An Old, Broke Montana Rancher's Thoughts On "Yellowstone"

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Yellowstone TV

"Yellowstone" image courtesy of Paramount

Howdy. My name is Gary Shelton, and I’m a rancher. 

I grew up in Montana and have always enjoyed Westerns, even though it seems like they don’t make as many good ones as they used to do. I like the vistas and the freedom they represent. As a true blue Montanan, I also enjoy horses, cattle, and all creatures that make their home on the range. And I don’t mind a little shootout or brawl now and then. 

I’m old enough to remember the golden age of TV Westerns, when shows like The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel, and Gunsmoke filled the few channels we did get. Hell, I’m old enough to remember getting our first television, an enormous humming Philco that made an awful wheezing racket in its tubes when you turned it on. After settling itself down, it would warm up sufficiently to do its best impression of a snowstorm. Then the rabbit ears on top of the television would somehow gather up, seemingly out of the very aether, the magic, invisible signals that, if rearranged in a certain way, produced Wagon Train.


I’d sit about two feet from that great big monster, staring in wonder at a muddy, black and white image that I believe we would call “low resolution” today. But I didn’t care. I cared that Marshall Matt Dillon kept the town safe—especially Miss Kitty, whom I found to be an enchanting creature, if a little too old for me. 

As a man in my late twenties, I also appreciated the 1978 miniseries Centennial, a sprawling epic that began with mountain men charting an unexplored West in the early nineteenth century and ended with a group of bell-bottomed urbanites dealing with urban planning. I guess you can figure which end of the series I preferred.

If it sounds like all I did was watch TV, you’re wrong. I also slept and ate. 

Lonesome Dove
Courtesy: CBS

In all seriousness, there was very little time for television, as work around the ranch, school, and my own designs to stay as far away from home as possible during the sunlit hours kept me away from my beloved boob tube. But the few hours a week that I did spend in front of that elephantine box of tubes were largely spent looking at Westerns because, well, they’re the best.

And for many of us who grew up in the American West, they’re also a way of seeing our own dreams brought to shadowy life before our very eyes—what boy or girl who grows up in Montana, whether in the mountainous western part or the flat, prairies of the east, doesn’t want, at least a little, to be a cowboy or a cowgirl?

Rip punches Kayce Yellowstone
Source: Paramount

Then came Lonesome Dove, which some critics credit with bringing the Western back for an audience for whom they had grown old, creaky, and passé. But Gus and Call (played expertly and singularly by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, respectively), and their mythic saga of driving cattle from the mesquite Hell of Texas up to the lush green Heaven of Montana sure rekindled my love for a good Western. Matter of fact, I’ve always sort of considered myself a Gus type—reliable in a pinch, good at talking, a real raconteur! 

So when Paramount came out with Yellowstone, with frequent movie cowboy Kevin Costner, I was excited. And now, since Yellowstone is one of the most-watched shows on TV, I reckon it’s not just me and mine who still like a good Western. 

In short, my DVR (no modern cowboy should be without a DVR) is set never to miss an episode. It’s action-packed, well-directed, top-notch Montana (well, sometimes Utah) scenery, some of the best horsemanship and horse-flesh you’ll ever see, and a dash of romance for the little lady. It’s so good and full of action that you can miss something vital if you go to the fridge for a beer. So I have to either rewind the DVR, so I don’t miss a second, or line up the beers I’ll need next to me before it even commences. 

Now that we’ve gotten all the way through season three and nearly wrapped up filming on season four, I’m delighted to hear they’ve already approved a season five and six. It’s not like there are no more stories to tell; they could make another decade’s worth of melodramatic takes on topics like low cattle prices, tight margins, droughts, grasshoppers, predators, and poachers. And if they ever do run out of ideas, I’m available to consult for a modest fee.

Beth Dutton Yellowstone Promo still
Courtesy: Paramount

The Dutton family has already dealt with all sorts of big problems typical of a big ranch: cattle rustlers, brazen biker gangs trespassing on their land, and developers of all types, including a nearby Native American tribe trying to buy the area they understandably claim as rightfully theirs since time immemorial. As season three neared its end, the Dutton family faced the worst possible foe yet, a company with billions that wanted 50,000 of their acres to build an airport and ski resort complete with million-dollar homes and commercial strips. Hmmm, that doesn’t sound familiar, does it?

