David and Rawnie Crasco (2015-2017)
David Crasco is a fifth-generation rancher of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and a member of the Assiniboine Tribe. David's property includes the head of Little Warm Creek, where warm water flows year round, creating a perfect winter pasture for both cattle and wildlife.
David is proud of the myriad of wildlife on his ranch. Species on the Crasco Ranch include pronghorn antelope, elk, coyote, white-tailed deer, mule deer, mountain lion and black bear. “My people have always had a relationship with the landscape - it just feels right," he says. “I enjoy the view on my property, because it is for the most part untouched."
Another reason the Crasco Ranch is so rich in wildlife is that David has already installed wildlife-friendly fencing. Now, as part of the Wild Sky program, camera traps are used to collect more data on how this fencing is working and how wildlife is behaving.
Turning to cattle, David is quick to point out that he “understands the luxury of grazing on native prairie grass. Several years ago, my family ranch was overgrazed," he says. “I see now that this is not the path to a sustainable cattle operation or to a thriving wildlife community and why Wild Sky seems like a good fit and great path forward for me."
Mike McCabe (2016-2017)
Mike McCabe has fond memories of visiting his grandmother on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation when he was a young boy. He loved running free on the land.
Mike grew up in Las Vegas but as soon as he got a chance he moved to Montana, “to be back at home with his extended family". Mike clearly remembers his first cow, which he received in 1993 “as a trade from a friend who needed money!" From that one cow, Mike built the herd he has today.
Mike is fond of wildlife and will install approximately six miles of wildlife-friendly fencing on his ranch in 2016. He might even get one of his eight grandkids to help him!
His ranch philosophy incorporates many of the teachings of Temple Grandin and he is a strong advocate of grass-only for cattle and for the health of those who eat beef.
Sandy Arrow Ranch (2016-2017)
This 22,000 acre ranch near the Missouri Breaks National Monument rests in the shadow of Square Butte, a magnificent butte that rises up out of the plains. This landmark is featured in several Charles Russell paintings and Lewis and Clark mention it in their journals. They also wrote that this part of Montana was the richest section for wildlife of their whole journey. The wildlife remains prolific today.
In addition to hosting wildlife, the ranch is focused on creating chemical free soil, producing wheat and hay and managing a herd of 500 cow/calf pairs. Dave and his family oversee the Sandy Arrow Ranch, which is a big responsibility given the combination of agriculture, cattle and wildlife. In Dave's words, “The other wild animals don't speak to us often but the prolific herds of deer and elk on the ranch love what we are doing!"
Ranch owner Eric Dillon (featured here with a newly installed wildlife-friendly fence) and the team are excited to aim for all of Wild Sky's wildlife-friendly ranching benchmarks!
Moline Ranch (2017)
Chris Moline's relatives made the journey from Norway to Montana in the early 1900's to raise horses. His family has been ranching on their current property since 1914. Chris' son Jake is now the 4th generation to help manage the Moline Ranch. Jake's brothers and sisters also help with the ranch.
The Moline Ranch borders American Prairie Reserve's PN Ranch. An area rich with Native American, Lewis and Clark, and homesteading era history. The family is passionate about preserving the land and history of the area for future generations.
The family also appreciates the wildlife in the area -- Chris especially enjoys watching the sage grouse “courting on the pounding grounds in the spring." He is pleased to be working with Wild Sky beef and American Prairie Reserve. In his words, “we are working towards a common goal -- long-term we know it's always best to work with Mother Nature!"
Lance & Nicole Johnson (2017-2018)
As a fifth-generation Montana ranch family, the Johnson's have a keen sense of responsibility to be good stewards of the land that they have been entrusted with. They realize the management decisions they make not only affect their bottom line, but their choices can also impact neighbors next door or those in the next county. Lance and Nicole's first priority is to keep the land sustainable for generations to come, including their two daughters, Irene and Sadie.
According to Lance, “one of the keys to long-term ranching is having quality cattle that work for us, not us working for them. This includes smaller framed cows that effectively convert grass into beef while maintaining a healthy environment. Dad always said; ‘If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.'" Lance and his family strive for a healthy ecosystem. Most species of wildlife traditionally found in central Montana are thriving on their home ranch and coexisting peacefully with the cattle.
Irene and Sadie, are key to helping the ranch run smoothly. They assist year-round with everything from moving cattle to running the hay equipment. Both girls are honor roll students, active in 4H, FFA, and high school sports. “We are especially thankful for Wild Sky beef sponsoring our girls in their rodeo activities, and the opportunity to lease grass from American Prairie Reserve,” said Nicole.
Toby & Liz Werk (2016-2017)
Toby and Liz Werk reside on the third-generation working cow and horse Werk Ranch, with their children: Franky, Aubri and Tillianne. Under his father's direction, Toby became very interested in the ranch as a young child, raising his first cow at the age of eight. He also has a deep appreciation for wildlife. He recalls one of his first memories of his grandfather teaching him to, “protect the fox...a fox on your ranch is a good omen that your land is healthy and you will have a good year."
Liz is originally from La Canada, California. She teaches at Ft. Belknap College and serves as an extension agent for Montana State University. Any spare time she has is spent managing the ranch (and ranch dogs!) with her family.
Along with running the Werk Ranch, Toby has served as a game warden for Ft. Belknap's Fish and Wildlife Department and currently runs a guest ranch on the reservation where he is focusing on horse therapy.
