Environment

Agency Seeks Feedback on Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project

Project would protect public access, wildlife habitat on 772 acres along Flathead River near Columbia Falls

By Tristan Scott
Aerial view of the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project, which encompasses 800 acres along the south bank of the Flathead River east of Columbia Falls as seen on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is seeking public input on a proposal to purchase 772 acres of forestland along the Flathead River near Columbia Falls in an effort to ensure public access and protect critical fish and wildlife habitat.

Known as the Bad Rock Canyon project, the property is located off U.S. Highway 2 and would be preserved as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA). FWP has detailed the proposal in a draft environmental assessment that is open for public comment until 5 p.m. on Sept. 8. A virtual public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. to provide information on the project and answer questions from the public. The online meeting will be streamed via Zoom online at https://fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/regions/region1.

The Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC), a subsidiary of Glencore, has decided to sell the undeveloped property, which sits across the river from the former aluminum plant. The property serves as winter range for elk, moose, and white-tailed deer. 

FWP’s purchase of the property would “safeguard vital habitat and a travel corridor for wildlife species such as grizzly bears and bull trout,” according to agency officials. The property is located at a geographic pinch point where the Flathead River flows through the narrow Bad Rock Canyon corridor. The land is adjacent to a sizable block of public land and would add to a 12,000-acre network of conserved land along a 43-mile stretch of the Flathead River between Columbia Falls and Flathead Lake.

“This project creates a unique opportunity to protect wildlife habitat and public access on the doorstep of the Gateway to Glacier and along the Flathead River,” FWP Regional Supervisor Jim Williams said. “We appreciate our partners, CFAC and the Flathead Land Trust, for working towards a common goal of land stewardship that will benefit everyone into the future.”

The property is currently enrolled in FWP’s Block Management Program and provides a limited opportunity for youth hunters to harvest elk and white-tailed deer near Columbia Falls. A trail has been constructed on the property by Gateway to Glacier Trail, Inc., a local nonprofit group granted a revocable license issued by CFAC to allow access to hikers, bikers, birdwatchers, and others. Under FWP ownership, public access would be managed to preserve wildlife presence and hunting opportunities while allowing compatible trail and property use.

FWP partnered with the Flathead Land Trust on the project after CFAC allowed until the end of 2021 to complete the acquisition. If the project fails, the property would most likely be sold, subdivided, and developed into a high-density neighborhood that would directly impact the conservation value of the site.

The appraised value of the acquisition is $7.26 million. Funding sources include $4 million from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that collects revenues from offshore oil and gas; $2.5 million from FWP’s Habitat Montana program, which uses several big game license revenues that are earmarked for the protection of wildlife habitat, particularly “important habitat that is seriously threatened;” and $590,000 raised by the Flathead Land Trust, as well as the Flathead Lakers, in a local fundraising effort that collected private donations from individuals, organizations, and foundations. CFAC would donate the remainder of the value.

Most recently, the Whitefish Community Foundation awarded a $15,000 grant to Flathead Land Trust to help complete the project, funding that was made possible through its “Circle of Giving” and other donors who support the Major Community Project Fund.

“The proposed Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area will protect a critical piece of wildlife habitat along the Flathead River and secure public access to a wild place right on the doorstep of Columbia Falls,” Flathead Land Trust Executive Director Paul Travis said.  

FWP previously accepted public comment in the fall of 2020 asking whether the agency should initiate the project and received 127 comments, all in support.

Following this latest public comment period, FWP will forward a recommendation on whether to complete the acquisition to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. If approved, the project would go before the Montana Land Board for final review.

Comments can be sent to FWP’s Kris Tempel at ktempel@mt.gov or Bad Rock Canyon WMA, Montana FWP, Attn: Kris Tempel, 490 N. Meridian, Kalispell, MT 59901. 

For more info, visit https://fwp.mt.gov/public-notices/news/2021/aug/0810_bad-rock-canyon-wma.

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