In fact, the show’s portrayal of land use and eminent domain may be the only unrealistic thing about the series: if there is a part of Montana that has seen more than its share of subdividing, it is the Paradise Valley. Few large tracts are left. There might be some ranches nearly the size of the Duttons’ in Montana, but they sure as hell aren’t in Paradise Valley. 

Montana is a beautiful state, and the Dutton ranch, the Yellowstone, is supposed to be located in the Paradise Valley, arguably one of Montana’s most beautiful locales. However, I think the whole of Montana is just as beautiful, not only the western portions. 

From Troy to Alzada, Westby to Monida, Lost Trail Pass to Ekalaka, I have never seen any part of it that I didn’t think was drop-dead gorgeous. I have seen most of it, by the way; in my motorcycle hippy days, I rode every paved road in the state, and most of the gravel and dirt ones as well from the western forests to the Golden Triangle to the Missouri River Breaks. I guess I’m like John Steinbeck, who said, “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love. It’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

Flatbroke Ranch
The author's spread

And so in the show, the company with the billions offers $10,000 per acre for the afore-mentioned 50,000 acres. And that sorta makes you think, Couldn’t the Duttons take the $500,000,000 and in the tax-free exchange purchase a ranch that could make some money somewhere else in the state? After all, there are 147,040 square miles in Montana, or 94,105,600 acres. 

Having said that, I think about my own slice of paradise in Montana, and after counting the cows and finding them all accounted for, I find myself and my trusty steed at the highest point on my ranch east of Havre and looking to the south at the Bears Paw Mountains. I only have to stand here but a moment to be convinced anew that Montana is easily the most beautiful state in the union. 

On a fine day with the high clouds rafting across the sky, this ranch can hold its own for sheer visual beauty with any landscape on earth. 

So I can see why the Duttons don’t want to sell; it’s only $500 million, after all.

Yellowstone ranch at night
Source: Paramount
Source: Paramount Network Youtube Channel

Leave a Comment Here

Jay linderman (not verified) , Wed, 12/16/2020 - 17:15
I never rode the Harley, because of a threat by my Dad. I lived everything else you talked about. I was seven years old when we got our first tv and indoor plumbing. We might have landed on the moon but these two milestones were more important
Gary Dewyn (not verified) , Sun, 02/14/2021 - 16:03
My grandfather owned a smallish ranch near Glasgow before the 1960s when their house burned down. I love Montana not only because my mother was born there but because the entire State is beautiful.

Whenever I drive across the State I get a bit melancholy whenever I see the next State's signs.
Anonymous (not verified) , Tue, 02/16/2021 - 13:42
Born in West Virginia I made the trip across the country with 400 dollars and settled in Butte I fell in love with the sheer beauty and never looked back
TJW (not verified) , Thu, 02/25/2021 - 11:04
thank you for the review and article. More importantly, thank you for the Steinbeck quote. I am fortunate to get to Montana yearly (fly fishing) and the quote summarizes my views on the state. Safe travels
Dave Lankutis (not verified) , Tue, 04/13/2021 - 09:47
Did you ever try aluminum foil on the rabbit ears to reduce the amount of snow on the Black and white TV screen?

