Bryce Andrews and Bart Morris spent last week tearing down fences on the border between the Sapphire Ranch and MPG Ranch just outside of Lolo. Tufts of deer and elk hair hung from the old barbed wire—evidence that animals were getting caught in it.
"This is so un-wildlife-friendly," Morris says. "And these are two wildlife-friendly ranches."
"We have to fix this," agrees Andrews.
The two ranchers only began leasing the 2,700 acres of land at the Sapphire from owner Mark Rieling a few months ago, but they've already put in a lot of sweat equity with little money to go on. The duo's main goal is to get their for-profit operation, Oxbow Cattle Company, up and running in a way that allows them to make a living by selling grass-finished cattle directly to individuals. So far, they've acquired 28 hormone- and antibiotic-free cows, and started piecing together the necessary equipment, like squeeze chutes and head catches, from donations made by friends and other ranchers.
But Andrews, 30, and Morris, 37, aren't just about business. They also have big-picture plans for the ranch, which is where the wildlife-friendly fence comes in. Their land, hidden off Highway 93, includes a stretch of the Bitterroot River flowing past an aspen grove that stretches far across the floodplain. From up on the hills you can see the largest peaks in the Bitterroot Valley. The land is under a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation land easement, which means it's prime for conservation and wildlife projects. The ranchers see that as an opportunity to partner with conservation organizations and the University of Montana on projects that benefit the ranch but also serve as learning opportunities for students. It's a model similar to the PEAS Farm in Missoula, but for ranchers.
Professor Dan Spencer, from UM's environmental studies program, brought one of his classes down to the ranch on a recent Saturday to help install the new fence. It's made of smooth wire and leaves plenty of space for fawns and elk calves to duck under. It also features fence clips, which allow the ranchers to completely unlink the wire when they're not using it for their cows, opening the land even more to wild critters.
"We are very excited for the possibility of having EVST students learning conservation skills on the ranch," Spencer says. "I've been having conversations with Bryce for a couple of years now about starting a project like this, and now we have this opportunity so close to Missoula."
The ranchers are also working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to address water issues. Though the Bitterroot River runs through the property, the upper level of the land is arid. Andrews and Morris are working with NRCS to find a sustainable solution.
"We will be working with them with the watering facilities and the ranch infrastructure, and we will also come up with management plans that allow us to do right by the land and still carry enough cattle to make a living," Andrews says.
Andrews and Morris met a few years ago when Andrews worked at the conservation-oriented Dry Cottonwood Ranch and Morris worked for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Morris and his wife, Wendy, a Missoula doctor and the ranch's other partner, both have experience working cattle. Andrews has wrangled at big recreation operations around Montana, including the Sun Ranch. Andrews and Morris held big dreams of becoming ranchers, but neither had the money to invest in land. Their agreement with Rieling at the Sapphire Ranch avoids that issue by trading labor for smaller lease payments. Morris and Andrews see it as their only way into ranching, but also as a good example for how other would-be ranchers can do the same.
"It's a cool model where you have a symbiotic relationship between people who want to make their living from the land in a sustainable way and someone who owns a piece of property, but who may not want to be completely hands-on and micromanage every aspect of it," Andrews says. "This is a really good opportunity to figure out if things like this work without some of the crutches I've been lucky enough to have in past ranches. I think if we can pull it off, it's a really cool thing because it gives a lot of hope, to me anyway, as a young person who wants to be involved in this life but wants to do it on my own terms."
Other partners include the Clark Fork River Coalition and the neighboring MPG Ranch, which has already promised to share its interns with the Sapphire Ranch. "I hate seeing deer and elk torn up on fences," says Joshua Lisbon, the MPG Ranch education and community outreach manager. "It's awesome to have some people on the other side of the fence who care about wildlife. It's exciting to have a good neighbor who shares an interest in conservation."
Tearing down fences is just the beginning. This summer, students from Ecology Project International will work on land management projects. The ranchers are also hitting up UM's forestry college and hope to create a relationship with arts and writing students on campus who might be interested in creating art inspired by the site.
"The difficult thing and the wonderful thing about this place is that there's nothing out here," Andrews says, pointing out that there's room for all kinds of possibilities.
"I've never been so broke or so happy," he adds.