By Martin Kidston

A large working ranch just west of Missoula moved one step closer to protection under a conservation easement on Thursday, after Missoula County commissioners unanimously qualified the property for potential open-space funding and set a public hearing for next month.

The City Council's Parks and Conservation Committee approved the same request on Wednesday, although at least one committee member expressed concern over the amount of money left from the $10 million Open Space Bond approved by voters in 2006.

“I'm starting to question whether if we run out of money, what's more important,” said Ward 4 City Councilman Jon Wilkins. “This land here would be the least likely to get housing or buildings on it. It hasn't so far.”

Despite such concerns, Wilkins joined a unanimous coalition of city and county leaders in agreeing that the agricultural and wildlife values identified on the Deschamps family ranch were too important to forgo the opportunity to preserve the 545-acre property.

Development pressure continues to encroach from the east, jeopardizing the ranch and other ag properties in the Grass Valley area. The ranch is accessed through the Ranch Club subdivision off Mullan Road, while Missoula International Airport sits to the north.

“It's in the path of development, as was a lot of agricultural land along the Mullan Road corridor that's been developed in recent years,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “This presents an opportunity to protect a whole host of values, not just agricultural land, but wildlife values and ecosystems as well.”

In late July, members of the city and county's open-space advisory committees joined commissioners in touring the property. Their stops included an historic home and a rare spring-fed pond that's home to a number of nesting bird species.

The property also contains a high number of voles, making it prime habitat for raptors, including owls and eagles. The property is owned by Charlie and Nancy Deschamps and has been in the family for generations.

“Charlie Deschamps has been cutting alfalfa off the property for years, and he puts up about 1,000 tons of hay each year,” said Mark Schultz of the Montana Land Reliance. “The ag land here has an incredible small mammal population that really thrives in this cover. It provides food for birds of prey.”

The ranch sits in what's been designated as a continental Important Bird Area. During the summer tour, Jim Brown with Montana Audubon placed the number of avian species found on the ranch at 230, including both raptors and migratory songbirds.

Along with the ranch's wildlife values, it also contains critical agricultural soils. As a result, it was scored high for conservation by the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service, which agreed to fund 50 percent of the easement's $1 million price tag.

The city and county are each being asked to provide $252,000 toward the cost.

“This is an amazing opportunity to protect this large tract of agricultural land just right on the outskirts of the urban area,” said Elizabeth Erickson, the city's open-space program manager. “It ranks high in the evaluation criteria for working landscapes, wildlife habitat and other unique values.”

While the easement moves toward likely approval, the city's open-space advocates have turned an eye toward the account balance of the 2006 bond.

The city's portion stands at roughly $1.7 million, though $575,000 has been earmarked to acquire the South Hills Spur, which is set for a public hearing on Oct. 3. If approved, it would leave $1.2 million in the city's open-space fund, not including the Deschamps easement.

The county has just over $1.1 million remaining in its share of the bond and is currently considering other easements, including a smaller ranch in Grass Valley. Both accounts would fall below the $1 million mark if the Deschamps property is approved for a conservation easement.

“I know we're starting to run out of money, and that has me a little concerned,” said Wilkins. “I want to make sure we have enough money left over for the things that are important.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at