The elk of the moment probably won't notice all the paperwork fluttering around the Spooner Creek Ranch, but the point is, they won't have to.

That's because 207 acres of their favorite winter range at the end of the Upper Miller Creek drainage is now protected by a conservation easement.

The land is a major elk migration path between the Bitterroot Valley and calving areas to the north. Last week, owners Denny and Becky Anderson completed a two-year process that ensured that sanctuary will remain safe for the 200-animal herd that frequents it.

"I don't know another place a person can drive 25 minutes from town and see elk in the evening," Anderson said. "The (public) road goes through the ranch, and as you travel up the valley you can see the ranches on both sides. It's real critical for this area to stay like it is."

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation senior lands program manager Mike Mueller helped shepherd the easement through Missoula's city and county governments. The first-of-its-kind deal involved the city spending $25,000 of its open space bond money and the county chipping in another $175,000 to help pay for the quarter-inch-thick stack of agreements and development rules now protecting the ranch. City and county officials approved the project Oct. 26. The easements were signed last week.

In return, the local governments got a $1.6 million donation from the Andersons, who contributed the development rights to their property to protect the habitat and viewshed for their valley neighbors. Anderson said he has no intention of leaving the property or developing it, but needed to cover eventualities. The easement limits future building to two five-acre construction zones, and forbids subdivision or other breakup of the property.

Although Anderson has 35 elk to his credit, the longtime member of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said he prohibits hunting on his own ranch to give the herds some stress-free winter cover. He does permit hiking and backpacking through the area outside of hunting season.

Anderson will recover some of his contribution through property tax credits in the conservation easement process. But he said his biggest concern was ensuring the land retained its historic appearance. Century-old ranch buildings still stand on the land. And now that his family no longer run cattle on the place, beaver and wild turkeys have made an appearance.

"I love it up there," Anderson said. "My full intention all this time was to put it into a conservation easement. We wanted to keep that Old West atmosphere."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.


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