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Condon easement adds to wildlife conservation efforts

Condon Easement
Posted at 12:41 PM, Jan 06, 2023

CONDON - Thanks to a new partnership, another 30 acres will be conserved for wildlife in the Swan River Valley.

Vital Ground, a land trust that prioritizes grizzly bear habitat, announced Thursday that a conservation easement had been placed on 30 acres of forested wetland surrounding Condon Creek along Highway 83 in the Swan Valley.

A group called Montana Freshwater Partners, formerly Montana Aquatic Resources Services had been working with private landowners to develop a plan to restore portions of the wetland that had previously been drained and converted into agricultural land.

“(Montana Freshwater Partners) oversee wetland mitigation dollars for the state of Montana. They needed a partner that could provide some long-term protection for their investment in restoration work,” said Mitch Doherty, Vital Ground conservation director. “They could have used just a deed restriction, but these landowners were interested in a conservation easement, so they reached out to us. We’ve been working on this for about a year now.”

The area around Condon and Salmon Prairie is a key migration corridor across the Swan Valley for several species, including grizzly bears, lynx and wolverine.

In addition, the Salmon Prairie wetlands maintain water quantity and quality in a key habitat area for native bull trout, a federally-designated threatened species, and Westslope cutthroat trout.

But subdivision and development on the remaining private lands is an increasing threat. Limiting human impacts and restoring the habitat are key for wildlife conservation.

Salmon Prairie Grizzly Bear
A trail camera captures a grizzly bear.

The easement property borders public lands and other protected private lands, so the project ensures that critical forested wetland habitat will remain undeveloped within the wildlife corridor connecting the Mission and Swan mountains.

Working with Montana Freshwater Partners, the landowners hope their habitat restoration efforts will improve species diversity, natural water storage, and wildlife habitat.

“We are thrilled to partner with Vital Ground and the landowners to protect this unique property,” said Leah Swartz, Montana Freshwater Partners project manager. “Forested wetlands can take hundreds of years to develop on the landscape, so protecting those that remain intact is a priority. The landowners’ game cameras have captured just about every species you could imagine using their property, from great gray owls to mountain lions and grizzly bears.”

Doherty said Vital Ground’s first easement 20 years ago was in the Swan Valley. Now the land trust holds about 1,000 acres of conservation easements in the Swan Valley, and Doherty anticipates adding more.

“We’re looking at a few other opportunities in the Swan, trying to use the Missoula County Open Space Bond funds. This project was in Lake County so we didn’t have that available to us,” Doherty said.

This was the first time Vital Ground had worked with Montana Freshwater Partners, and Doherty said they made a pretty good team.

Realizing they complement each other well, the two organizations are looking for other projects on which they can cooperate.

“We’re looking at some projects with Montana Freshwater Partners up in the Flathead and potentially along the Rocky Mountain Front,” Doherty said. “We’re constantly kicking ideas back and forth where they have some restoration investments and where they have landowners that are interested in long-term conservation. It’s a unique and fortunate partnership.”