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Ranchers return to old-fashioned cattle drives to help environment

People sometimes talk about armchair travel. In my case, it was desk chair travel as I opened up a link photojournalist Ami Vitale sent me to her latest project -- documenting the ranching community near her new home in Montana. Suddenly I was in a world where nature takes priority over smart phones, where a person's identity is not formed predominantly by their tweets. Sure, it was some romanticism on my part, but the scenes of neighbors coming together to herd cattle in the beautiful valleys of Montana seem timeless and a world away.

Ami Vitale

Barb Pearson's horse takes her hat off as they relax during the annual spring cattle drive in the Centennial Valley. Pearson was helping out the Ruby Dell Ranch, where she's good friends with owners Jim and John Anderson.

As Vitale got to know the ranchers, she found that some were returning to traditional cattle drives, forgoing trucking their cows in favor of moving them from horseback, and frequently changing their grazing location to try to minimize the cattle's impact on the land. One of the ranch managers, Bryan Uhrling of J Bar L, says it helps to think of cattle as "...mobile composting machines. Their hooves plant seeds, their urine moves moisture from watering sites to arid grounds, and their manure is a natural fertilizer. They are the perfect all-in-one farming machinery."

I've long been an admirer of Vitale's work, from her early days in Kashmir, to more recent work on maternal health in Sierra Leone and on biologists trying to save rhinos from the brink of extinction. As Vitale shares below, today she is finding inspiration closer to home.

Aspiring photographers often ask me where they might go to find the best stories. My answer is always the same - get to know your own backyard, what's close at hand, rather than traveling around the world just to capture images of something foreign or exotic.  My rationale is that if you can tell these stories of every day life and focus on what we have in common rather than the obvious differences, then you will succeed as a storyteller. 

Ironically, I have rarely listened to my own advice and the past dozen years has seen me crisscross the globe playing witness to civil unrest, turmoil, and violence in over 80 countries.  I broke my pattern in 2010 when I moved to Montana and have tried to base myself in this beautiful but austere landscape. 

The images I am now able to create tell the story about our deep connection to land, the importance we place in stewardship, and a vanishing way of life in the American West. The folks whom I have got to know are remarkable in their fortitude, work ethics, and the neighborliness they exhibit everyday.  It is not an easy story but one that requires patience and persistence to birth - and yet I believe it is as rewarding in the telling as the more sensational events I have had the opportunity to cover.

Some Montana cattle ranchers are returning to traditional grazing methods by mimicking how bison used to roam.

Other stories by Vitale:


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