DU working with local land owner to conserve 3,000 acres

Ducks Unlimited and farmer/rancher Kent Wasson have the same goal for a 3,000-acre piece of native prairie in northeastern Montana: maintaining the legacy. Wasson recently purchased the land from Ducks Unlimited.

Wasson wants the ranch to stay in good shape to pass on to his grandkids. Ducks Unlimited wants the land's grass and wetlands to stay intact to maintain Montana's legacy of being the third largest waterfowl producer on the Continent.

"We live in a different era today where it's time production agriculture and conservation became cooperators. We all have to give," Kent said. "Mother Nature tells us what we can and cannot do."

He had been leasing the land from DU to expand his cattle herd. He also liked the location - next door to his place. "It's not a long trail-drive for our cattle, about four miles from one end of our place to the barn," Kent said.  

Wasson believes in treating the land well, including using their farmland for residual grazing when their native grass isn't ready for the herd.  "We don't take our cattle onto the grass until it's ready. We don't abuse it," he said. "I have a couple of grandkids who are going to be on the land someday, and I want them to know we leave the land in a better place than we got it."

Robert Sanders, DU's manager of conservation programs for Montana, says Kent has a deep understanding of and appreciation for the land. "As a farmer and a rancher he understands some land is best suited for farming and other areas are best suited for grazing," Sanders said. "This approach meshes perfectly with DU's mission of ‘farming the best and conserving the rest.'"   

The sale is a happy ending for DU using its Revolving Land Strategy to protect the property's habitat. Under the strategy, DU buys land with critical habitat, restores and protects it, and then sells the land to a conservation-minded buyer. Often that buyer is a local rancher.

During DU's ownership, and with the help of the USFWS's Partners for Wildlife Program, the land was enhanced with cattle-watering systems and cross fencing. The Wassons did a lot of the work to install the equipment and paid 25 percent of the cost. "It will help us spread the ranch out, and it showed how a government agency can work with producers and accomplish good things for both sides," Kent said.

The Wassons are now implementing another conservation tactic to help lower the use of chemicals so they can bring cattle onto the fields. They are planting cover crops in a rotation on fallow ground, which Ken says has increased his soil's organic matter and ability to hold water. The cows "harvest" the crop.