Vital Ground Completes Conservation of Key Wetlands and Grizzly Habitat in Northern Idaho

North Idaho's Bismark Meadows in Selkirk Mountains
Bismark Meadows provides crucial spring habitat for grizzly bears and other sensitive wildlife and plants in northern Idaho's Selkirk Ecosystem. Amid significant development pressures in the area, this week's land purchase completes Vital Ground's 20-year effort to conserve this 1,100-acre wetland complex as a haven for wildlife.

New Land Purchase Caps 20-Year, 1,100-Acre Bismark Meadows Protection Effort

NEWS FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 29, 2022

MISSOULA, Mont. – An important wetland complex providing precious spring habitat for grizzly bears in northern Idaho will remain open and undeveloped despite a booming real estate market after The Vital Ground Foundation completed the final phase of its Bismark Meadows Project this week.

Nestled amid the Selkirk Mountains that stretch north into British Columbia, the 1,100-acre wetland area faced significant development pressure due to its proximity to Priest Lake, a growing tourism and vacation home destination.

In 2001, Vital Ground began methodically purchasing private parcels comprising the Bismark Meadows complex as they became available from willing sellers. With major support from The ALSAM Foundation, this week’s 148-acre purchase completes consolidation of the meadows under Vital Ground stewardship, ensuring the wetlands will remain available for grizzly bears and other wildlife in perpetuity.

“This is the culmination of two decades of work with many dedicated partners to ensure Bismark Meadows remains permanently accessible to wildlife,” says Vital Ground Executive Director Ryan Lutey. “Early in the 20th century, this irreplaceable wet fen was ditched and drained for marginally productive pasture and hay ground. But around the turn of this century, the meadow’s six principal private owners began collaborating with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to restore its wetland characteristics. Since then, Idaho Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NRCS and myriad private foundations have all supported Vital Ground in these voluntary transactions to unite the parcels into conservation ownership.”

Vital Ground will continue to pay property taxes on its holdings and several residential structures on the edges of the meadow are currently leased to local residents for housing. The organization has also long maintained a donation agreement with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to use one of the properties to help facilitate the agency’s operations throughout the Priest River drainage.

A Haven for Grizzlies

Grizzly bear mother and cub in Glacier National Park
Due to its low elevation and early-season plant growth, Bismark Meadows provides crucial spring habitat for grizzlies. (Photo: Philip DeManczuk)

Because of its low-elevation setting compared to the surrounding slopes of the Selkirk range, Bismark Meadows has long provided crucial spring forage for grizzly bears. The lush habitat experiences some of the area’s first plant growth of the year, often drawing sow grizzlies with cubs born during winter denning.

“The lower elevations are bottlenecks for key species like grizzly bear,” said Greg Johnson, a retired biologist for Idaho Fish and Game who worked on grizzly recovery in northern Idaho for multiple decades. “That spring habitat is very important, but almost all of it is privately owned. The number one threat is the permanent loss of those habitats, because when it’s gone it’s gone and those bears need to be someplace.”

South of Canada’s Highway 3, the southern portion of the Selkirk Ecosystem is home to just 50-60 grizzlies according to recent estimates. Spanning northern Idaho, northeastern Washington and far southern British Columbia, this population faces the significant threat of habitat fragmentation and increased risk of human conflict that new development carries.

Idaho has experienced particularly intense pressure, ranking first nationally in population growth for five straight years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Bonner County, home to the Priest Lake area, has grown at a similar rate to the state average over that time.

“There’s constant pressure to divide and develop land,” Johnson said. “Where Vital Ground has their most important role is to take on the smaller projects in those really key critical areas.”

A Biodiversity Stronghold

Bismark Meadows wetlands
A rare wet fen landscape, Bismark Meadows is home to numerous native plants, including six species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Linda Lantzy)

With two creeks running through the complex, Bismark Meadows provides habitat for far more than bears. Moose and elk frequent the lush area while native cutthroat trout inhabit its streams and wide-ranging species like wolverine periodically pass through. The wetlands are also home to six different plant species designated as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Bismark Meadows is a resource-rich area that provides outsized benefits to fish, wildlife and several species of sensitive native plants,” explains Lutey. “It’s a bit of a landscape anomaly where a combination of topographic and hydrologic features disrupts the regular pattern of the surrounding mountains. Kalispell and Reeder Creeks filter through the meadows, which help store water and protect the water quality of Priest Lake and the drainage downstream, and several far-ranging wildlife species meet important seasonal habitat needs at this location.”

In addition to preventing subdivision and development, Vital Ground will steward the habitat to maximize its biodiversity. In portions of the complex already under its ownership, Vital Ground and several partners have begun installing beaver dam analogues in an effort to coax beavers back to the landscape, further increasing its water storage and helping native wetland plants out-compete invasive grasses.

Larger Landscape Implications

While it lies in the middle of the Selkirk Ecosystem, Bismark Meadows holds significant value to larger conservation goals for grizzlies and other wide-ranging species. Increased habitat fragmentation and human conflict due to new development would hamstring recovery efforts for the Selkirks’ slowly-growing grizzly population and reduce the likelihood of improved connectivity with neighboring ecosystems in Montana and Canada.

By stabilizing habitat within the Selkirks, Bismark Meadows improves the connectivity value of Vital Ground’s work elsewhere in northern Idaho, including recent efforts in the Kootenai Valley. That makes this week’s purchase not only the capstone of more than 20 years pursuing a conservation outcome for Bismark Meadows but also a piece of Vital Ground’s One Landscape Initiative, the organization’s conservation strategy for protecting the most crucial habitat connections linking the Northern Rockies’ wild strongholds.

In addition to The ALSAM Foundation’s major support, project partners for the Bismark Meadows capstone purchase included the Teton Ridge Foundation, Cross Charitable Foundation and Tourism Cares.

For more information contact:

Ryan Lutey, executive director for Vital Ground, 406-549-8650, rlutey@vitalground.org

About Vital Ground:

An accredited land trust and 501(c)(3) organization, Vital Ground conserves habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife in the Northern Rockies. Founded in 1990 and based in Missoula, Mont., the organization also partners with communities to prevent conflicts between bears and people.

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