GARDINER — The highway between here and Livingston always keeps buzzing, but it’s hard to tell a few miles up a two-track that winds east through what used to be part of the Slip N Slide Ranch.

The narrow road passes what used to be a bison corral and climbs higher. It crests one hill and goes around a pond, brown with snowmelt, and then it winds higher, through scrubby sagebrush country. Elk and mule deer spook at the sound of humans. Two more ponds go by, one fed by a waterfall, and then it’s into the timber, taller conifers that signify a gain in elevation.

At the top of the road is a bare spot where a cabin stood for several decades. It was torn down in December, part of the final preparations for a land swap that was more than a decade in the making.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest finalized a deal last week to acquire the 583 acres near Yankee Jim Canyon and the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. In exchange, the agency gave up a tough-to-access parcel deep in the mountains to the west, on the other side of the Yellowstone River.

Known as the Shooting Star Ranch Land Exchange, the deal includes two roadside corrals that once housed research bison and stretches into the mountains that rise to the east. The land is now open to public non-motorized use, and some of its other features — elk, mule deer, and the three ponds, which have been stocked in the past — have already gotten locals excited about the possibilities.

“I think there will be a good amount of folks up here once word gets out,” said Mike Thom, the Gardiner district ranger on the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

The trade fits into decades of work toward securing habitat for the big game species that wander north out of Yellowstone National Park — like the famous elk herd that makes its way from the park border to the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Purchases and easements over the last several decades have preserved the migration corridors here, and the new piece adds to that legacy.

Thom, who has worked in Gardiner since late 2016, shepherded the deal through the final stages. The deal came about after William Morean, a former chairman of the electronics company Jabil Circuit and member of Forbes’ 2005 list of the richest people in America, bought the northernmost portion of the Slip N Slide Ranch with the idea of trading it to the Forest Service.

In exchange, Morean’s Shooting Star Ranch LLC received 590 acres between two Forest Service parcels in the Cinnabar drainage. One piece was completely surrounded by another Shooting Star property, and a smaller piece was adjacent to it.

An appraisal put the Slip N Slide property at a value of about $2.8 million, Thom said, while the Forest Service land was valued at about $1.1 million. Thom said Morean agreed to donate the $1.7 million difference in land value, a key to making the trade happen.

Morean could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

With the deal done, on-the-ground work can begin.

There’s plenty left that indicates what the place used to be. Fenceposts, irrigation pipe, power poles, barbed wire, and a few signs telling people they shouldn’t be there. The agency will remove most of that stuff — Thom said some bison advocates are excited to tear out fence from the roadside pastures that used to house bison.

Forest officials will also begin considering the future of the land. The three ponds are man-made impoundments, and the agency will have to decide how to manage those. The water has supported some wetlands on the property. Josh Hemenway, the Custer Gallatin’s wildlife program manager, said that feature is important and unusual for this part of the state.

“It’s surprising to see something like this given a more arid surrounding landscape,” Hemenway said.

The ponds have been stocked in the past with rainbow trout, Thom said. The agency might consider replacing the rainbows with native fish in the long-term.

He’s already heard from a few anglers about the ponds and a few hunters about the big game. The deal has been a long time coming, and he’s happy it’s done.

“Thirteen years in the making,” Thom said. “It feels really good.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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