Montana rancher looks to the past to prepare for tomorrow’s climate

Can re-engineering the family ranch help it survive climate change?


As a kid on his family’s Montana ranch, Erik Kalsta performed a daily chore: He’d walk 500 paces from his house to a white shed, where an instrument panel recorded the height of the nearby Big Hole River. Then he’d march home and call in the measurement to a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist. Over time, the data points created a long-term history of the river’s ebbs and flows.

On a warm day last February, Kalsta, now 48, sat in the kitchen of the same home, wearing wire-rim glasses, a silvering goatee and a lightweight Patagonia sweater. He pointed out the window at the stream gauge, which is now automated. Kalsta’s success as a rancher depends on snow and rain, and 92 years of stream data tell him that runoff patterns are changing. “This is that early spring pulse that’s been coming earlier and earlier,” he says, glancing towards the swollen river. It’s become normal for snow to begin melting into the river in March instead of April. But in 2015, it started rising in February. That’s a problem, because it means that the water’s availability might be out of sync with the growing season or the times he can legally draw from the river to irrigate. “This is kind of scary,” Kalsta admits. “(But) we’ve still got time to turn this thing around.”

Erik Kalsta on the ranch along Montana’s Big Hole River that’s been in his family for generations. The changing climate, documented over the decades in meticulous ranch logs, presents new challenges for his grass-fed cattle and sheep operation.
Sarah Jane Keller

He’s talking about the possibility that spring snow might compensate for the early melt, but he could just as easily be contemplating the future of his ranch, which his great-grandparents started working in the 1880s. Most of Kalsta’s property — which gets only about 7 inches of moisture per year — is already too dry to support his grass-fed cattle and sheep business over the long term. Kalsta worries that without management changes, and if climate change continues to disrupt runoff and parch the land, he’ll have to sell. “If I have to leave here, this place is going to make a fantastic subdivision,” he says wryly.

Kalsta is trying to adapt by getting his soil to absorb more water. It’s a simple idea, but hard to execute. If he’s successful, it will help him ride out droughts, keep violent rains or snowmelt from washing his soil into the river, improve wildlife habitat, and ultimately boost grass production.

“In general, our watersheds here were much spongier in the past,” says Molly Cross, a Montana-based Wildlife Conservation Society climate researcher who consults with Kalsta. As snowpack becomes a less reliable natural reservoir, it’s increasingly necessary to recover some of the capacity for water retention that’s been lost through floodplain development and overgrazing. To that end, the Wildlife Conservation Society is working with landowners east of Kalsta to build screen-like structures from willows. These slow the river’s flow, encouraging the water to spread out and soak in, so streamside plants can take hold.

Kalsta hopes to accomplish something similar through different means. And so he’s turning his ranch into a laboratory for figuring out what “climate adaptation” actually looks like in practice. Justin Derner, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northern Plains Regional Climate Hub, says ranchers are keenly aware that climate and weather variability makes their business riskier, and for some, makes it more likely that they’ll have to sell their land. “I think the periodic droughts since 2000 have really hit home,” he says. Ranchers are trying a variety of things to cope with wild swings in moisture and grass production, he says, including setting aside pasture to “bank” grass for bad years, and using new long-term weather-prediction tools to plan stocking rates. “There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, where everybody is going to do the same thing.”

Kalsta is focusing his efforts on an arid, ancient volcano called McCartney Mountain, his property’s dominant landform. Late last winter, the dry gullies on McCartney’s lower flanks looked like something you’d see in New Mexico. Kalsta hopes that by slowing the flow of water, he can initiate a soil-building scheme that will increase plant productivity by 400 to 500 percent. With McCartney’s stubby grass, rabbitbrush, prickly pear and rock, it’s hard to imagine. As his 86-year-old neighbor told him, “Son, if I remember my math right, five times zero is still zero.”

The ranch’s history is unusually well documented; McCartney hosted a weather station for 60 years and Montana State University has grazing research plots on the property. Kalsta’s family also kept exceptionally detailed journals that go back to the 1880s; his grandmother’s later entries are handmade spreadsheets with weather, river flows, calving dates and wildlife sightings meticulously lined out on manila folders.

Those journals serve as a baseline for what he hopes to achieve. One 1896 -entry by his great-grandfather, Horace, describes the grasses up on McCartney as “belly high to a mule.” Kalsta suspects that historical overgrazing by wild horses and during big cattle drives is partly to blame for the grasses’ decline. Below-average precipitation in seven out of the last 15 years hasn’t helped. Kalsta thinks the mule-high grass was Great Basin wild rye, a species he’s never seen on that part of the ranch. But he knows the big, bushy grass could return, given better conditions, because he’s sifted its seeds out of the soil and germinated them.

Kalsta ranch journals, dating back to the 1880s, note everything from late frost that “took a nip off the alfalfa,” to river levels.
Sarah Jane Keller

Being resilient to climate change, he’s begun to think, might mean looking backwards in order to move ahead — restoring and re-engineering the soil to regain the land’s former productivity and water-storage capacity. Four years ago, after Kalsta noticed that the washes already hosted soil-building lichens and mosses, student volunteers installed rock dams in the dry gullies running down McCartney Mountain. Ideally, the dams will slow the flow of torrential summer rains and rapidly melting snow to trap the water and the soil it can carry away. “It’s mostly about water movement,” Kalsta says, standing at the base of McCartney’s golden slopes. “How we get it down here and what it does in between is what’s going to help us in the long term and keep this from turning into dunes.”

Kalsta is also tinkering with a meadow that was contaminated when storm water flushed out phosphates from surrounding rocks. Afterward, the only plants still growing were undesirable for grazing, like greasewood and cheatgrass. It seemed like a low-risk place to experiment. Using a laser level and a tractor, Kalsta built water-capturing ditches along the meadow’s contours.  He even spread some puffball spores on the soil in hopes that the fungal mycelium would help bind the soil together and improve its water-holding capacity.

In past years, Kalsta’s water-trapping efforts have yielded modest gains. But this summer, either because the timing of the rainfall was just right, or because his improvements are starting to take, he saw huge differences. Puffballs carpeted the meadow, and some grasses were almost mule-belly high — a good start. When a late-summer deluge dropped over two inches in 45 minutes, the water soaked in behind the contours. A year ago, it would have puddled up for days.

Water soaked into McCartney’s -gullies, too, and more native bluebunch wheatgrass was growing than ever before. “I can’t wait for my first ryegrass plant to come up in here,” he says, inspecting the new soil collecting behind one of his dams.

Kalsta wants to build more rock dams, and create contours higher on McCartney. His niece, who studies engineering, is helping him design a robot that will dig the contours. “Someday, a kid’s going to take over this ranch,” Kalsta says.  “And he’ll look at this and say, ‘Grandpa sure got things right.’ Or, he’ll say, ‘Grandpa sure screwed things up.’ ”

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