Reality Checking the Premier of Kevin Costner’s ‘Yellowstone’

Last night was the premier of Paramount Network’s much anticipated new series, ‘Yellowstone’, starring Kevin Costner. Costner, also the Executive Producer, plays a rancher who owns and operates the largest ranch in Montana and battles aggressive neighbors on several fronts. The show is set in the Paradise Valley area near Bozeman but was filmed mostly near Darby and in Utah.

I thought it would be fun to compare a few of the situations in the show against Montana in real life. Obviously, like many tv shows, a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief is required for viewing.

The Helicopter

Costner’s Jon Dutton jets around his ranch in style in his branded Dutton Ranch chopper. Do many ranchers in Montana have helicopters? Coincidently, the largest private land owners in Montana, the Wilks brothers, energy tycoons from Texas, apparently do in fact have a helicopter stationed on their ranch in the central part of the state near Grass Range. I’m told by someone who has visited the ranch that it gets used mostly for transport during elk hunting season. Must be nice! But it’s probably safe to say that very few (if any) multi-generational ranching families in Montana have helicopters unless they struck it rich off the ranch or sold a good chunk of their land to be able to afford one.

Eminent Domain for Subdivision Development

Early in the episode, a real estate developer lobbies the state government to exercise eminent domain in order to allow him to develop a subdivision on land owned by Dutton. This is absurd. Eminent domain can only be exercised if the private land is being expropriated for public use. Most often it is exercised for building roads and highways, and in some cases utility rights of way. But it would be an egregious breach of private property rights, especially in Montana, for a developer to demand a rancher’s land in order to create and build out a subdivision.

Damming the River

The developer also plans to dam a river to generate hydropower to electrify the subdivision. In planning meetings, the developer explains to prospective lenders that if you own the land, no permits are needed to build a dam. Word to the wise: don’t try this in Montana. Here’s a list of the permits you would need for this project:

·        310 permit from the local conservation district (likely in Park or Gallatin County)

·        Floodplain permit from the county

·        Clean Water Act 401 certification from the MT Dept of Environmental Quality

·        318 authorization from DEQ for short term construction-related turbidity

·        Clean Water Act 404 dredge and fill permit from the Army Corps of Engineers

·        Hydropower license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

·        Water right from the MT Dept of Natural Resources and Conservation for the purpose of power generation.

This may not even be all inclusive. The federal permits and licenses would also have to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The good news is that there is a single joint application that can be submitted for the first five on that list.

Oil and Gas Activity

Dutton’s son, Cory, lives on a reservation with his wife, Monica. In one scene, oil and gas development litters the country side. In reality, there is little to no oil and gas activity in Montana near Yellowstone National Park. The most active area in terms of energy development is Richland County which borders North Dakota and contains a portion of the Bakken oil field. Richland County is a 5 to 6 hour drive from the setting of the show. There has been plenty of discussion of energy development and a little bit of activity on the Blackfeet Reservation along the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, but nothing significant to date.

The Breached Calf

This one is courtesy of my wife. Dutton and one of his sons hurry to help a cow birth a breached calf. Dutton holds the cow down while his son pulls the calf, which squirts right out and immediately jumps to its feet and scrambles away with its first breath of life. When my wife, a farm girl, saw this she blurted out “Oh, yes!” in disbelief. She protested that (A) a man would not be able to hold down a full grown cow on his own, (B) calves are too slippery to grab on to during birth, and therefore a chain is often needed to get a grip, and (C) it would take at least a few hours for a calf to learn how to awkwardly stand itself up on four legs and walk around with the grace of a drunken sailor.

As I stated before, suspension of disbelief is a requirement for watching this show, especially if you have ever lived in Montana. But I thought it would be fun to do a reality check on a few items that caught my eye. Certainly, there is plenty more you could pick apart. Overall, it’s a decent show that will be interesting to watch unfold. We’ll see if it creates the same Montana buzz of ‘A River Runs Through It’.

Thanks for reading!

Chris Carparelli

Realtor at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Montana Properties