Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Wildlife now have one more safe spot to cross the Clark Fork River, thanks to a caring landowner and two land conservation groups.

About a week ago, the Vital Ground Foundation and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative finalized a conservation easement on 34 acres along the Clark Fork River between Turah and Clinton.

The property straddles a 300-yard stretch of the river at the confluence of Donovan Creek, and it abuts Bureau of Land Management property and another conservation easement.

Now, wildlife can safely cross and browse along the river forever.

“Projects such as this one at Donovan Creek not only provide the habitat security bears and other wildlife need, but also limit the opportunity for future conflicts between people and bears,” said Mitch Doherty, Conservation Director at Vital Ground. “That’s especially important given the level of bear activity and movement we’re seeing this year.”

The partnership between Vital Ground and Yellowstone to Yukon goes back about a dozen years when they started trying to preserve wildlife corridors crossing U.S. Route 2 and the Kootenai River in far northwest Montana.

After finishing that work a few years ago, they started looking for other opportunities around the state, Doherty said.

The I-90 corridor along the Clark Fork River is one of particular concern because it can be such a barrier to wildlife movement. Four years ago, the two organizations bought 52 acres near the confluence of Ninemile Creek west of Missoula to provide a safe spot for bears to cross the river into the northern Bitterroot Range.

After that, they looked east.

“We had been talking with (FWP bear biologist) Jamie Jonkel and other biologists about places closer to home. He keyed us into the Donovan Creek area as a place to pay special attention. They’d seen some grizzly bears show up there over the past several years. Just recently, those two grizzly bears came out of the Blackfoot and crossed pretty near to this property we suspect,” Doherty said. “Fortunately, the landowner, Dick Auerbach, reached out and inquired about protecting his property with an easement.”

Conservation easements can take at least a couple years to complete, but often, the need to raise money is what drags things out. In this case, it’s taken only a year to pull things together. Vital Ground holds the conservation easement and Yellowstone to Yukon was the funding partner.

“This was a small enough lift that we were able to get it done ourselves,” Doherty said.

For the various populations of grizzly bears to stay healthy, some individuals need to be able to move between the recovery areas to bring in new blood. Without such migration, the populations could become inbred, further challenging their survival.

The migration zone between the Garnet and Sapphire ranges is important in enabling the natural return of a resident grizzly population to the Bitterroot Ecosystem.

Grizzly cub

Last year, GPS collar data showed that a young male grizzly—dubbed “Lingenpolter” by biologists—attempted to cross I-90 an estimated 46 times between Beavertail Hill and Garrison Junction. While Lingenpolter eventually crossed I-90 successfully - probably by wading under a set of highway and railway bridges crossing the river - the bear’s travels highlighted the need for habitat conservation in a part of Montana seeing increased grizzly activity.

This year, two subadult grizzly bears moved out of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, through the Blackfoot Valley and over the Garnet Range to near Turah. There, they crossed I-90 on Aug. 4 and wandered through the Sapphire Range and the northern Bitterroot Valley.

The Donovan Creek easement couldn’t have been secured at a better time for grizzly bears. It helps that the Donovan Creek area has quite a bit of protected land around it, Doherty said. The southern side of the river has a large tract protected by a Five Valleys Land Trust conservation easement.

On the north side of the river and interstate highway, there’s a patchwork of conservation lands held by The Nature Conservancy, the BLM, the state, and ultimately, the Forest Service.

“This wildlife corridor is really important for grizzly bears and other wildlife as they try to navigate I-90 and Missoula’s human footprint,” said Nick Clarke, Y2Y Senior U.S. Program coordinator. “It helps connect the Northern Continental Divide, Greater Yellowstone and Bitterroot ecosystems, and these acres are adjacent to other conservation easements and extensive public lands, allowing wildlife to safely move through and resulting in a significant area of conserved habitat along the Clark Fork River Valley.”

In 2018, the organizations set a 20-year goal of buying enough strategically placed parcels that grizzly bears and other wildlife can safely traverse increasingly populated valleys to reach the safety of national forest lands. Looking ahead, Doherty said they are looking at possibilities a little farther east near Gold Creek, Beavertail and Bearmouth.

“We’re looking for places with minimal improvements, minimal development, that still have a permeable pathway for wildlife to get through the barriers like the interstate,” Doherty said. “There’s already some protection in place. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and The Nature Conservancy are working in the Bearmouth/Beavertail area on the north side. Five Valleys has some easements on the south side. So we’re looking at filling in the gaps where we can.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at