MISSOULA — Conservationists are hoping an easement south of Lolo will be added to a larger project to keep an east-west corridor open for wildlife moving between the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission gave FWP the go-ahead this week to work on an agreement creating an 832-acre conservation easement on the Maclay Ranch 1.5 miles south of Lolo.
“This parcel provides a really important corridor that connects important private and public lands and forms this corridor across the rapidly growing Bitterroot Valley,” said Ken McDonald, FWP Wildlife Bureau Chief.
“If you look on the map, you can get a feel for the strategic value of that parcel. With the proximity to public lands and all the development on either side of it, it really highlights the increasingly scarce places in that valley where wildlife can cross.”
As the Bitterroot Valley has filled with houses, the wildlife has gradually been pushed out. In the valley bottom near the Bitterroot River, elk and deer still like to feed in the riparian areas and stubble fields, but sometimes end up dead along the highway trying to cross back to the Bitterroot Mountains.
The northern Sapphires elk herd travels north through the MPG Ranch east of Florence to winter on the south side of Mount Dean Stone and could cross into the northern Bitterroot at well.
But once Highway 93 was widened to four lanes in 2010, it became an even bigger barrier to elk and other wildlife trying to cross from one side of the valley to the other.
The Maclay easement would preserve a half-mile-wide corridor from the Bitterroot Mountains to the highway. On the east side of the highway, another conservation easement already exists that abuts a 642-acre section of state land farther east.
The highway remains a problem, but the Montana Department of Transportation needs to know that both sides of a road will remain undeveloped before it will consider building an animal crossing. The conservation easement could finally start that process in motion.
The Five Valleys Land Trust has long watched for just such an opportunity to protect the migration corridor in the lower Bitterroot Valley, said Five Valleys Land Trust executive director Whitney Schwab.
“The northern Bitterroot area, in general, has long been a conservation goal and focus area for us just in the larger context of large landscape wildlife habitat connectivity,” Schwab said.
“In our 2015 conservation plan, we identified this as a really high-value area, and we’re really pleased that the commission has endorsed this project as worthy as pursuing. The possibility of Habitat Montana dollars supporting this effort is a significant step.”
FWP would ultimately own the easement, but the final details of the agreement are still being fleshed out because the easement is just part of a larger project to protect the entire corridor between the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains.
Because several partners are involved in developing the project, Five Valleys Land Trust is shepherding the process, Schwab said.
“It has long been a goal of many people in the conservation community, all of the many partners, from private individuals and organizations to public agencies, who would like to see a conservation outcome for this area. The Maclay Ranch is one piece of that bigger area,” Schwab said.
With so many players, Schwab couldn’t estimate when the easement might be finalized.
“It’s too early to say what the timeline will look like. But despite the impacts of our global pandemic, we’ve been really pleased that the work continues apace,” Schwab said.
Also on Thursday, the FWP commission gave final approval to the Mount Jumbo Forest Habitat Restoration Project, which would allow logging, thinning and prescribed burning on 100 acres north of Mount Jumbo. FWP maintains the property to provide winter range for elk.
The FWP parcel is surrounded by Lolo National Forest and Missoula city land where Missoula and the Lolo National Forest have already been doing similar kinds of thinning work, especially along the west side of Marshall Canyon. So this project would allow the entire area to have the same treatment intended to reduce wildfire severity.
“I’d rather see it done this way than they way they’re doing it in California right now,” Aldrich said. “There’s definitely some flash fuels in that area and they could have a fire up there that could undo all the good things we’re trying to protect.”
The work will begin immediately and anyone hiking Donna’s Trail will probably notice equipment in the area.