On the late April day I visit Harold Peterson on his 2,700-acre ranch in the Big Hole Valley of southwestern Montana — where he raises 500-head of cattle and lives with his two sons, their spouses, six grandkids, three dogs, and seven horses — everything on his ranch is as I expected.
“This is 100 years of gathering,” says the 72-year-old Peterson, playing tour guide as we walk around his lifelong home. He gives me the story behind each structure, all painted ranch-red. On this day the centerpiece to the two houses and 10 outbuildings is a 20-foot steel tubular cart that’s overflowing with hay. The red log house he built for his mother in 1959 sits 25 yards from his own. The log barn homestead that is almost 120 years old was moved from its original location one mile down the road to its present site. The rugged barn with the horse stables is also used for calving. The mechanic shop he built for his sons is where they overhaul tractor engines.
“I put every stinking screw in it by myself,” he says of the building.
On the walls of the garage, above four modified tractors, hang antlers displaying the success of past hunts for moose, elk, deer and antelope. These are the pride and joy of his sons Dean and Clay.
In the last building we tour, Peterson hops over more farm equipment to reach a shadowed corner where, from underneath a dusty gray canvas, he reveals a relic from his younger days: a snow plane he built in the 1950s. He says it’s a predecessor of sorts to the modern-day snowmobile. This particular model, built on three skis, has a small cockpit for one pilot and a 65-horsepower airplane propeller engine.
One would think from this tour that Peterson is a would-be engineer or inventor. What’s less obvious is that Peterson doesn’t just like building inanimate things—he likes preserving live ones. Which is why he’s taken major steps to preserve a critical watershed and protect one of the last native populations of a rare fish. Peterson, perhaps more than anything, is a rare breed himself: a rancher and a conservationist.
“You can bury your head in the sand,” Peterson says, “but somebody needs to put effort into it, whether it is right or wrong. I’m not in this for myself. I’m not getting anything out of this. I’m doing this for the next generation.”
Peterson’s ranch is along Big Swamp Creek, a tributary to the Big Hole River. This river basin is home to the last native population of fluvial Arctic grayling in the Lower 48. The fish was once a candidate for listing protection under the Endangered Species Act. But in April 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided that the grayling in the Big Hole River does not warrant federal protection as an endangered species.
Many ranchers exhaled after the decision was made. Peterson however, knows “someday it will be back,” since the decision is being challenged in court by various advocacy organizations and environmental groups.
“This is scary stuff,” Peterson says. And in a pro-active effort to help protect the species — and head off future federal involvement in managing his land — he signed up for a formal arrangement known as the Big Hole Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). Under the CCAA program, landowners get the chance to voluntarily reduce threats to a species, like the grayling, that might receive endangered species status. Should the grayling be given federal protections, no additional conservation measures are required of CCAA participants.
If you ask for Peterson’s opinion about the chances for the survival and recovery of the grayling, he’ll tell you he doesn’t think they’ll make it because the earth is getting warmer. Regardless, he thinks that something should be done, which is why he keeps his property involved in the process.
The tour concludes at Peterson’s kitchen table, the communal spot of most farms and the location for the remainder of our conversation. Conservation is the topic du jour, and as we sit and talk, I see evidence of it in the corners. Sitting on a table, hidden among the proudly displayed family photos, I see an award from the Beaverhead Conservation District proclaiming Harold Peterson the 2007 Outstanding Conservationist of the Year; it partially hides a similar honor.
Some maintain that ranching and conservation can’t work together. A few hours spent with Peterson suggest otherwise.
His earliest conservation efforts, he says, date back to 1995 with his role as a founding member of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, a management group that works toward watershed restoration, strictly through consensus. He still drives the 90-mile roundtrip to the monthly meetings in Divide, and has served on dozens of committees within the organization.
Before the CCAA came to the Big Hole Valley, Peterson was also involved with a similar program through the National Resource Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). (In the end, however, he says he got burned with a surprise $2,500 bill for participation. The experience left him very apprehensive about government-funded conservation programs.)
Peterson has installed various headgates on his property to control water flow. In addition, he launched a project on his property last fall that is a model program for the Big Hole CCAA. The work involved relocating 1,100 feet of Big Swamp Creek, moving it out of Peterson’s feedlot and restructuring it to create a riparian habitat more hospitable to return spawning fish, particularly grayling. He committed $1,700 of his own funds to the $55,000 project.
For either the grayling or the grandkids, Peterson knows that action, not finger-pointing, will produce results. “I’m just trying to get something done, do something right, protect ourselves and do something to help our kids and grandkids,” he says. “Maybe it will help them.”