Vital Ground Foundation purchases small but special plot of Swan Valley for habitat

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Bounded by public land and a private parcel of land with a Vital Ground conservation easement, the new purchase will help preserve an east-west migration corridor from the Mission Mountains to the Swan Range. (Photo of vital soil)

A valuable patch of the Swan River Valley will remain underdeveloped, thanks to a bear-focused nonprofit group.

In a booming real estate market, as more wild places are turned into building land, more of Montana’s wildlife is being pushed onto smaller pieces of isolated public land. In areas like the Swan River Valley, people were once fewer and more widely spaced, leaving plenty of room for grizzly bears, lynxes, and elks to roam.

But that is changing quickly and on Friday the Vital Ground Foundation announced that it had purchased a critical 20-acre piece of wetland that will now remain unchanged. The newly protected parcel is north of Condon, in the Simmons Meadow Wetland Complex, east of State Highway 83, near the North Swan Valley Wildlife Management Area.

Vital Ground executive director Ryan Lutey said his organization typically purchases conservation easements but this particular owner is moving out of state so an easement would not work. The parties were able to agree on a reasonable price, Lutey said, so Vital Ground bought the plot directly.

Fortunately, the property is well located, bounded by public land and a parcel of private land with a Vital Ground conservation easement, and it will help preserve an east-west migration corridor from the Mission Mountains to the Swan Range.

“It’s a small parcel, but we already had a conservation easement next to it,” Lutey said. “In addition, it has very rich wetland values ​​due to a small ephemeral stream running through it. Obviously video – the neighbor has cameras installed – it is used by grizzly bears, sandhill cranes, elk and many other species.

Keeping Simmons Meadow intact and undeveloped means that important spring habitat remains open to grizzly bears as they emerge from their dens in search of food. Low-lying wetlands are usually the first places plants grow each year. Protecting wetlands like Simmons Meadow also maintains the quality and quantity of water in the region, important factors in ensuring resilience to climate change for fish, wildlife and humans.

Vital Ground had to act quickly enough to be able to purchase the land, but was able to secure several grants in six months, Lutey said. Contributors include the First Interstate Bank Foundation, the Donald Slavik Family Foundation, the Teton Ridge Foundation, the Weeden Foundation, and many individual contributors.

“We just crossed the finish line,” said Lutey.

The conservation of open spaces helps to maintain the picturesque and rural character of the Swan during the current wave of subdivision and development.

The Vital Ground Foundation has been working to preserve the wilderness along the Swan River Valley since 2005. Back then, it was a very different place, Lutey said, as the Plum Creek Timber Company owned nearly 70,000 acres dotted in a checkerboard pattern with land from the United States Forest Service. When the company announced in 2002 that it was putting the land up for sale, many were concerned about the development of the valley.

In 2007, after the sale of a few plots, the Trust for Public Lands and The Nature Conservancy announced that they would purchase the remaining 67,000 acres for eventual transfer to Flathead National Forest and Swan River State Forest.

After breathing a sigh of relief, the Vital Ground Foundation continued to work with landowners to retain portions of the remaining private property. He has protected over 1,000 acres through conservation easements and land purchases over the past two decades.

But now, with land prices soaring as more people moved to Montana during the pandemic, Vital Ground and other land trusts find themselves somewhat financially handicapped when it comes to conservation. land.

Fortunately, some Montanais no longer want buildings in wild places. Lutey said Vital Ground will close another conservation easement in Salmon Prairie, north of Condon, in the Swan Valley next month.

“It’s scary what happened to the real estate market over the past 18 months,” said Lutey. “But I think the landowners are realizing what’s going on. They reach out, knowing how important it is to preserve some of these places.

“Whether it’s within the grizzly bear’s existing range or helping reconnect isolated subpopulations, countless species will benefit from more connected and protected landscapes. “

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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