For years, the rumors have drifted through the Stillwater Valley: Mel Gibson's Beartooth Ranch is for sale. Last week, Kent and Pam Williams put those rumors to rest when they signed the deed for the cattle operation that stretches across Highway 78 between Columbus and Absarokee.
The deal swells the couple's current holdings n until last week's purchase, they owned 2,000 acres just north of the Beartooth Ranch n by roughly 20,000 deeded acres and 25,000 leased acres.
It includes all surface and subsurface rights.
"It's exciting," Pam said. "We've been going for walks every morning. It's just so beautiful."
But morning walks weren't the couple's prime motivation. They wanted to preserve the rural nature of the Stillwater Valley.
"Pam and I were worried that if it got in the wrong hands, the valley would be subdivided and split up," Kent said. "We would like to maintain the valley and, if anything, improve it."
The Beartooth Ranch, including the leased acreage, sweeps across several miles on both sides of Highway 78, from just a few miles south of Columbus to just a few miles north of Absarokee. The 45,000 acres encompass high grasslands, forested foothills, irrigated river bottoms, sporadic rimrocks and the ranch headquarters.
The boundaries of the property have remained much the same since Gibson bought the ranch from Vern Sanders in 1988. Kent Williams, known for bringing his successful Montana Silversmiths to Columbus, was already living on his place south of town when Gibson "bought the place next door." Since then, Williams sold his business but continued to maintain his ranch.
"We shared an awful lot of fence," he said. "He's been a real good neighbor."
The Williams became interested in the Beartooth Ranch a couple years ago, conveying to Gibson that they'd be interested if he ever decided to sell. In early January, after a trip to California to visit with the famous actor/director, they wound up making a deal.
"Everything was on a handshake," Kent said.
Evidently, the handshake was good enough for both parties. Weeks before the Williams closed on the property, Gibson came to Montana to personally thank his employees for their years of service.
Right now, the Williams have few plans to alter what has proven a successful operation. They'll keep the name, the staff of 16 and long-time manager John Carrel.
"We're looking forward to working for Kent and Pam," Carrel said.
The Williamses will also continue raising the purebred Angus and Gelbvieh cattle for which the place is known. As for this year's Beartooth Bull Sale, set for March 14 at the ranch, it'll be business as usual, Kent said.
The few changes the Williams do envision involve improving wildlife habitat, particularly along the river. They'd like to move cattle away from the water, allow some pastures to recuperate and add some water holes for water fowl.
"Eventually, Pam and I would like to see a core area for wildlife," Kent said. "Maybe this would be one big chunk that stays natural."
As the Williams talked about their new "spread," they took out a map. Of particular interest to them are several townships west of the Stillwater River. From Fireman's Point to Absarokee, they pointed out, the land remains virtually unbroken by roads.
"We think it really ought to stay natural," Pam said.
That's why, sometime in the future, they say, they may consider a conservation easement.
Meanwhile, locals seem pleased that the Beartooth will stay "local."
Willard Moore, a real estate agent with Mandeville Agency in Columbus, was glad when he heard the property's fate.
"Everybody is real happy Kent bought it," he said. "It's really good for the community."
He's also confident the Williamses will be able to continue the ranch's tradition of success.
"The cattle win big-time in Denver (at the National Western livestock show); they've got a great set of cowboys and managers," Moore said. "They're top notch out there."
Whatever Gibson has to say about the transaction, most likely the public will never know. Carrel, who managed the ranch for the past 13 years and served as vice president of Beartooth International, said Gibson declined to comment.
As for the price of the property, that's one rumor that will continue to keep locals guessing. Williams said his agreement with Gibson prevents either from divulging the purchase price.
Whatever it sold for, Moore said with a laugh, "I'd have been happy to get 1 percent commission on that deal."