A vital refuge on the Yellowstone River
By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer
Photos by J.B. Klyap

The Yellowstone River spills out of the park near its northern entrance in Gardiner, Montana, wending through the Gardiner Basin and tumbling into the gorge of Yankee Jim Canyon four miles downstream. Its tumult slows as it leaves the canyon and courses through a valley named “Paradise.”

Bounded by the Absaroka Mountains to the east and Gallatin Range in the west, Paradise Valley provides essential winter range for the northern Yellowstone elk herd.

In the southeast corner, at the heart of the herd’s yearly migration from the park, sits the 5,366-acre Dome Mountain Ranch. Its western edge carved by the river, the property spreads eastward into the Absaroka foothills, where it abuts state and federal lands. A hunting and fishing outfitter with 30 head of horses, the ranch has been featured on The Travel Channel, Elk Country Journal and Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recognized the area’s significance three decades ago and in 1986 began purchasing adjacent land for the 4,680-acre Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The ranch occupies the northern flanks of the pyramid-shaped 8,596-foot Dome Mountain, and the WMA extends northeast to Dailey Lake.

The lower reaches of the habitat are home to native grasses, primarily bluebunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue, interspersed conifer stands, providing forage and cover for lactating cow elk in late spring and early summer. Bulls have lower nutritional needs and inhabit the higher elevations, finding shelter in large stands of lodgepole pine.

While the ranch grows hay to feed stock, most of the acreage remains in its natural state.

“Dome Mountain Ranch is as heavily used by the elk herd as the [WMA] is,” said Karen Loveless, Livingston Area Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Biologist. “It’s critical to the herd’s future to have access to that winter range.”

With the ranch now for sale, Loveless is uncertain about the future.

The northern Yellowstone elk herd’s population has declined from 19,000 in 1994, to the 3,915 counted by a cooperative FWP and National Park Service aerial survey in February 2013. The decline resulted from harvest, predation and environmental factors such as drought, Loveless said.

“This year (2013), 77 percent of the herd was in Montana, and it’s been an increasing trend since 2005,” she said.

Previously, thousands of elk wintered in the Lamar Valley and Blacktail Plateau in Yellowstone Park. Winter conditions there are harsher than the lower elevation Paradise Valley, Loveless said, and predation by wolves, bears and mountain lions is likely higher in the park.

Fred Smith has owned Dome Mountain Ranch since 1996, when he bought four adjoining parcels including the Gray’s cattle operation east of the river. The land he bought from Max Chase on the west side included a lodge built in 1959, and home to a filling station, restaurant, gambling hall and outfitting business over the years.

“I looked all over the Rockies for about three years,” said Smith, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. “I saw Paradise Valley and that was it.”

He hired J.B. Klyap and his wife Lennae, former fishing guides on the Smith River, to manage the lodge and cabins, “But one thing led to another,” J.B. recalled. Now the Klyaps take care of ranch operations year round: guiding, haying the fields, tending the horses, and maintaining the lodge, guest cabins, fences and machinery.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 job,” J.B. says. “It’s a lifestyle.”

J.B., also a longtime hunter and guide, values “authentic, traditional and fair chase” hunts.

“It’s pretty easy to book an elk hunt where they take you out on an ATV and drop you off, but we like giving [clients] the whole experience,” he said, explaining that clients mount the horses before first light, spending the entire day on horseback or foot.

“Positive energy is infectious, and that’s really what made us,” said J.B., who believes hiring honest, hard-working guides is the secret to success. “I always tell guides, ‘If you’re not bleeding, sweating or puking, you’re not hunting elk.’”

The 4.5 miles of river fronting Dome Mountain Ranch are home to brown, rainbow and native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Its abundant natural vegetation creates ideal trout habitat, providing shade that keeps the water cooler.

“It’s still what a trout stream should look like,” says Kurt Dehmer, one of the ranch’s guides.

High above its east bank, the main ranch house deck faces southwest and overlooks the valley, the broad summit of 10,969-foot Electric Peak dominating the view in the distance.

This landscape has been a successful cooperative public-private conservation effort, and Smith is optimistic the ranch will attract an individual or group dedicated to preserving it.

“I hope the next owner will not develop the land and keep it as a legacy as long as they’re able to enjoy it,” he said.

Tyler Allen is a staff writer for Mountain Outlaw magazine. As of press time, May 2013, Dome Mountain Ranch was listed through Fay Ranches, a real estate firm based in Bozeman, Montana. This story was first published in the summer 2013 of Mountain Outlaw magazine.