Wild River Project: A Bridge for Northwest Montana

June, 4 2017  |  by kevin Back »

Connectivity, corridors, linkages—as a supporter of Vital Ground’s work, you hear the words a lot. But where’s the walk behind the talk?

By Matt Hart

In our latest project, we have the chance to build a wildlife corridor that is more concrete—and perhaps more critical—than any land we’ve acquired before.

Wild River Estates is no sprawling preserve. North of Troy, Mont., it comprises just 42 acres of private land along the Kootenai River. But this property is one of those right places for conservation, a small parcel that can make a big difference. With great potential to link struggling populations of grizzlies and other wildlife, and within an ecosystem of critical long-term importance to bear recovery, Wild River needs your help.

Purchasing Wild River Estates ensures this wildlife-rich area along northwest Montana’s Kootenai River will never be commercially or residentially developed and will connect relatively unfragmented grizzly habitat in Canada to land in the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Area — a 2,600 square-mile area occupied by less than 50 grizzlies south of Canada.. Photo by Mitch Mitch Doherty.

Grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem are struggling. Tucked into the northwest corner of the state, the Cabinet-Yaak does not benefit from a national park or large designated wilderness that stabilizes local conservation work. U.S. Highway 2 follows the Kootenai River Valley through the middle of the ecosystem, a geographic waistline that splits the area in two. Recent studies estimate just 25 bears on either side of the divide, with little genetic exchange and both subpopulations showing signs of inbreeding.

With improved connectivity, new grizzlies could diversify the Cabinet-Yaak gene pool without traveling huge distances. To the north and northwest, Canadian bears roam in the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains, while a patchwork of public land reaches east to the Whitefish Range and the rest of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, home to roughly 1,000 resident grizzlies. As it stands, the Cabinet-Yaak is a shaky bridge between firmer grounds for the Great Bear.

With improved connectivity, grizzly bears could diversify the Cabinet-Yaak gene pool without traveling huge distances.

Before we strengthen its connections to other ecosystems, however, we must repair the middle of the bridge itself. That’s where Wild River enters the picture.

The rectangular plot lies sandwiched between two mountain ranges, and, on a smaller scale, between a river and a highway. Highway 2 borders it to the east—and across it lies protected habitat, beginning with another Vital Ground property, Yaak Mountain, then reaching north into U.S. Forest Service lands above the Yaak Valley. Meanwhile, the Kootenai River lines the property to the west, with a thumb of Forest Service land reaching all the way down to the waterline on its far shore. The corridor is there for the making: with both Yaak Mountain and Wild River protected, we will significantly widen a bottleneck, giving bears, Canada lynx, elk and moose a much better chance at successfully navigating the road and the river that separate the Purcell and the Cabinet habitats.

The alternative is a tighter choke. Wild River Estates is platted into 12 subdivided properties, their developer’s original plan being the sale of riverfront real estate. If home sites are completed, ranging wildlife will have to cross not just a highway and a river, but yards and gardens and driveways. Their risk of human conflict will skyrocket, and their chances at safe travel plummet.

We are not alone in pinpointing Wild River. Ten years ago, bear biologists identified this specific area as the best site north of Troy for protecting a corridor. Thanks to the Yaak and Kootenai rivers’ nearby confluence, the land around Wild River offers gentler travel than the jagged slopes that line much of the Kootenai Valley. High levels of wildlife have long been documented in the area, ranging from white-tailed deer and mountain lions to bats and wolverine. Our frequent partners, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, have earmarked the spot, too, and are now joining Vital Ground in a fundraising push to ensure our purchase and protection of the Wild River area.

By joining the effort, it’s not just bears and other mammals you’ll be helping. Once protected, Wild River’s quarter mile of shoreline will aid endangered white sturgeon, a fish that has historically migrated along the Kootenai. Heading upstream from Kootenay Lake in Canada, an adult female sturgeon was recently documented swimming through the area—the first of the species to enter Montana in many decades.

With your help, her passage will serve as a sign of things to come, as together we build a stable bridge in the heart of the Cabinet-Yaak.