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We’ve heard a lot about the proposal for a grand, private nature preserve on the Montana prairie. What you’ve heard less about is the conservation that has already taken place in which local communities are the key to the future. The Nature Conservancy is building on a vision that is conserving grasslands around the globe, ranging from Argentina, to Mongolia, to the Northern Great Plains.

So far, working with landowners, we have safeguarded more than 100,000 acres in Montana’s grasslands from their biggest threat: conversion to marginal cropland. We have conserved habitat for greater sage-grouse and threatened grassland birds and helped preserve the longest pronghorn migration route in the world. And we’ve done it by keeping ranch families on their land.

This vision is becoming reality without a lot of hype or publicity. Like the people with whom we work, it’s happening quietly, steadily and with a commitment to the future. It’s taking place in partnership with federal, state, and local groups. It’s also grounded in cutting-edge science.

For more than two decades, we have been building trust and relationships with the community of ranchers in northeastern Montana whose families have called the prairie home for generations. Their stewardship has helped maintain the largest, intact sweep of grasslands in North America. As a conservation organization, we had to earn that trust by being part of the community, working neighbor-to-neighbor and doing a lot of listening to what people who live there envisioned for the place they call home.

One of the first steps toward our conservation partnership was our innovative Matador Grassbank, which was formed in 2003. It was born out of the necessity of drought and built in the spirit of trust and a recognition that the health of grasslands, wildlife, and ranches were dependent upon each other, despite ownership boundaries. Together, we built a framework that allowed ranches to strengthen their operations and rangeland health through additional access to grass on the Matador, but it also required them to cooperate beyond lending a hand. It required ranchers to run cattle together, share breeding stock, provide care for each other’s livestock, and work with TNC to use cattle as a tool to shape the habitat for wildlife. Ranchers welcomed TNC to work with them on their ranches, changing fences to meet wildlife-friendly standards, giving prairie dogs more room so that burrowing owls and mountain plovers had places to nest and raise their young. Today, the grassbank touches more than 350,000 acres and 25 ranch families. The idea has been so successful, that ranchers near Winnett are now in the process of creating another grassbank, which we are actively supporting.

Based on the trust we’ve built with this community, TNC has a new idea that requires a leap of faith for us, as well as the ranching community. This month, we bought 4,340 acres in ten parcels east of the Matador Ranch. Rather than keeping it long term, we will protect it with a conservation easement and then sell it to neighbors, rather than buyers from outside of the community. Neighbors have expressed interest in placing easements on their land to fund their purchase; expanding conservation while strengthening ranches.

We trust that local owners who have expertise, passion, and commitment to the land are the best way forward for conservation and this is also the best way for their communities to thrive. In a world where both trust and vision can often seem in short supply, these partnerships are proving that they still exist, sometimes with the most unlikely of allies.

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Brian Martin is the director of grassland conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Montana.

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