I like to point out to my grandkids how I had to navigate my way throuh shag carpet across the living room to change to the other channel.
Pamela R Long (not verified) , Tue, 05/18/2021 - 06:24
Wonderful article. Might have to watch the series! Moving to the plains of North Central Montana from the Paradise Valley as a teenager, I grew to love them. Sunsets! We love the Bears' Paw Mountains up here. As for cinematography, watch Winter in the Blood, excellent.
Paul Schmeling (not verified) , Mon, 06/21/2021 - 09:44
Nice article Gary. Never watched it yet, might have to! Hope you are well!
Linda (not verified) , Fri, 07/09/2021 - 21:32
Living in the beautiful state of Louisiana, we love visiting Montana on our yearly trip..the mountains , the smell of the fresh air, invigorating smells from the forest, the animals, the people and the scenery are wonderful..We go up there as it is such a peaceful and lovely state..Ready for our yearly September trip..
Sharon (not verified) , Mon, 08/09/2021 - 11:11
Grew up in billings and was raised around my mom's family who lived in Forsyth. Saturday nite at the movie house was a real big deal. Moved to Idaho after my sophomore year of high school, in 64. I told my mom that I missed the beautiful skies of Montana.
Moved back a couple times and met my husband who is from Paradise. Together we ran the paradise bar for awhile.
I still at 73 call montana home
Tama (not verified) , Mon, 08/09/2021 - 15:17
Love this!
janna nikkola (not verified) , Mon, 08/09/2021 - 17:52
My family lived in Hungry Horse for 4.5 years while the dam was being built. As kids we barely noticed the -42 temperatures or the 3-4 feet of new snow. The boys who lived near us would build a tree fort in the woods and when we girls discovered it, they didn't want it anymore so gave it to us. We loved driving into Glacier Park on Sundays because my Dad wanted to look for elk, which wasn't all that interesting for kids, but seeing the beautiful clear glacier lakes was a thrill I'll never forget. I always hoped to get back for a visit to see how Hungry Horse looked now, but never made it, but I have very fond memories of Montana.
Anthony Foltz (not verified) , Tue, 08/10/2021 - 21:12
I grew up in eastern Washington, where folks from Missoula used to come to shop at Christmas time or for the big hospital. I had family that homesteaded in Montana in the early days. Steamboat up the Missouri and they stopped in Miles City, owned forty thousand acres outside of it for sheep of course. Family that worked for Montana power and lived in Livingston and big timber. I have the chaps, vest and belt my great grandad gave my dad. I got a picture of that great grandpa looking like Roy Rogers, he spent four thousand some odd dollars for that quarter horse at the Denver horse auction in the forties. That was at least a couple houses at that point in time. I’ve driven truck for a long time and my home stretch was when I got into Montana. I really enjoyed the article, I still also call the tv the boob tube lol! Yellowstone is a good show but I grew up the same way so I find it hard to sit down and watch tv much…
JB Bright (not verified) , Thu, 08/12/2021 - 13:02
I think the show does a good job of demonstrating the constant threats to land ownership, even though it is overly dramatic in some cases. I take the condemnation threats and the corporate buyout threats to demonstrate that no matter how much a land owner wishes it were true, someone out there always wants what they have accumulated. It is a constant struggle to keep those forces at bay and just enjoy what you've built. That is particularly true of folks that have worked to create and maintain good quality ranches in beautiful areas of the country. We have people wonder onto our ranch all the time. In some cases, they simply have no concept of private property rights. In others, there was deliberate poaching or squatting going on. Absent the violence that is used for theatrics, most of the threats alluded to in the show have presented themselves during our family's ranching life. Being along the Texas border, we have also had threats of violence and a few close calls. It simply never ends. I've enjoyed the show, but obviously recognize the dramatization present in the writing. I'm looking forward to the spinoff series as well. The production company is nearing the completion of the purchase of the 6666s Ranch in Texas. My understanding is that a show is being prepared to follow that ranching empire. I hope that they continue with these shows as it is better than anything else on tv.
Vicki Allen (not verified) , Tue, 12/07/2021 - 16:18
I did not know that about 6666 ranch. Oh wow. I wonder where the $$$$ is coming from? I hope not another country. I have to google this.
Mr50Tree (not verified) , Thu, 08/12/2021 - 20:21
I’m from NJ/NYC and had the pleasure of going on a 2 week camping trip to Glacier National Park the summer before entering 9th grade and it was amazing! Montana is a wonderful place and it made me fall in love with the west.

This show is obviously exaggerated for Hollywood but I think one of the main themes in the show “New vs. Old Montana” or “Progress vs. Preservation” is really important to highlight for our entire country. I’m sure it’s very prevalent in a state like MT as well.

