Stopping subdivision in a key wildlife corridor along the Kootenai River in northwestern Montana.
Wild River PROJECT BRIEF
Grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem are persisting against the odds. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Montana, 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. Biologists from multiple jurisdictions have highlighted this linkage zone as a crucial priority for private-land conservation, and now we’re teaming with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative to make it happen. With over 125 acres already protected in the last 10 years, we’re pushing for an additional land purchase in 2023 that will further solidify this formerly-subdivided stretch of the valley into a permanent conservation corridor.
The grizzly subpopulations on either side of the Kootenai Valley have shown little genetic exchange, and thus a high risk of inbreeding. But they both play a key role in larger landscape connections. To the north, the Purcells extend across the national border into British Columbia, where larger wildlands host a growing grizzly population. To the south, the Cabinets reach down to the Clark Fork Valley and I-90, the only things separating them from the vast Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem of Montana and Idaho.
Shore up the middle of the Cabinet-Yaak and the potential for connected bear habitat from Canada to central Idaho becomes significantly greater. With Wild River located in a natural bottleneck near the confluence of the Kootenai and Yaak rivers, what’s missing is permanent protection for the corridor.
Vital Ground protected habitat on the north end of the linkage zone in 2014—our Yaak Mountain property, which borders U.S. Forest Service land extending northeast into the Purcells. Directly across Highway 2, we then teamed with Y2Y on successive purchases in 2017 and 2018 to protect 42.5 undeveloped acres, followed by a 10-acre purchase in 2019 and an additional 3-acre acquisition in 2020.
The next phase of the project is a final 5.5-acre acquisition directly across the highway from the Yaak Mountain acreage. Across the entire complex, we are also actively engaged in habitat restoration, beginning the transformation of these acres from cleared lots full of invasive plants to rich habitat for grizzlies, elk, moose and many other wide-ranging species, not to mention the endangered white sturgeon and threatened bull trout that swim the Kootenai.
Wild River at a Glance
- New 5.5-acre acquisition will add to over 125 acres already conserved in corridor
- Part of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's high priority Troy-Highway 2 Linkage Zone
- Helps connect public-land habitat in the Purcell (north) and Cabinet (south) mountains
- Includes Kootenai River frontage; channel restoration work will improve habitat for endangered white sturgeon