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Success Story

Raths Family and Partners Conserve Sagebrush Prairie, Working Ranch

sage grouse

Jeff and Bea Raths have worked with multiple partners on a conservation easement that protects their working ranch from development and helps to manage their grazinglands in a way that benefits that land, livestock, and wildlife.

Story courtesy Montana Land Reliance.

When third-generation Montana cattle rancher Jeff Raths brought his new bride, Bea, home to his family’s ranch in the sagebrush sea between Lavina and Roundup decades ago, she started to cry.

When you are used to trees, (Bea grew up in Minnesota), open sagebrush country can be a little overwhelming. The sagebrush ecosystem contains so much more than the eye can see at first glance. One has to get to know it a bit to appreciate what you are seeing. And with time and attention, its beauty and importance reveals itself.

“I could never imagine living anywhere else,” Bea says, “This country gets in your blood.”

The sagebrush ecosystem, which extends across 11 Western states and is the most widespread ecosystem type in the United States, can be deceiving to people who don’t know what they are looking at. It provides vital habitat for over 350 wildlife species and is home to unique wildlife you won’t find anywhere else, including the bird that started the Raths’ journey down the road to securing a conservation easement on their property, the sage-grouse.

“Well, it’s not the smartest bird I’ve ever come across,” said Jeff. “But they are fun to watch.”

The Raths finalized their conservation easement with The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) in February 2019. It was a long, almost five-year, fairly arduous, but rewarding process through the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program and Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Agricultural Land Easements program to protect 11,230 acres of the Raths property in a sage-grouse conservation easement. The ranch is literally ground zero for the large bird’s habitat, and has one of the largest leks in the state. A lek is an area where sage-grouse congregate in the spring to go through their mating rituals. The Raths’ is the second easement that MLR has completed under the sage-grouse program.

The importance of the easement can’t be overstated. It will help keep the Raths’ ranch intact and operating and help protect an iconic western bird, the Greater Sage-Grouse. While much progress is being made to protect and conserve sage-grouse habitat in the West through working groups and other government processes, the Raths’ easement may, in fact, be one of the most consequential actions taken by private individuals in the state of Montana to help the bird survive. And, the easement makes it so the Raths’ daughter and husband can continue ranching on the place that Raths' grandfather homesteaded over one hundred years ago.

NRCS has worked with a lot of landowners over the last 10 years in Core Area 4. “Finalizing the Raths’ easement was the culminating piece to fulfill our agency’s goal of conservation connectivity in this area,” said Austin Shero, USDA NRCS District Conservationist in Roundup. NRCS knows that management that is valuable for livestock is also beneficial for sage-grouse. “Our local office is happy that this easement can help keep a family ranch intact and continue to improve sage-grouse habitat on a landscape scale. Voluntary, private land conservation efforts like this, along with countless others, are what make the difference in wildlife habitat and working lands agriculture,” said Shero.

When asked about what it took to get it done, Jeff and Bea laugh.

“Well, let me put it this way. Kendall kind of feels like a son to us at this point,” Jeff says, “he worked his butt off to get this thing done and through the gates. He understands us. He understands this way of life.”

Jeff is referring to Kendall Van Dyk, Managing Director of MLR, who spent five years shepherding the easement through the two conservation funding programs and helping negotiate easement provisions.

“It’s good for the bird, it’s good for us. It’s a win-win.” said Jeff.