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Connecting the Dots: Exploring Carbon Projects in Montana

Connecting the Dots: Exploring Carbon Projects in Montana

By Alex Buskey
September 15, 2022

I recently had the opportunity to visit a potential carbon project site close to my home in Montana where I learned about the science and regenerative practices behind soil carbon projects. Soil carbon projects belong to the agricultural segment of Nature-based Solutions (NBS) projects. Western Sustainability Exchange and Native Energy manage the largest regenerative grazing carbon program in the region, and sponsored this event. 

Left: Views looking north from the ranch.
Right: Eastern Montana showing off while the sun sets on the first day of the event.

Over 60% of the land in Montana is managed by farms and ranches1, much of which is managed for cattle production, and involves grazing throughout the state's private and public land. Thus, responsibility for managing some of the largest potential carbon sinks in North America falls in the hands of the community of ranchers and land managers in the mountain west–a responsibility that they don't take lightly. These folks have been witnessing first-hand the accelerated degradation of the ecosystems that surround them and the land that they depend on. 

Roughly 30 grassland managers from the region were in attendance at the event, Connecting The Dots, where we had the opportunity to hear Nicole Masters and Alejandro Carillo dig deep (literally, see photos!) into the negative impacts from poor grazing management and discuss how to implement more high intensity, short-duration grazing practices into ranching habits in order to sequester more carbon in the soil. The goal is to mimic the natural systems that existed prior to human development and the near extinction of many of the herd animal species in the early 1800s. 

Left: Nicole Masters showing the effects of a broken water/carbon cycle due to non-regenerative management, displayed with very shallow root systems and overall low level of organic matter. 
Right: We completed water infiltration tests on soils ranging from a diversity of grass species and relatively high organic matter to compacted soil with low levels of organic matter.

Millions of bison used to roam this land, and they were critical to the health of the water and carbon cycles in grassland ecosystems. Their manure, urine, saliva, hooves, and even their breath were connected to the development of microbes and fungi beneath the surface of the soil! Cattle are thought to be capable of the same outcomes, but the use of chemicals and sometimes harmful minerals in their diet, coupled with their modern management, does not replicate what would happen naturally with bison and other herd animals in the mountain west region. This has led to broken natural cycles, poor soil health, and less productive animals.  

I spent 2 days on a 3000 acre ranch in eastern Montana learning about the practices that could correct these cycles and restore soil health and speaking with ranchers who had already implemented these practices. 

Sagebrush and a seemingly sparse landscape as far as the eye can see. Cactus and other plant species showing signs of desertification were prevalent on the ranch.

Here are some fun facts, photos, and even some tips for your own backyard or windowsill garden!

  • Weeds are one of the important first stages of progression towards a healthy soil ecosystem. They represent the bacterial (basic decomposition) phase of soil development on its way to becoming more fungal based (complex decomposition). So don't kill your dandelions or other weed species!
  • There are several land managers introducing bison into their businesses instead of cattle. One of the largest landowners and managers, Ted Turner, is well known for this in the state of Montana. 
  • Dung beetles, responsible for taking the organic matter found in manure down into the soil, can process up to 12 tons of manure per acre.
  • Funguses are capable of storing carbon in mineral form in the soil for thousands of years. One of the reasons why the soil carbon cycle is seen to be one of the most important forms of CO2 removal and storage we have available in nature. 
  • The surface of the soil, where plant life lives, is a mirror of what's going on below the surface. Diversity of healthy green plant species is a good indicator that a thriving microbiome exists in the soil below - these microorganisms are known as the micro-herd.
  • On a day when air temperatures reach levels above 100 degrees, the soil temperature within a healthy grassland can have a temperature reading around 20-30 degrees lower than the air. Now you can see why cities, mostly devoid of plants, are so hot! Imagine what could be possible if we paid attention to soil health around us and planted more native trees and grasses - and managed for soil health.

Nicole and Alejandro showing the group an irrigated ecosystem mostly consisting of alfalfa and annual grass species.

Here at Flowcarbon we feel excited and hopeful to see inspiring efforts like these happening in the United States. We know that carbon payments could play a major role in this important shift in management and we applaud the people managing these lands, as well as organizations like Western Sustainability Exchange and Native Energy for the important work they are doing to promote and scale these programs. 

1  58M acres of 93M total acreage  [reference]

Alex Buskey is the Director of Project Origination at Flowcarbon, where he works closely with communities and developers on the ground. 

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