Land link protected: Western Montana conservation project expands crucial wildlife corridor - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Land link protected: Western Montana conservation project expands crucial wildlife corridor

The confluence area of the Clark Fork and Bull rivers in western Montana serves as an important habitat linkage for grizzly bears and many other wildlife species, connecting the Cabinet (right) and Bitterroot mountains. With this week's 22-acre land purchase, Vital Ground and Y2Y have protected 151 contiguous acres in the area since 2021. Photo: Randy Beacham

Vital Ground, Y2Y strengthen protection of key Bull River wildlife linkage zone

More than 0.5 square kilometers (150 acres) are now protected from subdivision and development within an important habitat connection area for grizzly bears and many other wildlife species in northwestern Montana.

Completing their third land acquisition in the area since 2021, The Vital Ground Foundation and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) have worked with private landowners to protect 0.6 km2 (151 acres) near the confluence of the Bull River and Clark Fork River after this week’s 0.08 km2 (22-acre) purchase.

“Collaborating with Vital Ground in their purchase of our property has exceeded our expectations while aligning with common interests,” said Mark Hedges on behalf of the Hedges family, the property’s previous owners. “Our family found an opportunity that provided personal benefit while aligning with our goal of being a good steward of the land.”

The Bull River-Clark Fork confluence area serves as an important linkage zone for wildlife between the Cabinet Mountains to the north and the Bitterroot Mountains to the south. With development pressures high across the region and subdivision already present in other parts of the linkage area, the expansion of a protected Bitterroot-Cabinet habitat corridor marks an important step in preventing the isolation of core grizzly habitat as part of the gradual process of the species’ recovery.

“Animals need enough room to sustain a healthy population and roam freely,” says Pelah Hoyt, Y2Y’s director of landscape connectivity. “By working with willing landowners and partners like Vital Ground, we are able to restore key corridors and improve wildlife movement parcel by parcel.”

Pelah Hoyt

“Working together with landowners to restore habitat, conserve wild places, and secure connections and corridors will make a difference for generations of people and wildlife to come.”

Pelah Hoyt, director of landscape connectivity, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

A vital connection for grizzly bears

While providing habitat for a wide range of wildlife and fish species, the cluster of properties purchased at the Bull River-Clark Fork confluence area serves as a link of particular importance for grizzly bears across a larger landscape.

In Montana’s northwestern corner and the Idaho Panhandle, grizzlies persist in much smaller numbers than they do in the ecosystems anchored by Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. The Bull River-Clark Fork project improves connectivity between these sensitive populations, protecting a southward pathway from the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, which is home to around 60 grizzlies.

Over the years, biologists have documented only a handful of grizzlies moving between the Cabinet Mountains and neighboring populations but consider genetic exchange between ecosystems crucial for the species’ long-term survival in the lower 48 states.

“In order to get gene flow, you first have to have movement,” says Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly bear biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has documented several grizzlies near the project area in recent years. “Grizzly bear linkage across the Clark Fork River is important for the future of bears in the Bitterroot. This project is a start and a stepping stone to protecting habitat for bears to make that journey.”

South of the Clark Fork, the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem extends deep into the wilderness areas of central Idaho. This historic and expansive bear habitat currently lacks a resident grizzly population, seeing only occasional wandering bears from other areas. As a geographic connector between western Montana, northern Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Selway-Bitterroot represents a missing piece in restoring a thriving, interconnected grizzly population in the Northern Rockies.

A trail camera in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem shows a mother grizzly and two cubs at a hair corral site used to collect DNA samples. An estimated 60 grizzlies persist in the Cabinet-Yaak, with little connectivity to neighboring populations. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Kasworm/USFWS)

Urgent times for conservation

Vital Ground and Y2Y have worked hand-in-hand with biologists for years to identify safe pathways for wildlife across linkage zones like the Bull River-Clark Fork confluence area. Maintaining these passages is increasingly important as more and more people relocate to Montana and Idaho. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, both states’ populations have increased every year since 2010, with both landing in the top 10 states for population growth rate between 2021 and 2022.

By conserving an open movement area between the Cabinet and Bitterroot ranges, the Bull River-Clark Fork project plays a key role in Y2Y and Vital Ground’s joint work to help wildlife travel across the region.

The area also represents a priority in Vital Ground’s One Landscape Initiative, the organization’s strategic effort to leverage the grizzly’s role as a conservation umbrella species in protecting the most crucial private lands connecting the Northern Rockies’ remaining strongholds of biodiversity.

“Given the level of development pressure Northwest Montana is facing we’re thrilled to be making another conservation investment in the Bull River linkage area,” says Mitch Doherty, conservation director for Vital Ground. “In just two years we’ve been able to protect over 150 acres in one of the last undeveloped connectivity areas along this stretch of Highway 200.”

Benefits beyond bears

Lying in a natural bottleneck area for wildlife moving through the Bull River and Clark Fork valleys, the project will maintain important range for elk, moose and sensitive species like wolverine and Canada lynx. As a nationally-accredited land trust, Vital Ground will consolidate the newly-protected property with its two neighboring parcels and carry out a stewardship plan combining habitat restoration and open space conservation.

The 0.8 km2 (22-acre) acquisition includes primarily forested habitat and nearly a half-mile of frontage along Highway 200. Lying directly south of the 0.32 km2 (80-acre) property that Vital Ground and Y2Y purchased in 2021 and southeast of the 0.20 km2 (49 acres) protected earlier this year, this week’s acquisition completes a habitat corridor linking national forestlands to the north with the Clark Fork valley bottom.

Beyond aiding wildlife, the project maintains an open, scenic landscape. As real estate pressures continue across the West, increased subdivision and dense development along the Lower Clark Fork Valley would not only impose further habitat fragmentation and increase the risk of conflicts between bears and people but also threaten public access to popular areas for hunting, fishing, hiking and other activities central to the region’s rural identity.

“We are delighted to team up with Vital Ground once again,” says Hoyt. “Working together with landowners to restore habitat, conserve wild places, and secure connections and corridors will make a difference for generations of people and wildlife to come.”

Additional financial support for the Bull River-Clark Fork project came from the Heart of the Rockies Initiative and their Keep It Connected program.

Media inquiries and interviews

For more information and interviews on this story contact Kelly Zenkewich, senior communications and digital engagement manager.

Email kelly (at) y2y (dot) net