Conservation Easement
for Manley Ranch?

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


November 2, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

Conservation Easement Proposed for the Manley Ranch


On my way back to Missoula from a meeting in Helmville last week, I stopped by the Game Range for just a minute, partly to see how many elk and deer had been reported at the check station, and also to see if Joe or R. S. had begun work replacing the back of the hayshed that blew out last spring.

I found R. S. hard at it, digging post holes for the framing. He took time out to describe his plan for the project, and after a few minutes of visiting I got back in the truck and hustled on my way. The situation prompted a flashback to a time long ago when I was in a position quite similar to R. S.'s.

It was when my boss and I were fully occupied in a hole we were digging to find and repair a break in a buried water line. Conditions could have been better. It was snowing. And, the line was located in a rock patch. And, our hole was filling rapidly with the leaking water, which necessitated that we roll up our sleeves and submerge our arms to their pits in the frigid slush.

Opportunity for a welcome respite came when the boss's boss drove up. He was an office man, so work would halt as long as he wanted to talk things over. It lasted a few minutes, and then his truck was pulling away again. My boss was not prone to philosophizing, but that moment before we plunged back into the water and mud prompted one of his most succinct and enduring observations.

"They come, they watch, and they go."

Lately, I guess I've been the one who watches and goes, if I even stop in the first place. So, it's nice when there is cause to bring one of my better excuses to light.

I've been working with Dan Hook, John Firebaugh and several other specialists at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) on the possibility for a conservation easement on the Manley Ranch. And finally, after years of consideration and the past ten months of focused effort, FWP is proud to bring a fleshed out project proposal to your attention.

If you've driven the dirt track between Helmville and Drummond, then you already well appreciate why FWP has been interested in a conservation easement on the Manley Ranch for so long. The Manley Ranch accounts for most of the scenery on the trip, spanning 16,000 acres between the Garnets and Hoodoos. Its sagebrush-grasslands are winter range for elk and mule deer. Its forests are spring-summer-fall range for elk, deer and a wide diversity of native wildlife, in an unspoiled, natural setting.

But, make no mistake about it. Manleys' is a working cattle ranch, and has been for longer than anyone living can remember. And, the Manley family is taking bold steps to ensure that the future brings more of the same for their children and grandchildren.

Which is why a conservation easement is a perfect fit for FWP and the Manley Ranch. By purchasing an easement, FWP can ensure that the wildlife habitat we take for granted today will never be subdivided and developed, no matter who comes to own the property in the future. The proposed easement would also guarantee public access for hunting.

For the Manley family, the proposed easement is a tool in estate planning that will help the current owners successfully navigate inheritance barriers in the future. The easement would leave the land completely in private ownership, with the working ranch working in full. And, no one more fiercely wants to guard their ranch against residential subdivision than the Manleys.

Basically, FWP would gain the main benefits of public ownership, but at a fraction of the cost of fee-title purchase, and without the day to day obligations of property management and maintenance. Even so, a fraction of the fee-title purchase price of 16,000 acres is still a lot of money. Which is why it took so long for FWP and the Manleys to work out a practical plan for acquiring this easement.

The proposed solution is a page borrowed from the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range 50th Anniversary Project. FWP and the Manleys agreed to carve the overwhelming goal into workable phases. The proposed project that is now available for public review and comment is Phase I, encompassing the first 4,600 acres.

Another strategy borrowed from the 50th Anniversary Project is partnership. Phase I has attracted funding interest from the Montana Agricultural Heritage Commission and the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program. Completion of Phase I is contingent on FWP's success in securing these funds, so that FWP dollars can be conserved for possible development of a future Phase II.

You can obtain a copy of the draft environmental assessment by calling FWP at 542-5500. Internet surfers can view it on FWP's home page ( The public comment period is from November 1-30, including a public hearing at the Helmville Community Center on November 13 at 6:30 P.M.

Thanks to the generosity of the Manley family, who have a agreed to donate a substantial portion of the appraised easement value, we all stand to benefit from the promise of wildlife habitat and the opportunity to enjoy its bounty in perpetuity. And, thanks to this project, I've been able to rationalize my absence from lots of less glamorous labor for quite some time now.

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