When one thinks about the enormity and complexity of environmental problems facing the world, such as global warming and unsustainable use of natural resources, solutions seem beyond most of us. But at a local level we can make a difference. I thought it would be timely to provide an update about what our Chapter has been doing to meet its conservation goals. Unfortunately conservation and solving environmental problems have received far too little attention in national political circles due to the economy and a stymied political system. Lets hope that changes soon.
Our Chapter’s efforts are closely aligned with the strategic plan of Montana Audubon, which directs top priority work at protecting wetland/riparian and native grassland habitats. The reason is that most bird species of conservation concern are found in those habitats. Wetland/riparian areas are critically important because less than 4 percent of Montana is occupied by wetland/riparian habitat yet about 55 percent of all species found in Montana nest there and approximately 80 percent of species utilize this habitat at some time in their life cycle. Most of our efforts have been to protect bird habitats in the Clark Fork River–Grass Valley Important Bird Area (IBA) and to review and recommend desirable vegetated setback buffers on all proposed subdivisions in Missoula County.
Five Valleys Land Trust recently announced a conservation easement on the Joe Boyer ranch west of Frenchtown that protects 1,000 acres of ranchland including excellent wetland habitat and a Great Blue Heron rookery. Our Chapter played an important role by documenting birds and other wildlife occurring on the ranch, which helped secure $412,000 of grant money. We also contributed a relatively small amount of funds toward purchase of the easement. The fact that a small grass roots organization was willing to go to bat for conservation helped convince granting organizations to fund the project. A land trust can make conservation happen on the landscape. We have learned that our Chapter can play a useful role in achieving conservation by documenting and explaining the wildlife resource to land owners, professional land planners and conservation organizations such as land trusts. An exciting conservation project, which we hope to help with indirectly, is the protection of the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River. This project involves purchase of 200 acres by Five Valleys Land Trust of land bordering Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River. The property supports riparian habitat, grassland and mixed cottonwood-pine forest. Importantly, it will result in over 1,000 acres including adjacent properties being protected where Rock Creek meets the Clark Fork River.
We continue to explore with other interested parties ways of retaining wetlands on the Smurfit-Stone mill site. One possibility being discussed is utilizing the mill wastewater ponds for tertiary treatment of effluent from Missoula’s sewage treatment plant. This could involve creation of a wetland frequented by birds and other wildlife. Currently, we are waiting to learn what clean up may be necessary to deal with toxic residues from the pulping process. This is a challenging and complicated opportunity that will require a long-term effort but could potentially result in significant wetland habitat being created and protected in the IBA.
For several years we have been reviewing all subdivision proposals in Missoula County with an eye to protecting important bird habitat and species of conservation concern. We usually make a site visit if riparian or wetland areas are involved to evaluate what would be an appropriate vegetated buffer. Based on the site visit and the science behind disturbance and successful nesting we recommend to the County a no build setback distance from the riparian or wetland zone. Occasionally we testify at County Commissioner hearings to explain our recommendations. This past year our recommendations resulted in setbacks approved by the County being increased from 25 to 100 feet on a property in the IBA and from 50 to 100 feet on a property in the Swan Valley.
Even though these accomplishments are not solving the big world problems, they do help protect bird habitat and Montana’s natural heritage for future generations.
by Jim Brown