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.

Educating others

The Delaneys and Rife recently led a small group into the heart of a rested “pasture” of 2,200 acres. The tour included Pete Husby, Montana NRCS state biologist, Jon Siddoway, NRCS state rangeland conservationist, and Scott Anderson, SGI rangeland conservationist in Forsyth, about 120 miles to the southeast. They were there to see what two seasons of rest-rotation grazing looked like, since change usually takes a long time to be clearly noticeable.

“I’ve found that SGI has a snowball effect,” Anderson said. “A few ranchers get involved and then more want to be part of it and it keeps growing.”

The group walked among sagebrush, bunchgrasses and blooming wild roses that hugged the ground, a clue to the intensity of winds that shape all who live here. Today, only a cool breeze blew as they studied the new green growth mixed with the tall “residual” cover of last year’s grasses that together give sage grouse hens what they need for nesting.

A sage grouse hen looks not just for a sagebrush to hide her nest under, but the additional screen of tall grasses and forbs, the wildflowers that will produce tender leaves and attract bugs. Chicks thrive on a diet of nutritious caterpillars, spiders, ants and beetles that flourish in rested pastures.

Rife explained that when cattle do return to rested pasture, they also benefit from the combination of green grass for protein and the older growth residual grasses for energy. If cattle eat too much green grass alone, the high-moisture content washes through the system with protein benefits but not complete nutrition. The drier brown grass from prior seasons offers important carbohydrates.

When rain falls on the taller grasses and shrubs, the drops run down leaves and stems and some drip off the edge and infiltrate the soil well, compared to bare ground where rain splashes and runs off. Rife explained it’s the same principle of watering your trees in your yard around the drip line from the branches as the most effective way to reach the roots.

sage grouseWith too much rest, she pointed out that the bunchgrasses die back in the middle from lack of grazing in a system that long-evolved with bison grazing big areas and coming back to other places later. Their hooves actually play a role “mashing” the old grasses and manure into the ground to help fertilize the soil. The fences and planning are an attempt to mimic some of that natural system of the Montana plains.

“With cattle, we can’t control what they eat and where they step, but with fences we can control their time, duration and the areas they graze,” Rife said.

The group then drove on to check on a new stock tank across the fence line from the rested pasture. SGI helped pay for the addition of 19 water developments for a total of 50 on the ranch. That’s made the rest-rotation possible. Every tank comes equipped with an escape ramp in case sage grouse or other birds fall into the slick-sided vertical tank.

One of the challenges of the plan was to work with BLM on the intermixed lands for pipelines to pass through the allotments from public to private land, and to coordinate grazing schedules so that the ranch plan was seamless across boundaries. The Delaneys have only praise for Katie Decker, BLM rangeland specialist in Lewistown who, along with BLM biologist Matt Comer, helped them improve their range and the BLM lease land, too, as part of the SGI program.

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“It was exciting to us to have Mike Delaney come to us with a proposal to improve the range,” Decker says. “We’re very pleased to have this opportunity to work together to manage lands well, especially for a species like sage grouse that doesn’t know boundaries of private or BLM land.”

Decker says she was impressed by the proactive plan presented to BLM from the Delaneys and Rife that identified areas for pipelines, fences and water tanks with mitigation already in place, such as marking fences to prevent collisions and careful siting of the tanks. BLM then conducted an environmental assessment and followed federal NEPA guidelines to approve the project.

While the couple and their son spend most of their time looking out for cattle, they appreciate all the wildlife. And prairie wildlife abounds on the ranch – short-eared owls, golden eagles, upland sandpipers, marbled godwits, long-billed curlews, meadowlarks and pronghorn. “We’ve always wanted to be good stewards of the land,” Deb says. “We’ve never thought of owning the land but of taking care of it and growing grass, not cows.”

Deborah Richie is communications director for the Sage Grouse Initiative and is located in Missoula, MT. Contact her at Deborah.Richie@sagegrouseinitiative.com.

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