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Native Plants: Arnica not afraid to show off on forest floor
Native Plants: Arnica not afraid to show off on forest floor

BELGRADE - Chris Bernstel carefully casts his flyline toward the smooth bend of the small creek, seeking the proper placement of his tiny nymph imitation to trick a trout.

Without hesitation, a fish obliges. Bernstel raises his hands, the flyline goes taut and the fly rod bows under the weight of a chunky 18-inch brown trout.

"The fertility of this place is unreal," Bernstel says of Ben Hart Creek, looking back over his shoulder and smiling. "This is primo growing and fishing conditions."

Beyond Ben Hart Creek, Belgrade rancher Tom Milesnick, 52, and his hired hand ride horses into a field to move cattle onto another pasture. Caught between the angler and the cowboys, a nervous mallard duck rises noisily off the stream, banks a turn and he ads west across the indigo blue and cloud-scudded sky.

This blending of cowboys and anglers, cattle and trout might seem strange. Anglers and conservationists have long held that livestock are harmful to streambanks, streamside vegetation and, therefore, harmful to trout. Cattlemen and farmers have often derided sportsmen as unappreciative and discourteous. But in a well-choreographed country ballet, cows and trout thrive on Tom and Mary Kay Milesnick's 1,400-acre ranch five miles north of Belgrade in the Gallatin Valley. Anglers and cattlemen coexist.

It is a blending of Montana's two largest industries - agriculture and tourism - that may be the future for many western farmers and ranchers too often hampered by the whims of the cattle and grain markets.

"We're seeing more and more people getting involved in the ranching-recreation business, because ranching is a tough way to make a living," confirms Beth Emter, communications coordinator for the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

The contrast of fishing on a working cattle ranch isn't lost on the six anglers a day who pay $50 each to fish the Milesnick ranch's two spring creeks - Thompson and Ben Hart. The Milesnicks go out of their way to try and educate their fishing clients about ranch life.

"We encourage the general public to become more knowledgeable about agriculture," Tom says. "We do it by sharing our place with them."

The couple's Web site contains four pages on ranching, two on fishing. The Milesnicks' hospitality shed for anglers is stocked with agricultural literature, not sporting magazines. Wildlife and ag tours of the ranch have drawn people from as far away as Croatia. And to anyone interested, Tom and Mary Kay will explain some of the most recent theories about cattle ranching, short-duration grazing, rest-rotation grazing and the impact of cattle on riparian areas.

"We had the philosophy that non-use (by cows) is as bad as overuse," Tom explains of his grazing practice. He sits in the oak-accented kitchen of his yellow farm home, a white snap-down cowboy shirt accenting his bronze farmer tan. "That's why we went to a short-duration grazing system. It improved our riparian areas and cut down on weeds. It improved the fishing, too."

Keeping cattle out of riparian zones, the areas around streams, has long been touted by conservationists as key to restoring stream banks and streamside vegetation. Fencing cows out of streams is usually the first step to help habitat recover.

But Tom says with proper oversight, which includes moving cattle frequently between pastures, cows and streams can coexist to the benefit of bovines and rainbow and brown trout. Cows help keep down noxious weeds like thistles and rose briars, Tom says, and with graveled stream crossings, solar-powered electric fences and off-stream water tanks, cows are less likely to beat up the banks. Planting unpalatable sedges along the creeks also helps keeps cows off his creek, Tom says.

Under the short-duration method of grazing, some cows are left in a pasture as little as 12 hours. At the most, cows will stay in a pasture no longer than three days, he says.

"That means being here every day of the year," Tom acknowledges of the labor-intensive activity. But it has paid off for him in better calf weights, which increased by about 200 pounds between the combination of pasture management and genetics.

Although the statewide drought means the Milesnicks' hay production has fallen, the lack of rain hasn't affected the spring creek flows.

"The spring creeks have very little variation in depth, temperature or turbidity," Mary Kay says.

Thompson and Ben Hart creeks weren't always productive fisheries. Prior to stream work, some of the deepest holes measured only 18 inches, and in some places the small streams spread to 12 to 15 feet wide. Restoring the streams wasn't easy. So Milesnick sought out the advice of fishery experts to expand on his theories.

"We started small and used trial and error," he says, "because every ranch is different. What works for you won't work for your neighbor across the fence."

Three miles of Ben Hart Creek and about a mile of Thompson Creek meander across the ranch. Over five years, Tom used heavy equipment to dig pools in the creeks, add bends and tighten up portions of the streams to increase the water speed and create backwaters. Now, many pools are 4 to 5 feet deep and most sections of the streams measure no more than about 10 feet wide.

