Implementation of Ravalli County’s Open Land Bond program and establishment of conservation easements throughout the valley by the Bitter Root Land Trust has led to the protection of over 7,076 acres of wildlife habit and over 9,322 acres of working farm and ranch land from future development, according to the organization’s website. This includes about 43 miles of protected river and stream banks, and 201 acres of community owned riverside parkland. Buoyed by the recent overwhelming show of public support by voter approval of a second $10 million bond, the future of open land preservation in the valley looks bright.
One of the latest easements to be announced in this ongoing effort is the Sough Conservation Easement, located in the Skalkaho Creek watershed southeast of Hamilton. The new easement includes 75 acres of pristine wildlife habitat supporting species that include Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, black bear, mountain lions and golden eagles.
Landowner Suzanna McDougal has deeply enjoyed sharing the place with wildlife since she acquired ownership back in the early 1990s. Just last week her place was visited by a mountain lion who made a meal of one of the many mule deer that frequent her property. McDougal said that she has seen some changes in the use of the place by wildlife that concern her. There used to be big herds of mule deer on the place, she said. Now you only see from 15 to 20 at a time, she said.
“I like that they are here because they provide food for the fox and the coyotes and the eagles,” she said., “and that’s OK because it’s all part of the cycle.” She said that local scientists did a three-year study on the property using roadkill to attract eagles that could be recorded on film as part of their ongoing studies of the eagle population in the Bitterroot.
McDougal has a strong conservation ethic and said she has thought of placing a conservation easement on the property ever since she purchased it. Asked what prompted her to finally take the step, she said simply, “Getting old.”
Not only does McDougal have a big heart for the wild animals who frequent the place, her care and concern extends to the whole landscape, the rocky outcroppings that the wild sheep love to traverse and the rolling slopes supporting native grasses and trees that support the wildlife, including songbirds to eagles.
McDougal has done a lot of work on her place planting native Ponderosa pine trees and junipers as well as spreading native wildflowers by seed.
Although she felt secure in her care for the place over all these years, at the age of 76, she said, she began to think more seriously about the future of the place when she would no longer be the caretaker.
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” said McDougal. “I wanted to be sure someone would take care of this place like I have when I’m gone. I feel such reverence, awe and spiritual connection with this land. I love its many sacred niches, rocks, trees, plants and wildlife. I want the birds and other animals to continue to find true refuge here. And now that it’s conserved, they can.”