Vital Ground and Yellowstone to Yukon Safeguard Habitat Link Across Clark Fork River and Interstate 90

Vital Ground and Yellowstone to Yukon’s land purchase protects 52 acres abutting the Clark Fork River and an Interstate 90 bridge, safeguarding wildlife movement under the highway and between the Ninemile and Bitterroot mountains. Grizzly bears have been documented in the area but do not have a resident population in the Bitterroots.

Land Purchase Protects Movement Between Ninemile and Bitterroot Ranges

December 14, 2018

MISSOULA, Mont.—A key wildlife pathway will remain undeveloped along western Montana’s Clark Fork River after The Vital Ground Foundation and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) purchased 52 acres near Ninemile Creek this week.

The land helps connect the Ninemile and Bitterroot mountain ranges, lying adjacent to the Clark Fork River and an Interstate 90 bridge where biologists have documented wildlife crossing under the highway. That makes it an especially valuable link for grizzly bears, as the Ninemile Range connects to larger cores of grizzly habitat that stretch to Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Grizzlies were first documented using the area in 2001, including one bear with a home range that includes the Ninemile area.

“I’ve personally observed the Ninemile Grizzly crossing under the I-90 bridge,” says James Jonkel, Wildlife Management Specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “Since 2001, we’ve had multiple verified grizzlies using this same area to cross the river, the most recent being two years ago.”

Regional Impact

Clark Fork sunrise closeup
Located near the confluence of Ninemile Creek and the Clark Fork, the project area offers valuable riparian habitat along a valley corridor experiencing rapid development. (Photo by Mitch Doherty)

Protecting a corridor across the Clark Fork and I-90 could aid natural movement of the threatened bears from the Ninemile back to historic range in the Bitterroots. Despite its designation as a federal recovery zone for the species, biologists do not consider the Bitterroot area to currently host a resident grizzly population.

Twenty miles west of Missoula, the Ninemile-Clark Fork area features squarely in Vital Ground’s larger conservation plan to protect crucial habitat connections between grizzly recovery zones. Drawn from a year’s worth of meetings with bear biologists and managers, the land trust recently completed an inventory of 188,000 top-priority acres in unprotected ownership across northern Idaho and western Montana.

If protected, bear specialists believe these sites will contribute significantly to reconnecting fragmented grizzly populations between the Yellowstone area and the Canadian border. In partnership with landowners and groups like Y2Y, Vital Ground plans to utilize voluntary conservation easements and land acquisitions to safeguard identified top-priority habitat areas—which range in size from 200 to 5,000 acres—over the next two decades.

“When people think about rural Montana, they imagine a few scattered cities and towns with lots of open space in between,” says Ryan Lutey, executive director of Vital Ground. “But when you evaluate locations where high-quality wildlife habitat coincides with land use that’s viable for maintaining connectivity between larger blocks of habitat, there are shockingly few opportunities remaining. That’s especially true in western Montana, where the majority of our subdivision and development, transportation routes, and all of our associated activities are wedged in along narrow valley floors.”

Biodiversity Bottleneck

Beyond protecting a grizzly pathway to the Bitterroots, the purchase and a nearby 240-acre conservation easement facilitated by Vital Ground in 2004 safeguard valuable riparian and foothill habitat for many species. Elk, deer and other animals descend from forestland on both sides of the river to access the water source, which is also home to bull trout, a nationally threatened species, and westslope cutthroat trout, Montana’s state fish and a designated species of concern within the state.

This week’s purchase is the second of its kind for Vital Ground and Y2Y. The two organizations collaborated last month to acquire a similar parcel near the junction of northwestern Montana’s Kootenai and Yaak rivers. Confluence areas like these represent natural bottlenecks for wildlife, leading to their high prioritization in conservation planning.

“This is an important step in ensuring that a variety of wildlife species can continue to move across the landscape,” says Nick Clarke, High Divide Project Coordinator for Y2Y. “This project helps secure one of the few locations where grizzly bears are able to cross I-90. We are very excited to partner with Vital Ground.”

For more information, contact:
Vital Ground: Ryan Lutey, Executive Director, 406-549-8650,
Y2Y: Kim Trotter, U.S. Program Director, 208-709-1114,

An accredited land trust and 501(c)(3) organization, Vital Ground conserves habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife in the Northern Rockies and Inland Northwest. Founded in 1990 and based in Missoula, Mont., the organization also partners with communities to prevent conflicts between bears and people.

Formed in 1993, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization that connects and protects habitat from Yellowstone to Yukon so people and nature can thrive. The organization is based in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. Staff and program work is distributed across five American states, two Canadian provinces, and the traditional territories of at least 31 Indigenous groups.

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