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A Piece of the Conservation Puzzle

Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area could provide additional tool for private landowners

The Alaska Basin addition to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the Centennial Valley encompasses more than 53,000 acres, including 32,350 which are designated wilderness. Photo courtesy USFWS
The Alaska Basin addition to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the Centennial Valley encompasses more than 53,000 acres, including 32,350 which are designated wilderness. Photo courtesy USFWS
by David Tucker

Deep in Montana’s southwest corner, a windswept steppe and rolling sagebrush sea provide critical habitat for iconic species like pronghorn, sage grouse and arctic grayling. This landscape is also home to large-scale, multi-general agricultural outfits that face mounting economic and social pressure as markets shift and land use changes. It’s here that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area, a regional effort to protect this landscape from the subdivision and sprawl seen elsewhere in Greater Yellowstone.

The High Divide, as this area is commonly called, is a sprawling mosaic of working ranches, family-run agricultural operations, state and federal public lands and private conservation easements. By stitching together up to a quarter-million acres of this special landscape, the Service hopes to further protect threatened wildlife and safeguard precious water resources, all while allowing agricultural operators to continue doing business.

“Subdivision for residential development is the number one threat,” said David Allen, realty specialist with USFWS, “and the species that the agency is focused on all currently exist on this landscape. Movement corridors are there and in place largely thanks to the stewardship of private landowners managing working ranches that have tremendous benefit for wildlife.”

The boundaries of the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area, as currently proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, would stretch from the Madison Valley in the east, north to I-90, west to the Beaverhead Mountains and south to the Centennial Range. While the entire landmass being considered is roughly 5.7 million acres, much of it is already managed by federal agencies or fails to meet program criteria, leaving about 1.6 million eligible private acres.
Map courtesy USFWS
Map courtesy USFWS
Of those 1.6 million acres, USFWS is proposing to set a goal of 250,000 acres under conservation easement over a multi-decade timeline. The Land and Water Conservation Fund would provide most of the necessary funding. “Conservation Areas have a very specific meaning,” Allen said. “They give us the ability to work with willing landowners to purchase conservation easements. They don’t limit mineral rights or access, and include no further regulation. We just want [landowners] to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Across Montana, four USFWS Conservation Areas exist already—the Rocky Mountain Front, the Swan Valley, the Lost Trail in northwest Montana and the Blackfoot Valley. “Easements are perpetual, protected under property law,” Allen said, “and as new challenges to wildlife and habitat conservation have emerged, our easement program has adapted and diversified to meet these challenges. Conservation Areas have proven to be an effective approach to conserving fish and wildlife habitat.” Once a Conservation Area is established, it becomes a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, although any included lands remain private property and activities currently allowed there can continue, Allen added.

While the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area could add significant acreage under easement, it is hardly the only regional effort aimed at the preservation of working landscapes that benefit wildlife and other natural resources. “[The Nature Conservancy] established our High Divide Headwaters program in 1998,” said program director Jim Berkey, “and TNC currently holds 66 conservation easements in the High Divide totaling just over 265,000 acres.” By partnering with willing landowners, “TNC has piloted innovative habitat restoration approaches, especially in riparian and sagebrush systems, on both private and public lands,” Berkey said.
“The more these landowners can benefit from this, while simultaneously protecting the landscape, protecting the wildlife that live there—to me it’s just a win-win.” – Chad Klinkenborg, southwest manager, Montana Land Reliance 
As is so often the case, partnership, collaboration and networking has been critical to success. “Since 2017, we have served as a lead for the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership, a coalition of public land management agencies, watershed groups and landowners that has greatly increased the pace and scale of restoration work addressing key threats to southwest Montana’s sage steppe,” Berkey continued. “We face two big challenges; economic forces—land values, commodity values—that threaten family-based working ranches, the operations that steward our most productive valley-bottom lands that tie public lands together and also sustain our rural communities. And environmental forces like drought, cheatgrass and wildfire that challenge the resilience of our natural and social systems.”

“We’ve been working in this landscape for quite a while and are contacted by a lot of landowners who are interested in conservation projects, including easements,” Berkey said. “We have a pretty good sense of demand as time has moved on and that’s been on the increase. That interest in easements far outstrips what we can do, both from what we have a capacity to do as staff, but also what funding resources we can tap into.”

A USFWS Conservation Area would expand the pool of available funds to include allocations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and Chad Klinkenborg of Montana Land Reliance is optimistic about that potential financial tailwind. “By bringing more funding into the landscape, it gives landowners another tool and another organization to potentially partner with to monetize their private property rights,” Klinkenborg said. “It brings more funding to southwest Montana and it brings more opportunities for landowners to utilize, if they want to.”

“To me it’s a positive,” he continued. “The more these landowners can benefit from this, while simultaneously protecting the landscape, protecting the wildlife that live there—to me it’s just a win-win.”

With a public scoping period concluding on November 27, Allen says now is the time to review the proposal and submit public comment. “We’re in the early stages,” he said. “And this is just one piece of the puzzle—it’s going take a variety of solutions and efforts.”


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David Tucker
About David Tucker

David Tucker is a freelance journalist covering conservation, recreation and the environment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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