ENVIRONMENT North Bridger Bison owners Matt and Sarah Skoglund pose with their children, Otto and Greta. North Bridger Bison is a bison ranch located in Wilsall, Montana. PHOTO BY CHRIS DOUGLAS

First-generation Montana Ranchers Write a New Land Ethic

BY SOPHIE TSAIRIS

Checking on his bison herd as he does most days in one way or another, Matt Skoglund crunches through frozen snow and mud from this season’s first winter storm. The sun will soften the wet ground into a slick clay in a few short hours, making it difficult to maneuver on foot or by truck. The aroma of sagebrush hangs in the air, and the bison are fully immersed in grazing fresh pasture, unphased by the layer of frost sheeting their backs, nor by Matt’s presence. They acknowledge him with a snort and a disinterested glance before lowering their heads. Something spooks the herd in the distance, and in an instant, the stillness is shattered; the earth shakes as the hooves of one-ton masses of muscle trample the ground.

On the western edge of the Shields Valley, cradled between the Crazy Mountains and the Bridger Range, these bison roam 1,270 acres of biodiverse grasses, forbs, and sagebrush—a combination of the land owned by the Skoglunds, and pastures leased from their neighbors. They breed on their own, calve on their own, and need no outside protection from predators. Pre-dating the Ice Age, they are built to endure Montana’s often inclement and volatile climate.

First-generation ranchers with no previous experience in agriculture, Matt and Sarah Skoglund started North Bridger Bison in 2018, raising, field-harvesting and selling bison meat directly to consumers. Matt’s coarse, weathered beard is a constant reminder that he traded a suit, tie and clean-shaven face for a life of unrelenting weather, a steep learning curve and occasionally getting too close for comfort to one of the greatest icons of the West. He wouldn’t take any of it back, nor will he shave his beard. All the big risks and hard work have led to this: 150 head of bison and 791 acres of healthy, biodiverse, prime wildlife habitat—protected from development in perpetuity.

The couple moved to Montana from Chicago in 2008. In their previous lives, Matt was a lawyer, spending most of his days seated behind a desk, while Sarah worked as an interior designer. They left Chicago the month after they were married, seeking adventure, a connection to place and a community that aligned with those values. They found it in Bozeman. Matt spent a decade working in environmental policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, while Sarah worked at the Cancer Support Center and earned a graduate degree in social work. They started a family and rooted themselves in the Gallatin County community.

“It was breathtaking to see the animals come off the truck, run onto this land that was finally ours and settle immediately—as though they belonged here. I distinctly remember thinking at that moment that everything would change—that we were doing something so wild and important and that it was all finally happening.” – Sarah Skoglund

“Having lived here for a long time, and through my environmental conservation work with NRDC and my outdoor adventures, I fell madly in love with this region, the landscape and the people,” Matt said. “I had this entrepreneurial itch; I wanted a change and a challenge, and I knew very clearly that I wanted it to be deeply rooted in the greater Bozeman community.”

At some point, Matt began daydreaming about starting a bison ranch. He had been focused on Yellowstone bison policy at NRDC but wanted to do something more tangible and food-based on the land. He then read “Buffalo for the Broken Heart,” by Dan O’Brien in the fall of 2017, a story about bison ranching and pioneering the modern-day method of field harvesting, and it’s then that Matt got serious. After reading O’Brien’s book, he attended a multi-day holistic management workshop. When he returned home, he started looking for land to purchase within a 50-mile radius of Bozeman with no luck. At the same time, he went into what he calls “sponge mode,” researching and learning everything he could about what he started calling his bison ranch pipe dream, a destiny he feared was better fated for someone with a ranching background.

In late winter of 2018, he fell upon a few parcels of land off Montana Highway 86 while deep down a Google-search rabbit hole of properties for sale. It was the first and only piece of land the Skoglunds looked at in person; it was perfect for what they wanted to do. “Until then, the bison ranch had felt about as possible as flying a plane to Pluto,” Matt said. The property brought his dream into focus.

