A tract of land on the north shore of Flathead Lake that state biologists describe as “special” and highly worth protecting is one step closer to achieving a legacy status.
Last week, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the proposed purchase of 189 acres of farmland and wetland a few miles east of Somers. The local regional office of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing the acquisition, and with the commission’s approval, the final decision is now up to the State Land Board.
The land, tucked next to the 160-acre North Shore State Park and 2,362-acre federal Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area, is considered an important habitat for fish, wildlife and waterfowl species. It also lies atop a large channel of groundwater from the Flathead River system into the lake, entailing a key section of floodplain, according to biologists.
“This is a very, very special zone and really kind of unique,” said Joel Tohtz, a supervisor and manager of FWP’s science program. “It’s the kind of situation that has a lot of implications for the actual fisheries of the lake. And it’s a water quality issue to protect that zone.
“We’re doing what we can to preserve that wild state of land in the condition it is now or even improving it. We’re doing what we can while the opportunity still exists. It’s a fantastic offer.”
The landowner agreed to sell the land to FWP for $1.6 million, below the appraised market value of $1.73 million, according to the agency. The Bonneville Power Administration would provide funding for the acquisition through its initiative to help offset impacts associated with Hungry Horse Dam. BPA would retain a perpetual conservation easement on the property.
FWP has spent two years working with numerous agencies, tribes and community organizations to develop the proposed management area. During the public scoping process, FWP received 36 comments supporting the proposed project. The reasons included the sizeable benefits to Flathead Lake’s north shore, water quality, wetlands and wildlife and public recreation, according to the agency. FWP did not receive any comments in opposition to the acquisition.
Flathead Lake’s north shore is home to a high diversity of bird species. Montana Audubon designated the north shore as an Important Bird Area in 2009. More than 229 species have been recorded for the general area, of which 172 are regulars, according to FWP.
The land also acts as a natural filter for groundwater entering the lake.
As the economy improves and development picks back up, the importance of protecting Flathead’s floodplain remains at the forefront of biologists’ and state managers’ minds.
Roughly a dozen parcels of land near the north shore are platted for possible subdivision development.
“From the department’s standpoint, keeping human development out of the floodplain just avoids a lot of conflicts,” said Jim Vashro, FWP’s regional fisheries manager in Kalispell.
The agency does face perpetual scrutiny with its land acquisitions. Statewide there is 450,000 acres of conservation easements and roughly the same under state ownership. Though public access is widely supported across Montana, taking land off the tax rolls consistently draws scrutiny along with the growing cost of maintaining and managing the large swath of public land.
“We’re still carefully and selectively looking at these things (land acquisitions). There’s more and more concern about making sure we’re careful about not outgrowing our ability to take care of these properties we’re getting,” FWP Regional Supervisor Jim Satterfield said.
“This region is really good about carefully selecting these things, though. Our staff is really good at this. It’s about a legacy. And nothing is more of a legacy than preserving a habitat.”
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