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Montana

Conserving a Sea of Grass

When Lee Cornwell surveys his vast grasslands near Bitter Creek, he imagines this must be how it feels to be in the middle of the ocean…and the center of the universe. It’s a feeling he wants to be sure his children and grandchildren will also experience. That’s why the family has placed nearly 11,300 acres of their ranch under conservation easementS with The Nature Conservancy in Montana.

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

The Cornwell Ranch is located on Montana's glaciated plains, west of Glasgow. The property is superb habitat for rare and declining grassland birds, including an internationally significant population of Greater Sage-grouse.  Sage-grouse breed on the property as well as migrate through the ranch from Canada.  This migration is the longest recorded for sage-grouse. Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, McCown’s longspur, Long-billed curlew, ferruginous hawk, and lark bunting are also found on the property as are native wildlife such as pronghorn, mule deer, badger, and swift fox.

“For more than a century, the Cornwell family have been great stewards of this land, and it shows in the tremendous diversity of prairie wildlife found on their ranch,” according to Brian Martin, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science.

Cornwell’s grandfather came to Montana from Virginia in 1889 at the urging of a sister, who was cooking at a mining camp at the time.

"He got out here just after the last of the buffalo had disappeared. After working for a time as a blacksmith, he decided to ship out a bunch of sheep and stake out this place.” according to Lee Cornwell.

"The family converted to a cow-calf operation in 1947-48.  A third generation of Cornwells is already actively managing the ranch. 

“With this easement, the land will stay valued as agriculture, so we can afford to pass it along to our kids. That’s really why we’re doing it, to make sure that the next generation can live this great life.”

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