Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem

Covering 2,600 square miles, the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem encompasses the Yaak Valley and the Cabinet and Purcell mountain ranges of northwest Montana and northern Idaho.

Vital Ground Habitat Projects in the Cabinet-Yaak:
• 4 fee-title properties
• 4 conservation easements
• 2,052 acres conserved

Grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak:
• Current population estimates hover around 50 bears
• Fragmented into two subpopulations (Yaak Valley and Cabinet Mountains), with each numbering around 25 bears and no evidence of genetic exchange
• Habitat cores include Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area and portions of Kootenai, Lolo, and Idaho Panhandle national forests
• Communities within or adjacent include: Libby, Thompson Falls, Troy, and Yaak

Photo: Gem River Productions

Wild River

  • Project Type: Acquisition
  • Size: 42 acres
  • Habitat Type: Linkage
  • Vital Ground Since: 2017

Grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem are struggling. Tucked into the northwest corner of the state, the Cabinet-Yaak does not benefit from the conservation strongholds of a national park or large wilderness area. U.S. Highway 2 follows the Kootenai River through the middle of the ecosystem, a geographic waistline that splits the area in two, separating the Cabinet and Purcell mountain ranges. Recent studies estimate just 25 bears on either side of the divide. Connecting the Cabinet-Yaak’s grizzlies, and its other threatened wildlife, marks the goal of our ambitious Wild River Project. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists pinpointed this place as the right one for private-land conservation, and now we’re taking the reins.

Photo: Gael Bissell

Weber Gulch

  • Project Type: Acquisition
  • Size: 42 acres
  • Habitat Type: Buffer
  • Vital Ground Since: 2016

Weber Gulch represents a unique strategic project for Vital Ground. In 2016, we acquired a crucial private inholding within Montana’s Lolo National Forest, and now we’re in the process of turning the land over to public hands. That’s because the Cube Iron-Silcox Roadless Area, a key habitat buffer at the southern edge of the Cabinet-Yaak, surrounds the parcel. And beyond disrupting wildlife connectivity, private development of the property—namely, road construction to it—would have taxed the Forest Service hugely, requiring many hours of federal oversight and necessitating road closures elsewhere in the grizzly bear recovery zone in order to maintain density requirements for the protected area.

Alvord Lake

  • Project Type: Acquisition
  • Size: 142 acres
  • Habitat Type: Buffer
  • Vital Ground Since: 2015

The effort to create Alvord Lake Community Forest out of a proposed lakeshore subdivision was the largest and most collaborative financial undertaking in Vital Ground’s history. And it’s a prime illustration of how our work to protect grizzly habitat carries benefits far beyond a single species.

Two miles north of Troy, Montana, the sickle-shaped lake lies close enough to town that it’s a favorite fishing, boating and field trip spot for the 1,000-person community in the heart of the Cabinet-Yaak. But it’s much more, too. Alvord’s water provides one of the state’s few nesting sites for common loons, its mid-elevation shoreline serves moose and elk as favored winter range, and its setting on the southern edge of the Purcell Mountains—a range that stretches north into vast Canadian wild lands—helps connect sensitive grizzlies, Canada lynx and wolverines with habitat cores farther south in the Cabinet and Bitterroot ranges.

Photo: Kevin Rhoades

Meadow Creek

  • Project Type: Conservation Easement
  • Size: 40 acres
  • Habitat Type: Core
  • Vital Ground Since: 2015

Many have called the Yaak Valley of Montana’s northwest corner the wildest place left in the Lower 48. Douglas and Marcia Lee Berg, and their grandson Karl, knew it to be true from observing the many sensitive species—grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolverines, bull trout—on or near their family property at the confluence of the Yaak River and Meadow Creek.

It was this appreciation of the region’s precious habitat that prompted the Berg family to generously donate a conservation easement to Vital Ground in March 2015. Filled with aspen groves and mature western red cedars, the now-protected land provides prime forest and riparian habitat in the middle of the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. Its permanent conservation under the easement will create a stable link between large surrounding tracts of national forest lands.