Such do-it-yourself stream management runs contrary to the idea that mother nature knows best. In-stream work with heavy equipment is often decried as harmful to fish and fish habitat because of the silt it causes that can kill aquatic bugs and fish eggs. To minimize siltation, Milesnick did most of his stream work in April, when frost still held the ground tightly bound.

Dave Kumlien, who first fished the streams in 1975, says he's seen a huge improvement in the angling. Back then, he says there were only a few fish-holding spots in the creeks. He calls the change in the fishery "remarkable."

"I'm assuming there are at least 10 times as many fish in there," he says. "It clearly is far better fishing than it was five, six years ago and way better than 20 years ago."

Kumlien, a former Bozeman fly shop owner and current director of development for the Whirling Disease Foundation, wrote in support of the Milesnicks' application for the Stockgrowers Association's 2001 Environmental Stewardship Award, which the ranch family won.

"We really think they're standouts," says the Stockgrowers' Emter.

Despite the dissimilar jobs of managing anglers and trout and raising cattle, Mary Kay, 57, says the businesses coexist well. She says anglers are so laid back, they're not a problem. And the cows don' t seemed bothered by the anglers, either.

"We set our rotation around accommodating the fishermen to some extent," Tom admits. "But our primary focus is still cattle ranching."

"We stress that we're still a working cattle ranch," Mary Kay says. "So they aren't misled about what the environment is going to be."

In other words, cow patties are present, Tom says.

But such small inconveniences have not deterred pay-to-play anglers. During the summer months, the spring creeks are booked up by returning visitors and guides. Some anglers ask for reservations in perpetuity. By the fall of 2000, Mary Kay was nearly booked solid for 2001's top months - June until halfway through August.

The ranch hasn't always charged for angling. For many years, few anglers ventured out to the ranch that's been in the family for three generations. Back then, anglers were mostly friends, family or nearby residents. But things changed with a boom in the popularity of fly fishing, lessening access to other private streams in the Gallatin Valley and with a few articles in magazines that brought recognition to the Milesnicks' spring creeks.

Four years ago the fishing pressure got so high - about 1,500 anglers a year - that Tom and Mary Kay figured they had to do something to protect the fishery and to lessen the impact on their time.

"We had so many fishermen they were hurting the resource," Tom says. "To control the numbers we went to a limited number of rods and went to a fee schedule at the same time."

"It gets to the point where it's just not conducive to running a ranching operation," Mary Kay says of all the anglers asking for permission to fish. "A lot of people who fished didn't understand the need to preserve the resource."

Although access is now limited to six anglers a day and catch-and-release of fish is encouraged, the streams still remain popular. Over the past three years of fee fishing, the Milesnicks have cut the number of anglers by about two-thirds.

During that time, the ranching couple has developed friendships with many of the guides and anglers.

"We've met a lot of neat people," Tom says.

The Milesnicks say about 75 percent of their clientele is from out of state or own second homes in the Gallatin Valley.

The Milesnicks also allow public access to 3 miles of the East Gallatin River, at no charge, beginning June 9. A trespass permit allows anglers to cross their property to reach the river.

But on this summer-like day toward the end of May, Ben Hart Creek is the place to be. The East Gallatin is running high and latte brown with mountain snow melt. In contrast, Ben Hart Creek is placid, relatively clear and about 55 degrees. Best of all, Bernstel has it all to himself and the trout are biting.

"It's a bonus that there's not too many people out here and the people who are here don't put a dent in the fish," says Bernstel, a 30-year-old guide who works for shops in the Big Sky area. "A lot of people aren't familiar with the area."

That' s why the Milesnicks encourage first-timers to hire a guide who knows the stream. Spring creek angling can be tough and the fish finicky. But when other rivers across the state are bank full with muddy spring runoff, spring creeks offer anglers an opportunity to wet a line under ideal conditions.

Because most small streams in the state don't open until the third Saturday in May, Thompson and Ben Hart creek trout aren't as skittish and educated as they'll be later in the summer when the crush of anglers arrive.

Until then, you won't find Mary Kay out wetting a line in one of the streams, despite the superb fishing conditions.

The rancher's wife admires fly anglers and their tenacity for the sport, but it's not a feeling she shares. "I've never had a fishing pole in my hand and I don't foresee any reason to do it in the future," she says.

Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at french@billingsgazette.com.

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