I started to enjoy the show once I heard them using Puscifer songs/samples during key scenes; nothing beats Maynard’s voice accompanying picturesque American landscapes!! It’s also great to see different sides of “organized crime” so people realize it’s not just “thugs” in inner cities; all these cowboys run around with (legal) guns too! Very exaggerated for tv but still a great/entertaining show to watch!
J (not verified) , Mon, 08/23/2021 - 05:22
Oh the glories of the western life.. as kids in new york we were raised on a 200 acre farm with the afore mentioned tv (rabbit ears also and snow on the screen). Hard work horses to ride beef cattle to work etc., and 2 tv shows per week( Rawhide as one),unless John Wayne was on. My younger brother .. who I think was born with his cowboy hat on..,headed west to Winnet, Montana in the late 70's worked on a ranch married a girl from out there. After 15 years of no money hard work a heartbreaking (for him) divorce and a life threatening injury or 2 he came back to new york 20 years ago now my beloved brother passed on cut badly out on the range dehorning calves and required a blood transfusion.. no blood screening at the time the tainted blood managed to work on shutting down his organs He loved Montana and the cowboying fantasy until the end .
Denise Lawrenc… (not verified) , Tue, 12/07/2021 - 15:32
I’m so sorry for the loss of your beloved brother and for him. It sounds like he loved what he was doing and unfortunately passed away too soon because of it. But it’s what he chose and I respect that kind of tenacity. Hopefully, you have family for support and share memories of during the holidays. Merry Christmas ?
Big Rich (not verified) , Thu, 11/18/2021 - 08:00
Work 878 acres for 25 years and life isn't that simple. Our biggest appointments are the greedy government. The land and cattle all 200+ of them take care of themselves. Yellowstone does intuitively show the grit and time it takes to earn this living and their battles are similar to our battles with big government. Leave us alone we have been here for 100+ years...
Roger (not verified) , Thu, 11/25/2021 - 13:27
Born and raised in Havre and having moved to Arkansas not day goes by that I miss my life in Montana but with children and grandchildren here I am relegated to my infrequent trips back to visit old friends and family only to miss it more when I leave
Steve Stump (not verified) , Fri, 12/03/2021 - 08:40
Love a great western your story rings true to me also. Bring 66 I remember all those shows black and white on the big console TV ours had a radio also it was huge. Snowy terrible picture due when we got away from rabbit ears to an actual antennae on s short tower we finally got 9 channels that was including both VHF and UHF. Those were the days. You have to love a good western and Taylor Sheridan puts out a great one. Don't know if you watch his show called The Last Cowboy it's starting g its 2nd season but the crew that Travis played by Sheridan gets a team together to win contests to put the Yellowstone on the map. Those riders are for real and most are Cowboys on The Last Cowboy. It's all about qualifying to get a chance to compete in the Run For a Million dollars in Vegas. I truly believe there is always going to be a good western to watch and it helps when seasons 5 & 6 have already been approved. Thanks for the story I envy you I grew up in Indiana farming and we raised cattle my dad and I each had cutting horses and a bunch of us roped on the weekend what a blast. Unfortunately I'm too torn up to ride anymore so I settle for stories like yours for the fond memories.
Sharon (not verified) , Thu, 12/09/2021 - 07:56
So we'll written, Gary. I.totally understand your love for the West
I was born dirt poor in the Appalachian Mountains. I babysat for folks and every penny I saved till I could buy the entire series of Zane Grey books. Keep in mind I was a teenage girl! I swore I would leave those hollers and never look back.
The very moment I crossed into South Texas on a motorcycle, I was enamored. And then came my beloved New Mexico. Where I settled. My.Western dream came true. I rode my little black horse, pearl handled gun in my holster, across the Rio Grande.
If I never receive another blessing in my life; i.would be content with just that memory. The creaking of the leather, the bees buzzing, that endless big blue sky. I have never felt more free.
That was over 25 years ago. And life's roads have led me to South Carolina. Where I live alone and still yearn for the smell of mesquite and sage. Still got my saddle!
And Dreams!
Thank you so much for painting such a beautiful picture.
Happy Trails.
Scott (not verified) , Fri, 12/17/2021 - 14:13
I love the show but the Duttons remind me of the Sopranos on horseback. Is that realistic? They murder any of their branded (literally) cowboys when they want to quit the ranch and then dump their bodies in a ravine. Not very noble and somewhat psychotic.
Adel (not verified) , Sat, 12/18/2021 - 09:21
Born n raised in Montana. First paycheck was $20 for rounding up cows in Missouri breaks. Not as tough as Beth, but love whoever writes her lines, magnificent! But, yeah, it's drama, not reality, it's a tv show. I'll keep watching
Peter Schuch (not verified) , Mon, 12/20/2021 - 19:59
I am coming up on 50 years since I enlisted in the USAF. I was stationed at Malmstrom for more than 3 years. Along with my wife, the beauty of Montana kept me sane! I know that I left a piece of us there and wish we could go back to
MT at least once more.

