Montana Range Days-Part I: Not just for kids!

By Eleanor Guerrero
Thursday, June 21, 2018

Photos by Eleanor Guerrero

(Above) Even the tiniest range enthusiasts are welcome at Montana Range Days in Red Lodge.

(Below Right) Participants learned how to view the range in its particulars of grasses, weeds, soil types and hydrology in determining stocking rate and range health.

On a gray Tuesday, June 19, scores of adults, teens and children gathered behind the fairgrounds to “hike the loop” on the West Bench overlooking Red Lodge. They would scour hill and slopes in various groups by age and topic to learn about the Montana Range.

It was the 42nd Annual Montana Range Days. There were range tours, sight seeing and workshops for ages 3 to adult. There would be competitions, scholarships and prizes. But it was clear, that although there was great focus on the next generation, there was plenty for adults to learn about and in which to participate.

Commissioner Scott Blain, also a rancher, attends these Days and said, “It’s an important resource. Even for a community (like Red Lodge) that lives on tourism. Two hundred and fifty people came to town to see what else Red Lodge has to offer.”

After a day of introductions and hearing illustrated talks at Red Lodge High School (and a movie that night) on Monday, June 18, Tuesday was a day for action. The event occurred from June 18 through June

20.

About 250 people attended the three day event hosted by the Carbon County Conservation District. Youth learning about the range is integral in Montana in order to carry on ranching and farming by understanding, respecting and caring for the land. But from the number of participating adults, it was clearly also a great opportunity for older ranchers to refresh, younger adults to learn and even nature lovers to understand more about their own habitat.

For the adults, it was also amusing to watch the next generation scampering about. Even the children had their own work books.

Adults had plenty of opportunity to learn new things and bone up on new methods. There was the extensive plant identification list and this time, the actual prairie was at their door for review right in Red Lodge on West Bench. “We moved it here instead of at local ranches because of the wet ground,” explained one of the registrars. Hundreds stampeding over muddy earth could easily damage pastureland, something a Range Day education event should never do.

Over Red Lodge, most stuck to the loop trail. There were opportunities however, to go over the edge, as water classes had students observe how to detect the direction water is flowing. There were opportunities to determine various types of soil and the difference between useful grasses and forbs (flowering plants) including those that were invasive weeds, of which there were plenty of both.

The more adult topics shared by even the teens (17 and older) included rangeland trend factors, determining similarity (range condition), soil classification, plant anatomy and stocking rate.

The process of rangeland change requires multiple criteria to determine health due to its complexity. Participants walked the land looking at signs the range was healthy, at risk or unhealthy and examined issues such as soil types and stability, plants, watershed, nutrients and resiliency.

Jeff Mosley, Extension Range Management Specialist from MSU Extension Office, Bozeman, gave simple but thought-provoking questions to a group of adults showing them they could look at the land and observe key indicators of its range health.

He told them to look at the type of plants, the depth of mulch-if there is any mulch, and whether the plants were “vigorous.” He observed, “This system is functioning quite well, its range health is quite high.”

“Look at the rocks,” advised Mosley. He held up one large rock with lichen at its tip. “This lichen grows at ground level. It likes to be in constant contact with soil. There shouldn’t be a gap (on the rock between the location of the lichen and the soil). If there is a gap,” said Mosley pointing to a space below the lichen on the rock, “it means the soil eroded away.”

“What about sage brush?” he asked, his hand sweeping above the field of heavy sage. “Is a little good? Anything too much?”

He said, “Here, traditionally you have antelope and deer. There are birds, sage grouse, rabbits who want cover, some sage to eat, but you also need grass for its forage, bugs.” Too much sage might shade out forbes and grasses. But sage roots plunge deeper. “They access nutrients grasses can’t pull up. It’s in their leaves and stems. The leaves fall, they’re on the surface, they’re broken down and now it’s available for grasses.”

He noted that fire and grazing can keep out a certain amount of sagebrush. “Then you might have bare ground. That’s probably not too good.”

Soil texture was another determinant of range health and the course went into the “textural ecological (range) sites” being somewhat technical, noting “very fine sandy loam textures are considered loamy ecological sites.”

Participants learned to add water to soil and roll it into a ball to see its various qualities-such as gritty (sand) and holds together well (clay) that made it easier to determine the parts of its composition.

There were simple hydrology lessons and a small hole dug along with tests to compare soils for final determination in a very thick workbook provided that covered the range topics in a broad swath. “Is the soil 20 inches down or more significantly moist?” one teacher asked. “Yes,” they answered to the question. That moved them on to other categories in determining the soil. “Is there 10-20 inches of loam surface over loose sand gravel? “No,” they replied, going to the next category in their book and next question. With the workbook, they were quite capable of seeing how soil type is determined, although they were also taught sometimes it is difficult to just answer the questions. When asked to determine the percentage of gravel present at a level, one person guessed it was under 50. But the teacher said the soil was 50-55 percent gravel.

One teacher had a small square of land taped off of about five square feet which contained a whole host of plant diversity-some good some bad. Attendees consulted their workbooks to name off the common names of plants: Idaho Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass, Montana Big Sage, Orchard Grass, as well as the forbs, Houndstongue, Knapweed, Tiny Trumpet, Larkspur, Death Camas and Biscuit Root (Indian Parsley) being among the group.

Which are healthy and which are harmful? Take the Montana Range Days course and learn. Next week: The students’ exhibits, scholarships and awards.

Upcoming Events

  • Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, September 22, 2018 - 10:00am
    An Overeaters Anonymous group will meet every Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Grace Fellowship Church, Absarokee.
  • Monday, September 24, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Joliet Group meets at the Community Center Monday at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, September 27, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Meets every Thursday, 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation, 122 S. Hauser. It is open to all. 425- 1755.
  • Thursday, September 27, 2018 - 7:00pm
    Clarks Fork Group meets at St. Joseph’s Catholic Hall, north end of Montana Avenue, Thursday at 7 p.m.

The Carbon County News

Street Address:

11 N. Broadway, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 970, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Phone: 406-446-2222

Fax: 406-446-2225

Toll-Free: 800-735-8843

Open: Monday-Friday, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.