CHARLO – Animals from grizzly bears to dairy cows will benefit from the largest-ever conservation easement in the Mission Valley, according to the people who signed it.

Five Valleys Land Trust announced this week that almost 2,300 acres east of Charlo will be protected for both wildlife and agricultural purposes after a conservation easement was entered into on the property.

Grasslands on the Moiese Valley Ranch – better known locally as Hillside Farms – buffer Crow Creek, a critical corridor used by grizzlies and other wildlife to travel between the Mission Mountains and the Flathead River.

“It’s one of two places grizzly bears have to go all the way from the Mission Mountains to the Flathead River,” says Pelah Hoyt, lands director for Five Valleys Land Trust. “There are lots of conservation easements in the area, and this fully protects the corridor. It ties a lot of protected land together in a meaningful way.”

Thousands of acres will be fully connected by the newest easement, according to Five Valleys Land Trust – public land, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal land, and private land.

The flip side of the coin: The financial benefits of the conservation easement will help the Idahoans who purchased the property in 2012 restart what they say was once the largest dairy farm in Montana.

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“The financial and tax incentives … help us put the dairy business back together, and provides cash flow for fixing things up and expanding,” says owner David Price.

His family purchased the property in June 2012, after the dairy had gone out of business and the property went into foreclosure. Since then, he said, the former owners have been contracted to manage the dairy the Prices have restarted. They’re milking 400 head, and hope to be milking 800 within 18 months.

“For us, it’s a farming deal,” Price said of the conservation easement. “It doesn’t impede what we’re doing. There are deer, bear and bird populations on the property, and those are important points for the land trust.”

The Price family contacted Five Valleys Land Trust about establishing a conservation easement, Hoyt says. Price says his wife’s parents live eight miles away, and had had discussions with the land trust on their property.

“We spent many months getting to know one another,” Hoyt says of the Prices, “so we could understand what they wanted, and they could understand what we’re about.”

What they wanted, Hoyt says, was “to keep the land in agricultural production, and get the dairy restarted. It’s also a lot of wildlife habitat, and we felt it was a win-win.”

Grants from the Federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, and Montana’s Travelers for Open Land Program, helped make the conservation easement possible, Hoyt said, as well as contributions from Five Valleys Land Trust members and donors.

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In addition to grizzlies, the area is an important migration site for golden eagles, a Montana species of concern. Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and Swainson’s hawks soar over the ranch’s grasslands, hunting in the summer, and rough-legged hawks, Merlin and prairie falcons do likewise in the winter.

“It protects half the Moiese Hills, too,” Hoyt says. Some of the hills are as tall as the topography found at the nearby National Bison Range, she says, “and you can see the shorelines of Glacial Lake Missoula on them.”

Also preserved, Hoyt notes, is the letter “C” – for Charlo High School – found on one of the hills on the 2,000-plus acres.

The conservation easement “keeps the land how it is today,” Hoyt says. “It’s a voluntary agreement between the landowner and the trust” that protects the property’s agricultural and wildlife purposes, and keeps the land from being subdivided and further developed.

“Our job is to make sure it’s honored over time,” Hoyt says. Meantime, she adds, the land remains in private hands, and on the tax rolls.

The Moiese Valley Ranch conservation easement covers 2,276 acres – an area approximately the size of Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake. Previously, according to Hoyt, the largest single easement in the Mission Valley was 1,856 acres held by the Montana Land Reliance. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds the next largest conservation easement, on 1,143 acres.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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