Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

January 5, 2022

Sunday night, Paramount+ aired the season four finale of their hit drama Yellowstone. (No spoilers!) The show follows the Dutton family, sixth-generation heirs to the largest contiguous ranch in the United States, as they fight to defend their legacy. On one side, greedy developers want to turn the area into the next Park City. On the other, the neighboring Broken Rock tribe just wants their ancestral home back. Real Montana ranchers report the show is remarkably true-to-life, especially the gunfights, explosions, and occasional “long black train” to the back of the head.

Yellowstone has everything you’d expect in a modern western. There’s Kevin Costner, playing patriarch John Dutton, riding through gorgeous mountain scenery. There’s a comic side plot following the wranglers living in the bunkhouse, which usually winds up with someone bleeding on the floor. (Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.) There’s a terrific soundtrack, full of edgy, energetic country music and lonesome cowboy ballads. (Conspicuously absent: any of that watered-down Nashville pop that drives so many people nuts.)

And Yellowstone has something else that might surprise you — plotlines that turn on taxes instead of ridin’, ropin’, and shootin’. Do you think Clint Eastwood and John Wayne would be impressed?

Here’s the problem. The Dutton property is the size of Rhode Island, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. (In one episode, the greedy developers offer half a billion to turn a 50,000-acre slice into an international airport.) But ranch operations don’t turn a profit, leaving the Duttons land-rich but cash poor. So, how do you force the family out? Just build a casino or ski resort next door, push up the value of the Dutton land to raise their property tax, and watch them slink off in defeat.

Of course, in the real world, it’s never that easy. For starters, have you met John’s daughter Beth Dutton? It’s too bad she’s not in the tax business — it would be fun to watch her gut an auditor like a grizzly guts a fish.

But the real blocker comes from Montana law. Properties bigger than 160 acres automatically get agricultural use valuation unless they’re clearly being used for something else. Once agricultural use is established, the land is valued according to its ability to produce crops or sustain livestock. That means it doesn’t matter what the greedy developers put next door as long as the Duttons continue using the property for ranching — they can’t be forced out by higher golf course or ski resort taxes.

There’s another tax threat, though, that could bring the series to early cancellation. When John finally takes his last trail ride, his estate will owe a tax of 40% on anything above $12 million. Ranch heirs can claim special-use valuation discounts and defer taxes for up to 14 years. But there’s still no way the Duttons can come up with that sort of cash. We might suggest premium-financed life insurance to prepay the bill without dipping into current operations. But that takes someone healthier than John, who’s survived enough cliffhangers to kill any character who isn’t played by the Executive Producer.

Season five is already in the works, and Yellowstone has spawned an origin story (1883) and a spinoff (6666). What adventures lie in the Duttons’ future? Will a different developer propose mining the ranch? Will the Broken Rock tribe — headed by a chief with Harvard MBA — launch a hostile takeover? Will a crooked accountant loot the ranch of what little cash it has left? Stay tuned for more, and call us to pay less when the greedy developers come for your land!

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