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Another 327 acres on one of Missoula County's oldest ranches will be protected from development.

County commissioners on Wednesday gave unanimous approval to use $198,000 of open space bond money toward the purchase of a conservation easement on land owned by Joe Boyer near Huson.

Boyer's forefathers moved to the Frenchtown Valley from Quebec in the 1870s, and started ranching there in the 1880s.

"We've just been ranchers and farmers ever since," said Boyer.

He told the commissioners: "It's real important to me and the ancestors all gone past. You never know when something might happen to you, and I think it's my obligation, through your help, to let her set."

Boyer, who described himself as "an old single guy," said the agreement stipulates that whoever gets the land when he's gone "have to be farmers and ranchers and honor the land and the people that have passed."

The county helped fund a larger 752-acre easement on the Boyer ranch two years ago by chipping in $245,000 of open space funds. The latest purchase will cover separate parcels of 160 and 167 acres. They're designated as the Boyer II upland parcel and the Boyer III lowland parcel.

The upper one is adjacent to land covered by the 2009 easement, and assures that more than 900 acres of contiguous productive agricultural land is protected, said Pelah Hoyt, of Five Valleys Land Trust, which brokered and is helping fund the deal.

The lowland parcel, on an elbow of the Clark Fork River adjoining the Erskine Fishing Access, allows for about 570 acres of contiguous bird habitat.

Appraisals aren't complete, but Hoyt said value of the parcels are estimated at $400,000 and $84,000, respectively. County funding will be matched by $200,000 by the Federal Farm and Ranchland Protection program. For the first time the Missoula area chapter of the Audubon Society is chipping in on an open space project with $2,000. Boyer will donate the value of the lowland parcel.

It's a project that has been 10 years in the making, Hoyt said. While the land is not managed to maximize wildlife habitat, "we think Joe does a particularly good job of balancing the need to make a living off this land and also doing right by wildlife."

Indeed, the Boyer ranch is awash with wild critters, including dozens of different winged species on the lower parcel, which he uses for cattle pasture in the fall and winter, and for calving in the spring. Boyer is particularly fond of a great blue heron rookery that has developed over the past 10 years.

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One particular heron hung around the house a lot and Boyer named it Fred. It's hard to distinguish Fred when he gets out among other herons. "So we call them all "Freds," Boyer said.

The upper parcel is productive cropland and bench land for grazing and some haying. It includes a deep wooded draw.

The latter, Boyer said, is hemmed in by development. "It's just houses all the way around it. Animals just run to it for protection."

Juanito Vero of Greenough endorsed the transaction on behalf of the Missoula Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee.

"In 2006 when voters created the open-space program, I feel like this is the sort of project they had in mind, and Joe Boyer is the sort of person that I think the program hopes to celebrate," Vero said. "The ranch is authentic. It's a five-generations working cattle ranch. This isn't a hobby farm, it's not a gentleman's ranch. I mean, this is the real deal Montana cattle ranch."

Commissioner Michele Landquist, who raises sheep near Lolo, called it a "wonderful project" for Missoula County.

"And it's another wonderful example of what the open space bond money is getting used for - true blue working landscapes," Landquist said.

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