FWP commission considers conservation easements, land donation

Fish, Wildlife & Parks has been able to preserve some critical habitat thanks to Habitat Montana funds. But a legislative restriction on the money may cause FWP to lose some opportunity.

At Thursday’s meeting, FWP commissioners gave the go-ahead to start negotiations on four conservation easements and one donation of land that would benefit elk, mule deer and sage grouse and, in some cases provide additional access to public land.

The land donation would add the 735-acre Specimen Creek property to the Canyon Creek Wildlife Management Area west of Helena, increasing the size by about 30 percent. Administrator Ken McDonald said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was encouraging FWP to act swiftly on agreeing to take the land because it has been on the market for a while.

“The Elk Foundation is working on a variety of funding requests and approached us to see if we would manage it,” McDonald said. “We want to give the Elk Foundation an idea of whether we’re interested in owning it. There are no Habitat Montana dollars involved.”

The parcel abuts the WMA and contains not only good elk and moose habitat, but also more than 2 miles of streams that are home to brook and rainbow trout. The Helena National Forest surrounds the property on the other three sides. For that reason, it would provide access to about 5,000 acres of national forest that might be cut off if the parcel fell into private hands, said Mike Mueller, RMEF Lands Program manager.

“It has a very strategic location,” Mueller said. “It’s 4.5 miles from Flesher Pass, where the Continental Divide trailhead is. But north of this property, there’s been a lot of subdivision threats and pressure. And also another added benefit is we protect the view shed there because 58 percent of the property you can see from Highway 279.”

Mueller said the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust has already pledged $250,000 so fundraising is underway.

Two of the proposed conservation easements would protect prime sage grouse habitat.

Mark Machler has proposed creating a 2,700-acre easement on his ranch north of Roy in Fergus County. He intends to sell the property to his neighbor, who already leases it for grazing, so Machler wants the easement in place before he sells, McDonald said. FWP would work out a grazing management plan with the neighbor to preserve wildlife values, McDonald said.

The easement would protect unbroken sagebrush-grassland habitat in an area that FWP has identified as core sage-grouse habitat. Because of that, purchase of the easement could qualify for funding from the 2015 Farm Bill while the rest of the money would come from Habitat Montana, McDonald said.

Nine active mating grounds, or leks, lie within 4 miles of the property. It’s also home to mule deer, pronghorn antelope and other prairie species.

If FWP can get the conservation easement, it will open access to an adjoining 1,920-acre parcel belonging to the Department of Natural Resources Conservation.

The other conservation easement that could qualify for Farm Bill money for sage grouse conservation is on the 11,500-acre Rath property in Golden Valley County, 6 miles north of Lavina. In addition to conserving wildlife, the easement would also provide access to another parcel of DNRC land.

FWP would have to pay for the other two conservation easements solely with Habitat Montana money. They would preserve more than 7,500 acres of foothills grassland near Cascade and 12,300 acres of foothills habitat south of the Bear Paw Mountains where public access is currently very limited.

Both would benefit elk and mule deer, so it’s possible that RMEF or the Mule Deer Foundation might be willing to contribute some money, McDonald said.

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said purchase of the Rumney Foothills easement near Cascade, in particular, would help keep a working ranch on the landscape.

McDonald said he’d proposed another bunch of conservation easements for endorsement at the next commission meeting.

In the past, FWP could use Habitat Montana money for land acquisitions, in addition to conservation easements. But in 2015, House Bill 403 restricted FWP from buying any new land with Habitat Montana money, although the agency can proceed with purchases that were already in process before 2015.

A report on FWP’s habitat management was prepared for the legislative Environmental Quality Council, which the committee reviewed on Monday. It included the Habitat Montana program, which has purchased more than 50 conservation easements.

Legislative aid Hope Stockwell said FWP’s challenge with conservation easements was having enough staff to oversee the easements and to ensure landowner compliance, especially when property changes hands.

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, asked FWP Director Jeff Hagener if the agency was hindered the land-purchase restriction.

Hagener said FWP would like to be able to buy inholdings or areas adjacent to WMA’s, similar to the Specimen Creek property.

“During this interim, we’ve had a couple of very good opportunities come up that we can’t acquire right now,” Hagener said. “There are some critical pieces of habitat that would be very nice to have that would give us a buffer zone in some cases where there’s a lot of development going on.”

Hagener said not all of those critical pieces are private property.

“There are several DNRC or state trust lands that also part of that mix. And the DNRC has had propositions to develop cabin sites or do other things that would be right smack in the middle of a wildlife management area, which is not very conducive.”