“When we first came out to this piece of land, I just felt like we belonged here,” Sarah said. “The land became my anchor point—it just felt like everything started aligning. We both are very conscious that life is short and that perspective has been a major North Star in this process. Matt had been talking endlessly about his passion for tangible land conservation, of doing something good for the planet. Eventually, the risk of not doing this became greater than the risk of trying and failing.”

The bison arrived by truck from Choteau, Montana, in late January 2019. So much had gone into preparing for that day: research, meetings, mentoring, ranch tours, loan approvals, not to mention a great deal of financial and emotional risk for the Skoglund family.

“That was a surreal day,” Sarah said. “It was breathtaking to see the animals come off the truck, run onto this land that was finally ours and settle immediately—as though they belonged here. I distinctly remember thinking at that moment that everything would change—that we were doing something so wild and important and that it was all finally happening.”

That night, Matt, a self-proclaimed romantic, slept huddled in a sleeping bag on the ground on the other side of the fence from the herd. “I woke up that morning, made coffee on a camping stove, and stood watching the bison in the pasture,” he said. “There was an overwhelming feeling of calm and contentment. I thought, ‘they’re here, and this is real.'”

LEFT: Matt, a former lawyer from Chicago, first got attached to the idea of ranching bison while focusing on Yellowstone’s bison as an employee for the Natural Resources Defense Council. | RIGHT: The Crazy Mountains backdrop Matt on his Wilsall ranch. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL RUEBUSCH

Matt runs the ranch using regenerative agriculture principles. The philosophy behind this type of management is that the animals are part of a more extensive system that benefits the land and leaves it healthier than before. The bison are raised in sync with nature, with a focus on soil health, land health and increased biodiversity. The Skoglunds also manage their bison with as little human intervention and stressors as possible.

“There is certainly a lot of green-washing and misleading messaging around the term regenerative these days,” Matt said. “There are also plenty of people, like our neighbors, who have been ranching for a long time and doing it regeneratively, but they never put a word to it. And—I’m not the right person to speak on it—but the idea that regenerative agriculture is new is untrue—indigenous cultures have been producing food and doing it regeneratively for millennia.”

He says that while the conversation around food, carbon and climate is incredibly important, there’s not enough focus on biodiversity. He believes the science is clear that raising animals can be the most effective way to grow food in balance with nature. He also thinks cattle have been unfairly vilified and that pushing plant-based eating as the healthy choice for both people and the planet is misguided. Matt likes to quote a well-used term in regenerative ranching: “It’s not the cow; it’s the how.”

“Many of these plant-based foods are highly processed and come from ecologically destructive, industrial, monoculture crop farms,” he said. “That land is losing topsoil every year, using all sorts of pesticides and other chemicals, poisoning rivers and destroying wildlife habitat. Contrast that with a regenerative approach to ranching that builds topsoil, sucks carbon out of the atmosphere and provides amazing wildlife habitat and healthy meat. It all comes back to management practices. You tell me which system you think is better for your body and for the planet.”

This philosophy is why the mission behind North Bridger Bison continues to be simple: to raise bison as well and as in sync with nature as possible and to provide customers with amazing meat.

Matt puts a lot of thought into each order that he fills, including a tasteful before and after photograph of the herd and the harvested bison to help make the process of field-to-food more transparent. Customers choose between purchasing a whole bison, half or quarter, and between a few different cut options.

Matt field harvests each bison himself. That means driving out into the herd, shooting a perfect headshot from 15-20 yards, and loading the animal onto his truck. He then either field dresses the bison himself and takes it to Amsterdam Meat Shop in Manhattan, or he works with two of their team members on the ranch using his mobile processing truck. The job is challenging, labor-intensive and filled with emotion and a deep sense of responsibility.

His first field harvest was in the spring of 2019. It was one of those days when it’s sunny and then rainy, snowy and windy—a classic Montana day. “I remember being really nervous because I so desperately wanted, and needed, everything to go well,” Matt said.

Leading up to the task, he wondered if there would be any symbolic action connecting him with the harvest. He later realized that the ritual he sought was ultimately the intense focus he brings to each field harvest.

