REAL RANCH OR NOT: NATURAL RESOURCES MANAGEMENT
During recent decades, the National Park Service has arrived at a better appreciation for the interrelationships of cultural and natural resources in field units categorized as "historical." At the time when Grant-Kohrs Ranch was proposed as a unit of the Park System, the environmental movement was under a full head of steam and so it followed that concern for the natural setting of the ranch would be a basic consideration in planning the new site. The bottomlands and the vista to the west were deemed important to preserving the natural scenic integrity of the site.  Few would argue that the NPS saw the relatively undeveloped lands adjacent to the ranch as integral to the historic scene. "But not only as scenic surrounding," the first master plan cautioned. "While maintaining the pastoral scene, we cannot ignore considerations of the long-term health of the land and the purity of the river." 
Not long after the Service acquired the first small land area from the National Park Foundation, there was concern about the small acreage encompassed within the boundary. The master plan team had recommended that the Site boundary be extended across the brushy bottom lands so that the NPS would control both sides of the river. In those early days of the park's existence, Vernon E. Hennesay, the designated coordinator for the area, visited the ranch frequently from his home base in Yellowstone National Park. In February 1973 he noted that the tentative boundary included only about half the width of the Clark Fork River. It seemed obvious to Hennesay that it would be all but impossible to manage wildlife habitat on one bank without controlling the other. Furthermore, there was a concern that Conrad Warren might ". . . allow someone, in the future, to come in and clear off the woods on the bottom land and turn it into a haying field." According to the loosely-defined restrictions of the easements over the meadows west of the river, such an action would not necessarily have been incompatible under the broad definition of cattle ranching. Subsequently, the additional acreage was acquired in the initial purchase, demonstrating in this instance the perception of a higher need to preserve natural elements of the landscape than to promote the concept of a working ranch. 
For several years after the authorization of the Site and the arrival of the first personnel, little attention was devoted to the management of the park's natural resources. This is not surprising, given the area's historical classification and the acute needs for structures preservation and for providing visitor access to the area. A preliminary and very practical action in 1975-76 involved draining the water from the lower yard simply to allow use of that area.
Not until 1978 did anything noteworthy occur, and even then it was nature itself that prompted a management response. In the course of his work, NPS rancher Lewis "Pete" Cartwright observed significant erosion along one bank of the Clark Fork River within the Site. Having no expertise in such matters among the staff, historian Michele Farmer solicited help from the local office of the Soil Conservation Service. Their representative evaluated the situation, concluding that if some abatement action were not taken, it might well result in "erosive consumption of adjoining hay land or may even change channels claiming more new land and/or bypassing an existing bridge."  Superintendent Tom Vaughan followed up by alerting the regional office to the problem, requesting emergency funding to stabilize the crumbling bank. Regardless of NPS designs for the area, he noted philosophically, the river "upsets the plans of man" and was about to leave it with a bridge leading to an island.  After a delay of over three months, Acting Regional Director Glen Bean responded to Vaughan, informing him that no funds were available for the project; his only alternative was to submit a request through the usual channels.
Over time, the 1980 General Management Plan became outdated in several aspects because it failed to recognize broader resource trends and needs as the park evolved. The environmental movement of the late 1960s and '70s had given rise to a greater emphasis on the interrelationships of nature. The new philosophy rejected the traditional NPS focus on preserving only its defined "islands," ignoring what happened in the larger world. Eventually, the Park Service embraced the view that what occurred beyond park boundaries often affected resources inside the parks as well. This included the value of the total landscape, and, more particularly, the natural surroundings of historic sites. Concerned about the viewshed and potential development outside the park, Superintendent Jim Taylor justified a land protection plan in 1985 to thoroughly address NPS concerns and alternatives.
During the early 1980s, the NPS became responsible for policing itself for cultural resources compliance through a memorandum of agreement with the Advisory Board on Historic Preservation. Along with this, the Service developed specific guidelines for managing both cultural and natural resources. Thus, much of the responsibility of complying with the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act was delegated to the park mangers. This imposed a heavier workload on park staffs, who became responsible for initial determinations of effect and for preparing the required compliance documents for higher-level review. The increasing sophistication of these demands eventually contributed to a staff reorganization at Grant-Kohrs Ranch, to be discussed later in this chapter.
The erosion incident served as the impetus for the park to consider its need for baseline natural resources data. Up to that point, hardly anything had been compiled in that regard. During 1979 the Superintendent Vaughan submitted several study proposals to the University of Wyoming cooperative park studies unit. It took the bureaucratic machinery over a year to process the request, but the study finally claimed a priority in 1981. Unfortunately, no one responded with a proposal to conduct the research and the project languished for several more months. In the fall, three researchers responded, but by that time the funding had evaporated.
Superintendent Jim Taylor successfully revived this effort in 1982 when he noticed the presence of noxious weeds in the park. However, funding did not become available until August, by which time it was too late in the year to begin the field work. The project finally got off the ground the next year and carried over into 1984. The research was accomplished by scientists from the University of Montana. As a result of this comprehensive survey, the park gained floral and faunal species lists, maps delineating geographical distributions of various plants, a herbarium collection of 200 specimens for staff reference, and a collection of slides. 
Although rare and endangered species were identified as part of this work, more significant was the confirmation that park lands indeed were infested with noxious knapweed and leafy spurge. Both of these aggressive species are the bane of ranchers. Knapweed is especially prolific, thriving in disturbed ground, such as along roads, irrigation ditches, and the railroads, and then dominating these areas by sapping the available water and choking out competitor plants. All too often in ranching country, it meant that valuable grass is replaced by a plant that is of no benefit to stockgrowers. The areas blighted by noxious weeds accordingly reduce the potential carrying capacity of pasture lands. Real ranch or not, Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS had to do something about the problem, if for no other reason that to be a good neighbor to adjacent ranchers who depended on cattle raising for their livelihood. Even though the Site did not depend on good grass to the degree that commercial ranchers did, the intrusive species would prevent the park from producing its noted weed-free hay.
A two-pronged attack involving biological means and mechanical removal was launched on the weeds in 1985. While the common method for combating these pests outside the park was chemical spraying, the NPS chose to implement an integrated pest management plan. This approach relied on the use of natural predators -- in the case of knapweed this meant the gall fly. Larva were placed along railroad right-of-way fences, whereupon the newborn flies would begin feeding on the knapweed. It was decided that chemicals would not be applied, at least until the insects were given a fair trial. 
Two years later the park obtained a second grant through the University of Wyoming, this time for a project to map the areas infested with noxious weeds for monitoring purposes. Several members of the staff attended training on the subject of noxious weeds so that the eradication program might become more effective. 
Despite a five-year agreement with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Bozeman to conduct further biological control studies at the ranch, the program faltered. Several new species of insects were tried experimentally, but only two produced the desired results. All of the experiments utilized insects confined in cages. Neighboring ranchers began to lodge complaints against the NPS for not adequately controlling its knapweed and leafy spurge. Rather than risk a major public relations battle, which the NPS stood to lose, the park began chemical spraying with 2-4D on a limited basis in major public access areas.  This practice was later expanded to include the use of Todon on fiat, dry pasture bearing native species of grass. More recently, insects have been used in areas of the site that cannot be sprayed because of potential danger to water or other vegetation.
Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006