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Swan Valley easement aimed at securing grizzly habitat

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | January 11, 2023 12:00 AM

A 30-acre conservation easement was placed on land in the Swan Valley last week with the intention of securing grizzly bear habitat and forested wetlands.

The sizable wetland will now be protected after the Vital Ground Foundation completed the conservation easement with collaboration from Montana Freshwater Partners. The conserved land is in the Salmon Prairie area near Condon.

The property borders both public land and other protected private lands, giving more acreage to the forested wetland habitat that will now remain undeveloped. According to Vital Ground, the area is essential for connectivity between wildlife because it sits between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness. The area is specifically important for connectivity between grizzly bears, the group says.

The nonprofit Vital Ground works to preserve grizzly bear habitats in the Northern Rockies. According to a press release from Vital Ground, grizzly bears rely on the Swan Valley for seasonal range, particularly in the spring when plant foods are available earlier than at higher elevations. The area’s wetlands also draw other wildlife, such as moose, elk and deer.

“Salmon Prairie is really unique because it has this really special, forested wetland habitat,” Mitch Doherty, the conservation director for Vital Ground, told the Inter Lake.

The area is roughly 5 miles from another Vital Ground conservation easement, adding to the Swan Valley’s network of protected lands. As part of the Swan River watershed, the Salmon Prairie wetlands maintain water quantity and quality in habitat area for native bull trout, which are classified federally as a threatened species, as well as Westslope cutthroat trout, which are a designated sensitive species in the state.

According to Vital Ground, these characteristics show that protecting the land was important to the greater wildlife system in Montana. As development pressures increase across Montana, voluntary conservation partnerships with landowners are crucial to balancing the needs of both people and wildlife, the group stated.

“Conservation easements come together through partnerships,” Doherty said. “It is a landowner on one end that wants their land protected in perpetuity, and there’s a team on the other side to help them.”

The easement is the first project that Montana Freshwater Partners completed in Northwest Montana.

“This property is unique because the main focus of the project is the conservation of the forested wetland,” said Leah Swartz, a project manager at Freshwater Partners.

While conservation was the top priority, Swartz said the organization looks forward to its future restoration work, as well.

The site is set to undertake restoration efforts by the private landowners — such as removing the invasive reed canary grass — with the goal of improving diversity, water storage and wildlife habitats in parts of the property once converted for agriculture.

According to Doherty, decades ago conservationists were looking at grizzly recovery in the Swan Valley. Today, he said there are bears moving “just about everywhere across the valley” and it represents a grizzly stronghold in the Lower 48.

“The Swan Valley is a very true conservation success story,” Doherty said.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or at 758-4459.