WHITEFISH - A Missoula-based nonprofit organization this week adopted a 71-acre tract of wildlife habitat in the Yaak Mountains near Troy that it hopes will improve grizzly bear migration corridors.
The property was purchased by the Vital Ground Foundation from a private landowner and lies within the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. The acquisition helps expand grizzly bear "linkage zones," or corridors that provide safe travel for bears and other wildlife that rove between seasonal habitats.
In this case, the property connects the Kootenai River Valley floor between the Purcell Mountains on the north side of U.S. Highway 2 and the East Cabinet Mountains on the south side. The 2,600 square-mile recovery zone is designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which estimates that no more than 40 grizzly bears live south of the Canada border.
Ryan Lutey, director of lands at the Vital Ground Foundation, said the acquisition was the organization's No. 1 priority under the Cabinet-Purcell-Selkirk Wildlife Linkage Initiative, which was launched in 2008.
"We chose this location because much of the adjacent property is on Forest Service holdings, so we were building on a conservation holding to begin with," Lutey said.
Acquisition of the property ensures that it will not be commercially or residentially developed, he said.
The property provides low elevation and seasonal linkage habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife species along the Kootenai River bottom. Lutey said it is an ideal winter range for deer, elk and moose, with the potential for calving and fawning areas.
"It has tremendous wildlife values and scenic values," Lutey said.
Grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Purcell-Selkirk corridor have become restricted in their travel, Lutey said, and in some areas their migratory routes are completely disrupted due to increasing habitat fragmentation from development. If habitat linkage to more robust populations in Canada is not preserved, the viability of grizzly populations in the lower 48 states will diminish.
The purchase of the Yaak Mountain property was planned over the course of several years through a partnership between the USFWS' Grizzly Bear Recovery Office; the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative; the Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and Vital Ground.
The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative provided an incentive for the project by offering a dollar-for-dollar matching grant for up to 50 percent of the project's cost.
The Yaak Mountain acquisition was Vital Ground's cornerstone project, Lutey said. With its completion, the organization will turn its attention to the linkage initiative's second priority - acquiring five parcels of land totaling 187 acres, which the organization holds under an option-to-purchase contract through December. That project budget is estimated at $1.15 million, and will pose a significant fundraising challenge.
"We have another property under contract on the south side of the Clark Fork where there has been significant documented grizzly bear activity, but it is just outside of the south end of the recovery zone," Lutey said. "That will continue to be our focus through the end of the year."
The organization also continues to explore possible connections between the Selkirk Mountains, the Cabinet Mountains and the south end of the Little Bitterroot Mountains between Interstate 90 and Montana Highway 200.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.