The gates stay open

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is preparing to pull the trigger on a critical land purchase in the Clearwater Valley. The 640-acre parcel up Deer Creek, currently owned by the Plum Creek Timber Company, is the last stretch of Clearwater tributary not held by a public agency—and a lynchpin in realizing the full conservation goals of the Montana Legacy Project.

"The majority of Deer Creek fell within [the Legacy Project] boundary," says FWP wildlife biologist Jay Kolbe. "It just so happens this last 1.3-mile portion of the corridor didn't."

In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Five Valleys Land Trust, the Vital Ground Foundation and a host of other organizations and agencies, FWP plans to pay $1.2 million for the Deer Creek parcel by the end of the summer. Officials signed off on the proposal earlier this month, and, Kolbe says, the decision notice came not a moment too soon. Plum Creek had been actively marketing the property. "We knew it was just a matter of time before someone would pick it up," Kolbe says. "It's a beautiful, developable, fairly level parcel with a beautiful keystone stream running right through the middle of it."

With the clock ticking, FWP arranged for Five Valleys to bridge the transition by temporarily taking ownership while the agency completed its assessment and public comment period. Lewis Kogan, conservation project manager with Five Valleys, says the Deer Creek parcel "seemed like it was one of the more marketable properties in the Seeley Lake area."

Kolbe rattles off a long list of conservation benefits related to the acquisition. The property is home to critical lynx habitat. It's a key linkage zone for grizzlies. Deer Creek itself boast "some of the highest restoration potential for bull trout habitat of any stream in the region," Kolbe says. But the parcel plays an equally important role on the recreation landscape near Seeley Lake. Public comments on the proposal overwhelmingly favored the acquisition, with locals urging FWP and its partners to maintain existing public access to the area.

"This hunting district has some of the highest seasonal hunter use in the region for deer and elk, and the property is also part of this extremely popular snowmobile system west of Seeley Lake," Kogan says. "If this property was sold to a private buyer, there's a good chance the gates would be closed."

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