Field Notes: Land stewardship for the long run on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front

Vital Ground Land Steward Brittani Rosas and landowner partner Mary Sexton
Photo: Kayla Heinze
Vital Ground Land Steward Brittani Rosas and landowner partner Mary Sexton chat on the bank of Spring Creek at Glen Willow Ranch near Choteau, Mont.

By Kayla Heinze, Communications Specialist

Forever is a long time. It’s also a timescale not typically on the front of my mind when wading through hip-high grasses under a scorching, July sun. Pulling barbed seeds from my pants and taking bouncy ATV rides over rocky bluffs usually forces my focus to the present. But as Land Steward Brittani Rosas and I explored Vital Ground project sites along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front earlier this month, our conversations naturally turned to ranges of 50, 100, 200 years — and beyond. 

Working in the field of land protection, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are playing a long game, one with a history that stretches back over eons of wildlife evolution and an unfolding future that we contemplate in multi-generational increments. 

Monitoring conservation easements

An historic barn at the Glen Willow Ranch. (Photo: Kayla Heinze)

Driving the gravel road just north of Choteau, Mont., onto Mary Sexton’s family ranch of 650 acres, it’s hard to ignore the interplay of past and future inherent in conservation. Historic barns and cabins dot the property and Mary stewards a wealth of stories about what happened here before our time. 

When Vital Ground established a conservation agreement with Mary back in 2019 to protect the ranch, it marked the beginning of a new and unending chapter for this land.

The conservation easement at Glen Willow means the property cannot be subdivided or developed. It will remain open for wildlife and agricultural use in perpetuity. Entering this agreement as an accredited land trust also means that Brittani is required to monitor the property every year on behalf of Vital Ground to ensure its conservation values are maintained. 

Monitoring responsibilities do not expire. Every year, past our lifetimes and the lifetimes of the grizzlies who currently meander through Glen Willow as they follow Spring Creek, someone will be checking in on this special place. 

In this iteration, Brittani and I interviewed Mary about notable wildlife sightings and farm projects from the past year and walked along the creek and to the top of the bluff to assess how the habitat was holding up. Other than a few pockets of leafy spurge, an invasive plant that Mary is heartily fighting, the ranch is in great shape and continuing to protect an excellent riparian corridor for grizzlies and other wildlife use. Witnessing the immense care Mary and her family have for the ranch and for animals of all kinds, we have no doubt this conservation legacy will continue — marking the landscape for centuries just as the historic cabins and a winding creek do. 

Farming for the future

Farmland protected by an agricultural land easement. (Photo: Kayla Heinze)

This field day marked my first visit to the Rocky Mountain Front, a geologic edge where towering, jagged peaks abruptly give way to an undulating ocean of prairies, bluffs and coulees. Since the late 19th century, when settlers and traders arrived in the area, it has been ranch country. 

Mark Fellows, a product of this tradition, thinks in timescales as vast as the land he tends. Inheriting land his father acquired as he worked diligently to prevent development in the town of Choteau from spreading uncontrollably, Mark’s view of the future is also conservation-oriented. As expanding grizzly populations move east out of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, their fate will be significantly influenced by the attitudes of landowners like Mark.

The Fellows Ranch will protect a significant amount of open space, as Vital Ground and Mark continue the rigorous process of completing a Farm Bill-supported Agricultural Land Easement through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. At over 4,400 acres, it includes riparian habitat along the Teton River that is favored by eastward-venturing grizzlies. On our blistering and windy field day, Brittani was documenting fencing and buildings on the property. Baseline reports like these provide a record of a site’s initial conservation assets and infrastructure. They serve as a standard for comparisons down the line that will ensure development is kept to a reasonable and minimal level and that habitat remains available for wildlife. 

Continuing conservation

The Rocky Mountain Front Range rises in the distance. (Photo: Kayla Heinze)

During their long days working on the Front, exposed to the elements and to the changing character of their rural community, landowners like Mary and Mark are taking an extra step by committing to the longevity of this landscape. By trusting Vital Ground to take on a guardian-like role with our yearly monitoring visits, they are generously offering what they have to give to the ecological community around them. 

Spending just one day in their shoes, I was awestruck by the labor and love that these people pour into their land. But I was even more impressed with their wisdom and selflessness to always make past and future generations a top priority in their work. When it comes to both wildlife and human populations, these landowners are obviously considering what resources and open space we will all need to thrive in the coming years, decades, centuries — and beyond. 

High up on the bluff, you have an unobstructed view of the mountains rising to the west. With these monuments to the geologic effort of Earth’s eons always on the horizon, maybe it is easy to think of time in bigger chunks. Like huge crests of rock lifted into the big, blue sky and then gradually chipped down again, the agricultural land easements we visited will be subject to the planet’s rhythms. 

Once-extirpated species like grizzlies will, with any luck, continue coming back to their former homes here. Chokecherries will bud and ripen, and those returning bears will help spread their seeds. Fish will swim through the creek’s clear waters. And just as we did this year, Vital Ground staff will continually visit, monitor, and build relationships with landowners as a way to protect and give back to this landscape that we cherish so dearly.

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