Vital Ground Projects Gain Support Along Rocky Mountain Front

Fellows Ranch along Rocky Mountain Front
Photo: Eric Ian
East of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front Range, the Teton River winds through the Fellows Ranch, creating riparian habitat for grizzly bears, migratory birds and much more. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Vital Ground, the Fellows Family is working on a 4,472-acre conservation easement for the ranch.

Two Conservation Efforts Will Protect Key Grizzly Habitat Along Teton River

For nearly all of their history as a species in North America, grizzly bears were as likely to be found on the plains as in the mountains or along the coast. Now, recovering from two centuries of human persecution in the western United States, grizzlies are gradually reclaiming parts of their historic range on the prairies of Montana. Following waterways east out of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, these bears navigate a patchwork of farm and ranch lands.

Two ongoing Vital Ground habitat conservation projects promise to help grizzlies stay safe across this working landscape. Along the Teton River, the Fellows Family is partnering with Vital Ground and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) on a conservation easement for its 4,472-acre ranch. Just upstream, the River Birch Place project will conserve additional riparian habitat and help connect other protected areas.

Working Lands as Wildlife Habitat

On the Fellows Ranch, Farm Bill funding will provide major support for the conservation easement as part of the NRCS Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) program. The conservation outcome means the continuation of an open landscape for wildlife and people alike, as well as the protection of a family legacy.

“One of the last things my dad said to me was, ‘Hang on to the place as long as you can,’” says rancher Mark Fellows. “This is one way we can maintain it in perpetuity.”

As grizzly traffic has increased in the area over recent decades, attentiveness to wildlife and accommodation of their movements have allowed the Fellows to continue cattle ranching with very few incidents. Successfully sharing the landscape doesn’t just keep people and wildlife safe—it also sets a positive model in communities adapting to the grizzly’s presence.

“We really like to coexist with a lot of things around here,” adds Fellows. “The grizzlies around here are shy about things, but they’re around. Wildlife habitat in general, in the world, is shrinking. We recognize that, and the idea that we can’t get along is foreign to us.”

River Birch Place along Teton River
River Birch Place includes riparian wildlife habitat along the Teton River east of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range. (Photo by Eric Ian)

That coexistence ethic works hand-in-hand with habitat protection to make space for longer-term grizzly recovery along the Rocky Mountain Front and beyond, according to Mike Madel, a landowner and retired biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. With project support from Kodiak Cakes, Madel is partnering with Vital Ground to complete a conservation easement on River Birch Place, his 16-acre property along the Teton River just a few miles upstream of the Fellows Ranch. The excellent riparian habitat on the property helps link grizzlies and other wildlife traveling east from the mountains with larger protected areas, including the adjacent Glen Willow Ranch, a 650-acre property also conserved by Vital Ground with funding from the ALE program.

“Land conservation is the most important thing for long-term grizzly bear conservation across North America,” says Madel. “Ultimately the habitat has to be there.”

Thanks to Vital Ground supporters, partners like the USDA and landowners like Fellows and Madel, habitat conservation is following grizzlies back onto the plains, promising a safer landscape for future generations of wildlife and people alike.

Learn more about Vital Ground habitat conservation projects…

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