Fire and drought — two nasty combinations for Montana ranchers.

And that one-two punch is hitting them hard. As of this writing, there are 24 active fires in Montana, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with the largest — the Lodgepole Complex fires in Garfield County — having burned 270,723 acres. Ranchers there have been overwhelmed by this catastrophic event.

And now comes the drought. The Associated Press, citing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s U.S. Drought Monitor, reports that “More than a third of the entire state is now in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.”

For a rancher, it doesn’t get worse than that. Folks from around Montana are pitching in with donations of hay, feed cake and fencing material to help them out. 

As we wish them the best in recovering, it’s a good time to be reminded of what ranchers contribute to Montana. Too often we take them for granted.

If you’ve ever been grateful for large swaths of green, open space, thank a rancher, who keeps it that way to earn a living.

If you’ve ever been grateful subdivisions aren’t taking over your beautiful neck of the woods, thank a rancher who needs that land in one piece.

If you’ve ever been happy that knapweed and other noxious weeds aren’t dominating your area, thank a rancher, who needs the land free of invasive plants to make a living. This is in contrast to some folks who move to Montana with dreams of owning a 20-acre ranchette and then, when they get one, carelessly let noxious weeds take over and spread to surrounding properties.

If you’ve ever been grateful for the abundant wildlife in the open fields as you drive through the countryside, thank a rancher whose lands provide them habitat.

If you are appreciative of the fact your county’s topsoil is not being blown away or washing down rivers, thank a rancher, whose way of life depends on keeping that soil.

If you’ve ever been happy for places to hunt, thank the ranchers who are generous with letting sportsmen and women do so on their land.

No, not all ranchers are saintly stewards of the land. 

Some of them don’t care for it as they should. Sometimes, out of financial need, they subdivide. And some ranchers block access to public lands that are such an important part of Montana.

But those kind of ranchers are few and far between. The people who gripe about ranchers have no understanding about what they do for the land, wildlife and beauty of our state. Montana would be a poorer place without them.

So thank you, ranchers.

— Dwight Harriman
Enterprise News Editor