GRAIG - Local ranchers and conservation advocates are partnering for a new project, intended to protect a popular stretch of the Missouri River near Craig.
Prickly Pear Land Trust (PPLT) is working with the Juedeman family — owners of the Canyon Cattle Company — to propose a major conservation easement on their nearly 4,000-acre ranch.
If it’s approved, the easement would ensure the property will remain a working ranch and won’t be open to development.
“We just really want to make sure that this is the same into the future, for our kids and subsequent generations, as it was when we moved here,” said Mark Juedeman.
Juedeman says his father, who grew up on a farm in north-central Montana, had always wanted to have a ranch.
“When he had an opportunity to find this and buy it, he did,” he said. “We came out here in 1970. He drove us out here, we drove out into our summer pasture, and we were just blown away. We’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”
Now he, his three siblings and their mother own the company. They began looking into the possibility of setting up a conservation easement several years ago, and they eventually connected with PPLT.
“It’s really important to have partners like the Juedeman family that are so conservation-minded, and they’re doing this for all the right reasons,” said PPLT lands project manager Travis Vincent. “They just want to continue to work the land and see it look like it always has.”
Vincent says preserving the ranch would meet almost every criteria they’ve used for determining where a conservation easement is appropriate. In addition to keeping the ranch working, it will support things like wildlife habitat and water quality.
Still, perhaps the top benefit they’ve identified is “visual conservation.” The Juedeman property forms the backdrop along much of the west side of the Missouri, in a five-mile stretch that’s one of the most popular water bodies in the state for recreation.
PPLT points to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks data showing more than 150,000 anglers visit that stretch per year, and Montana Department of Transportation numbers showing 2.3 million vehicles drive past on Interstate 15.
“As people drive by or they float by on the river, they won’t see any houses out here,” Juedeman said. “It’s going to be the same wild place it was before.”
PPLT says the family has agreed to contribute half of the land’s assessed value. They’re asking the Lewis and Clark County Commission to help cover the remaining costs, requesting $1.95 million from the county’s open space bond. Vincent says that amount would only be a fraction of the total project cost.
“When we’re looking at projects for this funding source, we’re trying to look at things that are really going to resonate with the public,” he said. “I mean, five miles of the Missouri River, you don’t get this opportunity but for once in a career. So it’s really exciting for me and for the land trust and our board and our membership to be able to work on a project like this.”
Lewis and Clark County voters approved the $10 million open space bond in 2008. Since then, the county has approved funding for 14 projects, leaving about $3.1 million still available. If county leaders approve this request, it would be the largest single expenditure from the bond.
The proposed conservation easement is set to go before the Citizens Advisory Committee on Open Lands next week. The committee will score the application and make a recommendation to the county commission. Commissioners will have the final say on whether to approve the easement.
PPLT is encouraging people who support moving forward with the easement to contact the commission. You can find more information on their website.
Juedeman says he’s hopeful the plan will go forward.
“We so care for this land, and we care for the ranching legacy – not only ours, but preceding generations – and the wildness even before that,” he said. “We just want to make sure that Montanans who come by here always have at least this little bit of wild space to see and view and recreate next to.”