A 25-year study of a South Dakota ranch proves economics and ecology can work together for success

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. – By returning their ranchland to pre-settlement condition, a South Dakota ranch family put nature to work for them with incredible results.

“Oftentimes we hear that ecology and environment don’t mix with economics, but the Mortenson’s prove you can have both. Their ranch is beautiful, full of native habitat and wildlife which provide hunting and other opportunities, but it is also stocked with good quality cattle,” explains Carter Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Ecology at South Dakota State University who painstakingly documented the family’s journey in a recently released online book; The Mortenson Ranch Story: Balancing Environment and Economics.

“Ranching is a tough job if you have to do everything yourself, but if you can get nature to work for you – like the Mortensons have done – the results are beautiful and pay the bills,” said Johnson, who met the family patriarch, Clarence Mortenson in 1990 and began conducting research and documenting the family’s restoration progress.

“This story details Clarence’s conservation and management philosophy and how it has been implemented by three generations of his family to restore the ranch’s environment and economy that ultimately earned the Mortensons the coveted Aldo Leopold Conservation Award in 2011,” said Johnson in the book’s Abstract.

Johnson explains that Clarence grew up in the early years following the Dust Bowl. As a young boy, he learned from an old homesteader how beautiful and productive the heavily eroded and barren landscape once had been. “Clarence vowed that if and when he took over the ranch he would get it back to its pre-settlement condition of thick grass, clear-water streams, dense woody draws and abundant wildlife. But the ranch was not to be a “preserve,” it had to provide a sustainable living for a large family,'” Johnson wrote.

He added. “In my 40 years of studying riparian woodlands in many states, never have I met producers with more enthusiasm, dedication, and genuine interest in restoration and conservation as the Mortensons.”

For five decades, the Mortensons have invited SDSU students, faculty, researchers and SDSU Extension to not only conduct research on their land, but to use it as an outdoor classroom where other ranchers and landowners could see firsthand how various restoration projects worked to enhance the land for wildlife as well as cattle.

Johnson says that what makes all the research on the Mortenson’s land unique is Clarence’s extensive knowledge of the land’s history. “This book chronicles close to 100 years of history. We probably know more about this ranch than almost any other in the state,” Johnson said.

Along with scientific data and details on the Mortenson’s restoration projects, the book contains historical information as well as photos. “I sort of turned into their family’s biographer by accident. It was not an easy role because I’m not a biographer. But I did my best to pull together what we learned during those 25 years and more,” said Johnson. “My overall goal was to pull scientific as well as experiential information together so that other ranchers can read, relate and implement projects to help them restore their own ranches.”

Today the ranch is managed by Clarence’s son Todd and his wife Deb, together with their sons Jack and Quinn.

“Each generation has done something different to improve it. I still see areas that I can improve upon, and I want to be sure that when I hand this over to my boys, it is as good as I could do and, hopefully, it will continue with them,” said Todd Mortenson, as quoted in the 2011 Leopold Conservation Award Bulletin.

To read the Mortenson story for yourself, visit iGrow.