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Environment

Swan Valley Conservation Deal Protects Key Grizzly Habitat

The Vital Ground Foundation and Montana Freshwater Partners collaborated on a 30-acre easement to preserve forested wetlands near Condon

By Micah Drew
Wetlands in the Swan River Valley. Beacon file photo

The Vital Ground Foundation and Montana Freshwater Partners have teamed up with private landowners to complete a conservation agreement preserving 30 acres of Swan Valley wetland in perpetuity.

The property is located in the Salmon Prairie area near Condon and borders public lands as well as other protected private lands. Under the conservation easement, the land will remain in private ownership, but development will be restricted, with the exception of a corner of the parcel where the landowners live.

In 2021, Vital Ground purchased an additional 20 acres in the Simmons Meadow wetland complex adjacent to the new conservation easement. These large blocks of conserved properties combine to form a key portion of the habitat corridor in the Upper Swan Valley and connect large swaths of public land to the east and west for wildlife migration. Limiting subdivision and development in the region is a primary goal of Vital Ground, both to protect the area’s rural identity and to allow wide-ranging species such as grizzly bears to maneuver around human encroachment in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — which stretches throughout western Montana and into southern Canada and is home to the largest grizzly population in the lower 48. 

“The Swan Valley is a conservation success story,” Mitch Doherty, conservation director for Vital Ground, said in a prepared statement. “Projects like this show how landowners are voluntarily protecting biodiversity for generations to come. The culmination of their conservation efforts, large and small, are how we protect this jewel in the southwestern portion of the Crown of the Continent region.”

Working with Montana Freshwater Partners, the private landowners will begin a new habitat restoration plan for a portion of the wetland that had previously been utilized for agriculture. The habitat restoration efforts will improve species diversity, natural water storage and wildlife habitat.

Cotton candy skies over a snowy Swan Range at sunset on Jan. 9, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Swan Valley is unique in the landscape of Montana watersheds for its abundance of surface water, and more specifically wetlands, which comprise 16% of the land base, according to conservation nonprofit Swan Valley Connections. The new Salmon Prairie easement acreage largely consists of wetlands, and the new protections and restoration will preserve important ecosystem services such as flood control, groundwater recharge and water filtration.

“Forested wetlands can take hundreds of years to develop on the landscape, so protecting those that remain intact is a priority,” according to Leah Swartz, project manager for Montana Freshwater Partners. “We are thrilled to partner with Vital Ground and the landowners to protect this unique property.”

Preserving vital wetlands is a priority throughout the Swan Valley, where a growing patchwork of private conservation easements dovetails with public lands. In 2022, Swan Valley Connections utilized a federal grant to restore more than 600-acres of wetlands in the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge.

The lush bottomlands in the Swan Valley allow spring plant foods to sprout earlier in the season than at higher elevations, providing key seasonal grazing habitat for species like grizzly bears. The lush landscape also harbors moose, elk and deer, as well as rarer species such as wolverines and lynx.

A grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seen on Sept. 12, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“The landowners’ game cameras have captured just about every species you could imagine using their property, from great gray owls to mountain lions and grizzly bears,” said Swartz.

The Swan River watershed, which includes the Salmon Prairie wetlands, also provides habitat for native bull trout, a federally designated threatened species, and Westslope cutthroat trout, a designated sensitive species in Montana.

Vital Ground has completed more than a dozen projects in the Swan Valley over the last 20 years and continues to play a major role in the valley’s conservation future. The nonprofit is dedicated to preserving and connecting grizzly bear habitat across the species’ historic range and uses the Swan Valley as a model for private land conservation around the Northern Rockies. To learn more visit www.vitalground.org.

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