A proposed conservation plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends preserving at least an additional 170,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat in the Blackfoot and Swan valleys and along the Rocky Mountain Front.

The recommendation is part of the federal agency’s proposed management plan for the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which spans both sides of the Continental Divide and consists of more than 163,000 acres across a 12-county area in northwestern Montana. The plan will set the direction for management of the refuge system for the next 15 years.

“We want to continue our rich tradition of providing conservation and protection in these very unique habitats, and that is the main objective of our plan,” refuge manager Kathy Burchett said.

In addition to proposed changes in management at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Great Falls, the plan calls for buying easements within the refuge complex’s three conservation areas – the Blackfoot Valley, the Rocky Mountain Front, and the Swan Valley, collectively referred to as the Crown of the Continent projects. The easements would be geared toward protecting high-priority habitat and support linkage zones for species like grizzly bears, bull trout, trumpeter swans, lynx and waterfowl.

Burchett said the plan’s “preferred alternative” calls for buying a minimum of 120,000 acres in the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area, 45,000 acres in the Blackfoot Valley Conservation Area and 5,000 acres in the Swan Valley Conservation Area.

“We hope we exceed that,” Burchett said. “We believe it is an attainable goal based on our history of buying conservation easements and protecting intact, functional landscapes.”

The federal agency released its 15-year draft comprehensive plan and environmental assessment on Friday and is urging people who care about the refuge’s future to review the document and submit comments through May.

“Under President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, we are pursuing landscape conservation by forging large landscape partnerships,” Steve Guertin, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, stated in a news release. “This includes doubling the size of the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area and the Blackfoot Valley Conservation Area, and creating the new Swan Valley Conservation Area.”

The agency will work with willing landowners to buy the perpetual conservation easements, which in the Blackfoot Valley will be used to maintain the grasslands and prairie and to continue the highly successful Blackfoot Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project, Burchett said.

In the Swan Valley, the primary focus of the easements will be on critical wildlife corridors and migration areas, particularly for grizzlies and bull trout. On the Rocky Mountain Front, she said the agency will work on land acquisitions while also striving to minimize the effects of oil and gas exploration, which only became a consideration in the past year.

“When we started the planning process 3 1/2 years ago that was not an issue, but in the last nine months requests for seismic exploration has increased so that is going to continue to be a challenge for us in the future,” she said. “We don’t buy subsurface rights so we will be working with the interested parties to minimize the impacts of things like road-building.”

Burchett also hopes to increase staffing in those conservation areas, which currently have only one employee working part time on the conservation program.

“I would like to round him out and focus his entire time on the refuge side, and hire an additional person to be able to manage conservation easement programs in the Swan and Blackfoot,” she said.

Other efforts will include drumming up interest among local landowners willing to sell easements.

“This is what we call a strategic habitat conservation effort, meaning we want to focus our efforts on the best possible places so we get the biggest bang for the buck out of our taxpayers’ money,” she said.

With its headquarters in Great Falls, the refuge complex encompasses the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Benton Lake Wetland Management District, Blackfoot Valley Conservation Area, Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area, Swan River National Wildlife Refuge, and Swan Valley Conservation Area.

When Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act in 1997, it required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a conservation plan for all 557 national wildlife refuges by 2012.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct public meetings to give a brief overview of the key issues and answer questions. The public will also have an opportunity to offer comments.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com

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