Paula, Montana… (not verified) , Thu, 12/23/2021 - 05:58
I approve of the show. Heifer/steer detains, aside, seems realistic for me. Landowner for almost 40 years, close to MacDonald Pass, I feel the struggle every day. Currently we’re in a drought that needs to end, or there won’t be a horse or stock left in the state. I’m a Democrat, but the Republicans that control this state (sadly) got something right. Grizzlies and mountain lions are rampant. I swear there are three cats for every person in Montana. I’m all for thinning them quite a bit. Especially the one hunting behind the house. Looking for a beloved ranch dog Or stringy grandma, I guess.
Foxldy (not verified) , Mon, 12/27/2021 - 22:40
OK, Im a horse gal, so anything to do with them, I'm IN! Yellowstone has me gob-struck just for the horse scenes alone. The cutting horses are poetry in motion - staring down those cow critters eye to eye, dancing back and forth to match each cow turn, not only knowing their job but bred to perfection for it and loving their job. Wild horses running the plains, even the stallions' fights in the intro scenes keep me mesmerized. I LOVE the Western states. From skiing in Colorado to touring in the summer, the mountain vistas, vast expanses, peaceful quietness, sunsets, eagles and hawks soaring, viewing an elk or even a bunny hopping away for safety...its to me one of the best "church moments" I could ever hope for and when I feel the closest to God and all His artistry and majestry. Yellowstone gives me all of this and more. As much as I think Beth is a hoot and a holler who has been blessed with the best scripts to deliver, I could honestly keep the TV on mute and still be entertained. I have been to MT once, 2 years ago to a dude ranch outside Bozeman. I was raised to love the Blueridge mtns in NC, have ridden in Jackson Hole's Tetons up to The Hole in the Wall, but MT's white grey granite faces leave me to believe I have found my mountains Eden. I will return there this summer near Glacier for a 4 gals 5 day pack trip and my heart will be fulfilled again! LOVE to hear Yellowstone will continue for several more seasons. This girl is happy to see Kevin returning in his pressed shirt and chaps ;-)
Bonnie payne (not verified) , Wed, 12/29/2021 - 12:28
I love Yellowstone, Ive lived in Montana all my life. It's s hard ace to survive, but very beautiful. What bothers me, is John Dutton and Beth are sas close as any father and daughter could be, yet he would sacrifice her for a hippish protester that he slept with? Kelly Reilly is fabulous, great show
Ann Bodle-Nash (not verified) , Tue, 01/04/2022 - 13:56
I've been searching for commentary about the show from Montanans. Thanks all. I have to ponder some lines, especially the one in season 4, "Missoula and Bozeman don't elect the governors, Great Falls, Dillon and Miles City do."
Having lived a couple of years recently in Missoula, and driven around much of the state looking for fish, I am sensitive to the animosity towards Bozeangeles and Missoula. But it's still a gorgeous state with fabulous hot springs. I am fascinated by the show. Theatrics aside, those horses in season 4 are a wonder.
Don Block (not verified) , Thu, 01/06/2022 - 17:19
Growing up in Dillon in the late 60's/early 70's, that one black and white TV was it. Problem was only one channel got to us, and that was out of Butte. Don't remember what network it was, think it might have been CBS, but if you didn't like what was on, there was always a book. Thanks for that memory Gary.
Nancy in the N… (not verified) , Sat, 01/15/2022 - 02:42
Written 3 months ago: I just finished Season 1 of Yellowstone and realized Costner's character, Dutton, ordered 2 executions, 1 each in Episodes 1 and 4. So he is like a Mafia don. That plus the sleaziness of his daughter Beth on the show is disturbing. This show is seen around the world. I shudder when I think what the world must believe about American women, especially those of Montana.

