Roadless and Wild

Yaak Mountains
Photo: Lance Schelvan
The Cabinet-Yaak area in northwestern Montana is home to the smallest grizzly population in the Lower 48.

How You Helped Save Vital Acres in the Cabinet Mountains

By Matt Hart

Forty-three acres: it may not seem like much, but sometimes what happens on a small chunk of land can impact a far larger area—for better or for worse.

That’s how it was with Weber Gulch. Development of this isolated, roadless block of private land in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains could have become a huge thorn in the side of the U.S. Forest Service and a significant roadblock to wildlife stability in the region.

Instead—thanks to your support—Weber Gulch will remain a wild haven for grizzly bears and other wildlife. Vital Ground completed this urgent project in December when we donated the property to the Lolo National Forest, consolidating its management into the surrounding roadless stronghold.

Acquired in 2016 by Vital Ground, the steep, conifer-filled inholding near Thompson Falls, Mont., would have demanded an expensive and intrusive road construction process if its previous landowner had chosen to exercise access rights and develop the acreage. Now it will remain valuable seasonal habitat for a struggling grizzly population.

“Development of this parcel would have fragmented important wildlife habitat, especially for grizzly bears,” said USFS District Ranger David Hattis. “The acquisition will maintain the integrity of the Cube Iron-Mt. Silcox Roadless Area and preserve the scenic values that are identified as a goal for forest management in this area. Vital Ground has worked hard to make this happen, and we’re grateful for their important contributions on these public lands.”

Grizzly bear and cub
Thanks to Vital Ground donors, foundations and nonprofits, Weber Gulch will remain undeveloped and managed for the benefit of grizzly bears and other wildlife that roam the Cabinet Mountains of northwestern Montana. Photo by Philip DeManczuk.

Overlooking the Clark Fork Valley amid sprawling ponderosa pine forest, the Weber Gulch property hosts some of the southernmost undeveloped habitat for grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service targeted a population of roughly 100 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak when it developed the area’s grizzly bear recovery plan following threatened species listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. But today, the ecosystem’s grizzly population hovers around 50 animals, according to a recent study. It also shows a high risk of inbreeding due to its small size and genetic isolation from other populations.

The fragility of this group makes conserving habitat at the edge of the ecosystem—habitat like Weber Gulch—crucial to ongoing recovery. Bears particularly rely on transition zones like this in springtime, when snow still blankets the high country but traveling all the way to a developed valley bottom like the Clark Fork’s poses a high risk of human conflict.

Beyond bears, Weber Gulch serves as a popular access point for local hikers and hunters. A Forest Service trailhead at the base of the drainage provides entry to nearly 40,000 acres of roadless backcountry within the Cube Iron-Mt. Silcox area. Mid-elevation forest like the Weber Gulch parcel attracts elk and deer during fall and spring as they move between high-elevation summer grounds and lower winter range. The drainage is also visible from the Clark Fork Valley and Montana’s picturesque Highway 200.

“Although this parcel is relatively small, it is situated high above the valley floor, well above any other existing development, and directly within the view-shed of Thompson Falls and the Highway 200 corridor,” said Ryan Lutey, executive director of Vital Ground. “In addition to the ecological disruption and management challenges that development of the parcel would have created, it presented a significant threat to the attributes that make the lower Clark Fork Valley a popular scenic byway for tourism in western Montana.”

Because of the property’s situation within the designated roadless area, transfer to the Lolo National Forest will not change its value as wildlife habitat. Removing a private inholding will simplify the Forest Service’s management of the area while allowing Vital Ground to turn our resources toward new priorities as we honor your commitment to connecting landscapes and protecting wildlife.

Beyond the support of generous individuals like you, Vital Ground’s initial acquisition of the property was made possible by grants from the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Cinnabar Foundation, the Cross Charitable Foundation and the Chicago Zoological Society.

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