Cornwell Ranch
The Cornwell Ranch has signed a deal with The Nature Conservancy for a 9,500-acre easement to preserve Great Plains grassland habitat important to bird species and other wildlife. Also in the works is a plan to purchase a 2,000-acre easement along Buggy Creek on the ranch, pictured above. The 24,000-acre ranch is located in Valley County, northwest of Glasgow. (AP photo) The Nature Conservancy

A northeastern Montana ranch considered two years ago for a Fish, Wildlife and Parks easement has instead signed a deal with The Nature Conservancy to protect 9,500 acres.

“With this easement, the land will stay valued as agriculture, so we can afford to pass it along to our kids,” said Lee Cornwell in a statement.

“That’s really why we’re doing it, to make sure that the next generation can live this great life.”

The 24,000-acre Cornwell Ranch is rich in history as well as unique in its landscape.

The area north of Glasgow is known as glaciated grasslands, prime habitat for disappearing bird species such as sage grouse and the Sprague’s pipit. Sage grouse, a candidate for endangered-species protection, breed on the ranch and migrate through en route to and from Canada, the longest recorded migration route for the species. FWP has identified the area as one of its core sage grouse conservation areas.

“That area is one of the biggest intact grasslands in the Great Plains,” said Brian Martin, science director for the Montana office of The Nature Conservancy. “We looked at it as a great opportunity from a wildlife perspective.”

In 2008, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had proposed purchasing an easement for the entire ranch, which would have guaranteed continued public access to hunt portions of the property. Although approved by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, the easement was denied by the state as too expensive. The state estimated the appraised value of the entire ranch at between $4.75 million and $5.25 million.

Once the FWP deal fell through, the Cornwells approached The Nature Conservancy and carved out the smaller, 9,500-acre easement. The nonprofit group is also working to secure an easement that would use North American Wetlands Conservation funding for another 2,000 acres of the ranch along Buggy Creek, Martin said.

“There’s just a high diversity of grassland birds in that area,” Martin said. “They are declining more rapidly than any other birds in North America.”

Under the easement agreement, the Cornwells will be able to continue ranching but are barred from farming and industrial development — such as a wind farm — or subdividing the property, Martin said.

“I guess we’re kind of freezing the land in time,” Cornwell said.

“We’re making sure it stays the way it was when my grandfather settled it back in 1892; we want it to stay in grass.”

The ranch is next door to the Bureau of Land Management’s 59,000-acre Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area. Other wildlife found in the region and on the ranch include Baird’s sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, McCown’s longspur, long-billed curlew, ferruginous hawk, lark bunting, pronghorn, mule deer, badger and swift fox.

“This easement really helps ensure that continuity of natural habitat between private and public land in that area,” Martin said.

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.

com or at 657-1387.

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