By Martin Kidston

HUSON – Joe Boyer was down in the pasture this summer inspecting his red Angus bulls when he saw something peculiar. The two trumpeter swans were rare enough, but what followed them from the cattails went viral in Missoula's conservation community.

The pair of nesting trumpeters marked the first time in recorded history that North America's largest flying bird successfully hatched signets in the greater Missoula Valley. There were five signets at the start, though the number appears to have diminished with the approach of fall.

“I'd seen the swans, but all of a sudden there were the young ones,” Boyer said, standing above a slough of Roman Creek that cuts across his Huson ranch. “I thought it was a big deal because I'd never seen them before.”

As it turned out, it was a big deal, and it marked a major achievement in an ongoing effort to conserve vital wildlife habitat and working ranches from future development across Missoula County.

Over the past decade, Boyer has worked with Five Valleys Land Trust to place 1,200 acres of his working ranch into conservation, protecting it from a fate that has consumed so many other ranches across the region.

Boyer's ranch, nestled between the Clark Fork River and the timber lining the highlands above, traces its history to the 1880s. Among its charms, it contains one of the oldest standing barns in the state – a dovetail granary crafted by his French ancestors in the 19th century.

It also includes a crosscut of habitats, from the riparian wetlands below to the dry grassland bench, which tilts at a soft angle up into the timber and the mountains beyond. It's here, while the cattle graze and the bulls await their annual obligations, where wilder species have found refuge in an increasingly populated valley.

“When we see the first successful nesting trumpeter swans on a working ranch, its shows the importance of protecting primary habitat and working agricultural producers,” said Vickie Edwards, a conservation project manager with Five Valleys Land Trust. “When you protect these working landscapes, you're protecting wildlife habitat. I think this speaks to the success of that.”

When Boyer considers his father, he remembers a stoic man who believed in the value of hard work. He was also a man who understood his role in preserving the land, even as he worked it to provide what Boyer still describes as a meager income.

Boyer learned those lessons early on by “keeping his eyes open.” While he was forced to sell a small section of the ranch to pay off debt – a section that's now home to a small subdivision – he was moved to conserve the remaining 1,200 acres in cooperation with Five Valleys and a long list of partners.

Vickie Edwards with Five Valleys Land Trust, Joe Boyer, center, and Jim Brown of Montana Audubon, stand by the Roman Creek slough where the swans were first discovered. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Standing above the slough, his worn Ford pickup covered with dust, Boyer considered the swans and what they represent. His efforts to conserve the ranch haven't gone unnoticed by members of the conservation community, including Jim Brown, a member of Montana Audubon.

“This is the first time in any recorded history that swans have been known to nest in this valley or the Bitterroot Valley,” said Brown, his binoculars hanging from his neck. “The records go back into the 1800s. The swans were known to nest in the Flathead Valley and upper Blackfoot Valley, but not in the greater Missoula Valley. When we saw them, I could hardly believe it.”

Boyer talks of the whitetail deer, the growing elk population and the grizzly bear that reportedly crossed the Clark Fork River nearby five years ago. There are black bears, wolves and coyotes – as well as illegal poachers who continue to shoot across Boyer's fence looking to cash in on a coyote pelt.

But there also birds, including the long-billed curlew, which Brown described as a species of conservation concern. Like the curlew, the swans are rare, though they've found a safe haven on Boyer's ranch.

“It's really a super place for swans,” said Brown. “Back in the 1800s, we were killing them and sending them to England – the skins for hats, the quills to write with, the powder puffs and these kind of things. The population crashed but through restoration, it's beginning to come back.”

Boyer's ranch sits in what Brown described as the Grass Valley Important Bird Area. It appears on maps, extending roughly from South Reserve Street in Missoula westward along the Clark Fork River to Huson. Since its designation, 1,390 acres have been protected by conservation easements and 160 acres have been purchased for public use.

“This here is one of the few places left in the valley where birders have seen the long-billed curlew,” Brown said. “They're a grasslands species and they require pretty big tracts of grassland for nesting and foraging. Most of that kind of habitat is gone now west of the (Continental) Divide.”

Boyer climbs into his truck and begins a slow drive up the road onto the grassland bench. The deer scatter and the hawks soar above while the entirety of the Missoula Valley occupies the distant horizon; the day is unusually clear.

Along the way, he passes the ruins of his father's home, telling how a two-story log cabin once sat on the stone foundation. The logs are gone, though the foundation remains. Nearby, the cows are pressed against a fence. It's all that separates them from the greener pasture on the other side.

“Them cows know they're going to be turned into this green, and they're pretty excited,” said Boyer. “You've got to keep the cows a'milking and the calves a'growing.”

His logic is simple and pure, though it also comes with a weight of worry. Missoula's growth has worked its way west to encircle his ranch. The trophy homes appear on surrounding hillsides, while down below construction has begun on new homes.

Joe Boyer sits at his parents' grave on the ranch. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“My dad, I remember, when the subdividing started in the 1970s, there was always someone trying to buy the ranch,” Boyer said. “He was born and raised here and he hung tough. He needed the money just like anyone, but he liked the land too much.”

Conserving 1,200 acres of prime real estate doesn't come cheap. Edwards placed the cost of conserving the ranch at more than $3 million, though Boyer donated more than $2 million toward the effort, conserving it in perpetuity.

By doing so, he kept the ranch in production – also a rare achievement, given the money he could have fetched by selling it off. Other plots of land that abut his ranch are now on the market; the real estate signs aren't hard to find.

“The land owns you – you never really own the land,” said Boyer. “Dad was always into that kind of stuff. He liked the agriculture part of it, but I don't think he'd like to see all the subdivisions.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at