Montana Ranching: The Uncensored Story

The New York Times is running a story tomorrow that I wrote about hardcore vacation ranches out West, where guests take part in running real working cattle ranch. (It’s already available online, though.) Unfortunately, they had to cut out some of the more vivid scenes from the piece. “We’re a family newspaper,” my editor said. I didn’t think that what they took out was all that gruesome, but in my estimation it went a long way toward establishing just how hardcore these experiences are. This isn’t a Disney Channel version of cattle ranching; animals get castrated, have their ovaries pulled out, get tags punched into their ears, and all the rest.

At any rate, in the interest of full and complete reporting, I’m putting the full version online below, so those of a more hardy disposition can learn what these ranches are all about.

Journeys: Just Don’t Call Them Dude Ranches

A leisurely dinner hour is drawing to a close at Montana’s J Bar L ranch, and a party of guests is still abuzz with the excitement of the day. Eyes bright despite fatigue, they swap tales of how they’d spent the day herding cows. A high point was a veterinary procedure in which the animals were held immobile in a chute while a vet made an incision in their flank and reached in arm-deep to rip out the ovaries. “He just threw them on the ground, and the dogs ate them,” gushes one guest.

At the J Bar L, taking on the cowboy lifestyle isn’t an idle amusement. This ranch is a work ranch first, guest ranch second. And that for its devoted guests is the key to its appeal: it’s a fully authentic livestock operation. “We don’t change our ranch operations to cater to guests,” says ranch manager Bryan Ulring. “We’ve got over 1000 head of cattle. When we move them, it’s because we need to move them.”

The property is one of a small but growing number that offer guests an experience of Western life far earthier than the standard dude-ranch fare. There are no spa, no room service, and few amenities except plenty of hard work and a backdrop of seemingly endless grasslands and mountain ranges. The payoff: a feeling of authenticity that comes from experiencing the West as few but locals ever do. “I feel like I can connect emotionally with these wide-open spaces,” says guest Matt Miller. “This kind of isolation is not common.”

The J Bar L belongs to Rockefeller scion Peggy Dulany, who bought it in 2000 and began accepting a small number of guests four years later. The ranch has room for no more than 20 guests at a time, who bunk in former homesteaders’ cabins carefully dismantled and reassembled around a core of modern construction, so that while the massive unfinished logs that make up the exterior have been authentically weathered by a century of Montana winters, the interiors are stylishly appointed with overstuffed leather armchairs and cozy cast-iron stoves.

The J Bar L runs its cattle across 20,000 acres near the Idaho border, in a vast and largely empty valley framed by the looming peaks of the Centennial range. It was this pristine quality that attracted Dulany, a grand-daughter of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Ten years ago, she’d never even been to the Centenniel Valley. Then a friend took her on a scenic drive in late autumn. “We came in on a 56-mile ride on a dirt road that runs through National Forest,” she recalls. “And as the valley opened before me, and the different mountain ranges came into view, and there was snow on the ground — it was just totally gorgeous. My heart said, ‘This is it.’”

Dulany didn’t just want to own the land; she wanted to maintain it as a working landscape. “I’m interested in preserving ranch and farmland as ranch and farmland, rather than letting be parceled into subdivisions.” she says. “But the economics of raising cattle is not the greatest. If you diversify, you can create a viable operation.”

When she was starting to explore the guest-ranch market Dulany turned for advice to Bill Bryan, co-founder of the custom outfitter Off the Beaten Path, who had long counted the Rockefeller family among his clients. In addition to creating bespoke itineraries for a well-heeled clientele, Bryan is director of the Rural Landscape Institute, a group that advocates for the preservation of the West’s rural lifestyle. “There’s nothing out here that’s just nature,” Bryan says. “It’s nature and people. It’s that connection that’s so important for people to understand.”

To keep that connection intact, Bryan helps large landholders tap an alternate revenue source in the form of small-volume, high-value tourism. Another property that Bryan has consulted with is the Padlock Ranch, a 11,000-head cattle operation that sprawls over nearly half a million acres near the Bighorn Mountains. For more than half a century the Scott family ran it as a strictly commercial cattle operations, then last year started bringing in small number of paying guests – no more than 14 at a time. “This isn’t a dude ranch,” says ranch manager Wayne Fahsholtz. “We involve guests in ranch activities, and if we had 50 people, they couldn’t participate very well.”

