Mike & Deb Delaney

Mike Delaney has been smiling a lot lately.

He has good reason to.

Thanks to a partnership with The Montana Land Reliance, the State of Montana, and the Delaney family, the 44 Ranch will stay the way it is for generations to come, and has become the first property protected in partnership with Montana’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program. The Delaney’s are also the 2016 recipients of The Montana Land Reliance’s William F. Long Conservation Award, an award given to landowners who have worked to permanently protect significant bird habitat

Located north of Grass Range in the wind-swept heart of Montana, the 18,033-acre 44 Ranch protects the last best populations of the iconic upland bird that once defined the sagebrush sea sweeping from Nevada, east into the Dakotas, and south into Colorado and Utah.

There’s more to the story, though, than preserving a wide-open ranch and a family’s lifestyle on the sagebrush steppe of central Montana. What makes the conservation easement on the 44 Ranch—and the reason for the award—particularly notable is the united collaboration of state government, a multi-generation ranching family, and a conservation organization for a bird. That bird is not just any bird. It is the greater sage grouse, a symbol of the Old West and the “canary in the coal mine” for the land’s health in the New West.

Today, the sage grouse—sage “chicken” to many of the locals in communities across the West—is in trouble. A subspecies, the Gunnison sage grouse, is already on the Endangered Species list, while the populations of the predominant bird, the greater, have been threatened across their range and are now a fraction of what they were when pioneers came to the open country. Treasured by hunters, bird watchers, and many people who just enjoy seeing wildlife, the sage grouse in Montana, while relatively stable in some areas, is dwindling in others.

There have been many causes of sage grouse population decline including predation from birds like crows and ravens, the loss of native sagebrush prairies beneath the wheels of bigger and more powerful tractors, and the development of thousands of acres of public lands by oil and gas interests. Throw in a lethal sprinkling of diseases like the West Nile Virus, which can kill adult birds, and the sage grouse is driven to the edge. Hunting the birds, considered by many shotgunners to be the quintessential upland experience of the open country of the west, has been sharply curtailed across much of the bird’s original range.

Concerned that the species might be listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, something that could significantly affect a ranch operation like the Delaney’s, the Montana Legislature passed the Montana Sage Grouse Stewardship Act, which created the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program, and appropriated $10 million for a habitat protection fund in 2015. The intent of the act is to preempt the protection and enhancement of sage grouse habitat while creating tax mitigation credits that can be purchased when development disturbs it. Shortly after the legislature approved the Sage Grouse Stewardship Act, the 44 Ranch came on line as the program’s first and cornerstone project, and 18,033 acres of the Delaney’s ground became a forever-protected core habitat area for sage grouse. The credit purchases are designed to replenish the fund so there will be more sage grouse conservation success stories like the 44 Ranch.

Like many Montanans who have lived with the land over the past decades, conservation is nothing new, and the Delaney Family will continue its stewardship of the land as it has in the past.

“Dad always felt that we didn’t really own the land, we were just here to take care of it,” said Mike.

“He always said that we weren’t raising cattle, we were raising grass,” added Mike’s wife, Deb.

In the 1920s, Mike Delaney’s grandfather came to what was then the Norwegian Lutheran Church Ranch in Fergus and Petroleum counties as a cowhand with a particular skill at driving draft horse teams. He would ultimately purchase portions of the ranch from the church.

Mike’s dad was born on the ranch in 1926 and acquired many ranches in the area over the years. It’s big country, with the Judith Mountains—Charles Russell country—on the distant western horizon and a skyline that seems to stretch so far one imagines the rounded edge of the globe at its extent. Sagebrush is the predominant plant, but it is the forbs and grasses that are crucial for wildlife and livestock on the 44 Ranch. Mule deer, antelope, and even the occasional elk are residents. Drive into that wide ocean and one will flush sage grouse by the dozens, perhaps hundreds on a good day.

When Mike and Deb returned to the ranch after graduating from Montana State University in 1976, they were determined to stay and raise their children, Michael and Anne, on the property. They were also determined to make the land better. Long before they entered into the sage grouse program, they worked with the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to enhance their ground. The agency helped the Delaney’s with all kinds of conservation efforts from replacing nonnative grasses like crested wheatgrass with native forage like green needle grass, growing shelterbelts against the ceaseless prairie wind, and fencing and water improvements.

In their years on the ranch, Mike and Deb, their children and spouses, and their grandchildren have worked hard to make the land healthy. “This is not farm ground,” said Mike, “so we’re not breaking it out.”

But beneath the sagebrush and clay is good water, artesian water that ranges up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. The Delaney’s have doubled their water tanks in recent years. They raise dryland hay on what farmland there is, but the rest is rangeland. A few years back a grasshopper invasion in the crested wheatgrass helped convince them to bring native grasses back. Good fencing helps steer the cattle where they need to be while leaving grass for wildlife. Assistance through NRCS was significant to the overall improvement of the ranch in almost all cases.

Today, the cow-calf operation has seen an improvement in calf weights despite that the Delaney’s are resting 20 percent of their range for 15 months. Grass left standing is good for the sage grouse and good for the rangeland and good for the cattle.

“What’s really gratifying to us is that the whole family is involved,” said Mike. “We want to make sure that our kids and grandkids will be able to stay on the ranch.”

As for MLR, “they have been great to work with,” said Mike. “Everybody has been great to work with.”

Neighbors with sage grouse habitat—70 percent of Montana’s sage grouse habitat is on private ground—have been coming to the Delaney’s for advice on getting into the program. “We’ve just had a lot of people ask us about what we did,” said Deb.

Mike agrees that building on the sage grouse conservation fund will be important to keeping the bird protected without having federal oversight. “I was hesitant at first, but now I think it’s just a tremendous program,” he said. “I can’t stop smiling.”