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New conservation agreement aims to protect grizzlies north of Whitefish

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | December 21, 2021 7:00 AM

A 100-acre piece of prime grizzly bear habitat will remain open and undeveloped near Tamarack Creek north of Whitefish, thanks to the efforts of a conservation-minded landowner and the Vital Ground Foundation.

Located just south of Stillwater State Forest in a habitat-rich zone that helps connect wildlife in and around Glacier National Park with those farther west in the Salish and Cabinet mountain ranges, the land will now be protected from subdivision and development in perpetuity.

“We have been working with some landowners that have a shared vision with Vital Ground, wanting to protect some habitat and reduce impacts of human development in the area up there,” Mitch Doherty, Conservation Director for Vital Ground, said. “With the help of the landowner, we were able to hit the ground running and really put together a good project over the last year or so.”

According to Doherty, maintaining the connectivity in the region is especially important for grizzly bears, with the Glacier area home to the largest population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states — roughly 1,100.

The Cabinet-Yaak area to the west hosts a largely-isolated subpopulation of around 50 bears.

Beyond grizzlies, the project site’s forest, open pasture and wetland habitat provides range for wolves, elk, deer and moose, as well as wide-ranging species of concern including Canada lynx and wolverines.

THE PROPERTY will remain under private ownership, with its new conservation easement maintaining a portion for leased hay production and horse pasture while also protecting water quality and the scenic, rural character of the quickly-developing lands outside Whitefish.

“By limiting subdivision, we are limiting the impacts to wildlife habitat in the area, whether that is the wetlands, forest land or wildlife corridors,” Doherty said. “This area is critical for wildlife and wildlife movement, but it’s also still quiet and scenic with that rural feel that we’re losing in too many places throughout western Montana right now.”

Originally identified as a location in need of conservation after a 2018 study conducted by Vital Ground that enlisted the help of more than 60 biologists, bear managers and researchers from around the region, the conservation property is just one of many that are quickly disappearing as the housing market continues to boom in the area.

According to Vital Ground, limiting subdivision and development protects both the area’s rural and agricultural identity and its wildlife. For wide-ranging species such as grizzly bears and wolves, a denser human footprint means a higher risk of conflict through run-ins with people, domestic animals and household attractants like garbage.

“The rate at which development is occurring in and around the Flathead Valley right now is astounding,” Doherty said. “If it weren’t for landowners like this who want to protect the rural character of the valley and its habitat for wildlife, we couldn’t retain the scenic vistas and open spaces that everyone cherishes in Northwest Montana. Without conservation protections, this property would likely be dotted with homes in the next five to ten years.”

WHILE THE housing boom does have his organization worried, Doherty said it is also helping conservation-minded landowners come together to help protect wildlife habitat.

“It’s been very hard to keep pace with what is going on out there as the housing market booms in the area,” he said. “On the flip side of that, there are a lot of people out there who recognize what is going on and they truly want to see things remain the same in their area. With a conservation easement, they can ensure their land will look exactly the same in the future as it does now.”

According to the organization’s website, the Vital Ground Foundation has helped conserve and enhance around 620,000 acres of habitat since its founding in 1990.

With its new One Landscape Initiative, the foundation aims to protect 188,000 acres in 33 key linkage areas throughout Montana, Idaho, Eastern Washington and Wyoming as identified through rigorous collaborative planning.

“One Landscape is simply a knitting together of the strongholds that remain,” said Douglas Chadwick, a biologist, author and Vital Ground trustee who lives in Whitefish. “If we can build wildlife corridors, connectivity between these remaining strongholds of wildlife, it will hold up over time. This is saving nature on a large scale and a connected scale.”