BETWEEN CASCADE AND SIMMS — There's a lot of lore attached to the 3,980 acres below Birdtail Butte.

Some believe the first photo known to have been taken in Montana captures its rocky spine that fans out like the tail of a bird. 

Landowner Bob Rumney says the first inhabitants of the area would hide on part of the rock and wait to grab the tail feathers of eagles that landed.

Even more plentiful than the centuries of tales is the wildlife, habitat and open space that stretches out below the landmark, now secured for public access forever under a conservation easement Rumney entered into with the state.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock visited the site Wednesday as fall hunting season is in full swing to mark what he says is the importance of conservation easements and his prevailing in the state Supreme Court last year over who can approve them.

Rumney's family has had a presence in the rolling hills and prairie between the buttes that define this part of Montana since the 1800s, and he lives nearby on the home place where he grew up. His wife's family history in the area dates back just as far. His son, John, runs Rumney Cattle Co. now, with about 300-or-so cow-calf pairs.

For years Bob Rumney had been considering putting the property into some sort of conservation easement. It's important to him that hunters have a place to take a deer or elk, though he's not a hunter himself, and for years he let people onto his land before moving some into the state access program block management.

"If nothing else, with an easement, it'll always be in agriculture. You can't put a wind farm or a subdivision and … one of these guys comes and wants a private hunting reserve, that's not going to happen either. And I've always let people hunt on both of my places," Rumney, 62, said.

The easement with Fish, Wildlife & Parks was a logical move for Rumney, who was paid about half the market price for the land and used the money to to buy 2,000 acres he'd been leasing that's more contiguous to where he runs cattle.

There are plentiful springs on the easement, ones that stay wet in drought years when Rumney's other lands are dry as a bone.

FWP biologist Brent Lonner, who worked with Rumney for years on the easement, said the land is a great example of habitat diversity. The list of plant species on the property runs four pages long. Rumney has seen coyotes, mountain lions and said he hears reports from the land in block management about days where 14 elk have been taken from the property. His son caught a grizzly bear on a game camera last year.

"This is magical over here," Rumney said.

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Bullock toured the property with Rumney on Wednesday. Last year the state Land Board, on which Bullock is the lone Democrat along with the four other statewide elected officials, fought a battle over easements like this one and who gets to approve them. In response a vote by state Auditor Matt Rosendale, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen to delay action on an easement near Wibaux, Bullock used a narrow reading of state law to purchase the easement without the board's approval

After Attorney General Tim Fox issued an opinion finding Bullock's action in violation of the law, the matter ended up in the state Supreme Court. There, the court ruled for Bullock, finding that FWP can enter into easements with approval of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission that oversees it, but without Land Board approval. That's because the Land Board is responsible only for approving FWP land purchases and managing the 5.2 million acres the state holds in trust, not easements the state agrees to with private property owners. 

When the whole issue went to court, there were 13 easements in the pipeline, three with immediate deadlines like Rumney's. He needed it to close so he could buy those other 2,000 acres, but he was lucky that the seller was patient.

"It''s been a long process and it's not an easy thing to go through," Rumney said.

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Lonner said getting easements done takes long-term, ground-level discussions that go on for years, and the clash at the Land Board caused stress.

"This got into that mix of 'nobody knows what's going to happen,'" Lonner said. "Fortunately it worked out. … When you get into an easement like this, it's not 20 years and let's see if this works. It's forever."

In 1987, the state Legislature approved using hunting license fees to create the Habitat Montana program that pays for FWP easements and land purchases. By last December, the Habitat program had set up 56 conservation easements totaling 450,000 acres.

Bullock said Wednesday he's aware that with the approaching 2020 elections, the governor's office could flip to Republican, and the makeup of the Land Board could change, and with that so could attitudes toward easements.

"That's the problem, is the Habitat for Montana program could at the end of the day be taken away," Bullock said.

The state Legislature will also likely stay Republican-majority. Last session several bills were proposed around the issue to essentially overturn the state Supreme Court ruling. That included one that would have made the Land Board give final approval to all conservation easement projects. Bullock vetoed that bill in May.

Bullock said in his mind, conservation easements become more and more important as Montana land becomes more expensive.

"The value of property in our state, and as Montana becomes more and more found, is only going to continue to increase, so there would be great value in taking this land and just subdividing it up into 5-acre mini-ranches or starter castles. And once you do that to a landscape, it's irreversible. But by the same token, once you find a willing property owner that says I'll preserve this forever, we'll know that not just my kids but their kids and their kids will still be able to come out here."

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