Vital Ground Adds Acres to Northwestern Montana Conservation Project

Fowler Creek North meadow
Donated to Vital Ground by conservation-minded landowners, the 160-acre Fowler Creek project addition conserves rich wetland and forest habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, elk, moose and other wildlife crossing the Yaak Valley bottom in Montana's northwestern corner.

Fowler Creek Expansion Secures Wetland Habitat for Yaak Valley Grizzlies


YAAK, Mont. – Nestled amid the Purcell Mountains of far northwestern Montana, the Yaak Valley’s diverse wildlife and limited development make it one of the wildest places in the lower 48 states that does not fall within a national park or federal wilderness area. The Yaak’s biodiversity and wild character gained new durability this week as The Vital Ground Foundation and conservation-minded landowners completed the addition of 160 key acres to Vital Ground’s Fowler Creek habitat protection project.

The added acreage features several beaver dams and lush wetlands in addition to forest that helps connect the Yaak’s large habitat cores on national forestlands. Grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk and sensitive species like Canada lynx and wolverine all traverse the Yaak Valley bottom, with Fowler Creek’s habitat offering important seasonal range as a main tributary of the Yaak River. Fully donated by the property’s former owners, the addition increases the size of Vital Ground’s Fowler Creek project by more than 50 percent, consolidating stewardship of a rich lowland habitat area.

“We couldn’t be happier that Vital Ground will be taking on our property and managing it in perpetuity as habitat,” say the former landowners, who wish to remain anonymous. “In ecological terms the pieces are all there, including an extensive beaver marsh, a number of upland wetlands, and at least a dozen species of conifers. We find ample evidence of bears in the form of debarked trees, and wolf scat is common.”

Strengthening Open Space Protections

Fowler Creek mapLocated directly north of the 315-acre Fowler Creek area that Vital Ground acquired earlier this year in partnership with the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust, the additional acres will remain undeveloped as open space and wildlife habitat. Under Vital Ground ownership, the area’s stewardship can now be streamlined to best maintain connectivity for wildlife crossing the valley bottom.

By protecting wetlands and preventing subdivision, the project also maintains the Yaak’s water quality and its enduring rural character. With other parts of northwestern Montana experiencing unprecedented spikes in their real estate markets, ensuring a conservation outcome for the Fowler Creek marshlands will benefit wildlife and people for generations to come.

“It’s been amazing to watch the real estate market in places like the Yaak over the last 18 months,” says Mitch Doherty, conservation director for Vital Ground. “If we want to continue to have rugged, off-the-grid places like Yaak, places that still have character, we need to work harder than ever to keep them that way. It’s the passion, commitment and generosity of landowners like these ones on Fowler Creek that make a difference for people and wildlife in the Yaak Valley.”

Grizzlies Making Slow Gains

Fowler Creek North bark peel
Peeled bark shows evidence of bear traffic at the Fowler Creek addition. Grizzlies and black bears peel tree bark to eat the rich cambium layer beneath.

For the Yaak’s grizzly bears—a subpopulation that biologists estimate at just 20-25 animals—maintaining an open, connected landscape is a matter of survival. The population’s long-term future depends on increasing its genetic diversity through breeding with bears from elsewhere. With a recent uptick in grizzly movement between the Yaak and the neighboring Selkirk and Cabinet mountains, conservation of habitat linkages like Fowler Creek allows bears to move safely across the larger regional landscape and slowly reconnect their fragmented range.

“We have a native species on the landscape that we have reduced to exceedingly low population levels,” says Wayne Kasworm, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has led grizzly recovery in the Cabinet-Yaak and neighboring Selkirk Ecosystem since 1983. “The Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak areas are largely multiple-use environments. We don’t have either of these areas anchored by a large national park or large expanses of wilderness, but bears need secure habitat that provides opportunities to move across the landscape without bumping into too many people along the way.”

Beyond grizzlies, Fowler Creek provides range to bull trout and Canada lynx, species listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as numerous other native fish and the region’s full suite of fauna, from wolves and wolverine to badgers, foxes, moose, black bears and mountain lions.

Linking the Northern Rockies’ biodiversity strongholds while protecting open space and rural character from the Canadian border through northern Idaho and western Montana to the Greater Yellowstone area is the goal of Vital Ground’s One Landscape conservation strategy. Additional support for the Fowler Creek addition came from private contributors and the Teton Ridge Foundation.

For more information contact:

Mitch Doherty, conservation director for Vital Ground, 406-549-8650,

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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