By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
In my book “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet,” there’s a chapter titled “Ted’s Side of the Mountain” that draws a stark dichotomy between Turner’s worldview and that of Tim Blixseth—the latter being the one-time “timber baron” who founded the Yellowstone Club and now is a man dealing with epic financial difficulty.
Both men bought property in the same mountain range—Turner the 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch located along the northern face of the Spanish Peaks; Blixseth developed a tenth as much land as a real estate play for the ultra-wealthy within view of Lone Mountain. Each will leave behind very different legacies regarding their attitude and relationship with nature in Greater Yellowstone.
Turner has always known the status quo will never change unless you stand up and defy it.
As a billionaire businessman, he made his money the old fashioned way by practicing fiscal conservatism and paying careful attention to the bottom line. It’s worth mentioning that he didn’t amass his fortune by defiling the environment.
As an outlier, a technology disruptor and a maverick carrying the attitude of an underdog, Turner set out time and again—successfully—to prove naysayers wrong, particularly those who claim that conquering nature is the only way to make money.
When people told him it was a dumb idea to found 24-hour news in 1980, he didn’t listen. When critics said the Atlanta Braves could never become a perennial baseball contender, never win a World Series, he made the defeatists look foolish.
So it has been, too, with his pathfinding counterintuitive approaches to “eco-capitalism,” a way of thinking about business and environment that have been sharpened during Turner’s almost 30 years as a proud Greater Yellowstone denizen.
It’s not that Turner hasn’t made mistakes along the way, though he readily admits that he’s learned more from making course corrections in his thinking than from stretches when it’s been smooth sailing.
During the late 1980s, when he bought the Flying D, Montana cattle ranchers told Turner it would be a mistake for him to replace beef cows on his ranches with bison. Cattlemen looked upon buffalo as “exotic” species, even though the iconic Western behemoths had once been the most prolific native land mammals in the world.
Across more than a dozen ranches Turner today has a bison herd that numbers more than 50,000; no, he doesn’t manage them heavy-handedly as if they were domestic cattle.
Because of state laws, Turner is required to fence his bison in. He’s had few problems, however, with bison getting loose on neighboring property. At the same time, his fences allow ready transboundary movement of public elk, moose, pronghorn, and deer that spend part of the year on Turner grass (which he welcomes) and other seasons beyond his property.
Some of Turner’s private brucellosis-free bison contracted the disease after coming in contact with roaming infected public elk. Turner vaccinates his bison but unlike some cattle ranchers he doesn’t demonize elk and accepts the small risks of disease and losses to predators as a part of doing business.
He recognized early on that there was a karmic “rightness” about bringing bison back after settlers nearly annihilated all 35 million. As a species that evolved in the West over many millennia, Turner appreciates their superior competitive advantages over cattle.
Bison need less coddling than beef cows (which are bred to be docile). They can tolerate changing weather and climate better, don’t need to be fed huge amounts of hay to survive winters, don’t require being injected with growth hormones to fatten up, and are built by nature to better ward off predators.
That’s one reason, besides his fondness for wildlife, why Turner has a high tolerance for wolves and grizzly bears on the Flying D where today it’s home to 5,000 bison and one of the largest wolf packs in the Lower 48.
Despite assertions that wolf presence leaves bovines so stressed that pregnancy rates in cows are chronically adversely affected, pregnancy rates for Turner’s cow bison—with wolves in their midst—hover around 90 percent, says Turner’s staff veterinarian Dr. Dave Hunter.
Not long ago, Hunter ran an experiment comparing stress, via fecal cortisol and progesterone levels, in bison that had wolves around and other groups of bison that did not. Except for a stretch of weeks just after calving when mother bison are especially vigilant in protecting their babies, stress levels were identical.
“Wolves do not stress bison out. It’s almost like there’s this instinctive memory passed down through history in how the two species interact,” Hunter says, noting that Turner also tolerates the loss of bison calves to wolves. “Cow bison will kick the snot out of wolves if they veer too close to their calves and wolves respect that.”
The bison Turner sells commercially generate a profit. You can even eat the bison he raises at his Ted’s Montana Grill Restaurant in downtown Bozeman. Turner uses the revenue to keep re-enhancing the conservation values on his land—the essence of sustainability.
Those who insist that predators and prey on a western ranch are incompatible need to open their eyes. Turner is making it happen by defying the West’s cultural status quo of what it means to live a rich and meaningful life. As for Blixseth’s legacy, that’s for readers to decide.
EBS publishes Todd Wilkinson’s New West column every week online and twice a month in the print version of the paper. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 amazing photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen. The book is only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly and when you order today you will receive a copy autographed by both author and photographer. Wilkinson also wrote a profile of Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk for the summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.