Matt skoglund bison

Of Bison, Ranching, Land, and Life

How Aldo Leopold Led a Former Lawyer to a Ranching Life in Southwest Montana


Words BY:
Matt Skoglund

This story was published in Issue 28 our most recent edition of Bomb Snow. Buy One: HERE.

Ever since I was a young boy, I have loved nature.

Playing in creeks, walking through the woods, catching a glimpse of a trout in a river, seeing a group of deer at the edge of a forest.

My favorite book of my childhood was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I remember being unable to put it down, totally enthralled by the story of a boy surviving on his own in the Canadian wilderness.

In high school, on my bulletin board, I had photos of my favorite hockey players (Jeremy Roenick, Mats Sundin, and Bobby Orr). I also had a photo of a grizzly bear.

As the years passed, my love of nature deepened. And, by the end of high school, I started to become aware that all was not well in the natural world. This concerned me, and the more I learned, the more it upset me.

For this and other reasons, I went to law school. And in the spring of my second year, I read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. I consumed it in a day or two. Or, more accurately, I devoured it, like that grizzly on my bulletin board would take to a winter-killed carcass in the spring.

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Bison bridger skoglund

To this day it is, without question, the best and most impactful book I’ve ever read. And it still blows my mind that Leopold wrote that book in the 1940s. (He died in 1948.)

Leopold was a radical. And a poet. And a genius.

One of the primary points he makes in the book is that all of nature matters. Every bird, bug, tree, plant, fungi, and fish. It’s a connected system, and all parts matter.

Whenever we, humans, mess with nature—remove something we don’t like, introduce something we do like—it always backfires.

Always.

The more we can let natural systems do their thing, the better off we all are.

This and many other of Leopold’s teachings struck hard, and I have never looked at the natural world the same.


Whenever we, humans, mess with nature—remove something we don’t like, introduce something we do like—it always backfires.


Matt Skoglund
North bridger bison

Field harvesting bison

Skoglund field harvesting. Photo: Chris Douglas

Today, 20 years after first reading A Sand County Almanac, I own and operate a regenerative bison ranch in Montana’s Shields Valley called North Bridger Bison. My wife, Sarah, and I started the ranch from scratch in 2018.

We have two kids, a boy named Otto and a girl named Greta.

From June 2009 to October 2021, we had a bird dog named Aldo.

At first glance, my path into ranching is non-linear and untraditional. I grew up in suburban Chicago and have no background in agriculture.

Some (most) people thought we were nuts for starting a bison ranch.

But, as I think back over the 45 years that got me here, I see a line of connectivity that runs from my childhood in the Midwest to my right now in the Northern Rockies. Sure, it wobbles at times, but there’s a distinct line. A trajectory, even. Something that makes sense of it all.

The line starts with a love of the natural world, moves forward with becoming a conservationist, keeps going when I was introduced to hunting in college, and then gets straighter and straighter with a deep, deep love of landscapes and the ecology that holds it all together.


Leopold made me fall in love with land in a different way. A deeper way. A more intimate and connected way.


Matt Skoglund

While I was also in law school, I came across a listing for a unique piece of land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was in the back of a newsletter from a northern Michigan land trust. I didn’t have any money—I was a law student—but I daydreamed of owning that land, trying to improve it, and watching it change over the years.

Leopold made me fall in love with land in a different way. A deeper way. A more intimate and connected way.

He had his farm and his shack in Wisconsin. (Yes, I’ve visited as a pilgrimage to Leopold.) And I dreamed of something similar. Nothing fancy. But a real patch of land that you could touch, feel, work, and watch through the seasons.

During that same year in law school, I wrote my “note” (similar to a thesis) on conservation easements. I had learned about them through that same northern Michigan land trust, and I thought they were incredible.

This simple way to protect land—be it farm, forest, wetland, or ranch—from being developed. Forever.

I loved the idea, and I did a deep dive into conservation easements while researching and writing my note. My love for conservation easements blossomed.

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Specifically, I thought about businesses that are essential to our life, things we cannot live without—and I kept coming back to food.

North bridger bison family

Sarah, Greta, Otto and Matt Skoglund. Photo: Audrey Hall

I graduated from law school in 2005, and after working three years in Chicago, Sarah and I quit our jobs, got married, and moved to Bozeman in 2008.

Soon enough, I landed a position at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), doing non-litigation policy and advocacy work.

