© 2024 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Big Sky Country, Land Rights Are A Major Issue For Montana Ranchers



This is sound from a cattle branding we visited in central Montana this week. And just imagine the sea of cows being herded. The calves are about to be marked. Ranchers are all watching. And one of them, Laura Boyce, said this is really a neighborhood gathering.

And she said that's not the image the outside world has of ranchers in the rural West. There was Cliven Bundy, who made news in the past, refusing to pay grazing fees and taking up arms against the federal government.

LAURA BOYCE: He reflects poorly on the rest of us. You know, we're not rednecks. We're not a bunch of bimbos. We do try to do things right, you know. I think ranchers are the world's best conservatives, actually, as far as preserving land like it is. And we have to take care of our land because it's what takes care of us. It's what we make our living from.

GREENE: And she really feels that her living is being threatened. Part of her ranch sits within a so-called national monument on both sides of the Missouri River. And that's land, as Ron mentioned, partially managed by the federal government. There's talk of creating more protected space for wildlife. Supporters of doing that say ranchers exaggerate the potential impact on them. But Laura says it could make it harder or impossible for some to survive.

BOYCE: We really are more worried about losing our way of life - I think I am - than lots of other things. I don't know that most of the rest of the world really realizes that there's real people out here that they're displacing, basically. I don't know where people think they're going to get their food from someday.

GREENE: So one question, is there a president who could stick up for cattle ranchers like Laura? She said she liked Marco Rubio, if we can remember when he was running in the Republican race. And Laura does not feel a connection with Donald Trump. I want to talk about this with Jackie Yamanaka. She's the news director from Yellowstone Public Radio. And Jackie, welcome. This is - it's nice to be with you here.

JACKIE YAMANAKA: Welcome to Bozeman.

GREENE: I want to show you a note. We were sitting around a dining room table with some ranchers as we were doing our reporting this weekend. And a woman who's married to one of the ranchers handed this to my editor. And it's little Post-it note. And it said, lots of your ranchers and farmers have college degrees. It's like she wanted to make sure we knew that. Why was she pointing that out?

YAMANAKA: Because ranchers are educated. Remember, they're small business owners. They're navigating a global market. And Laura Boyce is right. You can't lump all ranchers together. To stay in business, they have to be smart. Yes, they're aware of the argument that some of this land should be protected and that public land is for everyone to enjoy.

They may not like it. Some even support it. But what binds them together is this relationship with the government. They see it as paternalistic. The government controls their grazing fees. It declares a species endangered. It sets aside more land as public. And ranchers just don't feel part of this conversation. It's like being told, we know what's best.

GREENE: Almost in a parental way, as you said.

YAMANAKA: It's almost in a parental way. And these decisions really impact them. Their budgets are fragile. They're operating on margins. You hear the term, land rich, cash poor.


YAMANAKA: Yeah, they're really one hailstorm, one medical emergency from bankruptcy. And so they're desperate for candidates who will listen and, more importantly, will work with them.

GREENE: Well, you know, and I talked about that with Matt Knox. He has a remote ranch, I mean, seriously remote. I was sitting there with him on lawn chairs. And there was just grassland, craggy rock formations for miles in every direction. Just listen to what he says about why he couldn't see voting for Donald Trump.

MATT KNOX: Donald Trump would - I don't know what he'd do. His interior secretary would be a mafioso from New York or something. Who knows?

GREENE: Well, where does this leave you as a Montana rancher?

KNOX: Hoping for the best. Yeah, and the one thing we have on our side is bureaucratic inertia. I think it would take them 20 years to kick us out of here (laughter). And then for another 20 years, we could be outlaws, so (laughter). Before they'd catch up to us. Remember the Bundy's in Nevada, you know, didn't pay grazing fees for 21 years.

GREENE: So gridlock is not necessarily a bad thing for you.

KNOX: No, no. I'm all about it.

GREENE: And so this land issue, it's on the minds of the people besides just ranchers. I'll tell you how we met Jeremy Carr. He owns a bar in the town of Winnifred. And we heard he had a boat. And so we asked if he'd take us out on the river to get a glimpse of some of this stunning land we've been talking about. This did not start well. A colleague of mine moved around the boat a little too fast and nearly capsized us.


GREENE: Yeah, that was her screaming there. Now, Jeremy was really patient with us.

JEREMY CARR: Had me fooled what the hell was going on back there (laughter). All of a sudden, it just took off like that.

GREENE: I know you're all thinking in the audience, city slickers. And you can think that. Anyways, so Jeremy, he owns this bar. He told me if more land is set aside for wildlife, it could draw tourists, which could mean more money for him.

CARR: OK. So in the summer, those three months, I get so many more people. But the other nine months of the year, I've pissed off everybody that lives there, your local guys.

GREENE: And so he's sticking with the local guys, as he calls them, the local ranchers, the men and women who ranch and their livelihoods depend on this. And they're worried about more federal control. I did ask Jeremy about his vote this November.

Have you made a decision yet?

CARR: Oh, I'm leaning.

GREENE: Where are you leaning?

CARR: Probably Trump, which is really bad because of all of them, he's a terrible option, but lesser of the evils.

GREENE: What don't you like about him?

CARR: He's an extremist. I guess he'll get [expletive] done. I guess he scares me of what he might do too, try to build a giant wall between here and Mexico. That's crazy, crazy talk.

GREENE: Jackie Yamanaka, let me turn back to you here. Jeremy's 34 years old, business owner, giving up potential profit to be loyal to the locals. What does that tell us about voters here?

YAMANAKA: It's not surprising to hear him talk about this loyalty to the small community, this feeling like they're in this together, that they're fighting for their way of life.

GREENE: You know, way of life, fighting for way of life, it's not something I hear everywhere I go when I'm talking to people about what's important to them.

YAMANAKA: Probably not, but for family farmers and ranchers across the West - those - I'm talking about those who've been in agriculture for generations, they feel that they are the endangered species. So for these voters, they're not tied so much to party affiliation as much as a desire for a candidate who listens, understands their issues and will work with them.

GREENE: OK. That's Jackie Yamanaka. She's the news director at Yellowstone Public Radio. Jackie, thanks. We're at the Feed Cafe in Bozeman Mont., with a live audience.


GREENE: And also Montana musician Jenn Adams. Jen, all yours. Play us something.

JENN ADAMS: Thank you. (Singing, playing guitar) Joliet let your red hair down, far from the city in this quite town. With your Buddha in the garden and your green Picasso eyes. Sweet surrender slays me tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.