FWP Weighing Public Access on West Valley Easement

Viewing site would overlook pothole wetlands used by hundreds of migrating cranes

By Tristan Scott
Sandhill cranes. Courtesy Steve Muller

The rarefied spectacle of hundreds of migrating cranes converging on an ecological oasis in West Valley may become a sight available to the general public this fall if Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks accepts a public access easement next month.

The quarter-acre parcel that would be designated a public viewing area amounts to a mere postage stamp of the sprawling 400-acre West Valley Wetlands area north of Kalispell, but it’s a critical component of the project’s funding mechanisms, which stipulate public access in awarding grant money.

FWP has submitted a draft environmental assessment for its proposal to accept the donated parcel into its suite of management units to provide wildlife viewing opportunities to the general public, and offer it as an educational tool for local schools.

For years the Flathead Land Trust has been working to obtain funding to protect the area, and has been successful in gradually closing the funding gap on the $1.4 million project.

About $400,000, or one-third of the total cost, was donated by the landowners, and the remaining fundraising goal is within the nonprofit organization’s grasps.

According to FWP wildlife biologist Chris Hammond, without the agency’s participation, the project cannot be completed because Flathead Land Trust will lose $85,000 in funding from the Montana fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust because it requires public access as a stipulation for funding.

The West Valley Wetlands conservation project helps to conserve a 400-acre section of family farmland that supports 144 species of bird, with special focus on sandhill cranes. The property includes a unique 45-acre pothole wetland used by tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, and hundreds of sandhill cranes each year.

Once the land is placed into a conservation easement, it would remain 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.

According to supporters, the project is especially critical for sandhill cranes as it protects part of the only known staging area in the Flathead Valley used by as many as 400 cranes to rest and refuel for up to two months on their fall migration from as far north as the Arctic to as far south as Mexico.

A bird-viewing area for the public will also be created as an educational site for local schools. It is situated about two miles north of Kalispell near the Stillwater River, and is bordered to the west by West Valley Drive and to the east by West Springcreek Road.

The conservation project will also protect a family-farming legacy in West Valley by keeping the farmland intact and allow for future agricultural production.

If the Fish and Wildlife Commission accepts the easement during its April meeting, the viewing site could be available in time for the fall migration.

The environmental assessment is available online at here. Public comments must be received by 5 p.m., March 13. Questions can be directed to FWP wildlife biologist Chris Hammond at chammond@mt.gov.

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