Lakers Hone in on North Shore Conservation

By Beacon Staff

The fate of the north shore and a warming lake were two issues attendees were greeted with at the Flathead Lakers annual meeting at Flathead Lake Lodge last week.

More than150 landowners and conservationists honored one of the Flathead’s key attractions and heard testimony to the importance of its continued preservation.

“This area’s a treasure, which cannot be taken for granted,” wrote landowner Richard Hoffmaster in a letter to the Lakers. Hoffmaster, who was scheduled to speak, was attending the funeral of a friend and sent a letter in lieu of his presence.

Hoffmaster’s property sits adjacent to the north shore, where he and his wife have become accustomed to enjoying the “cacophony of sounds” made by the swans, ducks geese and other birds that migrate to the area each spring.

The shallows, wetlands and sloughs found along the north shore of Flathead Lake, between Somers and the Flathead River, provide for a rich ecosystem frequented by more than 200 species of birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a Waterfowl Production Area along 7 miles of shoreline, but speakers at the meeting voiced concern about the surrounding acreage of farmland that remains at risk of encroaching development.

Marilyn Wood, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust, told meeting attendees now is the time for landowners to make conservation of the north shore a top priority.

“The bad news is the economy has tanked and people are selling their homes,” she said. “The good news is it’s a tremendous opportunity for those in land conservation. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the north shore.”

Wood said conservation of the north shore has been a vision since the 1930s, after the construction of Kerr Dam in Polson. In the 1980s, Fish, Wildlife and Parks identified the structure as contributing to the loss of more than 1,500 acres of habitat.

In the 1990s, she said, a coalition of agencies and tribes came together to address the impacts of the dam. Shortly thereafter in 1996, the Montana Power Company purchased Lost Trail Ranch in order to alleviate the impacts on the Flathead Waterfowl Production Area. The land became Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge in 1999.

Over the years the Lakers and other agencies held off development proposals, one of which included putting 290 houses on almost 400 acres. Now, Wood said, public and private funds have been identified, and she hopes to work with the Lakers and current landowners to find a conservation solution for the north shore.

“There have not been many things in my career as a conservation biologist where we have to do this now,” she said. “We need to do this, and we need your help.”

Dave Landstrom, a regional parks manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks discussed the goal for a new state park in conjunction with a wildlife management area along the north shoreline. The agency’s overall goal, he said, is to conserve wildlife and upland bird habitat.

Critical Lands Program Director Constanza von der Pahlen said protecting Flathead’s waters is important in order to drive the area’s economic vitality. And while the rush of development has slowed with the economy, she said, Flathead Lake’s natural beauty will continue to attract growth.

The Flathead Lakers describe themselves as people working together for clean water, healthy ecosystems and lasting quality of life in the Flathead Watershed. Rallying for conservation of the north shore doesn’t mean they are against growth.

“Flathead Lakers are not against development – nothing could be further from the truth,” Larry Ashcraft, the group’s president, said. “We want to do the right thing for the landowners.”

Following discussion of the north shore, Dr. Jack Stanford, 30-year director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, presented the highly anticipated State of the Lake Report.

“The lake is clean and clear this year,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual that I can report to you.”

Stanford did reveal that the warm layers in Flathead Lake have been getting deeper in mid to late summer since 1990, which creates prime habitat for more algae and invasive species benefited by the warm surface water.

“The bottom line is Flathead Lake is getting warmer,” he said. The temperature measured last week, he added, was 71 degrees.

Stanford attributed the year-by-year warming of the lake to global climate change, and said the lake has not frozen over since 1988.

For more information about the Flathead Lakers, or to request a copy of the 2009 State of the Lake Report, visit http://www.flatheadlakers.org.

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