Saving America's Great Outdoors

Q&A with rancher Mike Bay

The Obama Administration has unveiled a new America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which seeks to protect nature and our outdoor connection to it. Since preserving our nation’s working farms and ranches is an important part of the program, talked to Mike Bay, rancher in Wolf Creek, Montana, to find out why he thinks saving America’s land and water for people and nature is so important.

Tell us how your ranch and the surrounding area have changed over the years and how you are working to preserve it.

Mike Bay:

I’m a fourth generation rancher and that is probably the case for most of the ranchers in my area. It’s a real community and the wildlife in this area is pretty much intact. In 1996, my family was one of the first in this area to have a conservation easement placed on our ranch by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Other ranchers have also placed easements their land, but there are at least two ranches nearby who have sold land to sub-dividers. It’s disrupted the wildlife significantly. The elk had to find a new place to cross the land, and it increases the chances of grizzly bears coming into contact with people—which usually turns out bad for the grizzly. Every time there is a subdivision, there’s a change in movement. These are nice people selling their land so they can make ends meet but, cumulatively, it can be disastrous to the wildlife who need the habitat.

What do you most hope to see in the America’s Great Outdoors report and recommendations?

Mike Bay:

First and foremost, I’d like to see permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund has already enabled 2 or 3 ranchers within about 10 miles of our place to put easements on their land, which can help a family improve or expand their operation. Easements can also help to reduce the tax burden when passing a ranch down to the next generation.

It would be great if programs like Grassland Reserve or the Farm and Ranchland Protection program could grow—anything that can provide some financial assistance or incentives will help both ranchers and nature. I hope the America’s Great Outdoors program recognizes that ranches and other working lands are a big part of the picture.

When you live in a place like Montana, you’re surrounded by a lot of natural places and things like hunting, fishing and camping are just part of life. Growing up, all my friends hunted and fished, so you went out with your friends. But, you just don’t see as many young people hunting and fishing anymore. It seems they’ve become disconnected with nature, which is sad, because one of the things that defines our country and makes it special is all of the spectacular natural places that are a part of it. I appreciate the effort of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative to get people outside, and to ensure that there will always be places for them to go with clean rivers and amazing wildlife. People need to get out and enjoy what our beautiful lands and waters have to offer. We need to have a few days a year of NO SCREENS.

How can this national program help ranchers and nature in Montana?

Mike Bay:

In addition to protecting the land, this program can help with public access to nature. In our community, where families have ranched for generations, most people are pretty neighborly about allowing access for fishing and hunting—at least to their friends. There’s a sense of community here, but when the land is subdivided and sold to people for second homes, the no trespassing signs and gates with locks go up pretty quickly. It’s also hard to hunt on 20-acre parcels of land. Hopefully the America’s Great Outdoors program can help keep public access to this land so people can get out and enjoy nature and continue to use this valuable land for hunting and fishing.

If the money were available, I’ve heard there is close to 100,000 acres on the Rocky Mountain Front that ranchers would like to put under easement—which would mean the land could never be subdivided. My county also provides matching funds to buy conservation easements to help more land in our area be preserved.

Why do you believe the ranching tradition is such an important part of America’s cultural heritage and how does it keep us connected with nature?

Mike Bay:

The ranching culture is not something that happens overnight. It takes generations to make an area a ranching community and being a rancher is not something that is going to make you rich. You go into ranching because you love the land, and you don’t survive in ranching if you are not a good steward of the land. Good stewardship leads to good grass, which means good wildlife habitat and good water. Everyone benefits from it.

People love to see all the wildlife in the National Parks like Glacier and Yellowstone, but those animals couldn’t survive without all the private ranches that surround those public lands. They cross this private land for their annual migrations and they feed on it in the winter when the parks are buried in snow. Most ranches are actually on better producing ground than park service land. Just yesterday, I saw a herd of 400 elk on my ranch and the number of grizzly bears—and all the large predators—is actually increasing in my area. These large ranches are the reason this wildlife can survive.



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