Montana Leopold Conservation Award Finalists Selected

by Brett McRae

Three ranch and farm families are finalists for the Montana Leopold Conservation Award®.

The award honors ranchers, farmers and forestland owners who go above and beyond in their management of soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat on working land.

Named in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, this award recognizes landowners who inspire others with their dedication to environmental improvement. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for “a land ethic,” an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage.

Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust present the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 27 states. In Montana, the $10,000 award is presented with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Rangeland Resources Committee.

“For generations, Montana’s farmers and ranchers have been dedicated stewards of our land and water resources,” said Governor Greg Gianforte. “Through the Leopold Conservation Award, we recognize the farmer, rancher, or forested landowner who has set the standard as a caretaker of our working landscapes and as an innovator in the ag industry.”

The award finalists are:

  • Franck and Kari Groeneweg of Three Forks in Broadwater and Jefferson counties: Living Sky Grains is a 14,000-acre dryland farm where the Groenewegs grow flax, canola, camelina, sunflower, buckwheat, yellow peas, dryland corn, mustard, lentils, wheat and other grains using innovative techniques that prioritize conservation and soil health. With home-brewed compost and other biological products they have created a closed-loop system that minimizes the need for external inputs like phosphate and potash. With continuous cropping and no-till practices they positively impact the water cycle. To increase the presence of beneficial insects they have established pollinator strips.
  • Thomas Herefords Ranch of Gold Creek in Powell County: Bruce and Tammy Thomas have successfully integrated sustainable ranching with producing high-quality Hereford cattle that are marketed globally. Converting from flood to pivot irrigation has reduced their water usage. A rotational grazing system has improved their pastures, which benefits cattle, deer, elk, and birds. Wildlife-friendly fencing is used across their rangeland and riparian areas. Their collaborative approach with government agencies and conservation organizations has led to environmental improvements on their ranch and beyond. Bruce has served on the Upper Clark Fork Watershed Restoration Council.
  • Wickens Salt Creek Ranch of Hilger in Fergus County: Eric and Emma Wickens raise beef cattle and grown crops of peas, barley, hay, and wheat. Cover crops are also grown to prevent erosion, increase water infiltration, and improve the soil’s biodiversity. High intensity grazing followed by specific rest periods also rejuvenate grasses and the soil’s mineral cycles. Through compost applications and rotational and bale grazing they build up organic matter in areas where the soil lacks biodiversity. By strengthening the health of grasslands that nourish their cattle they are protecting resilience of their ranch.

Montana landowners were encouraged to apply, or be nominated, for the award. An independent panel of Montana agricultural and conservation leaders reviewed the applications.

The award recipient will be revealed in June. Last year’s award recipients were Kurt and PJ Myllymaki of Stanford in Judith Basin County.

The Montana Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of American Farmland Trust, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Rangeland Resources Committee, Sand County Foundation, Sibanye-Stillwater, AgWest Farm Credit, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, McDonald’s, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Soil and Water Conservation Society, Western Landowners Alliance, Western Sustainability Exchange, and World Wildlife Fund.

“These award finalists are examples of how Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is alive and well today. Their dedication to conservation shows how individuals can improve the health of the land while producing food and fiber,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and CEO.

“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the Montana award finalists,” said John Piotti, AFT President and Chief Executive Officer. “At AFT we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”

For more information on the award, visit


Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Leopold Conservation Award

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