Photo: Kevin Rhoades

Yaak Mountain

  • Project Type: Acquisition
  • Size: 71 acres
  • Habitat Type: Linkage
  • Vital Ground Since: 2011

Yaak Mountain represented a huge step forward in Vital Ground’s work to aid grizzly recovery in the Cabinet-Yaak. As our first fee-title acquisition in the ecosystem, the purchase cemented our commitment to seeing the region’s embattled population of 50 or so grizzlies establish greater resiliency through genetic linkage with larger populations.

Two miles northwest of Troy, Montana, the forested and meadow-strewn parcel establishes a bulwark of protection from U.S. Highway 2 north into the Purcell Mountains. Now, six years later, it combines with our Wild River Project—which lies adjacent on the other side of the highway—to complete a critical corridor bridging the Kootenai Valley and connecting the Purcells with the Cabinet Range to the south.

Photo: Lance Schelvan

Curley Creek

  • Project Type: Conservation Easement
  • Size: 110 acres (two easements)
  • Habitat Type: Buffer
  • Vital Ground Since: 2008

Boundary County in Idaho doesn’t just feature borders with both Montana and British Columbia. It also marks the western edge of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. Within this remote rural area, the Curley Creek Valley hosts lush cedar-lined wetlands, precious timberland and idyllic habitat for grizzly bears and other sensitive species ranging from gray wolves to Canada lynx to bull trout.

Naturally, then, we were eager to join forces with landowners Sam and Carolyn Testa, who generously donated conservation easements on their adjoining 80- and 30-acre properties in the valley. These easements build on nearby conservation lands protected through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Program and Nature Conservancy of Idaho easements. Together, we’ve helped solidify buffer habitat on the edge of the Cabinet-Yaak, an important step toward connecting its grizzlies with those farther west in the neighboring Selkirk Ecosystem.

Photo: Lance Schelvan

Clifty View Foothills

  • Project Type: Conservation Easement
  • Size: 1,647 acres
  • Habitat Type: Buffer
  • Vital Ground Since: 2007

Our largest conservation easement project was also a landmark collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program. A decade later, the Clifty View Foothills forestland remains critical habitat for grizzlies and other wildlife in the West Cabinet Mountains.

Lying just west of the Idaho-Montana border and along the edge of the federally-designated Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, Clifty View has seen grizzlies denning within two miles of the property, making it critical conservation land as development pressure increases in the Idaho Panhandle. Our partnership with the Merrifield family, owners of Clifty View Nursery, ensures that the land will be managed to maximize its wildlife habitat value while continuing to bear a sustainable timber harvest. This combination qualified it for the Forest Legacy Program, a competitive federal fund that supports conservation efforts on working timberlands. Partnering with the Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands, we helped craft a conservation easement that is held by the state of Idaho and monitored by Vital Ground.

Photo: Lance Schelvan

Kidd Creek

  • Conservation Partner: Yellowstone to Yukon
  • Partnership Type: Habitat Protection
  • Size: 87 acres
  • Vital Ground since: 2007

It may only span 87 acres, but the Kidd Creek Property in southern British Columbia is undoubtedly one of the “Right Places” for conservation—a small chunk of land that, once protected as habitat, benefits wildlife across a much larger landscape.

That’s because the property’s northern boundary abuts Highway 3, an east-west thoroughfare across Southern B.C. that significantly fragments wildlife habitat. But biologists identified the Kidd Creek location as one of the few spots where grizzly bears regularly cross the highway, inspiring us to join the effort to conserve the corridor. In early 2007, we helped the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative purchase an easement for the property, while The Nature Trust of British Columbia completed its fee-title purchase. Now, this habitat markedly improves the odds that bears who cross the big road will continue traveling south through the Purcell Mountains and reach the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem and the other side of the U.S.-Canada border. There, they can bring much-needed genetic diversity to a small and isolated population of grizzlies.

Other Habitat Projects

in Grizzly Recovery Ecosystems

Vital Ground works to protect and restore habitat for wild grizzly populations in ecosystems where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated grizzly bear recovery zones and where state wildlife management agencies have placed an emphasis on conserving the species.