It started with hunting. A love of hunting. Waterfowl in particular. Thirty years ago, Marc Pierce was a college student at Montana State University in Bozeman. And he was a passionate waterfowl hunter, a fever that he’d picked up as a kid hunting with Dad back home in Illinois.
“I started asking my college buddies about hunting and they thought I meant elk hunting,” remembered Marc. “No one hunted ducks.”
He and his Dad heard about some great waterfowling near Manhattan around Warm Springs and Camp Creeks. The place was loaded with waterfowl. Even late in the season when most of the waters around the valley were frozen, this place stayed open and the waterfowl loved it. Permission to hunt once turned into hunting every year, first as a college student, then as a successful businessman in the rapidly changing and growing Gallatin Valley around Bozeman-Belgrade. Hunting every year turned into a connection with the land that evolved from being a guest on the ground, to owning the land itself.
“I remember telling him (the farmer) that if he ever wanted to sell, to let me know,” said Marc. About 15 years ago, that happened.
By this time, Marc and his wife, Sherrie, had built a couple of successful businesses. Early on, Marc and his father Eric started Big Sky Carvers, a business built on a love of waterfowling that soon took off to world-renowned status. Later, the Pierces sold that business and started another one, a television production company with an emphasis on outdoors programs. Along the way, Marc had a stint as the host of Ducks Unlimited Television. He flew all over the continent hunting waterfowl, but the place out south of Manhattan with its hoards of mallards was always home.
“We started to realize that we could do something pretty special here,” said Marc. When the Pierces bought the land, they thought more and more about wildlife and waterfowl, but also how the ground was situated at the toe of the valley. “If you look at this place, you realize that it’s really the drain of the valley,” said Marc.
The Pierces’ home sits on a bench above the Gallatin River bottoms. The creeks run north, meandering and twisting their way to the river. When Marc and Sherrie bought this property and neighboring property together with a neighbor and close friend, they decided that they could boost the health of those creeks, create waterfowl and fisheries habitat, and improve the hunting and fishing. They did stream restoration, creating riffle-pool complexes in the creeks, helping the water meander and form habitat on its own. But they also kept farming, leasing out ground for grain crops that benefitted the ducks and geese and pheasants, while leaving other fields standing with tall grasses for nesting cover. Wildlife blossomed in the new habitat, not just waterfowl and upland game birds, but whitetail deer and even an occasional elk or moose.
During this time while waterfowl and other wildlife were finding a haven on the Pierce farm, people from all over the world were finding a home of their own in the Gallatin Valley. One of Montana’s most picturesque and livable valleys, the Gallatin has also been one of the fastest growing regions in the state, if not the entire Rocky Mountain region. Subdivisions built in the 2000s began to eat up chunks of rich farm ground from Bozeman to Churchill, and new developments were going in every year. For Marc, who had watched his former hunting fields 40 miles west of Chicago turn into shopping malls and condos, it was déjà vu.
“We bought this place and we saw all the development,” said Marc. “We are active in real estate and we sure love the Montana lifestyle and don’t begrudge other people the same, but we also were wondering when Belgrade was going to jump the river like a wildfire.”
Marc and Sherrie, who have four children ranging in age from 30 to 18, started to think about what they wanted their legacy to be. “We’ve just been so blessed and our kids love it out here, they are Montana kids. So we started to ask ourselves about what we wanted to have for our kids and our grandkids.”
That thought led to The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) and a conservation easement to keep the land open and a haven for wildlife forever. “When we first thought about a conservation easement, and I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, are we stealing from our kids’ future if we do this?’” said Marc. “But then Sherrie said to me, ‘It’s actually a gift for our kids to not see it ever developed’ and I realized it was the right thing to do.”
The Pierces worked with MLR to place the farm under conservation easement, together with the neighbor and friend who also shared a love of the land and of fishing and wildlife. And with the neighboring farm, some 2,000 acres of the Gallatin Valley, a wetland-benchland complex rich in wildlife will never be developed, thanks to a former college kid who just wanted a place to hunt.