Year-end land deals help wildlife

December 25, 2018 (Condon, Mont,) – A pair of land deals in western Montana will make life better for wildlife and the people interested in wild lands.

The last bit of former industrial timber land in the Swan Valley acquired through the Montana Legacy Project was transferred to Swan Valley Connections through a conservation easement involving The Nature Conservancy and the Montana Land Reliance. And Missoula-based Vital Ground Foundation teamed with the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Foundation on the purchase of a grizzly bear corridor under Interstate 90 east of Alberton.

Swan Valley Connections will manage the 160-acre parcel along Highway 83 near Condon for trails, wildlife habitat and possible teaching facilities for its outdoor learning programs, according to Executive Director Rebecca Ramsey.

“It’s right across from the Swan Valley Community Center and the public library,” Ramsey said. “TNC wanted it to be a community resource in some way. They felt we would be best stewards of the property.”

Swan Valley Connections operates a variety of programs helping local landowners deal with grizzly bears, elk and other wildlife that frequent the Swan Valley, as well as landscape ecology classes ranging from short workshops to semester-long seminars through the University of Montana.

“One of the main goals of our forest protection work is to assure that the land remains viable for both people and nature, and that includes public use for both recreation and economic purposes,” TNC’s Western Montana Land Protection Director Chris Bryant said. “SVC’s plans for the future of this 160 acres are right in line with the mission and goals of The Nature Conservancy.”

The Montana Legacy Project transferred 310,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. lands to The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands through a congressionally funded buy-back of checkerboarded property intermixed with U.S. Forest Service and Montana state public lands. Over the past decade, the land trusts have been transferring it to adjacent public land agencies and conservation buyers.

The 52-acre Nine Mile property along the Clark Fork River protects a corridor grizzly bears use to avoid crossing the four-lane Interstate 90 freeway. It allows bears access from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem north of the freeway to explore the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem to the south. That area is a federally designated grizzly recovery area, although it has had no resident bears since the last was reportedly shot in the 1950s. The Northern Continental Divide and nearby Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems have an estimated 1,000, 50 and 50 grizzlies, respectively.

Vital Ground Executive Director Ryan Lutey said the property hadn’t been developed for any residential or industrial use, and had no access from the freeway. But it features a healthy cottonwood gallery and other cover that wildlife prefer when moving along river corridors.

“We’re going to be working with the Montana Department of Transportation to keep wildlife using those paths under the interstate rather than getting up on the motorway and causing safety issues for motorists,” Lutey said. “It’s a way to make sure the Bitterroots stay connected up through the Cabinet and Purcell mountains in Canada.”

Vital Ground and Y2Y have been collaborating on similar wildlife bottleneck purchases for the past decade, Lutey said. In November, the organizations completed the purchase of 42.5 acres slated for development in a critical crossing spot of U.S. Highway 2 and railroad tracks near Troy.

Rob Chaney – The Missoulian