Protected in perpetuity: Conservation easement secures future of Shoco Ranch near Augusta

ARTICLE Helena, Mont. (March 9, 2017) –

An Augusta-area ranch will be kept as open space in perpetuity after finalization of a conservation easement in late February.

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The 836-acre Shoco Ranch entered into the easement with Montana Land Reliance after working 17 months to secure both public and private funding. The easement secures the property as a working ranch and free from future subdivision.

“From my perspective the Rocky Mountain Front is obviously a beautiful landscape and also extremely high quality habitat for both elk and large carnivores like grizzly bears,” said Jay Erickson, managing director for the reliance. “It’s also a great piece of agricultural heritage for Montana and Lewis and Clark County and it would just be a shame to have that chopped up.”

Erickson touted the property as strategic for fish and wildlife, bordered by state lands and bisected by Smith Creek.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was also among the supporters. The property received the second highest rank for crucial wildlife habitat, biologist Brent Lonner wrote in a letter to the county.

“This property falls within primarily a mountain/foothill habitat type which is very important to both year round and seasonally present wildlife species (game and non-game) in this area,” the letter says.

Sally Shortridge is the fifth generation of her family to run the ranch, Erickson said, and wanted to conserve it as a working ranch.

“I am very grateful to Montana Land Reliance for their persistence and partnership in this wonderful project,” Shortridge said in a statement. “Knowing that this piece of my heritage will be forever protected from land subdivision and will be retained as a working ranch is a forever gift. This very special place will be an elk calving grounds, grizzly bear migration trail and a protected piece of heaven on earth for all of the creatures that call it home.”

The agreement does not include a public access component – the ranch’s website notes some private hunting for birds and deer – which Erickson noted kept the overall cost of the easement down.

“If this or any project like this requires public access it’s much more expensive,” he said, emphasizing the public’s benefit by preserving the viewshed and keeping the property as open space.

The easement was valued at $810,000 and the reliance requested $716,500 from the Lewis and Clark County Open Lands Program, with $81,000 of the value donated by Shortridge.

Public funding for easements was approved in 2008 by voters in the form of a $10 million bond. Recommendations come through the Citizens Advisory Committee on Open Lands with approval through the Lewis and Clark County Commission.

In a meeting last December, the commission voted to offer $600,000 toward the easement rather than the full ask. Commissioner Andy Hunthausen dissented, saying that he believed the full amount should be awarded.

Erickson was cautious in his comments about the process of seeking county bond funding, but did say he felt the process did not provide a clear direction on how much the county would provide. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Audubon Society, Vital Ground and the Montana Land Reliance Foundation also helped fund the project, which received 24 letters of support.

“In the end they made a very substantial contribution and we’re very happy with the county for that,” Erickson said, “and we really appreciate the wide ranging support.”

Tom Kuglin – Helena Independent Record