The Sundance Ranch sits along the southern boundary of the Scapegoat Wilderness in the heart of the Blackfoot Valley, one of the most biologically diverse and intact landscapes in the western United States. The valley teems with wildlife: Sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews nest in the grasslands, Columbia spotted frogs breed in the wetlands, and bull trout spawn in the tributaries. The full complement of large mammals, including grizzly bears, gray wolves, Canada lynx, and wolverines, still thrive here. The surrounding landscape is so vast that from the Sundance Ranch a grizzly bear could walk north through the Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and Great Bear Wilderness Areas and not encounter a house or a road for weeks.
When Jill Perelman, together with her son Kent Perelman and daughter-in-law Mary Shaffer, first saw the Sundance Ranch they were awed by its beauty. Tucked into the far corner of Kleinschmidt Flat, a striking glacial outwash plain flanked by the summits of Daly, Iron, Echo, and Mineral Peaks, the property contains over 700 acres of seeps, springs, creeks, coniferous forest, native grassland, and cultivated pastures and hayfields. In the Sundance Ranch, Jill and her family found a wonderful gathering place for family and friends. They also found an opportunity to give back to the land through conservation.
The Sundance Ranch, originally part of the Copenhaver Ranch, had been working ranchland for generations. By the time Jill learned about the property, however, it had been subdivided it into 38 developable parcels. Jill and her family began working right away to eliminate the subdivision and knit the ranch back together. After meeting with Wendy Ninteman, Five Valleys’ Executive Director at the time, they knew that Five Valleys Land Trust was the right fit for their vision and goals. In 2000, Jill completed a conservation easement with Five Valleys, which was Five Valleys’ second largest conservation easement at the time, and only the second conservation easement Five Valleys held in the Blackfoot Valley. In 2003, Kent Perelman and Mary Shaffer protected an additional 70 acres of the original Copenhaver Ranch with conservation easements.
The Perelman-Shaffer family considered ownership of this land a privilege, as well as an enormous responsibility. With the land permanently safeguarded from development, they shifted their focus to learning about and caring for the land. They learned that a portion of the native prairie on the ranch had never been broken by a plow. They marveled at the industrious badgers in the prairie, the raptors perched in tall snags, and the stealthy mountain lions stalking white-tailed fawns on the forest edge. They watched grizzly bears pass by, fresh out of hibernation, following the scent of calving elk.
Kent and Mary sought management advice and ideas from neighbors, botanists, fisheries and wildlife experts, foresters, and especially ranch caretaker Bill Massey. Matt Arno of Woodland Restoration, Inc., helped them to thin the overstocked forest on the ranch, removing small-diameter and diseased trees while leaving the biggest and best ponderosa pines and larches standing. Michael Pecora of Native Solutions, Inc. showed them how to manage noxious weeds using a delicate touch to protect and enhance the native prairie. Recognizing the importance of ranching in the Blackfoot Valley, they worked with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to develop a grazing management plan and put the ranch back to work through grazing leases with the Coughlin Family’s Blackfoot Valley Ranch. And, in what would become their most significant contribution to restoration on the Sundance Ranch, they embarked on a decades-long effort to improve aquatic and riparian habitat along Rock Creek and its tributaries, Dry and Salmon Creeks.
Jill passed away on Mother’s Day in 2015. Kent passed away just a year after his mother, on July 16, 2016. Jill and Kent held many of their best qualities in common. They were both well known for their conservation ethic, open minds, generous spirits, and commitment to family. From Jill’s father Calvin, they both learned and passed along to others a deep knowledge of and respect for the natural world. Their legacies will endure at the Sundance Ranch, which, because of their vision, will remain protected forever.
The beauty of smart conservation is that it serves everyone. I hope, as part of our community, these thoughts will resonate with you as you read through this newsletter.
This past summer saw our Hands on the Land program complete many days of hard work and stewardship in the name of healthier open lands.