DRUMMOND – Jay Coughlin rises with the sun each day to work his family’s 150-year-old ranch with brother Gene.

He doesn’t stop until the sun sets on their Blackfoot Valley ranch, a few miles north of Drummond.

He knows all too well the hard realities of Montana ranch life – a way of life he and his brother and neighbors want to preserve for future generations.

So the Blackfoot River Ranch, owned by the Coughlins, and the neighboring Manley Family Limited Partnership ranch recently bought land from The Nature Conservancy that is protected by conservation easements in the care of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The transactions will preserve the Blackfoot Valley ranching lifestyle – and their ranches – in perpetuity.

In May, FWP purchased conservation easements on more than 10,000 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy, the Blackfoot River Ranch and the Manley Family Limited Partnership. The purchases signaled the near completion of the Blackfoot Community Project’s goals to preserve and conserve land bought from the Plum Creek Timber Co. nine years ago by The Nature Conservancy.

The Coughlins and neighbor John Tracy Manley used the money from FWP’s easement purchases on their lands to buy the adjacent ranch land from The Nature Conservancy.

The conservation easements save the ranch lands from development as subdivisions and protect elk, fish, grizzly bear and other wildlife habitats, said FWP wildlife biologist Jay Kolbe.

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The Blackfoot Valley isn’t a stranger to conservation easements, and in fact was home to the state’s first such easement in the early 1970s. Ranchers and others have since used these legal documents to preserve their lifestyle, as well as wildlife habitat, Kolbe said.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program which granted $2.9 million to FWP for the purchase of conservation easements throughout Montana.

Nature Conservancy director Chris Bryant and Kolbe have worked with Manley and the Coughlin brothers detailing the new conservation agreements and the sale of the TNC land since 2007. But none of the transactions would have happened without the Blackfoot Community Project, Bryant said.

Seven communities in the Blackfoot Valley united with 32 agencies and nonprofits to voice their ideas for the future of a wide swatch of former Plum Creek Timber land purchased by The Nature Conservancy in a three-year process in 2004.

Since then, 89,000 acres – with an additional 1,000 acres purchased later by the conservancy – have slowly been divided among various agencies and private owners for conservation and preservation, said Kolbe.

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The Coughlins and Manleys have lived in the Blackfoot Valley for more than five generations, ranching and producing cattle on their respective ranches. But owning vast swaths of land is a struggle, Coughlin said

“We don’t buy this land just to have land,” Coughlin said. The new purchase includes 20 miles of fenceline to be inspected and maintained, he said with a wince. But it will provide more grazing land, stop subdivision development, and Montanans will gain fall hunting access.

The entire process is complicated, Bryant said. Since the conservation easements last forever, even if sold to another person, every detail must be precisely written and agreed upon by both parties.

Manley previously bought several hundred acres covered by a conservation easement and knew the delicate balance between maintaining important habitat for wildlife and a realistic grazing management plan.

Both he and the Coughlin brothers have fought their whole lives to keep their family ranches, though, and a conservation easement on their respective properties ensures that this land will always remain a working ranch for future generations.

“You have to love it because you don’t break even most years,” Coughlin said. He grinned as he pointed out a water well, drilled a few years ago. After he found water, he drilled three more wells that now sit empty on his land.

“You learn from your mistakes and move on,” Coughlin said.

Though Bryant and Kolbe can’t claim family ranches in their history, the men worked hard, dedicated to a successful outcome and developing close ties with both ranching families in the meantime.

Anything goes wrong, I call Jay (Kolbe),” said Gene Coughlin, Jay Coughlin’s brother and co-owner of the Blackfoot River Ranch.

And though these ranches are hidden in the winding roads of the Blackfoot Valley, their influence stretches beyond the mountains, especially for recreational and agricultural purposes.

“Our rural communities are so important for the survival of your bigger urban areas,” Bryant said, “They have a huge influence over what the landscape will look like in the future.”

Krysti Shallenberger is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern this summer in the Missoulian newsroom.

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