Longtime volunteers of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Keith and Linda Ward of Huson, Mont., have finalized a deal to permanently protect 1,050 acres of area ranchland that serve as important habitat for elk and other wildlife.

On Dec. 16, the Wards placed their Checkpoint Ranch, some 20 miles west of Missoula, Mont., between Ninemile and Sixmile creeks, under conservation easement with RMEF.

The legal agreement restricts development in perpetuity even if land ownership changes.

Affected acres will always be, “much as they are today–farmland, ranchland and native wetlands, meadows and forests,” said Mike Mueller, lands program manager for RMEF.

RMEF brokered the deal, assisted with the legal processes and will monitor easement provisions annually.

“Checkpoint Ranch is one of the largest remaining private parcels in the area, and since it’s connected to adjoining federal and state lands, the conservation impacts of this easement are truly on a landscape scale,” said Mueller. “Habitat fragmentation is a real concern with the increasing subdivision in the Ninemile area. By protecting this ranch, we’ve helped secure the viability of habitat across a much larger area.”

Habitat on the ranch supports an area elk herd of 150-200 animals. Elk are most abundant on the ranch during fall rut, winter and calving season–in fact, biologists say the ranch is one of the preferred calving areas in the surrounding region.

Many other game and nongame species also are commonly observed.

The easement does not provide public access. However, in partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Dept. (FWP) and RMEF, the Wards have developed an elk management plan and enrolled part of their property in a special FWP program that provides the public with limited, high-quality, herd-management hunting opportunities.

The 1,050-acre tract, part of the historic Scheffer Ranch now owned for 20 years by the Ward family, is actually protected via two different easements. One 890-acre easement was partially donated by the Wards and partially funded by the Missoula County Open Space Bond Program. An adjoining 160-acre easement, which covers the original Scheffer Ranch homestead, was fully donated by the Wards.

Combined, the value of the Wards’ donations is approximately $2.7 million.

David Allen, RMEF president and CEO, thanked the Wards for their generosity and credited three RMEF partners–Missoula County Commission, Missoula County Rural Initiatives and Missoula County Open Lands Citizen Advisory Committee–for “using open space bond funds to save an incredible piece of wild country in the kind of place that’s prone to future development.”

Supporters of the project included Lolo National Forest, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Department of Transportation, Ninemile Wildlife Movement Area Working Group and Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Keith Ward, president of Bob Ward and Sons Sporting Goods, has served multiple volunteer terms on the RMEF board of directors. He is a past chairman of the board and has served a variety of leadership roles on committees. The Wards also are active in many other conservation and sporting organizations.

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