By Martin Kidston
A swath of farmland prized for its avian diversity and agricultural importance won the mutual support of the Missoula County commissioners and the City Council on Wednesday, with both bodies moving to purchase a conservation easement on the 545-acre property.
The Deschamps Family Conservation Easement sits just west of the city limits, encompassing a blend of irrigated pasture land and dry upland benches. It passed the City Council on a 9-0 vote, with commissioners approving it on a 2-0 vote.
“You literally drive through a subdivision to reach this property,” said Mark Schultz of the Montana Land Reliance. “It’s obvious, the threat of what could happen to the property without protection.”
The easement price sits at roughly $1.07 million, including transaction costs. With Wednesday’s approval, the city and the county agreed to expend roughly $260,000 each to match a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation – one intended to keep agriculture commercially viable.
That viability, combined with the property’s significance as wildlife habitat, prompted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to identify the parcel as a priority landscape in its 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan.
“This is one of 14 areas we recognize in our state as being one of the top priorities for conservation,” said one FWP official. “It speaks further to how important this area is to conserve.”
The state has designated the area as part of the Bitterroot Clark Fork Riparian Area in recognition of its high biodiversity and north-south migration path for songbirds and owls. Likewise, the Montana Audubon Society has recognized the area for its species diversity, so much so it conducts a portion of its annual Christmas Bird Count on the property.
Wedged between Mullan Road and Missoula International Airport, the ranch sits in an area recognized on a continental level as an Important Bird Area. While the designation is new as of 2002, Jim Brown of Montana Audubon said area residents understood the area’s significance as early as 1925.
“This particular IBA is recognized for its continental importance because of the great bird diversity, including several species of conservation concern,” said Brown. “The neat thing about this property is the variety of niches there – these grasslands and agricultural lands, these super wetlands and these brushy draws. They’re a real treasure here in this valley.”
Last month, commissioners qualified the property as a candidate for open-space funding. The City Council’s Parks and Conservation Committee did the same the following week.
Wednesday’s vote by the joint body closed the deal.
“This is a great opportunity to protect a large tract of land within close proximity to the city’s urban area,” said Elizabeth Erickson, manager of the city’s open space program. “This project fits a lot of the goals and objectives in both the city and county’s open space programs, which include conserving and protecting agricultural land.”
Charlie Deschamps, who owns the property, explained over the summer how his grandfather, Gaspard Deschamps, first arrived in the Missoula Valley in 1867 and found success as a businessman. He opened the valley’s first John Deere business, ran a butcher shop, sold hay and beef, and fathered a dozen children.
While the family is free to transfer the property to another owner at any point in the future, the easement essentially removes the ranch from future development and protects its prized resources in perpetuity. That includes the property’s artisan fern, something Schultz described as unique to the Missoula Valley.
“In the low pasture, there’s an upwell in there where water comes from a subterranean source year round,” said Schultz. “It stays 50 degrees year round. In the summer time it stays cool and in the winter it rarely freezes over. From a waterfowl standpoint, it’s important habitat.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org