Conserving a Sea of Grass

Seeps and wetlands on the Cornwell Ranch support healthy Aspen and cottonwoods and make excellent wildlife habitat. These features are rare and valuable on the arid prairie.

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 more than 15,000 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, north and 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.

Recent portions placed under easement also include important prairie wetlands with some unusual Aspen groves which are critical to wildlife in this arid part of the state. Rare, lush stands of cottonwoods also follow along Buggy Creek which traverses the property.

“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 in Montana's Grasslands Conservation Director.

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.”


Stay Updated

Learn about the places you love and find out how you can help by signing up for Nature eNews.

I'm already on the list Read our privacy policy

Thank you for joining our online community!

We'll be in touch soon with more Nature Conservancy news, updates, and exciting stories.