Working to Conserve the West Valley Wetlands

Flathead Land Trust seeks donations to secure a conservation easement on 400 acres of land vital for many birds, especially sandhill cranes

By Molly Priddy
Sandhill cranes. Courtesy Steve Muller

The Flathead Land Trust is working on a new project, one that will cement the idea that the wetlands of West Valley are for the birds.

More specifically, the new project seeks to conserve a 400-acre section of family farmland important for 144 species of bird, with special focus on the sandhill cranes.

According to FLT, more than 400 of these large, long-limbed birds have been seen at one time using a four-square-mile staging area to rest and fuel up for the rest of their fall migration. The Flathead serves as an important stop for the cranes as they migrate between breeding grounds in Canada and wintering areas in the southern U.S. and Mexico. The birds stand five feet tall, with wingspans of six feet.

The farmland the FLT hopes to conserve includes an “exceptional” 45-acre pothole wetland, which is ecologically important for the birds and the wildlife in West Valley.

Flathead Valley’s human residents and visitors would also get a chance to enjoy the area, since a bird-viewing area is also part of the plan. It would serve as an educational site for local schools and the community.

If it’s put into a conservation easement, the land would stay in private ownership managed by the landowner, but would protect the property from becoming a residential subdivision or commercially developed in perpetuity. It would instead stay in agriculture with limited residential use.

Laura Katzman, land protection specialist for FLT and the manager for this project, said the conservation easement has been in the works for several years.

“We’ve been working to reach out to people in the West Valley wetlands area for about three years,” Katzman said. “And we had been working to try to fund project for about a year. They take a long time to come to fruition.”

The estimated price tag to secure this easement tops out around $1.4 million, but the landowners have agreed to donate more than a third of that by selling the land for less. FLT already has more than $750,000 in federal grants for this project, but needs about $150,000 in non-federal matching funds to receive the grant money.

Already, $80,000 of the $150,000 has been raised, and now FLT is asking the community to help raise the remaining $70,000.

Paul Travis, executive director at FLT, said his organization wouldn’t release the name of the farm owners until the deal is finalized, out of respect for their privacy. But the goal is to have the money raised by spring 2017, he said.

Katzman said it’s relatively new for the organization to raise money through crowdfunding, but the community has already been responsive. Anyone who wants to follow the project’s progression is invited to like FLT’s Facebook page.

“We’re excited because it’s such a great project,” she said.

For more information on the project or to make a donation, visit www.flatheadlandtrust.org or call 406-752-8393.