Years ago when I worked for the airlines and lived in Chicago, those I met overseas would mimic a machine gun when I told 1them I lived in Chicago. They connected that city w the TV show The Untouchables.

Yellowstone is America's first national park. People around the world want to come visit it. There are ranchers in that area who are hardworking folks who care about the environment too. And concessionaires who want to share the beautiful outdoors w our nation and the world.

I did some wildlife fieldwork at University of Montana in Missoula years ago radio-tracking grizzly bears and pronghorn antelope. Gorgeous country. It is a sad tragedy for the world to think the word Yellowstone refers to American decadent values (of a few) rather than the triumph of America to designate the Yellowstone region as the first national park in the entire world, leading the way for other countries. I wish the series writer, Taylor Sheridan, would keep our national heritage foremost in his mind in the days ahead.
Stephen Murray… (not verified) , Mon, 02/28/2022 - 22:02
You are right, Yellowstone is the Sopranos out west. I live in Wyoming and although the show is entertaining and makes for good viewing, and sometimes depicts the struggles of maintaining the ranch lifestyle, it does a disservice to the image of ranch life and life in the west in general.
Dennis Kender (not verified) , Wed, 02/09/2022 - 17:33
As a born and raised Montanan (Butte, MT that is), I can tell you that there are 4 types of people in Montana. 1) “Out of Staters” (that nobody really wants nor likes). 2) Native born Montanans. 3) Flatlanders (including eastern MT. 4) God’s own Western Montana Mountain folks. BTW: Western Montanans call eastern Montana “West Dakota)!
Buzard, Jim (not verified) , Wed, 03/09/2022 - 14:26
Their great Aunt Elisa is buried on that land and they said they would stay where she is buried. I live in Illinois and we have a family burial plot in my home town. I will be buried there with in a stone throw from my parents. Grandparents, Great and Great Great and aunts and uncles, etc. Its about family, we have been in Bureau County, since before Illinois was a state!
Greg Smith (not verified) , Mon, 04/11/2022 - 15:30
Being born and raised in a very conservative pay of Calif. on a horse ranch I always felt I was out of place and belonged in either, Montana, Wyoming or Texas. I'd love too still my place now and move up to Montana where we have distant family members but my wife and I just can't leave our grandchildren. But GOD I hate this crime ridden, very liberal state and want to leave.
Dawn Woods (not verified) , Mon, 05/02/2022 - 07:50
Love your column, you're a great storyteller. I love Yellowstone ❤️. My husband and I retired in "the High Wide and Handsome" Montana, almost three years ago, after 50 years in Colorado. More then 5 generations of my family called Montana home. We purchased our modest slice of heaven, and brought our last horse with us. We're on less then 4 acres, but part of the deed is another 22 acres nearby. Great grazing for mountain goats. We've had 3 unsolicited mail offers at quite amazing $$$$. One included a fine dining opportunity.But none $500 million ?
We'll keep our slice of heaven!
Bill Jacobson (not verified) , Tue, 05/03/2022 - 11:42
I was born and raised on Montana’s Hi-Line in Glasgow. Not much experience in ranching, but I learned to drive on a 1930 steel-wheeled and cleated Case tractor. I had lots of experience during summer-fallowing and harvest time in Valley County. I watched a few episodes of “Yellowstone,” came away disappointed and gave up on it. My adult daughter convinced me to watch “Yellowstone’s” prequel, “1883,” which left me even more disappointed in “Yellowstone.” “1883” did not disappoint. The characters were well-developed and gave a better sense of what it was like to travel from Texas to Montana as part of a wagon train. It was not overly-dramatized nor overly-romanticized. The best part? “1883” was filmed primarily in eastern Montana where the real “Big Sky Country” is. Not sure if the proposed second season will be as good, but I plan on watching it before I see even one more episode of “Yellowstone.” By the way, while Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are quite good, Sam Elliot made the show more than well worth watching.
Joe (not verified) , Fri, 12/22/2023 - 16:59
Lived there once……..that’s enough.
Your comment will not appear until we have reviewed and approved it.