There are few things as “Montana” as a herd of happy cows grazing on our state’s beautiful landscape. This winter, thanks to landowners Bart and Wendy Morris, the Oxbow Cattle Company, located south of Missoula, will remain a little slice of “Montana” in perpetuity.
“The opportunity to be able to preserve something this important – that’s a gift to us,” says Bart Morris. “It’s ag land that we use to provide locally grown beef for the community of Missoula. As long as we’re here, it will always be preserved, but even beyond us, it will stay in agriculture and remain open space,” Morris told the Missoula Current in May.
The Oxbow Cattle Company sells their grass-fed Angus beef locally, finding a market among area restaurants, farmers’ markets, grocery stories and their fan club of beef enthusiasts. Due to their success, the Morrises have been looking to expand their business. Their ranch lies in an area prime for agriculture, with 92 percent of the 168-acre property deemed as important farm soils by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. However, the ranch is also located in the Lower Miller Creek neighborhood of Missoula, one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the region. The area is due to break ground on nearly 700 new homes in the coming years.
The Morrises began working with Five Valleys for just those reasons. And this winter, they will finalize their 168-acre conservation easement which will ensure that their land remains available for agricultural use no matter who owns it down the line. The project was awarded $175,000 from the City of Missoula’s portion of the 2006 Missoula County open space bond and an additional $165,000 from the 2014 Farm Bill’s Agricultural Land Easement program. The 2014 Farm Bill is set to expire in 2018, and the 2006 Missoula County open space bond is almost entirely spent.
“The opportunity for us to preserve agricultural land right next to Missoula, which will in turn provide local food for the community, is only possible due to these funding sources,” says Wendy. “We feel very honored to have this opportunity.” The landowners themselves will also donate to the project.
In addition to local food, the easement will protect important wildlife habitat. More than 200 elk use the property as winter range. Mule deer, small mammals and a variety of year-round and migratory birds also make a home here. In addition, Miller Creek, which cuts through the ranch, provides habitat for native westslope cutthroat trout before it empties into the nearby Bitterroot River.
“This is a total privilege to preserve this land in perpetuity,” said Bart. “This land and this little chunk of heaven, as we see it, will last beyond all of us. That’s one of the biggest things we can do.”
Header photo courtesy of Kurt Wilson/Missoulian