Missoula cattle ranch, Potomac property closer to conservation

Pelah Hoyt, the lands director for Five Valleys Land Trust, crosses a pasture used in Lower Miller Creek by the Oxbow Cattle Company on Friday, May 19, 2017. The parcel is one of two that moved closer to conservation this week, thanks to funding from the Farm Bill. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Just beyond the subdivisions creeping over the South Hills in Missoula sits a small parcel of ground where the cattle still graze on the spring-green grass, the slender stalks washed in the breeze sweeping off the Bitterroot River.

Owned by the Oxbow Cattle Co., the parcel claims some of the finest undeveloped soils in Missoula County, making it prized for conservation. As a result, the ranch and a second parcel near Potomac moved one step closer to permanent protection this week, thanks to a grant from the Farm Bill conservation program.

“The focus of the program is to protect the most productive agricultural soils,” said Pelah Hoyt, the lands director for Five Valleys Land Trust. “The vast majority of both properties is covered with soils deemed to be the most productive in the area, and they’re considered the highest priority for conservation.”

Five Valleys Land Trust applied for and received roughly $734,000 from the Farm Bill program to protect the two properties. Together, they total nearly 700 acres, including 569 acres near Potomac and much of the Oxbow Ranch in Lower Miller Creek.

While ranch owners Wendy and Bart Morris were calving in Deer Lodge on Friday, Hoyt crossed the rushing waters of Miller Creek and oriented her map. The property stretches up the shallow valley to the east and widens out as the contour flattens near the Bitterroot River.

On the hillsides above, the Linda Vista subdivision has pulled into view. Like the subdivision, the ranch itself is located in the Missoula urban area and remains under pressure from development, though the pending conservation easement would eliminate the threat.

By voluntarily placing the property into an easement, the owners have agreed to sell off the development rights, ensuring the land stays in agriculture.

The growing Linda Vista subdivision creeps over the South Hills in Missoula, moving closer to the pasture land used by the Oxbow Cattle Co. THe proposed easement would remove any development threats from the ranch. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The opportunity to be able to preserve something this important – that’s a gift to us,” Bart Morris said over the phone on Friday. “It’s ag land that we use to provide locally grown beef for the community of Missoula. As long as we’re here, it will always be preserved, but even beyond us, it will stay in agriculture and remain open space.”

While Five Valleys secured funding from the Farm Bill – which is set to expire next year – the effort to preserve the ranch, along with the parcel in Potomac, remains contingent upon matching funds from Missoula’s 2006 Open Space Bond.

Hoyt said Five Valleys Land Trust is writing its formal application to both the city of Missoula and Missoula Country in hopes of securing roughly 30 percent of the easement’s overall cost. Funding from the Farm Bill and landowner donations comprise the remaining 70 percent.

“Both properties border other land that’s been protected by conservation easements, so that adds value in protecting this as agricultural land and wildlife habitat,” Hoyt said. “We feel that’s meaningful as well.”

Claiming that “Oxbow cows are happy cows,” the cattle company raises its cattle free of hormones on pasture land abutting the city. The grass-finished beef is sold in several Missoula grocery stores and restaurants, including Scotty’s Table and the Buttercup Market and Cafe.

“We’re just an all-natural grass-finished beef company, and that means no growth hormones and no antibiotics,” said Morris. “They never received grain – they’re only out on pasture – and we take pride in the way we handle the animals and respect them.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com