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HUSON - On a visit to the Ninemile Ranger Station, chances are the best wildlife viewing happens on Keith and Linda Ward's ranch.

Their spread between the Ninemile and Sixmile roads regularly features elk herds, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, a variety of geese and ducks, and the occasional moose and grizzly bear. Keith Ward said the summer critter-crawl gets so popular, Missoula County officials have contemplated building a turnout to help traffic move along.

"I've never seen more conservation values packed into a thousand acres," Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation lands program manager Mike Mueller said during a visit to the ranch on Tuesday. In addition to the creeks, ponds, lakes, grasslands and heavy timber inside the property lines, the ranch provides a crucial undeveloped passage between the Mission Mountains and Rattlesnake wilderness areas to the northeast and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the southwest.

That makes the Wards' decision to place a conservation easement on the land, worth $3 million, all the more crucial. The Wards donated $2.7 million of the value; Missoula County's open space bond covered the remaining $300,000.

"There were a lot of other state and federal lands programs they could have applied for, but they didn't," Mueller said. The easement allows the Wards to maintain their personal home as well as the original ranch homestead complex of buildings, but prohibits further housing or subdivision.

"I get called a couple times a year by realtors asking if we want to sell all or part of this," Keith Ward said. "There are some parts of this valley that are already ruined. When we bought it 21 years ago, there were almost no houses along Sixmile Road. We've certainly seen that develop. But we want the ranch to remain exactly like it was."

The place was historically known as the Checkpoint Ranch, because a 25-acre lake on the 1,050-acre property was a landmark for pilots approaching the Missoula airfield in the pre-radar days. Map-savvy motorists may recognize its Cayuse Hill, the timbered hump that forces Interstate 90 to bend southeast just past Huson.

It has portions of Isaac and Sixmile creeks flowing through. There are 243 acres of cropland, plus another 400 acres of grasslands that the Wards have protected from encroaching weeds and forest.

"We have quite a traffic problem when the elk are out along the county road," Ward said. "But the most crucial part is the elk calve here. This is the only property left that's secure enough for them to calve."

In the summer of 2010, a grizzly bear caught one of those calves within sight of the ranch homestead. Wolves, mountain lions and black bears also frequent the property, testifying to its habitat productivity.

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The project also won raves from numerous tribal, state and federal agencies. Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal wildlife managers noted the Sixmile drainage is the next step animals take after using new under- and overpasses on Highway 93. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the area as a "linkage zone" that maintains natural movement corridors between wild areas. Checkerboard squares of state and federal land abut several of its property lines, as well as the rest of the Ninemile Valley.

While the deal does not allow for public access, the Ward family is working with RMEF and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks on block-management access for hunters on some portions of the ranch.

Checkpoint Ranch is the latest of 113 habitat protection projects RMEF has done in Missoula County alone, Mueller said. The list of easements and restoration work includes 18,091 acres.

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

 

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