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Coal Creek Conservation Easement finalized, securing considerable public access

Recreation News - Region 7

Monday, May 11, 2020

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has completed the 10,072-acre Coal Creek Conservation Easement in Custer and Prairie counties.

The easement, which is located about 12 miles south of Terry, Mont., is adjacent to an existing conservation easement held by FWP. The easements, coupled with intermingled and adjacent public land, contribute to a large footprint of conservation and public access.

Funding for the project came from the NRCS Agricultural Lands Easements (ALE) program, and from Habitat Montana, which earmarks a portion of hunting license revenue for conservation of wildlife habitat. The value of the easement was determined by an independent appraisal. No state tax dollars were used to fund the easement, which will be administered by FWP.

“Conservation easements are 100 percent voluntary,” explained FWP Region 7 Wildlife Manager John Ensign. “In this case, the Coal Creek property lies adjacent to an easement that we completed back in the early 2000s, so the landowner was familiar with what an easement entails, and he approached us in 2016 to see if an easement might be a good fit.” 

In Wildlife Biologist Melissa Foster’s view, the ranch was an excellent fit for a conservation easement.

“This is a high-value property for wildlife,” Foster said. “We are talking critical mule deer winter range, and excellent opportunity for hunters.”

The Coal Creek riparian zone, a large, uninterrupted silver sagebrush bottom, traverses the property for nearly 5.5 linear miles. Coal Creek is surrounded by expansive sagebrush grasslands with topography ranging from rolling to rough. 

“There are seeps and springs that dot the hills and draws leading into Coal Creek, which have created numerous permanent wetlands and mesic drainages,” Foster said. “The property has an incredible diversity of habitat, which supports an impressive array of wildlife.”

The easement will protect the conservation values of the property, and the landowner will continue to operate it as a working ranch. 

Foster stressed, “It is truly a partnership: Wildlife benefit, the ranch benefits, sportsmen benefit.” 

“Coal Creek has many unique and high-quality wildlife habitat features,” said Kelvin Johnson, FWP’s wildlife habitat management biologist. “Although the conservation easement stipulations apply only to deeded land, this ranch has private and public land included in several of its pastures. Therefore, the habitat management plan for these pastures was developed cooperatively between Mr. French (the landowner) Miles City BLM range and wildlife specialists, and FWP staff.

“This was truly a collaborative effort,” Johnson continued. “I believe the combined efforts of everybody involved will provide long-term opportunities for this ranch agriculturally, while meeting or exceeding BLM range standards and providing valuable wildlife habitat for years to come.”

FWP worked with the landowner to develop a grazing system designed to protect and enhance native grasslands, while sustaining a viable, traditional livestock operation. 

“We spent months developing and revising a plan that will guide management of the property going forward,” she said. 

The conservation easement deeds are recorded and run with the land in perpetuity, Ensign explained.  The land will remain on property tax rolls and will continue to be taxed as agricultural property. Having the easement in place will not reduce revenues to either county.

“This land may change hands in the future; the landowner can sell it or will it to heirs, but the conservation easement will remain in place,” he said.

The easement will offer hunters opportunity to pursue mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and upland game birds. 

“The landowner is required to provide 600 hunter days annually, if that much demand exists, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all,” Foster said. “Hunters will be required to get permission from the landowner to hunt, and he may limit the number of parties on the ranch at any given time, which is something that hunters typically enjoy - the promise of not bumping into too many other hunters.” 

Ensign noted, “Conservation easements help keep our western way of life strong, supporting traditional ranchers, healthy wildlife populations, and strong hunter-landowner relationships. That’s what it’s all about.”