Rancher Mike Delaney climbs into his jeep with Nikki Rife, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in Winnett, MT, a small town about an hour east of Lewistown. They lead the way on a faint two-track road threading through grasslands laced with Wyoming big sagebrush.

After leaving the spacious ranch house and barns, there’s little sign of human presence in a 360° view – no power lines, house or even a shed as far as the eye wanders. This is some of the best sage grouse range in Montana with 10 identified leks (breeding areas) on the Delaney 44 ranch and flocks of hundreds of birds.

The ranch and adjacent neighboring places, along with intermixed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, form a significant haven of more than 80,000 acres. The area is safe so far from sod-busting threats that devastated other nearby sage grouse range, despite the arid conditions for farming. Just south of Winnett, some 30,000 acres were recently plowed. Not far from the Delaneys, a ranch in the sage grouse stronghold recently went up for sale; farther to the east, another ranch was subdivided for recreational property lots.

 Mike and his wife Deb Delaney have run a Black Angus cow-calf operation since the early 1980s. Their smaller-framed cattle fare well on rangeland plants in a challenging climate of winter blizzards, -20° temperatures, and winds that gather steam across miles of prairies. Mike grew up here and learned a strong stewardship ethic from his father, Douglas-Michael. He, in turn, learned from his father, the first Michael Delaney to settle in this remote country.

Mike and Deb put in long days to pass down a profitable and sustainable ranch to their daughter and son. Their daughter Anne Bergum is actively involved with the ranch and helps keep track of the finances. Their son Michael has worked side by side with them since 2006, after graduating from Montana State University with an animal science degree. He brings new technology to the ranch, such as remote cameras to be alerted to any problems at watering tanks or during calving season.

Profitability and passing on their legacy are two key reasons why the Delaneys have plenty of praise for the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). They signed up when NRCS first launched the partnership in 2010.

“All the credit for us getting involved goes to Nikki Rife,” says Mike, who regularly attends her workshops. When she explained the benefits of SGI, the Delaneys decided to approach the bank for a loan, finding immediate success. SGI-prescribed grazing programs are typically matched 75:25, with the federal government paying the lion’s share. The landowner must make initial investments and is paid back for some of the expenses they front beyond the 25%.

After initial inventory and planning by Heather Richter, a former rangeland management specialist in Winnett, the Delaneys now have two years under their belts with the new fencing and water pipelines connecting stock tanks that allow square-mile sections to be rested from grazing for 15 months. As part of the plan, 20% of the ranch is rested at a time. They’re already seeing results they hadn’t counted on across their sizeable ranch, despite the aridity of this country with 11 in. of annual of precipitation and soils that can be tough clay hardpan in places.

“My biggest surprise was the amount of cover we got in that 15-month period of resting pastures,” Mike says, pointing out a doubling of growth in rested pastures. That might mean from an average of 4 in. to 8 in., and that’s eye-opening in this type of country.

The Delaneys rest 20% of their rangelands for up to two years at a time. Deb says the new grazing regime with more pastures and rotation has also made it easier to round up cows each spring. The cattle don’t have to range as far to find excellent forage and water, and are in better shape for calving season. They now graze about 75 fewer head of cattle, but with higher profitability. Calf weights have risen about 500 lbs. to 600 lbs.