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Baaaack to Sweet Water County in Yellowstone Country

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Baaaack to Sweet Water County in Yellowstone Country
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Virtually every state in the Union produces cattle. Most produce sheep as well. Why is it that no other state carries quite the mystique that Montana so easily holds' My visit to the working ranches of Sweet Grass County gave me some hints. Nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley, with the Crazy Mountains to the north and the Beartooth Range to the south, the place feels like a story unto itself.

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The western fringes of the Great Plains were white with spring snow as the plane descended into Billings airport. From there it was a ninety-mile drive up the eastern shoulders of the Rockies to Sweet Grass County and the town of Big Timber. The county is home to Montana Bunkhouses, and I was returning after an initial visit last summer. This group of cattle and sheep operations offers authentic ranch experiences to visitors who want to be guests, not tourists.

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I didn't feel like a tourist at the Sanders Ranch. Heck, I felt more like a groupie. Lynn Sanders plays electric guitar and croons like Ray Price. (What, you don't know that name') Lynn's wife Julie plays a mean piano. Steve and Sheryl Richert and Terry and Wyoma Terland came from their ranches. Their friend Tom brought his electric bass, and Tom's wife Deb took a turn on the keyboard. After a delicious dinner of soups, bread and dessert ' all homemade ' we enjoyed a performance by the musicians. I found it entertaining just to hear that these people could spend their day deciding which animals to send to market and their evening choosing the appropriate key in which to play "Sioux City Sue."

The highlight of the evening, however, was the storytelling. I've never encountered a badger, but I'm told that besides being destructive nuisances on a ranch, they're extremely feisty critters. "And they can count, too!" said rancher Rick Jarrett, recalling the time he unsuccessfully emptied a revolver at a retreating badger only to have it turn around after the sixth shot was fired and come after him. Lynn Sanders told us of the time he saw a badger in the middle of the road and went after it with the only weapon he had ' a claw hammer. "I wouldn't have tried that," laughed Rick. "I'm not that good a carpenter!"

Here's one you won't hear in the city: Steve Richert recalled the time his son Josh and several other kids had treed a bear in the yard and had gone and fetched knives to tuck into their belts like a pack of would-be Davy Crocketts. We howled at Steve's description of practical, down-home parental discipline dispensed through an open window to a bunch of kids milling about under a tree: "Leave that bear alone!"

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There were plenty of others: the day Rick almost bought a farm implement by accident at the auction, the County's road-paving techniques, and Terry's use of propane bombs to get prairie dogs out of his pastures. I'd go back to Yellowstone Country for the stories alone.

It had been a fairly mild winter, and the ranchers needed to protect their stock early against ticks and other pests. At Crazy Mountain Cattle Company, where Rick Jarrett and Karen Searle raise cattle and sheep, we started with their nine ranch horses. Rick sprayed them with an insect repellent and then vaccinated them for such ailments as "strangles" and West Nile Virus. Most of the animals took it well, but two were rather spooked by the spray bottle. Sometimes it's hard to predict what will scare a horse.

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