MISSOULA – Running a Montana ranch is a dream for many people but it’s also a dream that comes with a lot of responsibility.
Dennis Bragg went On Special Assignment to meet a Missoula couple who are discovering a shared stewardship and appreciation of the land is not only feasible but also is affordable.
The Oxbow Cattle Company is where Bart and Wendy Morris have assembled a spread covering hundreds of acres right on Missoula’s urban border.
It’s a dream come true for the couple, who are raising wholesome grass-fed beef, and other products, sold through a small and efficient “direct-to-market” store on their ranch on Lower Miller Creek.
“All the animals that are produced here go directly to the city of Missoula. All our beef does. We direct market it all here. It’s all natural, grass finished. Locally raised as it gets,” Oxbow Ranch owner Bart Morris said.
Bart and Wendy Morris take the responsibility of running their ranch seriously, a 24-7 venture based on hard work, and an appreciation of their blessings.
“Well our belief system here with this chunk of land is — our priorities is number one, we take care of the land. Number two, we take care of the animals. And so, for us to take care of the land at the level we want to it’s an expensive endeavor,” Bart explained.
But there’s more going on at the Oxbow than raising great beef and bringing it to market. That sense of stewardship and responsibility is also leading to a brand new project this fall.
That’s because the Oxbow Ranch is bisected by Miller Creek, one of the last tributaries on the Bitterroot River, a stream that fluctuates from flood to bone dry.
“And Miller Creek has been traditionally used pretty heavily by agriculture. And then it’s got big impacts from large numbers of deer and elk. It’s kind of in a bad way habitat-wise,” Bart said. “We want to reclaim it, regenerate it.”
“It provides forage and cover for deer and elk, as well as our livestock. It just makes it a healthier system.,” Bart added.
“Miller Creek is like a lot of streams the Bitterroot. it holds important fish like Westslope Cutthroat Trout. But it’s also too warm and it has too much sediment,” said Bitter Root Water Forum Executive Director Heather Barber.
This fall, Bart and Wendy teamed with the Bitter Root Water Forum, who sent volunteers out to plant and water more than 400 trees, protected by new fencing along this lower stretch of the creek.
“We generally tend to partner with streamside landowners to do water projects that improve water quality. And when you find landowners like Bart and Wendy who want to do everything right by their stream and by their land it makes a really exciting project,” Barber said.
“We want to regenerate it, improve it, all of those type of things. But as two people by yourself that seems like a daunting task,” Wendy Morris said. “And so you’re able to reach those goals, improve things way quicker, that if you were to just do it ourselves.”
Barber says it’s this “conservation team” approach that’s working best in the Bitterroot, and across Montana, where landowners, farmers and ranchers are sharing their appreciation and objectives.
“People who have a vision, a dream who want to see these streams repaired, restored. They can look at it and say this should be different,” Barber said. “I want this to be everything it should and then they call the Water Forum and we try to help make it happen.”
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Watershed Coordination Council, Westslope Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and Bitterroot Chapter Trout Unlimited all assisted in funding this project.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News