During a winter like this one, the deer and elk that call the Bitterroot Valley home know very well the importance of winter range.
“This winter has been really hard on wildlife,” said Tony Jones of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. “We’ve had a lot of snow that melted and then froze solid. What snow that’s left now is rock hard and that makes it hard on deer and elk.”
From Conner to the northern reaches of the Bitterroot, nearly all the winter range for wildlife is located on private land.
“Preserving that critical winter range and open space is something that members of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association are very interested in,” Jones said. “Those lands are critical in preserving our wildlife populations in the Bitterroot.”
Last week, the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association surprised members of an organization dedicated to preserving those critical open spaces with an $8,000 donation.
Bitter Root Land Trust’s Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs said the donation was “awesome news. That amount of money really moves the needle for an organization like ours.”
The two organizations know each other well. They have worked together in the past on different projects and share some of the same board members.
“Both organizations share a lot of the same priorities,” Ricklefs said. “We both want to ensure that there is habitat available for fish, wildlife and for the people of Ravalli County to go and enjoy, whether that’s with a fishing rod in hand or hiking the hills with rifle.”
Jones said the association has donated monies to the land trust before, but this was its largest donation.
“We know that open space is important for people in Ravalli County,” Jones said. “The open space bond was approved by the voters. That’s important to us to know that it has the public’s support.”
While there is always debate over the issue of public access and conservation easements, Jones said the association knows that something that’s up to landowners.
“For us, open space that comes with public access is the best case scenario,” Jones said. “We know that not every landowner is willing to do that.”
“We also know that winter range is critical for elk and deer,” he said. “If you have a hard winter without winter range, wildlife ends up causing a lot of trouble to landowners. As a result, deer and elk either get shot or are winter killed.”
“If we can’t have access, then the next best thing is make sure it remains in open space,” Jones said.
Jones said the association appreciates the efforts of the land trust to make every dollar count.
Over the past seven years, Ricklefs said the land trust has been able to find $9 in matching funds for every dollar donated.
“Every $1 turns into $10 for conservation for the valley,” Ricklefs said. “We have run a very efficient organization for the past 20 years. We are very proud of that. We’ve really been able to do a lot with a little.”
The association’s donation will “certainly be a big help” in addressing opportunities in the upcoming year, Ricklefs said.
Nearly all of the funding for the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Foundation comes from its annual banquet. This year the banquet will be held on Feb. 27 at the First Interstate building at the county fairgrounds. Tickets can be purchased by calling 961-1435.