The Lewis and Clark National Forest just gained 262 acres in the Little Belt Mountains that supports a rich diversity of wildlife.

Chuck and Gerry Jennings of Great Falls spent three years arranging the land's sale to the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which then conveyed the property to the national forest.

The Jennings bought the land in 2008 to prevent development and then realized it was surrounded by other public lands.

“We felt it was the right thing to do,” Gerry Jennings said. “It’s such beautiful land and elk country. This is something that the public should own.”

The property provides spring, summer and fall range for elk, and offers important habitat for deer, moose and a wide range of other bird and animal life, according to RMEF. It’s located about 45 miles north of White Sulphur Springs and about 13 miles east of the 8,220-acre Tenderfoot Acquisition, completed by RMEF and its partners in 2015.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the RMEF’s Torstenson Family Endowment provided funding for the project.

On Saturday night, the couple was honored at the RMEF’s annual fundraising banquet in Great Falls.

“We didn’t expect all this fanfare,” said Chuck Jennings.

There was a small cabin on the property (once used by sheepherders) that the Forest Service wanted removed before taking possession. So the Jennings found a man in Bozeman who disassembles and later reassembles historic cabins on other properties.

“We appreciate the Jennings family for their desire to permanently protect the vital wildlife values of their property, place it in public ownership and open it to hunters, anglers and others to utilize and enjoy,” said Blake Henning, RMEF chief conservation officer, in a written announcement.

The couple and their family hiked, biked and hunted on the property over the time they owned the property.

During that time, Chuck Jennings said they saw elk and frequently saw signs of elk.

The sale took about three years since they had to go through previous ownerships to ensure there were no mining or other subsurface mineral claims, Chuck Jennings said.

Gerry Jennings said the Forest Service was helpful throughout that process.

“We are so grateful to the Jennings family and the members of the RMEF, whose generosity has ensured that this critical land is provided for future generations of people and wildlife,” Bill Avey, Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor, said.

Chuck and Gerry Jennings said that when they give money or land, they always use their names, in the hopes of encouraging others to do the same.

“Maybe this could cause other people to give up their holdings to make public land so it’s not dotted with private land,” Gerry Jennings said. “I think it’s just a good thing to have the public land whole for the people.”

The couple have a long history of support for the outdoors and recreation in the Great Falls area. The couple was involved with creating the River’s Edge Trail along the Missouri River in Great Falls and Chuck serves as president of the Silver Crest Trails Association.

Gerry Jennings served as president of the Montana Wilderness Association for four years and is still active with the MWA’s local Island Range Chapter. In 2014, Gerry Jennings was inducted into the inaugural class of the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who made significant and lasting contributions to the restoration and conservation of Montana’s wildlife and wild places.

The couple works to maintain and improve the area, in particular the Little Belts, for public use.

“The Little Belts are a real focus for the Island Range Chapter. There’s so much activity of all kinds in the Little Belts and we try to be on top of it to protect this mountain range,” Gerry Jennings said.

Chuck Jennings said, “we feel there’s a reasonable balance of vehicle and trail use in the Little Belts and we strive to keep that balance.”