we sat and floated in blissful peace through the evening light to finish our Missouri River kayak trip under the vast array of the nighttime stars. I think we all felt our connection deepen as we scrambled up pillars to Hole-in-the-Wall, high above the mighty Missouri.  There we sat, quietly overlooking the landscape and pondering the Earth’s beauty and how we fit in to this greater picture. Or when we woke up to the first snow of the season (in September!) and were greeted by the sight of the massive limestone reef of Half Moon Park highlighted by the soft glimmer of the snow. I realize now that all of these experiences have influenced and affected my relationship with the environment and my connection to this place. We are experiencing the natural history of these places, their beauty and power, both internally and externally. After having experiences like this it is hard not to feel a change in ourselves and our relationship to the natural world.

All of this is well and good but why does building a deeper connection to nature even matter? I think the author Stephen Jay Gould summed up the value of connection to the environment best in his article, Enchanted Evening. He says, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” We must save these species and environments, not just for their sake, but for ours as well. For don’t we all rely on clean air to breathe and clean water to drink? There are countless rational reasons that we should change our relationship with the environment and establish a land ethic. As Joe McKay (Power Buffalo), a tribal council leader of the Blackfeet Tribe so wisely said, “We need to learn to live with the land rather than off the land.”

Awesome Alumni: Erica Schwabach, Restoration Ecology 2014

Erica Schwabach is a SUNY – ESF graduate as well as a alum of the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Restoration Ecology course. Here, she tells why three weeks in Montana changed her undergraduate education… for the best!

Erica - RE

What was the most memorable adventurous moment on your trip?

The whole thing!! Haha.. no, there are certainly moments that stick out in particular. Even though it was possibly the coldest moment of my trip, I know I will always remember the trip into the Snowcrest Mountains at the beginning of my course. About 2-3 days the weather began to turn and it started snowing as we climbed in elevation. Not having the proper clothing really set me back but my fellow classmates showed me nothing but love and care as they gave me their extra layers and hugs. Pat, our instructor, even built a fire in the snow! It was a moment I will never forget. It challenged me and taught me my strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the trip I was very fortunate to have made it back down the mountain, but I was so grateful to have been given the chance to even see such a beautiful place and come back to NY to tell of it.

What was the most memorable connection (with a fellow student, instructor, or guest speaker, etc) that you made on course?

This one is a tough one. I really connected to a lot of different students and both of my instructors. So I don’t think I’ll choose just one. One of my strongest connections was to my tent mate, Ilona. We were a very efficient team and got along great… neither of us snored! It was very bonding to spend 3 weeks camping and working and learning together. I’d say besides Ilona, I was closest to another student named Amelia on my trip. She was so sweet and friendly and a bright, pleasant person to be around. Our friendship grew as the trip went on and even though she lives across the country (she goes to school at UofM and is from Oregon) we still keep in touch via Facebook all the time! I hope to be able to visit her again someday. I also connected strongly to my instructors Pat and Molly. They were incredibly intelligent and kind individuals and it was a pleasure learning from/with them. I have kept in touch with both of them. I also have kept in touch with a student named Stephen from the Summer Semester WRFI summer-long course. We had so much in common and it was awesome being able to meet, work/learn, and hang out along with the Summer Semester group that summer. I made a strong connection with Stephen and am happy that we still are able to keep in touch via social media and phone calls every so often. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful connections that I made that summer!

 What summer jobs, internships or other opportunities have you had since your WRFI course?

 Since I was close to graduating, I only had a semester or so left at SUNY-ESF, my home institution, after completing my WRFI course. I was most inspired by the fisheries components of the Restoration Ecology course. So in Fall of 2014 I worked in the SUNY-ESF fisheries research lab studying maturity indices of the American Eel with a graduate student. I took the Summer of 2015 to finish up a couple of courses, Field Ornithology and Wetland Restoration Techniques and I am now currently post-graduation. I am actively pursuing opportunities in environmental jobs in New York State at this time.

 How did experiential education differ from a traditional campus learning?

 I discovered that I learn the best out in the field after taking a WRFI course. Being totally immersed in the field/place, learning totally hands on, and being immersed in nature it is an incredible learning experience that no classroom can quite teach you. You learn things about the world, about others, and about yourself most of all. It was great being able to leave campus to learn!!

 What were you most nervous for before your WRFI course?

 I was most nervous for being so far away from home (I’m from NYS while my WRFI course was in Montana), in a different place/climate, with others whom I hadn’t met before, and perhaps not being as physically or mentally fit as everyone else. It turned out that it was an incredible experience of growth for me as an individual and once I was immersed in the course I felt totally at ease! Everyone was incredibly nice and supportive.

 lee metcalf wilderness me

Any advice for a student at your home university who is considering taking a WRFI course?

Be prepared! Bring a few extra layers of warm clothing.. make sure that you begin working out a few months before your WRFI course. But most importantly.. have fun! It’s an incredible opportunity that only brings more and more good things to come and great connections. And I’m so happy that I did it!

Thanks Erica, for being in touch!