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Interior Secretary visits Lost Trail Conservation Area

by CHRIS PETERSON
Hungry Horse News | August 26, 2022 7:00 AM

On a hot and dry morning, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland made a brief visit to Northwest Montana to celebrate the Lost Trail Conservation Area, the newest unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System and the first under her leadership.

The Lost Trail Conservation Area is the culmination of a 20-year locally led effort to conserve important big game corridors and recreational areas in the region.

“We’re celebrating a new opportunity for families to connect with nature,” Haaland said. “This is a shining example of collaborative conservation.”

The conservation area, if fully realized, would encompass nearly 100,000 acres of rolling hills, grasslands, woods and wetlands north of Marion.

The conservation area is contiguous with the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. The 9,225-acre refuge was created in 1999.

Since then, conservation efforts by the federal government and state of Montana have greatly expanded the protected lands around the refuge.

Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a 7,256 acre easement on Dredger Ridge with Southern Pines Plantation just to the south of the refuge in an agreement brokered by the Trust for Public Lands. The land is now owned by Green Diamond. The timber company continues to own the land and harvest timber sustainably, but is precluded from subdividing or otherwise developing the property.

The ridge is popular elk hunting terrain.

To the north of the refuge is the more recently brokered 38,000-acre Lost Trail Conservation easement. The easement is similar to Dredger Ridge, but was brokered by The Trust for pUblic Lands and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The conservation easement provides permanent public access to exceptional recreation lands, while allowing SPP to continue sustainable timber harvesting, and protecting incomparable wildlife habitat.

It ties in another key piece of forest and grassland with Forest Service lands to the north.

There are also expansion opportunities in the future to the east and the south, with Green Diamond and other large landowners, Fish and Wildlife Service officials note, and talks are underway.

Funding for the easements came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Great American Outdoors Act.

Several members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were on hand for the celebration, as it is part of the tribe's indigenous landscape and provides wildlife connectivity to the tribe’s lands to the south.

Lost Trail was once a sprawling cattle ranch. But over the years, biologists, along with state, county and federal help, have been restoring the landscape.

The road through the refuge was realigned and drainage ditches were filled in, noted refuge biologist Beverly Skinner.

Slowly the groundwater table has recovered and wetlands that didn’t exist for years are returning.

This year in particular has been gratifying, as a bird called a black tern has returned to live on the refuge.

Even on a boiling hot August Day, the wetlands teem with life, including numerous birds and mammals.

The refuge now has a permanent moose population, Skinner noted.

It is one of the first places in the state to see the return of wolves. About 40 years ago wolves came to the valley, but immediately got into trouble with working cattle ranches.

They were trapped and relocated to Glacier National Park, but they didn’t stay.