Family secures conservation easement in Swan Valley; protects vital grizzly habitat

A game camera captures a grizzly bear moving through the Swan Valley, where property owners are working together to conserve land and avoid development. (Image from county presentation)

Calling it a vital corridor for grizzly bears and other sensitive species, a Condon family sought to conserve its 160-acre property in perpetuity through a conservation easement, effectively withdrawing it from future development.

Agreeing, Missoula County commissioners approved $35,000 from the 2006 Open Space Bond to help fund the easement in partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Quinn family and Vital Ground.

“We actually do care a great deal about how we expend these open space bond monies in the outlying areas of Missoula County,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “This is a vital piece of our open space planning to look to areas across the county, not just on the periphery of our metro area in Missoula.”

Commissioners initially qualified the Elk Flats Neighbors II conservation easement for funding consideration in November. Final approval came last week and follows the Elk Flats Neighbors I easement completed in 2013.

That initial project saw five landowners in the Condon area place their properties under an easement totaling 289 acres. All told, Vital Ground holds roughly 12 easements in the area covering around 1,000 acres.

The valley bottom is used by grizzly bears and other sensitive species, including Canada lynx, bull trout, westslope cutthroat and water howellia. The property is also prized for its housing potential, making the easements vital as development interest increases.

“In the Swan Valley, those low-elevation wetlands and habitat are really critical for grizzly bears and other wildlife,” said Mitch Doherty, the conservation management for Vital Ground. “Those private lands that lie between the Swan and Mission mountains are critical in terms of connectivity between those mountain ranges.”

Jim Quinn and his family have owned the property for more than 70 years. It was, he said, an original homestead surrounded by the sweeping Swan Valley scenery and its wilderness roots. Over time, he became fascinated by the bears that frequented the property as they moved along the valley bottom.

But in recent years, Quinn grew concerned over the incremental encroachment of homes and larger properties divided into smaller parcels. It was a threat that would forever alter the valley and the species that call it home if left unchecked.

“It’s such a critical corridor between the Yellowstone and Yukon ecosystems,” said Quinn. “A lot of the GPS collaring of the bears showed they used this bottom constantly. They’re right along the bottom of the Swan River, and they have lots of good bears there. In the time we’ve lived up there, we’ve never had a problem with a bear.”

To make the latest easement work, Vital Ground will exchange one of its 40-acre properties, already encumbered by a conservation easement, for an easement on the 160 acres owned by the Quinns.

Together, the two easements total 200 acres, though the area is much larger, as it abuts other easements and public lands. It effectively creates the makings of a wild corridor between larger patches of wilderness and forested lands.

“We’re using that exchange property to purchase the 160-acre conservation easement from the Quinns,” said Doherty. “In addition to those funds, we’re fundraising for transaction and due diligence costs, and also a stewardship endowment for both easements.”

Those costs total around $45,000, though Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has contributed $10,000. Missoula County commissioners have agreed to fund the remaining $35,000 from the 2006 Open Space Bond.

County officials described it as a good use of funding.

“This is 200 acres of really great habitat that’s going to be conserved,” said Kylie Paul, the county’s natural resource specialist. “It’s in prime grizzly bear habitat, and the project maintains a connected landscape, since the project parcels are next to public land and private land already under permanent protection from development.”