Vital Ground Foundation buys small but special Swan Valley parcel for habitat

Bounded by public land and a parcel of private land that has a Vital Ground conservation easement, the new purchase will help preserve an east-west migration corridor from the Mission Mountains to the Swan Range. (Vital Ground photo)

A precious plot of the Swan River Valley will remain undeveloped, thanks to a bear–focused nonprofit group.

In a hot property market when more wild places are being turned into building lots, more of Montana’s wildlife is being pushed onto smaller chunks of isolated public land. In regions like the Swan River Valley, it used to be that people were fewer and farther between, leaving plenty of room for grizzly bears, lynx and elk to roam.

But that’s changing fast and on Friday, the Vital Ground Foundation announced it had bought one critical 20-acre chunk of wetland that will now remain unchanged. The newly-protected parcel is north of Condon in the Simmons Meadow wetland complex east of State Highway 83 near the North Swan Valley Wildlife Management Area.

Vital Ground executive director Ryan Lutey said his organization usually buys conservation easements, but this particular property owner was moving out-of-state so an easement wouldn’t work. The parties were able to agree to a reasonable price, Lutey said, so Vital Ground bought the parcel outright.

Fortunately, the property is in a good location, bounded by public land and a parcel of private land that has a Vital Ground conservation easement, and it will help preserve an east-west migration corridor from the Mission Mountains to the Swan Range.

“It’s a small parcel, but we already had a conservation easement next door,” Lutey said. “Plus, it has really rich wetland values due to a small ephemeral creek that flows through. By all video evidence – the neighbor sets cameras out – it’s used by grizzly bears, sandhill cranes, elk and many other species.”

Keeping Simmons Meadow intact and undeveloped means an important spring habitat remains open for grizzlies when they emerge from their dens looking for food. Low-lying wet areas are typically the first places to see plant growth each year. Protecting wetlands like Simmons Meadow also maintains water quality and quantity in the area, important factors in providing resilience to climate change for fish, wildlife and people alike.

Vital Ground had to move fairly fast to be able to buy the land but was able to secure several grants within six months, Lutey said. Contributors include the First Interstate Bank Foundation, The Donald Slavik Family Foundation, The Teton Ridge Foundation, The Weeden Foundation, and many individual contributors.

“We’re just coming across the finish line,” Lutey said.

Conserving open space helps maintain the Swan’s scenic and rural character during the current wave of subdivision and development.

The Vital Ground Foundation has been working to preserve wild country up and down the Swan River Valley since 2005. Back then, it was a much different place, Lutey said, because the Plum Creek Timber Company owned almost 70,000 acres interspersed in a checkerboard fashion with U.S. Forest Service land. When the company announced in 2002 it was putting the land up for sale, many were concerned about how the valley would change.

In 2007, after a few parcels had been sold off, the Trust for Public Lands and The Nature Conservancy announced it would buy the remaining 67,000 acres for eventual transfer to the Flathead National Forest and the Swan River State Forest.

After breathing a sigh of relief, the Vital Ground Foundation has continued to work with landowners to conserve portions of the remaining private property. It has protected more than 1,000 acres through conservation easements and land purchases over the past two decades.

But now, with land prices surging as more people moved to Montana during the pandemic, Vital Ground and other land trusts find themselves somewhat handicapped financially when it comes to conserving land.

Fortunately, some Montanans don’t want more buildings in wild places. Lutey said Vital Ground will be closing next month on another conservation easement at Salmon Prairie north of Condon in the Swan Valley.

“It’s scary what’s happened to the real estate market in the last 18 months,” Lutey said. “But I think landowners are realizing what’s going on. They’re reaching out, knowing how important it is to preserve some of these places.

“Whether it’s within existing grizzly range or helping reconnect isolated subpopulations, countless species will benefit from more connected, protected landscapes.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.