KALISPELL — A new public viewing area for waterfowl — including hundreds of sandhill cranes — should be open to the public by the time their migration begins this fall.
The quarter-acre viewing area is a small yet integral part of the larger conservation easement that will cover about 400 acres in the West Valley Wetlands area north of Kalispell. The public will be restricted to the viewing area, set off from the rest of the Grosswiler family farm, by a simple decorative fence, according to Laura Katzman, a land protection specialist with the Flathead Land Trust.
“The landowners have been farming the West Valley for over 100 years,” Katzman said. “They have a large amount of farmland and wanted to keep some in the future. They’re on the edge of town, seeing land being sold off for development, and this is a way to carry on the family’s legacy.”
Katzman said the Land Trust has been working on the $1.4 million conservation easement project for a few years, and completed work on 68 acres last October. The final 328-acre conservation easement hinges on Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks accepting the donation of the quarter-acre for public access easement to the viewing site.
“This is one of the last pieces, both with the access easement and the conservation easement,” Katzman said. “One of the entities that helped with the funding wanted a government partner for the public access easement for the public viewing area because that’s in perpetuity, and the best way to provide that is through a governmental entity.”
FWP wildlife biologist Chris Hammond's environmental assessment notes that without his agency’s acceptance of the donation, the project cannot be completed. That's because the Land Trust would lose $85,000 in funding from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which requires public access as a stipulation for its funding.
“The easement would provide safe access to an incredible wildlife viewing opportunity not currently available in this part of the valley, as well as provide an outdoor classroom for the local schools,” Hammond wrote in the assessment. “ … this project will allow us to continue to foster interest and involvement in the resources we manage through public outreach and education, so that people increasingly value these resources and the experiences they provide.”
He notes that the public access easement and viewing area, which will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, will overlook a 45-acre pothole wetland surrounded by several hundred acres of agricultural land. During the fall migration, more than 400 sandhill cranes have been seen at one time in the area, and it’s the only known staging area in northwest Montana that regularly hosts them.
“The unique juxtaposition of pothole wetlands and agricultural lands in the West Valley make it a critical staging area for migratory sandhill cranes moving from breeding grounds in Canada to wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Mexico,” Hammond wrote.
He added that 129 other species of birds have been documented using the pothole wetland area, “including tens of thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors.” Other common wildlife species found near the project area include grizzly bear, badgers, white-tailed deer and a variety of small mammals.
FWP expects to spend about $22,000 to improve the existing access road and widen it in one place for a pullout for cars and in another place for school buses, and to create a new parking area with an observation trail overlooking the wetland. The funding includes $10,000 from the FWP nongame check-off program, $5,000 from the Flathead Land Trust and $7,000 from in-kind donations.
That’s only a fraction of the $1.4 million price tag for the overall conservation easement project for the 400 acres. Major aid includes a $400,000 donation of the value of the project by the landowners; the $85,000 from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust; and $5,500 from the Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation.
“We have a lot of partners, and (donations) from folks in the community — 60 individual donations for non-federal matching funds,” Katzman said.
She’s hoping the Fish and Wildlife Commission will accept the access easement during its April meeting, and that the upgrades will be in place for students from 26 nearby schools to visit during fall migration.
“It’s so close to the schools they can come see the birds during a single class period,” Katzman said.
The environmental assessment can be read online at http://bit.ly/2FwJynO, at the FWP office at 490 N. Meridian Road in Kalispell, or at area libraries. Public comments must be received by 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 13. Anyone with questions can contact Hammond at 406-751-4852 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.