Bill Milton is a rancher who raises cattle on Montana’s sagebrush plains. His wife Dana says that while Bill’s mind looks at the big picture from the stratosphere, she is “firmly rooted in the soil.” Together, they show their conservation ethic with land management practices that build their rangeland’s resilience.
Bill studied conservation courses at the University of California - Berkeley under a professor and wildlife biologist named Starker Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold. Today, raising Angus cattle on 15,000 acres, the Miltons 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.
Bill’s environmental and community stewardship earned him the Western Landowners Alliance’s Land and Livelihood Award earlier this year, and now Bill and Dana will receive Montana’s inaugural Leopold Conservation Award.