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SEELEY LAKE – You’d think if you corralled 38 square miles of vital wildlife habitat, one more or less wouldn’t matter much.

Then there’s Section 24, 640 acres on the southeast edge of the new Marshall Creek Wildlife Management Area near Seeley Lake. It wasn’t available in the deal Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks cobbled together to preserve one of the most sensitive travel corridors in the whole Seeley-Swan drainage. But the longer state biologists examined the territory they got, the more they realized they needed the bit they missed.

“When we realized FWP’s restoration goals for the larger management area were really reliant on having this piece, it was worth going back to Plum Creek (Timber Co.) and making an individual effort,” Five Valleys Land Trust conservation project manager Lewis Kogan said on Thursday. “We spent the last year and a half pulling together funding partners.”

The main Marshall Creek Wildlife Management Area protects 24,200 acres of forest just west of Highway 83, in the hills beyond lakes Alva, Inez and Seeley. Most of it got swept into the 310,000-acre Montana Legacy Project where Plum Creek sold huge chunks of its timberlands to the Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands. Those groups in turn passed the land to state and federal managers, including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

But Section 24 wasn’t in the deal. It was the bit that held the confluence of Deer and Fawn creeks, along with a crucial bit of logging road that connects the Westside Snowmobile Trail’s Archibald Loop. Plum Creek held onto that section for a possible private sale.

“It’s a highly desirable piece of property, and highly developable,” said FWP biologist Jay Kolbe, who helped put together the partnerships that paid for the acquisition. “There was no guarantee anyone who purchased it would have kept the access open.”

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Fish research confirmed that Deer Creek holds a genetically distinct population of bull trout that spawn just above the section. It’s also a major crossroads for lynx moving from the Mission Mountains to the valley bottoms. Grizzly bears use the confluence, as do elk and deer.

The property cost $1.25 million. FWP used some of its own funds, as well as habitat money from state and federal programs, to combine with contributions from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Vital Ground Foundation, William H. Donner Foundation, FVLT and the Missoula County Open Space Program to meet the bill. The deal closed on Wednesday.

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