By Laura C. Nelon
The Hahn Ranch was honored as the 2018 Environmental Stewardship Award winners Dec. 13 at the Montana Stockgrowers’ Annual Convention in Billings. The award recognizes cattle ranchers who are exemplary stewards of the land, livestock, wildlife and natural resources.
The family has been ranching in the Missouri River Valley near Townsend for more than 100 years, working to preserve and enhance their natural resources for generations to come. Chuck Hahn, Dusty Hahn and Cory and Jennilee Bird accepted the award on behalf of the family ranch.
The ranch was nominated for the award by collaborators with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) for their partnership on projects that have benefited fisheries and water quality on the ranch and for downstream users. But their conservation practices expand far beyond the creek beds of their southwestern Montana ranch.
Ron Spoon, a FWP fish biologist, has worked with the Hahn family since 1990. “I believe Chuck and his family provide a valuable example of how a long-term ranching operation can simultaneously create agricultural products and foster clean water,” Spoon says. “Folks that collaborate with Chuck will know that he thoroughly protects the function of the ranching operation, but they know he genuinely pushes for solutions that benefit resources beyond the ranch.”
In addition to cattle, the diverse family ranch supports hay, small grains and forage crop farming, a trucking company and a pheasant hunting enterprise. The multi-generational ranch includes Chuck, his sons Dusty and Buck Hahn, his brother John Hahn, sister Bev Bird and her son Cory and wife Jennilee and matriarch Dorothy Hahn.
For nearly 30 years, the Hahn family has worked cooperatively with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Broadwater Conservation District (BCD), the Broadwater-Missouri Water Users Association (BMWUA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Big Sky Watershed Corps (BSWC), Montana Ditch, and Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on restoration and conservation efforts on Deep Creek.
Between 1,000 and 3,000 brown trout annually migrate out of Deep Creek into the Missouri River. The Deep Creek waterway also provides irrigation and stock water on the Hahn Ranch. The family played a pivotal role in the installation of the Montana Ditch siphon, which ensured Deep Creek’s function as a free-flowing, connected nursery and cold water refuge in this blue ribbon fishery.
They’ve continued to work collectively with neighboring landowners and agencies to improve riparian health on the creek, conserve water use while protecting their agricultural production and show marked improvements in stream flow and water temperatures over the past two and a half decades.
“Water is one of the most precious resources, especially in the West,” Dusty Hahn says. “So anything that we can do to conserve and enhance that resource, we're interested in. It helps everybody along the watershed of the Missouri and ultimately that drains into the Mississippi, and that’s important for us as agriculturalists.”
They’ve also prioritized preserving open spaces on their western landscape. In 1998, the ranch enrolled in Broadwater County’s first conservation easement with the FWP to maintain 1,680 acres for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. The land sits next to the nationally unique Elkhorn Wildlife Management Unit and now provides a critical link between blocks of federal land to prevent further urban development.
“If we’re not able to have a viable land base for livestock grazing, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these arid landscapes being put into development,” Chuck says. “So the easement keeps those areas open and it gives us a chance to continue grazing.”
The easement allowed the ranch to expand a more efficient rest-rotational grazing system between their private and publicly leased ground, while also providing financial flexibility for expansion to make room for more family members on the ranch.
Their grazing plans on public and private lands are designed to benefit wildlife habitat and sustain their livestock, which work symbiotically to improve the health of the rangeland.
“This wide diversity of wildlife indicates how well the land and vegetative communities occurring on the Hahn Ranch are being managed as a whole,” FWP Conservation Technician Fred Jakubowski said.
The family also manages their farmland to simultaneously benefit their business, the livestock and wildlife. Growing both cash crops and forage crops extends their grazing season, allows for longer rest periods on the rangeland and improves organic matter and biodiversity in farmed soil. Incorporating cattle into the cropping system is essential to its success.
“By using cover crops and no-till to enhance the soil health, we’re able to keep the soil organisms alive as long as we can during the year,” Chuck Hahn says. “The livestock are there to help incorporate that plant mass back into the soil.”
As recipient of this year’s award, the Hahn Ranch will be nominated for the regional ESAP award, which will be announced at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association summer conference in July 2018. The award is sponsored in a partnership between the Montana Stockgrowers’ Foundation, the Montana Beef Council and beef producers with Check-off dollars, and the World Wildlife Fund.
“Without conservation, we would not be here today,” Chuck says. “Our livelihood depends on the soil, it depends on the ranges, it depends on our livestock. It’s all a part of our life; it’s a part of what makes our living as well. And it’s what makes us happy.”
Since its inception in 1991, the Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP) has honored ranchers across the United States who implement practices the positively impact their land, livestock, wildlife, water and the ecological landscape as a whole.
Conservation on the Hahn Ranch: By the Numbers
- The Hahn Ranch has enrolled 1,685 acres in the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Block Management Program annually since 1996. Each year, roughly 900 hunter days are recorded on the Hahn Ranch.
- The family enrolled 1,680 acres of their ranch in Broadwater County’s first conservation easement, providing a critical link between blocks of BLM and Forest Service lands to prevent urban development, establish a more efficient rest rotation grazing system and provide public/private land access.
- Following the installation of the Broadwater-Missouri Canal siphon in 1991, Brown Trout spawning has increased significantly. In 1991, less than 10 Deep Creek brown trout spawning redds were located in certain locations along the creek. In 2016, one location on the Hahn Ranch noted as many as 75 redds.
- Streamflow has tripled in a commonly dewatered reach of Deep Creek following 2012 irrigation projects that included the relocation of irrigation diversion and pumping system.
- All streams naturally increase in water temperature as water travels downstream. While Deep Creek used to warm up by 8 degrees Fahrenheit in the lower 13 miles of stream, but now warms by 2.5 degrees as a result of changes with irrigation practices.
- With the use of no-till farming methods and the incorporation of forage crop and livestock on their farm ground, organic matter in their farmed soil has moved from an average of three percent to closer to five percent. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, native grassland range in the state is typically comprised of about four percent organic matter.