Every March, millions of migratory birds travel the Pacific Flyway, an invisible highway in the sky that stretches along the western edge of North America. Along their lengthy trip, many of those traveling waterfowl stop at one of the most diverse concentrations of wetlands in the Rocky Mountains, the Flathead River Watershed.
Last week more than 5,000 Canadian geese and mallard ducks roosted in the rich sloughs near the north shore of Flathead Lake. As the spring thaw begins, countless more are on their way, eager to stop and enjoy the prime habitat that is fostered by the mighty main stem of the river and the swelling lakefront.
Thanks to an agreement between agencies and a private landowner, this popular gathering ground will now stay intact forever.
A conservation project protecting 189 acres along the north shore of Flathead Lake was officially completed Feb. 28. Landowner Darrell Worm agreed to sell his property for a bargain to the state of Montana, which will oversee it as a wildlife management area open to public recreation.
The newly protected land, adjacent to the 161-acre state park and 1,887-acre federal management area, adds to a stronghold of protected habitat on the north shore that biologists consider vital for fish, wildlife and waterfowl species as well as water quality in the entire Flathead watershed. The land lies atop a large channel of groundwater from the river system into the lake, entailing a key section of floodplain.
The new conservation project was the result of a collaborative effort involving Worm, Flathead Land Trust, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Bonneville Power Administration.
“My hope for this unique property has been that it could be preserved for the people of Montana to enjoy and that its historic character could be protected,” said Worm. “I am thrilled that through the efforts of the Flathead Land Trust and MFWP this hope can be realized.”
Worm agreed to sell his property to the state for $1.6 million, below the appraised market value of $1.73 million. Proceeds from the sale will fund the restoration of an historic barn on site built by the original homesteaders of the property. FWP purchased the land using funding from the BPA Fisheries Mitigation Program, which provides money for conservation projects to mitigate for the loss of fish habitat due to the construction of Hungry Horse Dam.
“Flathead Land Trust deserves a great deal of the credit for bringing this project to fruition,” said Gael Bissell of FWP.
Flathead Land Trust is a nonprofit organization established in 1985 by community members to maintain the natural beauty, clean water and special places in the Flathead Valley.
“We typically work with interested private landowners to implement conservation easements to protect the important conservation values of their land, and keep the land in private ownership managed by the landowner,” said Laura Katzman of Flathead Land Trust. “However, in this case, the landowner wanted to sell his property. We were happy to help with this great conservation project and commend Darrell Worm for his commitment and patience toward a conservation outcome for his property.”
Worm’s property includes agricultural lands that frequently flood in the spring during snowmelt and are used by tens of thousands of migratory birds as an important refueling stop on their long journey from wintering grounds in Mexico to their breeding grounds in Canada. The property also overlays an area with shallow groundwater and maintaining that land as open space will help protect water quality in Flathead Lake, which will benefit bull trout and other fish that rely on the shallow waters at the north end of the lake, according to state biologists.
The parcel will also provide public opportunities for wildlife viewing and hunting and will be managed similarly to other public lands on the north shore.
The conservation project is latest in a collaborative effort to conserve critical lands along the north shore of Flathead Lake and the Flathead River, known as the Flathead River to Lake Initiative.
Over the past 10 years, the Flathead River to Lake Initiative partners, including many private landowners dedicated to stewardship, have conserved nearly 5,000 acres of critical lands along the lower Flathead River and north shore of Flathead Lake, adding to a network totaling nearly 11,000 acres of protected private and public lands.
“These critical lands include those important to maintain our excellent water quality, healthy river function, abundant fish and wildlife, and important agricultural soils,” said Constanza von der Pahlen of the Flathead Lakers, a partner in the Flathead River to Lake Initiative.
The new FWP acquisition will be open to public recreation with a seasonal closure from March 1 to July 15 for migrating and nesting birds. Future plans include maintaining agricultural production along with gradual wetland and riparian restoration. The partners plan to have a celebration of the conservation project later this year.