How do ranchers teach students about ecology and the co-existence of wildlife and livestock? Get invited to speak at a school. Recently a group of Phillips County Farm Bureau members traveled to Great Falls to visit with freshman classes about grazing management.

Phillips County Farm Bureau President Tom DePuydt explained how this educational opportunity arose. “A year ago a story in the Great Falls Tribune and KRTV talked about how teachers of freshman at the high school applied for a grant to help students learn about conservation. A big element was a visit to the American Prairie Reserve (APR) near Malta. I wrote a letter to the school and told them if they really wanted to hear about conservation, talk to farmers and ranchers. They replied to my inquiry and in May 2016 six teachers visited Phillips County.  We had a barbeque and invited our local agricultural groups and county commissioners. What transpired from that meeting was the idea to travel to Great Falls for a visit with the freshman class, followed a few weeks later by a Phillips County ranch tour. Students would have to apply to come on the tour like they do for the APR tour.”

Two other Phillips County Farm Bureau members who traveled with DePuydt were cattle ranchers Sierra Stoneberg Holt and Lesley Robinson.

“Many of these kids aren’t familiar with agriculture,” DePuydt noted. “One message I focused on was that people in agriculture are producing food because they care for people. We work hard to care for the land and wildlife while providing consumers with safe, healthy food. There is a lot of misinformation about that.”

Rancher Lesley Robinson, from Zortmann, said her message was that ranchers are honored to be able to coexist with wildlife by using good land and livestock management. “I showed them a sage grouse lek on our ranch with the grouse doing their strut, demonstrating wildlife can and do work, exist and thrive with cattle. I felt this talk put a face on ranchers,” said Robinson. “It’s hard to engage with 100 kids at a time, but it went well. One teacher said because of our talk, more students are interested in applying for the ranch tour south of Malta Thursday, May 4.”

Stoneberg Holt introduced herself as a rancher as well as a scientist. “I gave them background on my PhD in botany.  I showed them photos of my ranch and talked to them about the magic of photosynthesis and what it means for their existence. I explained what prairie grasses need from humans to be healthy and sustainable, emphasizing the need for grazing and the need for rest. I discussed how prairie watersheds function and why they seem so mysterious to people from other landscapes. I circled back to tie together vegetation health and watershed health, finally touching on the value of reservoirs in the ecosystem.”

The scientist hopes the students learned something about conservation, biology and ecology. “Even if they don't remember anything about how photosynthesis works or why creeks are high sometimes and low sometimes or why healthy vegetation makes healthy water, I hope anyone peddling the all-too-common message, ‘Ranchers are dumb, uneducated brutes that don't care about wildlife or the environment and know nothing about them,’ will have a little more trouble getting any traction.”

Students expressed interest. “They were openly curious about the challenges of ranch life, issues like drought, calving and hunting,” Stoneberg Holt said. “I enjoyed talking to them, hearing and answering their questions.  I especially enjoyed when the teachers would say, ‘We just covered plant litter/water cycle/inland sea in class and I was so happy you included that in your talk.’ My goal was to give students factual information and teach them solid basics of ecology.  It's a slower, more subtle approach, but my hope is it will give them the tools they need to think and evaluate the conflicting messages they'll be faced with, or hear about, in the future."