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Courtesy photo.

Milton Ranch has been selected as the recipient of the inaugural Montana Leopold Conservation Award.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers and foresters who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.

In Montana, the Office of Governor Steve Bullock, Montana Department of Agriculture, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Rangeland Resources Committee, present the award with Sand County Foundation. 

Bill and Dana Milton of Roundup, Montana, were presented with $10,000 and a crystal award at the Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Convention in Billings on Nov. 12.

The Miltons raise Angus cattle on 15,000 acres of sagebrush plains. They have refined their conservation efforts since receiving the Montana Land Reliance Conservation Award in 1993. Their pastures are intensively grazed for a short amount of time, before allowing native plants to recover and go to seed. They have successfully advocated for holistic grazing techniques on federal lands.

Milton Ranch has participated in third party monitoring of the health of their grasslands for over 20 years. To preserve soil and vegetation during times of drought, they voluntarily reduce their herd’s size. New water tanks and pipelines reduce disturbance to riparian areas and natural water sources. Innovative fencing and escape ramps in water troughs benefit wildlife.

“Bill and Dana are outstanding examples of the diversity that exists among the people who raise livestock in the American West,” Dan Dagget wrote in his book, "Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West that Works."

“At the same time, they’re excellent examples of the diversity to be found among people who call themselves environmentalists. The Miltons have not only stood on both sides of that fence but they’ve also spent much of their adult lives trying to build bridges across it.”

Bill once summed up his conservation goals for a ranch management consultant in writing: "Grasslands with more litter, more diverse plants, increasing organic matter, and more leaves to harvest the sun’s energy. Stable water table. Little or no soil erosion. Invasive weeds controlled or well managed (eaten). Habitat that optimizes local wildlife populations. A simple and well-maintained fence and water infrastructure."

In 2005 the Miltons had the opportunity to purchase the remaining acreage of a ranch they had partially purchased in 1979. They sold their original ranch and moved their headquarters to the center of their acreage. They also made the switch from sheep to beef cattle, and joined a marketing cooperative that helps sell their hormone and antibiotic-free beef. Trained in facilitation, conflict resolution, and ranch succession planning, Bill began a consulting business informed by his experience in resiliency.

Bill’s facilitation of meetings for water users from the Musselshell River in the 1990s helped lead to the formation of the Musselshell Watershed Coalition, an ongoing partnership between irrigators, conservation districts, and state and federal agencies to serve water users while supporting the health of the river and its tributaries.

The Miltons work with local groups dedicated to enhancing the health of grass-based agriculture and rural communities. Bill also organized a group of 20 area residents who are passionate about improving their owned and leased land. Together they have conducted rangeland vegetation evaluations, soil testing and bird surveys.

“I’m grateful for the contributions of our state’s landowners in sustaining the landscapes and values we care deeply about as Montanans and for inspiring future generations to engage in environmental stewardship,” said Governor Bullock. “Bill and Dana Milton have practiced this exceptional and innovative rangeland management for decades—protecting soils, conserving water, and enhancing natural diversity—and I congratulate them on this well-deserved award.”

“Sand County Foundation is proud to add Montana to our Leopold Conservation Award family. We look forward to celebrating conservation-minded families who are part of Montana’s strong agricultural legacy,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation president and chief executive officer.

Earlier this year, Montana landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders. Among the many outstanding Montana landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree of Havre in Hill County, and Craig and Conni French of Malta in Phillips County. 

The Montana Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of Governor Steve Bullock’s Office, Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Rangeland Resources Committee, Sibayne-Stillwater, World Wildlife Fund, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bayer Crop Science, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, Montana Weed Control Association, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Society for Range Management – Northern Great Plains Section, Western Landowners Alliance, and The Wildlife Society of Montana.

In his influential 1949 book, "A Sand County Almanac," Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 20 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations. For more information on the award, visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.

 

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