Public comment sought for conservation easement

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The proposed easement would run along the Kootenai River. (Duncan Adams/The Western News)

Many people consider the small and comparatively isolated population of grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem to be at a high risk of inbreeding.

The limited population of grizzlies in the Yaak Valley and in the Cabinets and the paucity of breeding age females create concerns among wildlife biologists that genetic diversity could suffer.

Similarly, the grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem are far removed from the bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a sprawling area that includes Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Wildlife officials occasionally capture grizzlies in the NCDE and transport them to the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

Otherwise, conservation efforts for the threatened species focus on connectivity.

A key wildlife corridor northwest of Troy had once been slated for a residential subdivision. Preparation included construction of an access road and installation of forest green utility boxes for what would have been Wild River Estates.

Now, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), with proposed funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hopes to help a nonprofit dedicated to acquiring and conserving grizzly habitat protect the wildlife corridor from development.

The Vital Ground Foundation, based in Missoula, owns the roughly 50 acres, bordered by U.S. Highway 2 and the Kootenai River.

As proposed, FWP would purchase a conservation easement from Vital Ground to protect the site from future residential or commercial development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would fund the purchase with a $374,000 grant. Vital Ground will match the grant by 50 percent through a below-market sale of the easement.

Vital Ground would continue to own and manage the land.

According to FWP, the Wild River Easement property “is part of an area identified by biologists as the best linkage corridor for grizzly bears between the Purcell and Cabinet mountains in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery area.”

Vital Ground has previously teamed up with the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative to protect other property in the vicinity of the Wild River site.

“Shore up the middle of the Cabinet-Yaak and the potential for connected bear habitat from Canada to central Idaho becomes significantly greater,” according to Vital Ground.

“With Wild River located in a natural bottleneck near the confluence of the Kootenai and Yaak rivers, the corridor just needs protection,” the organization said.

FWP seeks public comment through Feb. 17 on a draft environmental assessment for the proposed purchase of the easement.

Public access would be allowed for fishing and bird watching. The property’s proximity to U.S. Highway 2 and nearby residences would preclude hunting.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council, a regional nonprofit environmental group, expressed support for the easement’s acquisition.

“The Yaak Valley Forest Council is excited to see the purchase of the Wild River conservation easement,” said Rick Bass, the council’s chairman. “It’s a great asset to open space in the community, and helps protect the movements of wildlife, for which we are also grateful.”

Jessie Grossman, Cabinet-Purcell Mountain Corridor project coordinator for the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative, said the easement would facilitate the movement of wildlife through the corridor. And the provision of public access for fishing and bird watching is an important benefit, she said.

Jerry Bennett, a Lincoln County commissioner, said he met with people from Vital Ground around the time the organization purchased the property. He said he offered a few concerns about the transaction and said he anticipated an effort to eventually secure a conservation easement.

One ongoing concern is how the loss of private property can affect the county’s tax base, Bennett said. But he is glad the site will retain public access and said he recognizes that wildlife can help drive the region’s tourism economy.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks said other endangered or threatened species in northwest Montana, including the endangered white sturgeon and the threatened Canada lynx and bull trout, also would benefit from the easement.

Vital Ground says it “works in the northern Rocky Mountains to conserve land for grizzly bears and other wildlife. As a land trust, we focus on private lands that connect larger wild strongholds, building lifelines for grizzlies and all things wild.”

Fish, Wildlife and Parks will accept public comments through Feb. 17 on the environmental assessment for the Wild River Conservation Easement Project. Comments can be submitted to: Stevie Burton, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 490 North Meridian Rd., Kalispell, MT 59901, or to stevie.burton@mt.gov.

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