Padlock guests stay at the Wolf Mountain Lodge, a palatial log-cabin-style inn. As at the J Bar L, guests are welcomed to take part in daily ranch activities like rounding up and moving cattle, or can relax by hiking, fishing, or taking a leisurely trail ride. For the more ambitious, the ranch offers an intensive “Cowboy School,” in which ranch hands provide one-on-one instruction in the various points of cattle husbandry.

In southern Montana, a group of ranch-owning families banded together last year to form a collective called Madison Valley Expeditions. “It was an idea that was born in the community,” says manager Todd Graham. “The issue was that there was so much wildlife in the valley — elk, antelope, wolves, bears, raptors — and they were consuming such a large amount of resources that it was a burden on the ranchers.” Allowing paying guests to witness that abundance of wildlife is a way for the ranchers to turn that burden into a new revenue source. Visitors are also invited to work cattle alongside ranch hands, or to simply enjoy the landscape at their leisure.

Some of the West’s most storied ranches are opening their gates. Among them: Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park ranch in northern New Mexico, which at 600,000 acres is about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island. For years, the property has run a small program for hunters and fisherman; two years ago Bryan brought in the first small group of visitors for a program focused on forestry and game management. The ranch is home to some 10,000 wild elk, as well as two herds of bison, one wild and one bred for market. Guests can learn about the ranch’s livestock management program, as well as its sustainable forestry and endangered species programs.

Also considering expanding guest access is Trinchera, the 170,000 acre Colorado spread that hedge funder Louis Bacon bought from the Forbes family in 2007 for $175 million. Like Vermejo Park, Trinchera has long allowed hunters and fishermen onto its land, and is now considering letting Bryan bring in adventure travelers. “We are actively looking at expanding recreational opportunities on the ranch,” says Trinchera spokesman Cody Wertz. “It would be great for educating the public about wildlife and habitat management, not just on this ranch, but in Colorado and across the west.”

FOR BILL BRYAN, it’s all win-win. As a consultant to landowners, he can help maintain traditional stewardship of the land. And as a purveyor of high-end adventure, Bryan can usher Off the Beaten Path clients onto some of the West’s most magnificent landscapes, uncluttered by vacation houses or the detritus of rural poverty. As he drives down a winding dirt road to the banks of the Ruby River, a churning serpentine of pools and cascades, Bryan gestures at the doubletrack before him. “You get on a road like this, with grass growing in the middle, and you think to yourself, Holy smoke, this is the real West – it’s still around!”

Back at the J Bar L, the next afternoon finds Brian Ulring and another cowboy, Andrew Anderson, working a remote section of the ranch with a half-dozen guests. About 80 cows and their calves are grazing in the shadow of a gnarled peak. At about a week of age, the calves need to be castrated. Ulring and Anderson chase after them on horseback, trying to fling a lariat around their heads while galloping at top speed — a difficult maneuver that fails surprisingly often. As soon as one succeeds, the other dismounts, takes hold of the calf, and slips a rubber band over the calf’s testicles using a quadruple-pronged metal device. Once released, the band will shut off blood flow and cause the organ to shrivel and eventually drop off.

One calf in particular proves a difficult customer. It’s a bit older than the others, and its testicles are larger, making it hard to apply the rubber band. Stymied, Anderson flips the calf over and kneels on its flank while he wrestles its scrotal sac through the rubber band. After an awkward struggle, he succeeds, and one of the guests applies an ear tag with a punch gun. Set free, the calf pushes itself to its feet and trots off to its mother’s side.

Anderson straightens his hat and begins to coil his lariat. In the distance, cumulus clouds are brewing up in the afternoon sun. Anderson swings back up into his saddle and turns his horse toward the herd. For some, it’s a vacation. For others, it’s just plain work.

2 thoughts on “Montana Ranching: The Uncensored Story”

  1. Have you seen Mike Rowe’s discussion of an alternative method of the procedure? I don’t find a factual discussion of a common procedure in our food too disturbing, but neither of us have to read their mail.

  2. Hey Scott,
    Thanks for the tip. I haven’t seen his show but he’s a very entertaining speaker. No matter how you slice it (as it were) any discussion of this procedure is going to be very, very uncomfortable for a guy to hear… I found myself thinking, as I watched the clip: “Thank god this has not happened to me.”

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