The sun rises over a prairie with a large tree in it.
Second Creek Ranch Native prairie in Montana on Second Creek Ranch near Malta, MT. © Jolynn Messerly

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Innovative Conservation on the Prairie

Unique Partnership Helps Ranchers and Climate

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has completed an innovative, multi-year plan to protect vital grassland habitat by working in a unique partnership with Montana ranchers. The project also helps to fight climate change.

After purchasing 4,340 acres in Phillips County, south of Malta in 2019, TNC did the opposite of what is often expected of conservation organizations. We sold it to neighboring ranch families, with a conservation easement in place. As part of the partnership, those families have, in turn, placed easements on some of the land they already owned.  

One new element of the project is that it includes carbon offset payments since the easement prevents the conversion of grassland to crops. Cultivating unbroken grassland releases carbon that contributes to the changing climate. The carbon offset payments helped pay for a portion of one easement and will, over time, provide an annual funding stream that will be shared by TNC and our ranching partner. This is one of a handful of such projects ever completed in the Great Plains.

The project – which began as so many do, over the kitchen table between TNC staff and our ranching partners – encompasses more than 13,000 acres of private land. The easements secured with this project,  conserve private land that is intermingled with extensive public land. Together, they create a sweep of habitat and ranchland that benefits both people and nature.

The sale completes a two-year vision for the land; one in which TNC would purchase and hold the land until the neighboring families could secure financing for its purchase.

“TNC’s original purchase of this land was a leap of faith for us, since we didn’t wish to be permanent owners. It was based on the trust that we have forged with this ranching community. We are glad to have it in the hands of ranch families with a demonstrated commitment to conservation,” says Brian Martin, Grassland Conservation Director for TNC.

The project area, located just north of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife refuge, is a rich mix of native prairie and big sagebrush grassland as well as more than 700 acres of wetlands. It harbors several important and/or declining bird species including greater sage-grouse, burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, long-billed curlew and chestnut-collared longspur. Its wetlands provide vital nesting habitat for waterfowl and other wetlands birds, while the uplands are important winter and summer range for pronghorn and mule deer.

The acreage sold consists of 10 discontinuous parcels that were intermingled with several ranches whose owners have been part of TNC’s pioneering Matador Grassbank. In exchange for discounted grazing leases on TNC’s 60,000-acre Matador Ranch, Grassbank members put conservation measures in place on their ranch operations, which encompass another 300,000 acres.

Rancher and Grassbank member Jesse Blunt says the land he bought will make his operation more efficient since it’s just across the road from one of his pastures. He also appreciates TNC’s approach to grassland conservation. “We enjoy the fact that TNC understands there needs to be cattle on the ground to make it more productive for wildlife and birds.”

Funding for this project was provided in part from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, The Conservation Fund, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.