“I take it very seriously, becoming hyper-focused through the adrenaline and nerves; I lose myself in the process of preparing, driving into the pasture, and executing the perfect shot,” he said. Because of this, Matt was very protective of his field harvest days for a long time. He still prefers to field harvest alone but on occasion brings others out with him. “I’m passionate about what we do, and I love showing people the whole process—but I still prefer it when I’m by myself. It’s never lost on me that I’m going to kill a bison. If I’m ever driving out to shoot a bison and I feel nothing, there’s a problem.”

Matt makes a point of clarifying that field harvesting is not hunting. “I love to hunt, and if I’m going elk hunting, I very rarely get one. More often than not, I’m just going out and having a great day in the mountains,” he said. “Field harvesting is completely different. When you open that gate, you know you’re going to kill something, and there’s a gravity to that.”

LEFT: The Skoglund’s herd consists of approximately 150 head of bison. | RIGHT: Matt explains the layout of the 791 acres of land he owns, which are scenically sandwiched between the Crazy Mountains and the Bridger Range. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL RUEBUSCH

“We’re different, and we know we’re different. We’re not pretending to be something we’re not. We’re first generation, raise bison, and weren’t born and raised in Montana. But we have a fierce love for this place, and ranching is not a game or a hobby to us–we are here, passionate about ranching and what we do, and committed to regenerative agriculture and taking care of this land.” – Matt Skoglund

As an avid user and supporter of public land, Matt now better understands the role private land can play in conserving the wild places he loves. “There’s such a strong push for protecting public lands, and rightfully so,” he said. “Since starting the ranch and becoming a rancher, I’ve also begun to appreciate now more than ever the conservation benefits and responsibility that come with ranching and private land ownership more than I ever had. I look at our ranch and neighbors’ ranches and see this open space, amazing biodiversity, incredible wildlife habitat, and pollinators everywhere. And, the cherry on top is that it also provides delicious, healthy food.”

This past April, they finalized something they’d been dreaming about since starting North Bridger Bison when they signed a conservation easement with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. The easement will forever keep their 791 acres from being subdivided or developed.

Matt wrote his “note,” similar to a thesis, on conservation easements during law school and fell in love with their conservation benefits. Still, the process for enrolling property in an easement and working out the details is a long one. The North Bridger Bison easement, in particular, took about three and a half years, so when Matt and Sarah finally closed on the easement they were thrilled. “When I returned to the ranch later that day, it just felt different looking out onto the land and knowing that it will be protected forever; it just felt different,” Matt said.

That night they sat down at the dinner table with their two children, Otto (9) and Greta (5), and shared the news. “I got emotional explaining to them what we had done that day,” Matt said. “It was a really special and powerful moment for our family.”

Brendan Weiner, conservation director at GVLT, sees endless benefits to putting a property like the Skoglunds’ into an easement. “Matt and Sarah are young and new to ranching, but they’re capable and interested in continuing this generation of young ranchers,” Weiner said. “They bring new energy and new ideas to our local agricultural economy and our culture—their success is important to this community on many levels.”

The easement is a clear message that the Skoglunds are serious about North Bridger Bison, conservation ranching and their growing community.

The Skoglunds moved out to the small ranch house on the property in June 2021 and started work on an addition, consciously designed to blend into the landscape they love so deeply as much as possible. The foundation and heart of the addition is a giant mudroom to accommodate the perma-mud from four-plus pairs of boots and the four paws of their 8-month-old german shepherd, Sally—a constant reminder of how the land permeates every aspect of their lives.

“We’re new at this,” Matt said. “We’re different, and we know we’re different. We’re not pretending to be something we’re not. We’re first-generation, raise bison, and weren’t born and raised in Montana. But we have a fierce love for this place, and ranching is not a game or a hobby to us—we are here, passionate about ranching and what we do, and committed to regenerative agriculture and taking care of this land.”

Sophie Brett Tsairis is a Bozeman-based freelance writer with a master’s in Environmental Science Journalism. Storytelling is her way of sharing the human experience and keeping curiosity alive.