Land Board Approves Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project

Project will protect habitat and public access on 772 acres along Flathead River near Columbia Falls; property closed to public Dec. 1 through May 15 for big game winter range

By Tristan Scott
A creek runs through the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project area, 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

The Montana Land Board has granted unanimous approval for the purchase of 772 acres of intact forestland along the Flathead River near Columbia Falls, allowing the state to manage the property as critical fish and wildlife habitat, precluding development while still allowing public access.

The Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is located off U.S. Highway 2 and was proposed in 2020 as a means to preserve one of the Flathead Valley’s largest remaining undeveloped chunks of riverfront property. Negotiations on the property began when the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC), a subsidiary of Glencore, decided to sell the parcel, which sits across the river from the former aluminum plant. The property serves as winter range for elk, moose, and white-tailed deer. 

FWP worked in concert with the Flathead Land Trust to purchase the property in an effort to “safeguard vital habitat and a travel corridor for wildlife species such as grizzly bears and bull trout,” according to agency officials. The property is currently enrolled in the FWP Block Management Program and provides a limited opportunity for hunters to harvest elk and white-tailed deer just minutes from Columbia Falls. However, as a WMA that serves as winter range for elk, deer and moose, the property will remain closed to the public between Dec. 1 and May 15.

Located at a geographic pinch point where the Flathead River flows through the narrow Bad Rock Canyon corridor, the property 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.

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

“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.”

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 will 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 had failed, the property would most likely have been sold, subdivided, and developed into a high-density neighborhood that would directly impact the conservation value of the site, according to the project’s environmental assessment.

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.  

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