Clarence Mortenson
Mortenson Ranch
Hayes, South Dakota

A horseback ride to visit an old cowboy neighbor in 1942 changed young Clarence Mortenson’s life. The friend told him “Young man, when I came here, I could cross Foster Creek anywhere at a trot with my team and buggy; it was tree-lined and grassy-bottomed, and it had water holes about every mile that never went dry.” But from where they stood, there wasn’t a tree within miles, only barren hills and a big gash in the ground 70 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Initially doubting the old cowboy’s sanity, Mr. Mortenson later studied historical records and discovered that his friend’s story was true.

This ecological vision has directed the management of the Mortenson Ranch since 1950. Through the construction of small sediment-trapping dams on gullied creeks, a rest-rotation grazing system, and deferred summer grazing in riparian areas and woody draws, the ranch now resembles the old cowboy’s story. Cottonwoods, willows, beavers, and dense mats of prairie cordgrass have returned to Foster Creek. Fruit-bearing shrubs now grow thickly with riparian trees in numerous woody draws. Much less soil and water now leave the ranch. Prairie grass and forb production has increased to the point where Mr. Mortenson’s son Jeff has started a native seed and prairie restoration business. Wildlife has returned in impressive numbers; Mr. Mortenson’s son Todd operates a hunting business for upland game birds while also managing the ranch. Nongame birds, including many neotropical migrant species, are abundant as well. Ecological improvements also have benefitted the ranch’s fiscal bottom line-the Mortensons report that their land management practices have increased both profits and sustainability.

— W. Carter Johnson, South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota