As subdivisions knock at the door, conservation easement protects Oxbow Cattle Co. land

Pelah Hoyt, the lands director for Five Valleys Land Trust, crosses a pasture used in Lower Miller Creek by the Oxbow Cattle Company during a recent site tour. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

One look at the Google Earth map of lower Miller Creek and you’ll see the importance of a 168-acre conservation easement unanimously approved Monday night by the Missoula City Council.

City open space program manager Elizabeth Erickson provided the map and the explanation before their vote.

The Oxbow Cattle Co. property is prime agricultural land, but is also at risk because of the continued subdivision of lower Miller Creek, she said. Google Earth’s map shows the march of homes toward the ranch, which lies along the Bitterroot River and includes a mile of Miller Creek and its rich riparian zone.

The ranch, in fact, takes its name from the abandoned twists and turns of the Bitterroot River’s former channels in the area, oxbows that now make fertile pastures for the ranch’s grass-fed herd.

Owners Bart and Wendy Morris are committed to keeping the ranch in production and to protecting not only the agricultural values but the fish and wildlife habitat too.

“There are a lot of opportunities for restoration work in the riparian area,” said Vickie Edwards, conservation project manager for Five Valleys Land Trust, which is shepherding the easement and will oversee its management.

More than 200 elk use the land for winter range, as do mule deer, she said. Miller Creek is home to westslope cutthroat trout.

The easement is a $374,000 project, of which the city will pay $175,000 from its open space bond account. The Natural Resource Conservation Service is providing another $165,000 from its agricultural land easement program.

Bart and Wendy Morris own Oxbow Cattle Co. in lower Miller Creek.

Both the landowners and Five Valleys Land Trust are providing donations as well.

In placing the conservation easement on their property, the Morrises are agreeing not to subdivide the property, no homesites, follow the strict guidelines placed on the property’s use by NRCS’s easement program, and to protect the riparian zone along Miller Creek.

Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said Monday’s vote was “an easy project to support.”

“The mile of Miller Creek that runs through here is right up there for me,” he said.

Added Councilwoman Gwen Jones: “This really is a key piece – when you look at the map, the location. I am impressed by the Morrises commitment to this land and its values.”