STEVENSVILLE — The historic Fort Owen Ranch has a new owner.
Myla Yahraus of Las Vegas purchased the ranch in November for an undisclosed price from the Capp family, who will stay on the property until Jan. 1. Yahraus noted that will give them time to move their cattle and equipment off the property.
“It’s not like you’re just moving out of a house,” she said with a laugh.
Yahraus said that after looking at a few other properties in the Bitterroot Valley, she chose the Fort Owen Ranch because of its amenities and location in the valley. She added that it also seemed to provide “a peaceful refuge for my soul.”
The ranch is northwest of Stevensville.
One short-term plan is to re-open the portion of the ranch that was used by the public for decades as a boat launch on the east side of the Bitterroot River. Previous owner Roy Capp closed the launch last summer after trying to work out an unsuccessful land swap with the town of Stevensville.
Yahraus said she’s already talked to Randy Arnold, the Region 2 supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to open the launch by rafting season.
“They’re being really thoughtful about what they want to do,” Arnold said. “We expect to get something in place that allows the department to accept responsibility and liability for recreation at that site. That’s part of a larger conversation about fishing access sites.”
Part of a different conversation that involves FWP involves management of the 1.2-acre Fort Owen State Park, which is surrounded by the ranch. The site only has enough parking for two vehicles, and visitors often trespass on the ranch, thinking it’s part of the park. About 3,000 people visit the park annually.
Arnold said they’ve also talked with Yahraus about that.
“We see, more than anything, a commitment from Myla as the new owner of alleviating some immediate concerns,” Arnold said. “I’m really optimistic about working with her.”
Yahraus said she’s aware of the significance of the ranch, the state park and the boat launch to the Bitterroot Valley, and to all Montanans. Jesuits built their first mission in 1841 nearby, and sold it to Mayor John Owen in 1850. He built Montana’s first grist mill and sawmill there, and it was home to the state’s first cattle herd. It also was the first agricultural development and the first water right holder. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, most of the historic buildings are gone, with an adobe back wall of the barracks the only leftover. However, the barracks were reconstructed, and several historical buildings were moved to the site, along with interpretive signs.
Yahraus noted that she is a strong advocate of private property rights, but as a small business owner in Las Vegas, where her company installs power for convention and trade shows, she knows how important tourism is to the livelihood of local communities. She’s interested in creating successful public/private partnerships when it comes to both Fort Owens State Park and the boat launch, but added that any resolution must include ongoing maintenance programs.
She recently met with Stevensville Mayor Jim Crews and an attorney to discuss other disputes between the Capp family, which has lived on the Fort Owen Ranch since 1972. The Capps allege installation of a sewer main line through their property caused $16,765 worth of damage to their cropland, and have threatened to sue the town. They also claim that the town pool encroaches on the ranch property by several feet.
“I think these are issues that need to be addressed, and we’ll try to get them resolved,” Yahraus said.
She hired Kent Smartt, a 2006 Stevensville High School graduate, to manage the ranch. He said that once the Capps take their cattle and equipment off the land and vacate the property, he’ll start to build a new herd.
“We’ll get restocked and new equipment; I plan on doing that in the months to come,” Smartt said. “Hopefully, by spring we’ll be ready to roll.”
He noted that the Capp family ran about 160 head of cattle, and he hopes to bump that up a little. Most of the ranch is native grass now, and he plans to look at the soil types to possibly do something “more creative” in the future.
“But we’ll just maintain it now and look at it in the summer. It’s a beautiful place,” Smartt said.
Both Dale Burke and Crews welcomed Yahraus to the Stevensville community, and reshaping the interplay between the ranch and the public.
“The ranch is the centerpiece of our history, and the centerpiece of our daily lives,” Burke said. “It is the desire of those of us here this morning to talk about today and tomorrow and not dwell on what has occurred in the past.
“Every time I go back and forth, I say ‘What a beautiful, remarkable place.’ I’m glad to see it passing into your hands.”