Toby and Liz opened Blue Heaven Guest Ranch in 2010. The ranch provides an exceptional experience for families seeking to hunt, discover, and visit the unique blend of Native American culture and rich abundance of wildlife in Montana's blue sky plains.
Avis Ranch (2016-2017)
Located outside the town of Clyde Park in the Shields Valley and Bangtail Mountains, the ranch is an embodiment of the owners’ objectives to thoughtfully integrate agricultural, recreational, environmental sustainability, and aesthetic objectives.
Mammal species present on the ranch include mule and white-tailed deer, elk, moose, pronghorn, mountain lion, black bear, wolf, bobcat, raccoon, porcupine, skunk, ground squirrel, chipmunk, fox, coyote, beaver, opossum, ferret, badger, rabbit, and bat. Birds include a wide range of species found in Montana, with an occasional sighting of the sage grouse. And the streams are healthy with a population of cutthroat and brown trout. All this wildlife coexists with an active cattle ranching operation, cyclists, hunters, fly fisherman, skiers, runners, hikers, and horseback riders. Wild Sky’s goals- healthy landscapes and beef, and increasing wildlife populations- are consistent with the owners’ objectives.
John and Kirsty Stewart (2014-2016)
John Stewart, says “it’s all about paying attention to details: health of the grass, soil, water levels." John’s wife Kirsty chimes in, “he takes better care of the cattle and the land than himself!” This attention to detail is obvious as one observes the young couple moving their cattle. They work seamlessly together, watching their horses, anticipating each other’s moves, and knowing the reaction of the cows.
The Stewarts are proving that they are good stewards of the land both in terms of livestock production and in creating environmental assets, which is why they have signed on with Wild Sky. “Being a wildlife-friendly ranch hasn’t been too hard to do,” says Kirsty, “My grandfather taught me early on to pay attention to the land…he told stories about how the family ranch weathered the dry years when other ranches went under because the grasses were healthy.”
It's not always easy. John explains how it’s “hard to watch coyotes sleuthing around when most ranchers shoot them on site.” And replacing old fencing with wildlife-friendly fencing is time consuming and expensive. No doubt there will be other challenges that pop up, but that’s the beauty of this company—Wild Sky continues to evolve and smooth out the ruts in the road from prairie to plate and back to prairie.
In the meantime, John and Kirsty invite you to come explore their operation and see why one of Kirsty’s “favorite things is riding the ranch on horseback in the early morning—it’s quiet and full of the wild sights and sounds of the prairie.”
Michelle and Stephen Fox (2014-2015)
Michelle and Stephen Fox are members of the Gros Ventre Tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, which borders the American Prairie Reserve. The Fox family ranch on the same land that Michelle’s family has worked for more than 125 years.
“From the time I hit the ground, my lifestyle has been intertwined in ranching and the agricultural way of life,” says Michelle. “I can remember being a little girl, maybe 5 or 6, out checking cows with my grandfather.” In fact, Michelle’s great-great grandfather Belknap Fox was described in a book on Gros Ventre culture as “making a name for himself and accumulating considerable property,” he owned “quite a herd of horses and a nice bunch of cattle…"
Believing that American Prairie Reserve and the agricultural heritage of the Northern Great Plains landscape can be shared and thrive through a positive collaboration, Stephen and Michelle signed on as Wild Sky ranchers. The family committed to installing wildlife-friendly fencing around their F Diamond X Ranch—allowing pronghorn and other wildlife to freely move across their property.
Both Stephen and Michelle are entrepreneurs. Stephen holds a BA in Education from Idaho State University and currently works as a Procurement Specialist for the Native American Development Corporation. Michelle holds a BA in Environmental Science and Geology from Dartmouth College and serves as the CEO of Island Mountain Development Group, a tribally chartered economic development corporation of Fort Belknap.
What excites both Stephen and Michelle most about Wild Sky is that it offers so much potential opportunity—“especially to younger ranchers who are willing to think outside the box”.
Kenneth "Tuffy" Helgeson (2014)
Kenneth “Tuffy” Helgeson grew up on the Northern Great Plains. One thing he loves about this region is the ability to see for miles and miles. “You can go up a hill and see from mountain range to mountain range,” says Tuffy. “It makes you realize you’re a very small piece of a bigger environment.”
A member of the Assiniboine (Nakoda) Tribe, Tuffy recalls one of his fondest early childhood memories of branding cattle on the ranch where the whole family would get together from sunup to sundown on the plains of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Tuffy and his wife, Dalee, believe family, traditions and cultural practices are important. Today, their young son, Tadaya, which means “wind” in the Nakoda language is learning the ways of his Nakoda ancestors.
Wild Sky offers a path that honors tribal traditions. “Wildlife fits right in with ranching,” Tuffy adds, “It’s co-existence. It’s a reminder that we’re a small part of the bigger world – we’re not the center of it, we’re not it. This involves every aspect of the livelihood—livestock, farming, feeding one another. You have to work with nature otherwise it finds a way to kick you in the butt!”
The Helgeson’s also appreciate that Wild Sky and American Prairie Reserve (APR) are working to help benefit the local economy —something especially vital in poverty-stricken areas of Indian Country. “What I see APR doing as the program builds is trying to work together and building trust. That’s good to see.”