BONNER – The sign reading “Bonnie Jean’s Berry Farm” has nearly disappeared in the tall grass between the Blackfoot River and Highway 200.
Motorists have an equally difficult time spotting the bighorn sheep that sun themselves on the cliffs above the north side of the road. But the occasional times they appear in the headlights right at this spot proves the significance of the Wisherd-Blackfoot Canyon Conservation Easement.
The descendants of Arthur and Grace Wisherd signed the papers on Friday, putting 304 acres of their family homestead off limits to subdivision or development. The Five Valleys Land Trust partnered with Missoula County Open Space and the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation to bring the $100,000 deal together.
“Several years before she passed, my mother said she wanted to keep land in farming and protect the wildlife,” daughter Grace Brewer said of Bonnie Jean Wisherd Brewer, Arthur and Grace’s daughter who died last year at 92. “I looked into options for that to happen, and the Five Valleys Land Trust was the perfect fit for her wishes for the land. She had a strong land ethic, and felt strongly that the vast open spaces were diminishing. She was concerned about the passage of wildlife from north to south – that it would be getting more and more difficult with subdivision.”
While the property extends north along Wisherd Ridge and Wisherd Gulch, passersby on the road and river see just a sliver of the land just east of Wisherd Bridge, four miles east of Bonner. So they don’t notice the little arc of land south of the highway with a patch of soil so productive, the Wisherd family could make a living as subsistence farmers in this narrow, rocky canyon.
Nor does anyone see the springs of Wisherd Gulch that attract wildlife, or the cliff walls that provide sanctuary for bighorn ewes to birth and raise their lambs. Five Valleys Land Trust conservation project manager Vickie Edwards said the descending ridge line provides a natural connection path for wildlife moving between the Mission Mountains and Rattlesnake Wilderness to the north and the Garnet Mountains on the south.
“This scored among the top two areas in need of conservation in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 2 plan, and top 14 for the whole state,” Edwards said. “It provides so much diverse habitat for so many species.”
It also sits in the nexus of U.S. Forest Service, Clearwater-Blackfoot Project, Nature Conservancy and Montana state trust lands that bracket the river corridor. The easement includes 2,400 feet of Blackfoot River frontage that might have become homesites. Instead, it will remain undeveloped, except for an exemption to restore a tool or tractor shed if the family wants to restart the berry farm.
Bonnie Jean maintained a certified organic raspberry farm open to the public on the honor system for years starting in the early 1980s. A straw hat and some berry baskets remain in the little shed still on the property. The field was also the access to a popular swimming hole on the river.
“Arthur let folks swim there, too,” Edwards said. “But he had one rule – they weren’t allowed to skinny-dip.”
Family photos prove that Bonnie Jean regularly swam, properly attired, across the Blackfoot after a hot day on the farm. The family also traded work for food during the Great Depression, inviting the down-on-their-luck to help with the crops growing on the compact plot. Grace Brewer said her grandfather became known as the “Rutabaga King” for his prize-winning vegetables at county fairs.
“That piece of land was farmed by my family for the last 100 years,” she said. “It’s difficult to make a living as a subsistence farmer now, but we intend to keep the land in the family. We’re also looking at the option of farming it again.”