Yellowstone National Park

A herd of elk graze near the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park on March 20.

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A ranching family has signed a private conservation agreement with a think tank and a nonprofit that dedicates hundreds of acres in Paradise Valley as winter range for elk.

Modeled loosely after a deal between the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and a rancher in Wyoming, the “elk occupancy agreement” is a shorter-term alternative to a conservation easement, which lasts in perpetuity.

The Petrich family entered into the elk occupancy agreement, which is voluntary, entirely funded by private donations and the first agreement of its kind in Montana, according to GYC. The family agreed to set aside about 500 acres of their land near Elbow Creek as elk winter range.

“We are proud to have developed an innovative and collaborative approach to conservation,” said Siva Sundaresan, GYC’s conservation director, in a news release. “Our goal for this project is to conserve high value habitat and healthy native forage for Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife while supporting local livelihoods.”

The Petrich family signed the agreement with GYC and the Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank focused on free market environmentalism.

“This is exciting for its potential, not just in Paradise Valley, but for the whole Greater Yellowstone ecosystem,” said Brian Yablonski, PERC’s CEO. “If you look at the three entities involved, they are not always natural partners. It shows the power of what a good idea and a good project can do.”

The conservation organization and think tank split the costs of buying a new fence, and in return, the family set up 1.25 miles of fencing around the winter range, separating it from cattle pastures. To promote the growth of native forage, aircraft sprayed the area for noxious weeds and cheatgrass.

“Here we are in the fall now, and the fence is in, things are happening and the project is a success so far,” said rancher Zane Petrich. “(PERC and GYC) were easy to work with. It was all a gentleman’s agreement.”

The Petrichs intend to continue managing the land as wildlife habitat, though the agreement itself is open-ended. Routine maintenance could include noxious weed and cheatgrass treatment, some conifer removal and controlled burning, Yablonski said.

Cattle will be kept out of the fenced area unless the landowners need the extra range to avoid undue economic hardship or reduce wildfire hazards. Hunting and the Petrichs’ outfitting business can be used as a conservation tool, according to PERC.

Scott Christensen, executive director of GYC, said his organization wants to help landowners continue to provide critical habitat for wildlife, and an elk occupancy agreement is one way to do that.

Preserving private land is especially important in Paradise Valley, where pressure to subdivide and fragment sensitive habitat is mounting.

“Communities in southwest Montana are growing, and places like Paradise Valley have a lot of pressure from developers and from people looking to move here,” Christensen said. “Paradise Valley is also incredibly important for migrating wildlife, particularly the northern range elk herd.”

Conservation easements are a great option to protect open land in perpetuity, but they are not a perfect tool for all landowners, Christensen said. Voluntary, incentive-based elk occupancy agreements can fill a niche where other tools may not work.

Petrich said the new range is ideal for elk because it is south-facing, meaning snow there melts and exposes grasses more often. The spot borders two other private properties, Bureau of Land Management land and Forest Service land, he said.

Since spraying the winter range for cheatgrass, animals have begun to congregate more on the property, according to Petrich. He has watched elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer and bighorn sheep browse through forage there this fall.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to take care of the land,” he said. “If you don’t take care of the land, it can’t really take care of you.”

In the Greater Yellowstone area, private land is concentrated in lower-elevation river valleys — areas where migrating elk, mule deer and pronghorn access critical range in the winter, Christensen said.

Elk that occupy higher-elevation terrain in the summer will flee public land as hunting pressure mounts there. The animals will plop down on lower-elevation private land in the fall and winter, where they are usually safe.

Sometimes elk will feed on haystacks or damage fences, to the ire of many ranchers. Often, they aren’t in any hurry to leave when springtime rolls around.

It’s in Petrich’s best interest to manage some of his land for wildlife, he noted, because he also runs an outfitting business. While elk pose a total cost for some ranching families, for Petrich, they pose less of a cost, he said.

In addition to property damage, some ranchers don’t want elk on their land because the animals can spread brucellosis to livestock. The infectious disease is costly: It can cause cattle to miscarry or give birth to weak young.

Petrich said that he and some of his neighbors have had brucellosis transmission among their cattle, and he hopes that enhancing winter range will entice elk back into the foothills earlier in the year, away from livestock.

“The elk herd can only be as big as its winter range,” he said. “It’s important to have places set aside for them.”

Yablonski said people who want to address conservation issues often have a default of pursing government solutions, but private solutions are often more organic and productive.

While giving up a right to develop in perpetuity might work for some landowners, a lot of ranchers aren’t ready to go there. Shorter habitat agreements are like “easements with training wheels,” he said.

“Private lands are the next frontier of conservation,” Yablonski said. “Wildlife is super dependent on private land for habitat. We have to do conservation in a way that’s not threatening and is complementary to landowners.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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