Is the TV Series Yellowstone Real Montana Ranch Life?

Is the TV Series Yellowstone Real Montana Ranch Life? - Jelt Belt

As an outdoor brand whose headquarters are in the great state of Montana, we, at Jelt, have been inundated with questions about whether the Paramount TV series Yellowstone is an accurate depiction of life in Montana. Well, I am here to set the record straight. It is NOT.

The western drama, Yellowstone, stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton, the head of the Dutton family household and the owner of the Yellowstone Ranch, the largest contiguous ranch in Montana. I know that deep down people realize that the show is fiction, but as they obsessively watch it, they want to believe it’s real. With the beauty and splendor of the landscape combined with the exquisite film quality, I can’t say I blame them.

However, as a person who has lived, worked and raised my family in Montana for the last 26 years, the first season of Yellowstone was hard to swallow. Not only do real ranchers here travel by truck and not by helicopter, the typical ranch house, barns and cabins of a family operating a working cattle ranch do not look like that. It is a much more hard-core, rough and humble lifestyle. People are rugged, weathered and exhausted from working ten-hour days, outside in temperatures ranging from 100 degrees to 40 below, often seven days a week. That’s just real ranching. 

The other aspects of the show that make Montanans cringe are the constant references to the glamorous town of “Bozeman”, to the extreme violence depicted and to the dumping of dead bodies right over the border in Wyoming. It seems like every other episode has someone beaten or killed—not that those gratuitous violent scenes aren’t entertaining, nor have they kept hordes of people from moving here.

As the show progressed, I think the writers got some input from people who own ranches and live here, because in the last couple of seasons, some real issues have been presented —specifically property taxes and death taxes that are a burden for real cattle ranching families, especially when the head of household dies.  Generational ranching families often feel the swarm of real estate developers, like turkey vultures on a dead deer carcass, when taxes are due. Developers wait to devour a ranch property that families cannot afford to maintain. Sadly, in modern times, most cattle ranches are more of a lifestyle career than a true money maker—just ask anyone who operates a family cattle ranch. 

The glamourization of Montana began about 30 years ago with the famous Brad Pitt movie, A River Runs Through It. After seeing the clear blue skies, the trout-filled green rivers and the majestic mountainscapes, people relocated from California, Washington and other largely populated states to the relatively affordable towns in Montana. Since then, the value of the property here has skyrocketed. Inflated property values combined with zero sales tax in Montana, made our income and property taxes much higher than other rural states. This further puts stress on ranching families who have owned thousands of acres of now highly valuable land for generations yet are running a business that barely breaks even.

There are several other aspects of the show that are completely exaggerated, including the locations of where the Dutton family lives, works and plays. The Yellowstone ranch is actually called the Chief Joseph Ranch and is located in the town of Darby about 240 miles from Paradise Valley, where they say the ranch is; and is 215 miles from Bozeman where they say they are getting their shopping done; and about 170 miles from Montana’s state capitol, Helena, where the family works. No one would be driving from those areas on a daily basis. No one would even commute from Paradise Valley to Helena every day. The locations are spread out over the 4th largest state in the U.S—though for dramatic scenery purposes, I understand why the location scout did this and made it seem like a person could live on a ranch and work in a city.  

I am grateful the writers brought in some truly horrific, but real, aspects of Montana including our Meth problem and the constant kidnapping and disappearance of young indigenous women. Our drug issues are real and the kidnapping mysteries are rarely solved. These topics deserve our concern and attention, but that is a soap box for another blog.

To finalize my rant on the show Yellowstone, I want to be clear that I watch it. I also have friends who work on the production of it and have cameos as extras. Yellowstone has won me over for its entertainment value and for the laughs I get from lines like, “You’re gonna end up living in a double-wide in Belgrade.” (A reference I know my friends in our neighboring town of Belgrade probably hate.) 

Yellowstone has its place as the modern-day version of the 1980’s tv series Dallas. It is basically a soap opera set in a majestic landscape with handsome men in cowboy garb and beautiful women with lots of lip gloss, who even at the ripe age of 35, still call their fathers “Daddy.”

Don't get me wrong, I love Beth Dutton and her unrealistic portrayal of a Montana native. But, if you want to look like a real Montanan when you come visit, just throw on a trucker hat and a Jelt Venture belt and you'll blend right in with the locals.


Photo of Yellowstone, provided by Paramount Network