Woodworth Meadows: New conservation easement protects migration

Missoula County commissioners approved spending $90,000 in Open Space Bond proceeds to protect a 100-acre parcel in Woodworth Meadows, from future development. (Five Valleys Land Trust photo)

A meadow just south of Seeley Lake that serves as a key migration corridor for wintering elk and draws a number of other species, including one of special concern, was added to Missoula County’s network of conservation easements this week.

Missoula County commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved spending $90,000 in Open Space Bond proceeds to protect the 100-acre parcel from future development. Five Valleys Land Trust and the property’s owners, Ralph and Peggy Cahoon, also contributed to the easement.

“There’s no development on this parcel,” said Vickie Edwards, the conservation project manager with Five Valleys. “The landowners would like to ensure it remains that way.”

The new easement, located in Woodworth Meadows just south of Seeley Lake, serves as a dry pasture where the Rich Ranch keeps its stock. The Cahoons own the property, though they’re also involved in operating the Rich Ranch – a longtime guest ranch and outfitting business.

“Not only is it a family operation, but it’s very much a community operation,” Edwards said. “When I was there this summer, it amazed me how many community members from the Woodworth area were working at the guest ranch at that time.”

While the parcel holds soils considered to be of statewide importance, making it valuable for agriculture, it also harbors an impressive array of wildlife.

Edwards said that includes 27 species of concern and one species under special status.

“When we compare that to other projects we’ve presented in other areas, we have maybe 18 species of concern,” she said. “I’m not discounting those 18 because that’s pretty phenomenal as well, but when we speak of 27, plus the one species of interest, it really drives at the diversity of this area.”

The parcel is located near Highway 83 in what the county describes as the Seeley Lake Planning Region. It’s also surrounded by other parcels currently under conservation status, including those held by the state, The Nature Conservancy and Five Valleys Land Trust.

Five Valleys will hold the easement, though the Cahoons retain ownership of the land. The family was relocating its outfitting camp ahead of the Rice Ridge fire this week and wasn’t immediately available for comment.

“This property provides wildlife habitat and overall connectivity with that broader landscape going up into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Blackoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area,” Edwards said. “This really is a nice piece of the puzzle in expanding the conservation footprint within the Woodworth Meadows area.

“It’s a really important area for migrating wintering ungulates, particularly elk.”