By Michael Howell
On Thursday, September 8, the Ravalli County Commissioners will consider a request for $145,725 to be awarded from the county’s Open Lands Bond Program as part of the cost for establishing a conservation easement on the White Feather Ranch east of Stevensville. Last week a few of the commissioners made a site visit to the property, located on Bridle Bit Lane, just off of Middle Burnt Fork Road, and took a walking tour of the 99-acre ranch.
Ranch owners Diane Thomas-Rupert and Paul Kink have worked hard fixing the ranch up since purchasing it in 1985, especially over the last several years. They currently have the place under lease to rancher and wildlife biologist Dan Kerslake and would like to see the place passed down undivided and handled as a working ranch in perpetuity.
Kerslake has been working the ranch for the last three years. The operation currently involves managing about 84 sheep and goats in a rotational grazing program. Kerslake also keeps about 22 cows and a bull on the place in the winter time. About 60 acres of hay ground produce about 140 tons of hay. Kerslake said that following a soils analysis and application of about 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre, he has one field that produces up to three tons per acre.
The ranch has an 1852 water right out of Middle Burnt Fork Creek, one of the oldest water rights in the state. Starting about seven years ago the ranch was converted to a sprinkler irrigation system. Kerslake said that the hay fields serve as wintering ground for a local herd of elk. To date, he said, the herd has not bothered the haystacks that stand in the fields unfenced.
The ranch land and riparian area along Middle Burnt Fork Creek, which runs through the property, serve as habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Kerslake, being trained as a wildlife biologist, enjoys watching the wildlife that uses the area. He is familiar with the pair of Great Horned Owls who currently hunt the area daily at dusk. Red Foxes have denned nearby and hunted mice in the hayfields. The stream supports a fishery and serves as a corridor for all kinds of animals such as raccoons and skunks as well as providing habitat for songbirds and birds of prey.
Not all the property is going into the conservation easement, such as the old homestead and barn located on the north side of North Burnt Fork Road. A home site totaling two acres is also reserved by the owners for future residential use.
Total appraised value of the conservation easement is $421,823. The landowners are donating $304,373, or 72 percent of the total value. They are requesting $117,450 in compensation from the Open Lands Program, or about $1,186 per acre. Combined with $30,525 in costs for preparing the easement, it brings the total request for payment from the program to $145,725.
Gavin Ricklefs of the Bitterroot Land Trust, whose organization is shepherding the request through the county’s Open Land Program, said that besides the great agricultural values and the wildlife and wildlife habitat values on the place, it is also strategically located to augment several other conservation easements in the Burnt Fork area.
“White Feather Ranch is located within two miles of over 5,500 acres of land already protected by conservation easements,” said Ricklefs. Those include large easements on the Severson’s Flying E Ranch, and on the Schroeder ranch on Sunset Bench, as well as a very large conservation easement on the Burnt Fork Ranch at the mouth of the canyon.