Realty Program


Conservation Opportunities Under the Big Sky

Wildlife managers and private landowners are finding new common ground in Montana. They've discovered that protecting important wildlife habitat and maintaining family farms and ranches go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of Montana’s farms and ranches are being lost to residential and commercial development or converted to other non-agricultural uses. This trend threatens nationally significant wildlife habitat and erodes the agricultural land base that plays such an integral role in habitat conservation efforts in western Montana. Farmers and ranchers are looking for options to protect their “way of life” while helping to conserve the state’s natural resources. The use of conservation easements is an effective, non-regulatory approach for accomplishing this objective.

Fish and Wildlife Service Easement Program

The Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has developed a conservation easement program to protect important fish and wildlife habitat on private land in western Montana. Perpetual easements are purchased from willing sellers who own properties within designated project areas. Service easements prohibit subdivision and development activities but generally allow for continued agricultural uses such as livestock grazing, haying or farming of existing cropland.

What is a Conservation Easement?

Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements between landowners and government agencies or qualified conservation organizations that restrict the type and amount of development that may take place on a property in the future. Easements can be donated or sold and land use restrictions are tailored to meet specific conservation goals in accordance with the needs of the landowner.

Cost-effective Conservation

Typically, the cost of acquiring conservation easements on private land ranges from 25%-50% of its full fee value depending on the terms of the easement. With limited funding for acquisition, this lower cost enables the Service to protect larger blocks of important habitat in western Montana. Conservation on this scale would not be possible if the land had to be purchased. In addition, operation and management costs of easements on private lands are significantly lower than those required for Service-owned lands.

What Land is Eligible?

The primary funding source for FWS purchased easements in Montana is the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF), commonly known as the Federal Duck Stamp. Easements can be purchased on private land containing sufficient wetland habitat within the following designated counties: Liberty, Toole, Glacier, Pondera, Chouteau, Teton, Cascade, Lewis & Clark, Powell, Lake and Flathead Counties. In order to qualify for this funding, a property must have glaciated “pothole” type wetlands, ponds, lakes or open water areas that provide suitable habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. On average, eligible lands need to have at least 10% of the total easement acreage to be considered as wetland habitat. Rivers, streams, reservoirs or other artificial water bodies don’t count for determining the minimum wetland acreage required for funding under this particular easement program.

A second funding source that FWS can use to purchase easements is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). In this case there are no minimum wetland requirements for eligible properties containing important fish and wildlife habitat. The LWCF funding is appropriated annually by Congress for designated project areas in Montana. Currently the use of LWCF funding is limited to private land in the Ovando area of the Blackfoot Valley (Powell County), lands surrounding Red Rock Lakes NWR (Beaverhead County) and the Ninepipe portion of the Mission Valley (Lake County). In addition the FWS has recently expanded the easement program to include portions of three counties along the Rocky Mountain Front. Other project areas may be approved in the future.

How to Participate
in the Program

Landowners who own land within designated counties or project areas mentioned above and are interested in learning more about the FWS easement program should contact the FWS Realty Office. Typically the process starts by having a FWS biologist take a look at the property to see if it has suitable habitat for the program. If the land is eligible and the landowner wants to proceed, FWS completes an appraisal of the property. The appraisal determines the fair market value of the easement and is used to make a written offer to purchase the easement. If the landowner agrees to the offer, FWS orders title insurance to insure that the property has clear title or whether there are other owners or mortgage holders which need to subordinate the easement. Once the title work has been done, a closing date is set and a lump sum payment is made to the landowner. The FWS pays for all costs associated with the easement including the appraisal, title insurance and recording fees. No public meetings are required to sell an easement to the FWS and the entire process from start to finish usually takes from six to 12 months.

The bottom line for most landowners is how much will the FWS pay for a conservation easement on my land? This varies greatly depending on the property involved (size, location, amenities such as water frontage, cropland, timber, views, etc.) and the terms or restrictions of the easement. Generally the value of FWS easements range from 25% to 50% of a property’s full market value. With only limited funding for the easement program, priority is given to those landowners willing to do a bargain sale (selling an easement at less than the appraised value). In some cases, a bargain sale can help offset capital gain taxes associated with the sale of an easement. Landowners are encouraged to seek out professional legal advice to determine any financial benefits or tax implications associated with the sale of a conservation easement.

To date the program has been very successful, with landowner interest far exceeding the available funding. To date the FWS has purchased conservation easements on nearly 100,000 acres of important fish and wildlife habitat in western Montana.

For additional information contact Gary Sullivan either by e-mail at or by phone at 406-727-7400 ext. 225.