It was a dream job for me, advocating on behalf of wildlife and wild places. That grizzly bear on my old bulletin board was no doubt smiling.

The primary issue I dealt with focused on the management of wild bison. The more I learned about bison, the more I fell in love with the species.

I spent a decade at NRDC. It was a great job, and I worked with a lot of wonderful people, both internally and externally. But something was missing.

Altruism aside, I had an office job doing policy work. It lacked control. It lacked tangibility. You couldn’t touch it or feel it. It took 13 years of doing it for me to realize that sitting in an office was simply not for me.

In my free time, I gravitated towards tangible activities. I hunted, I gardened, I cut firewood. I sweat, I felt my muscles work. I physically enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And I craved something similar in my work life.

I’d had an entrepreneurial itch for some time, and my dream was to find something tangible, conservation-based, and land-based. More and more, I questioned the non-profit environmental world, and the more I questioned it, the more shortcomings and flaws I saw.

At the same time, I found myself more and more interested in business. Businesses have big impacts. They make the world go round. I decided that I could make more of a positive impact in the business world. Even if it were a microscopic impact, it would be tangible and it would be real.

Specifically, I thought about businesses that are essential to our life, things we cannot live without—and I kept coming back to food. Think about it. If you’re among the fortunate, you get to eat three meals a day. Factor that out across billions of people on the planet, and you realize pretty quickly that producing food has massive environmental and social impacts.

And then one day in 2017, I read an article about bison-ranching. It grabbed my attention, but I didn’t take it too seriously. Again, I’m a kid from suburban Chicago. But many weeks later, I was still thinking about bison-ranching. At some point that fall, I read Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien, and the fuse was lit.

I attended a Holistic Management workshop in Wisconsin, worked with a ranching consultant, and put a business plan together. I was excited, and it felt fulfilling to be working on this crazy dream.

Land was the toughest part of the equation. We searched and searched and couldn’t find anything that would work for us. But I kept looking, and we eventually found a needle-in-the-haystack property in the Shields Valley on the east side of the North Bridger Mountains.

It’s the only property we looked at in person. We fell hard for it, and we got it under contract in early June 2018. We closed that fall and almost immediately started working with a fencing contractor. My last day at NRDC was in December, and the bison arrived in January 2019. It’s been a wild-ass ride ever since, and I love it.

This ranch has challenged me and pushed me like nothing else in my life. We’ve made lots of mistakes. I burned a truck to the ground, and I horribly dislocated and broke my ankle. I could go on and on with humbling tales of struggle and challenge.

But here we are, raising bison, field-harvesting them with our own hands, and providing food. When I step back and think about it, we’ve delivered thousands of pounds of delicious, healthy, regenerative, wildlife-friendly, bird-friendly, land-friendly food to hundreds of people across the country.

It’s tangible. It’s real.


Altruism aside, I had an office job doing policy work. It lacked control. It lacked tangibility. You couldn’t touch it or feel it. It took 13 years of doing it for me to realize that sitting in an office was simply not for me.


Matt Skoglund
Matt skoglund Dave Gardner

Author and Rancher Matt Skoglund. Photo: Dave Gardner

And then there’s the land. This beautiful, wild expanse of sagebrush, grasses, creeks, ponds, and springs. It teems with life, and we have an intimate relationship with it. It has become woven into the fabric of my family. Until the day I die, I’ll still be learning about this land, my relationship with it growing ever deeper.

Last April, after over three years of work with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, it all came full circle for me. We closed on a conservation easement for the ranch. Everything we own is now protected from development. Forever.

The deal was finalized at a title office in Bozeman, but it was later that night, during dinner at our home, that the immensity of it all finally landed. I told Otto and Greta about what we had done that day, and what that meant for our ranch and our land. It was a powerful moment on this journey, and I had tears in my eyes. It was a special night that I will take with me to my grave.

But then it was back to work.

Because we have so much more work to do here, so much more to observe
and to learn.

There is no 10-year plan or 20-year plan. This is a lifetime plan. And then some.

It’s our job to steward this place, to try to improve it, and to watch it through the seasons. It’s a special, special thing to grow with a landscape.

To let nature lead you home.

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This story was published in Issue 28 our most recent edition of Bomb Snow. Buy One: HERE. | Check out more from the Skoglund's at: https://www.northbridgerbison


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