At the end of the 1940s, Clarence Mortenson began to wonder how all of the water originating on his ranch could be kept there for use over an extended period of time. This idea sparked his effort to restore the ranch to its natural state. Clarence’s vision has been embraced by his sons, Todd, Jeff, and Curt, who currently operate Mortenson Ranch.
“I’m the third generation on this ranch,” Todd Mortenson said. “Each generation has done something different to improve it. I still see areas I can improve upon, and I want to be sure that when I hand it to my boys that it’s as good as I could do and, hopefully, it will continue with them.
In the 1980s, Todd learned about holistic management that moves cattle across the land similar to the movement of buffalo herds. In the spring, the herds graze on grasses in riparian areas while stamping seeds into the ground to help establish trees and grasses.
In summer, the cattle are moved to the uplands. In the 1990s, researchers observed a substantial increase in native tree and shrub species along the ranch’s streams, as well as an impressive increase in wildlife populations. In addition, the Mortensons’ efforts have led to a significant decrease in sediment flowing through creeks on the ranch. Due to practices like these, the family has come a long way since Clarence began his quest. More than 90 percent of the 19,000-acre ranch is back to native grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees.
“In my 40 years of studying riparian woodlands in many states, never have I met producers with more enthusiasm, dedication, and genuine interest in restoration and conservation than the Mortensons,” wrote Dr. W. Carter Johnson, Professor of Ecology at South Dakota State University, in his nomination of the Mortenson Family.