The Rock Creek Cattle Company- Honoring Traditions

January 1, 2006

June 02, 2006

In some ways, the land on the home ranch of the Rock Creek Cattle Company has changed little since the summer of 1882, the year that C.H. Williams first set eyes on its vast expanses of bunchgrass prairie trailing down from the flanks of Mt. Powell. Williams had just arrived in Montana via wagon train, lured by stories of the glory and beauty of the Deer Lodge Valley. Williams and his partner, Peter Pauly, eventually operated five ranches throughout Powell County, covering over 200 square miles. The ranch was operated by a succession of descendants of Williams and Pauly until the family was forced to sell in 1971.

That’s when the Ward family bought the property and created the Rock Creek Cattle Company. Don Davis was hired to manage the ranch. The 25,000-acre home ranch unit continued to be the main supplier of hay for the other ranch units – Spotted Dog, Meade Creek, the Company Ranch, totaling over 100,000 acres where the herds were pastured in different seasons. The water to grow the hay on the home ranch came from Rock Creek Lake, nestled like a jewel deep within the Flint Creek Mountains and was carried by an extensive network of ditches. That cold mountain water turned those arid, windswept benches overlooking Deer Lodge into lush hay – enough to feed all the cattle during the ranch’s zenith. Don’s son, Tom, took over the reins from his father in1997 and continues to manage the ranch. The most recent owner, Bill Foley, acquired the ranch less than two years ago, and, with a group of investors formed the Rock Creek Cattle Company Ltd.

Starting last year, the Rock Creek Cattle Company‘s new owners launched a development plan for the northern part of the property centered on a grassland basin bisected by Rock Creek. As part of the planning and approval process, the Powell County Planning Board requested that the Rock Creek Cattle Company place portions of the ranch under conservation easement in order to offset the higher residential densities proposed in the development area by permanently protecting native rangeland, scenic open space, wildlife habitat, and ranchland. The owners, Bill and Carol Foley, agreed to protect those lands, and have expressed a strong commitment to keeping the cattle operation on the ranch viable. As of this May, 3,675 acres of the home ranch have been protected by a conservation easement granted to Five Valleys Land Trust. These protected acres include the scenic back drop of the adjacent Grant Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, and the town of Deer Lodge.

This acreage also contains the native range, hay lands, and a calving area that are integral to the continuing cattle operation on the ranch. The size of this project makes this conservation easement Five Valleys Land Trust’s largest to-date. In addition, the easement is a milestone event for the National Park Service, which has long envisioned finding a way to maintain the historic integrity of the adjacent landscape by ensuring that cows, not condos, reside on their borders.

Though change is inevitable on the old home ranch, one thing is now certain: a good portion of the ranch will remain home to livestock, wildlife, and a traditional and time honored way of life,
just as it has since C.H. Williams first staked his claim here over 100 years ago.