Steve Page: Why We Sold the South Ranch


The following letter, written by Steve Page, was sent to Voices of Montana Host Aaron Flint.  It  outlines the decision that went into selling their “South Ranch” to the American Prairie.  For more information on the sale, please read “Page Whitham Sells Ranch to American Prairie.”

South Ranch Sale

by Steve Page

Page Whitham Land and Cattle, a Montana Partnership leased, with an option to purchase, the Etchart Ranch in 1981, and executed the purchase option in 1992. The Etchart Ranch was established in 1912 by John Etchart, a Basque emigrant. The ranch grew to become one of the largest livestock (cattle and sheep) operations in the State of Montana and included about 3000 acres of farmland and pasture in the Milk River Valley near Tampico, plus 197,000 acres of rangeland and dry farm in southern Valley County, bordered on the west by the Phillips Co. line and the south and east by the Missouri River (Ft. Peck Lake). The “South Ranch” is 10{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} deeded and 90{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} Public Land (Federal and State). Additionally, the Etchart Ranch included a large range unit in North Valley County adjacent to the Glasgow Air Base and Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. This ranch was sold in 1978.

Page Whitham Land and Cattle recently sold the “South Ranch” to the American Prairie Reserve with a long-term lease-back and intention of operating the ranch in traditional manner, well into the future.

There has been considerable community “buzz” in recent months regarding the rumor of this transaction, and we will attempt to explain the rationale associated with our decision to sell the South Ranch.

The Etchart Ranch and later, Page Whitham have dealt with numerous land-use issues over a long period of time and we have concluded that traditional ranching operations on public land in South Valley and South Phillips counties are in jeopardy of becoming history in the not so distant future.

Although volumes can be written, I will attempt to summarize the history of the ranch and demonstrate a timeline of significant land-use issues and events leading to our conclusion:

Following the Civil War, two war veterans; Henry Carpenter and Lemuel Gibson set up camp in southern Valley County and hunted buffalo professionally, until the specie was extricated from the area. Being very familiar with the landscape, Carpenter and Gibson deeded numerous small tracts of land with the best surface water in the area, using Civil War Script and homesteading privileges. The two established a sheep ranching partnership and controlled a huge area of open range by virtue of the ownership and management of their water resources.

John Etchart came to South Valley County in 1911 and purchased a small holding on the head of Willow Creek and established the Etchart Ranch. Over time, numerous small homesteads and the Carpenter and Gibson holdings were acquired which now represent the South Ranch.

At the turn of the century, all of the Public Domain represented “free grass” on open range and the size of an operation depended largely on winter feed base, water rights, hard work, business skill, and conservative management of the resource, often times under adverse conditions. During this time, John Etchart purchased land and developed hay farms on the Missouri River bottom lands, allowing him to expand his summer grazing program.

The Taylor Grazing Act was established in 1934 to stabilize the Western Livestock Industry on public lands and provided summer grazing allotments to existing livestock operators based on their ability to feed and care for their animals during winter months. This act established the U.S. Grazing Service, later becoming the Bureau of Land Management, to administer the new federal regulations, resulting in orderly and vastly improved land management.

In 1936, President Roosevelt, by executive order established the Ft. Peck Game Range surrounding the future Ft. Peck Reservoir. This action reduced the allocation of forage for livestock by about 40{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} for the purpose of providing additional habitat for Sharp tailed Grouse and Pronghorn Antelope. About 40,000 acres of the traditional Etchart Ranch grazing allotment including 4000 acres of deeded land was within the boundary of the Game Range.

During this same era, the Ft. Peck Dam Project was authorized and all of the Missouri River bottom lands were condemned, purchased for a fraction of value, and later flooded by the lake, leaving most of South Valley County ranches without adequate feed base to meet the qualifications for existing grazing allotments. As the result, Etchart Ranch and others acquired irrigated lands on the Milk River and converted large acreages of rangeland into crop production to maintain commensurability with grazing allotments.

In 1963, President Kennedy changed the name of the Ft. Peck Game Range to Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Range and in 1978, by “Act of Congress”; it was designated as the CMR National Wildlife Refuge and was transferred to the USFWS for administration under the National Wildlife Refuge Act.

In 1984, the USFWS completed an Environmental Impact Statement which determined existing levels of livestock grazing incompatible with the goals of the CMR and the grazing allotment was further reduced by 40{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107}. The season of use was restricted to pre-growing-season grazing, transferability of the grazing permit was eliminated, and the grazing fee was increased over time from a base rate of $1.35 per month for a cow and calf to the current fee of $23.28.

Bottom line; we bought and paid for a grazing allotment, funded considerable investment in range improvements, participated in development of habitat friendly rotational grazing systems, spent a lot of money in litigation to protect our rights, lost in Federal Court, and have lost considerable property and property value.

We no longer hold a grazing permit on the CMR

Southern Valley and Phillips Counties represent the single largest contiguous block of public land in the State of Montana and may be considered by the Department of Interior for designation as a National Monument. The area has been described as a last holdout for Sage Grouse, and has been restricted from oil and gas exploration and surface disturbance, essentially locking up the possibility of exploration and development of minerals on intermingled private lands. Additional Wilderness Study Areas and Areas of Critical Environment Concern are being proposed, and Bison management plans are being written.

Coupled with the huge increase in grazing fees on State Land and the uncertainty associated with future Public Land Policy and grazing fees, the economic value of a high percentage public land ranch is being diminished.

We feel that our South Ranch no longer provides viable opportunity for future ranching generations and it is not without emotion that we have chosen to sell to a conservation organization willing to pay fair-market-value for this property, yet allow us to operate it as a cattle ranch for an extended period of time.

We are not suggesting this to be the correct decision for others, but consider it to be right for us.

In terms of public use of the ranch, nothing will change. The private fee title lands are encumbered by a perpetual FWP conservation easement funded by sportsmen, and the South Ranch, in addition to our other lands, remains accessible to the general public for hunting, fishing, camping, and other outdoor activities.

The Page and Whitham families intend to remain in the cattle business, continue in this community as good neighbors, and contribute to a prosperous future for Valley County and the State of Montana.

We also feel a great deal of gratitude and obligation toward our valued employees who can count on us to provide secure employment and benefits for many years to come, as we anticipate no change in our business plan well into the future.


Steve Page 


Source:  Steve Page

Posted by Haylie Shipp


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