July has been Open Land Month in the state of Montana – 31 days set aside to recognize the contributors to open spaces that make our state truly “Big Sky Country.” Montana is a state of great access for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers during all four seasons.
From the eastern rolling prairies, to the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains, there is something for everyone. Year-round use of open lands includes cross country skiing, hunting, fishing, hiking, backpacking, trail running, camping, and numerous other activities throughout the year.
Montana’s largest land use and major economic driver in a mostly-rural state is agriculture. Farming with small grains or pulse crops and ranchers with grazing sheep or cattle contribute to maintaining a large portion of the open lands we have today.
All Western states enjoy the benefit of open lands on both public and private grounds. In most of these locations, livestock coexist with wildlife and recreationists to utilize the open lands. As we enjoy public access in these areas, it’s important to remain respectful of livestock and their role in retaining our open lands.
The following are just a few of the ways in which farming and ranching contribute to our open lands.
Ranches aid in retaining open lands by preventing expansion of urban areas and residential developments. Conservation easements and land trusts are tools to conserve open lands in growing population centers in the West, ensuring land remains for agricultural uses.
Livestock and farming operations conserve wildlife habitat by retaining open lands for wildlife habitat. Wildlife can often be observed following cattle grazing patterns to find the most tender and luscious forages during the growing season.
Proper grazing management on open prairies and adjacent to forests maintains plant diversity and vigor while preventing overgrowth of wooded plant species. By removing excess forage growth, livestock aid in reducing fuel loads that otherwise would contribute to more intense and wildfires that are expensive and difficult to control.
Careful management of grazing not only improves plant health and diversity, but also improves the environment through improved riparian areas and clean water. Retaining these acres in healthy forage cover serves to reduce erosion and sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, offsetting emissions from more populated centers of the country.
Utilizing our open lands to raise cattle and sheep makes good use of land for growing food in areas that otherwise would be unsuitable for growing food. As global population grows and demand increases for more reliable protein sources, agriculture must make the best use of resources to remain sustainable for generations to come.
How does agriculture contribute to open lands near you? In what ways are you exploring and showing appreciation for open lands this summer?