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FWP requests Missoula County support for Maclay conservation easement

The landowerns are selling the 832-acre property that extends west from Highway 93 into the lower slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains. FWP is working to place the prized parcel  into a conservation easement as the area grows. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will soon be asking for public input on a possible wildlife corridor south of Lolo. While many locals are excited about the prospect, the project faces a few hurdles under a new administration.

This week, FWP nongame wildlife biologist Torrey Ritter came to the Missoula County commission to ask its support for a proposed FWP conservation easement on Maclay Ranch property in the northern Bitterroot Valley.

“This ranch is a key puzzle piece that fits together some conservation lands across the Bitterroot Valley,” Ritter said. “With subdivisions going in and the community of Lolo expanding, this is an area that’s pretty threatened with development in the future and one we’d like to keep open for those wide-ranging species like elk, bears, wolverines that need to be able to connect between these large mountain ranges and wilderness areas.”

The landowerns are selling the 832-acre property that extends west from Highway 93 into the lower slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains. This is north of the property formerly proposed for a ski resort in the mid-2000s.

Five Valleys Land Trust was able to find a conservation buyer who was willing to wait until FWP assessed the property and determined the value of the easement. Ritter said the rough estimate is $1.5 million but the appraisal isn’t complete yet.

The Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based national land trust, would purchase the property in May and hold it. Once FWP has its funding and easement management plan worked out, it will buy the easement and the buyer will purchase the land. The buyer has indicated the property would continue to be a working ranch and would probably continue to offer public access under FWP’s Block Management program for hunters.

Yellowstone to Yukon, a nonprofit focused on preserving wildlife corridors, has pledged $100,000, and Habitat Montana, a state account funded by sportsmen’s dollars, has already pledged $1 million for the project, a significant amount.

“It really shows that that committee that goes through all the proposals from all over the state really thought that this property was worth putting in a big chunk of money,” Ritter said.

Ritter is hoping to get additional contributions from the Missoula County Open Space Bond, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the federal government under Interior Department Secretarial Order 3362, which prioritizes large-game migration corridors.

In October, the former FWP commission gave a thumbs-up for Ritter to explore the possibility of acquiring the easement, so the process is moving ahead. Ritter said the next step is public scoping, which should be initiated soon.

The current timeline has the draft environmental assessment coming out in September with the final document and decision a month later. The hope is that the sale could close in January 2022.

However, two things could scuttle the project. It will have to go before the new FWP commission and the state land board for final approval. At this point, the new FWP commission will have four of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s nominees. If a bill passes the Legislature, that number will jump to six out of seven commissioners.

The new land board has five Republican members and some may not be supportive of the state acquiring any more conservation easements.

Ritter asked the Missoula County Commissioners to submit a letter of support for the project because the support of local governments usually carries weight with the land board.

If the project is successful, there are hopes that a wildlife overpass or underpass could be built across Highway 93.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.