Protecting Bird Habitat in the Missoula Valley

For over thirty years, Five Valleys Audubon has been active in protecting valued bird habitat across the Missoula community. The Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area (IBA) exemplifies those efforts. Even though we have no regulatory authority upon which to base our actions, we have been successful in protecting critical habitat of the IBA and elsewhere.

Physical changes associated with land development have been an important focus of our resource protection efforts. Accordingly, we have taken steps to play an active role in the statutory subdivision review process. During the past several years, we have reviewed a number of proposed subdivisions that would affect important avian habitat. Invariably, our comments present the case for having adequate open space buffers between riparian habitats and adjoining land development activity. Lot size, location and configuration are frequently the focus of our comments. Human activity within riparian areas and adjoining lands are also commonly addressed. In the end, governing authorities have accepted our suggestions regarding several proposed subdivisions and required improved habitat protection measures as conditions of approval. Over time our role in the review process has evolved, and we are now among the parties invited to offer comment at the earliest stage of governmental review.

Although the subdivision review process can result in some resource protection, it is reactive. A proactive approach is far better and becomes possible because the people of Missoula and Missoula County have twice passed open space bonds totaling $15 million. Geared at permanently protecting key community resources, these funds have led to the protection of considerable open space. This has largely been accomplished through outright property purchases or the creation of conservation easements that limit future use on valued lands.

Since the first open space bond was passed in 1995, Five Valleys Audubon has been engaged in Missoula’s open space preservation effort. This has included seeing the IBA designated as a “cornerstone”, an area of focus for Missoula’s open space program. We frequently provide input to the process of selecting lands for which open space bond funds will be expended. This includes identifying specific lands having important habitat values and providing bird survey data for the areas involved. In one instance, we demonstrated our commitment to permanent habitat protection by contributing to the funding used in acquiring a conservation easement.

With Missoula moving inexorably westward, our focus expanded to other resource protection efforts, particularly in the Mullan-Grass Valley area. In one such endeavor, we provided funding for an educational film promoting awareness of the need to protect our mountain valley grasslands. We also supported research on the nesting ecology of a small population of Swainson’s hawks in grasslands west of Missoula. Our role in the study has been to provide funding as well as field research assistance. Information regarding this rare breeding population of hawks will help us guide future land development away from critical nesting and foraging sites. It will also serve to direct attention toward places needing open space protection.

In many respects, a mosaic of open space lands defines Missoula. Lands used for parks, trails and agriculture, as well as those that sustain our scenic backdrops, are all part of the blend. Critical bird habitat is an essential ingredient of the mix. Although defined by bird species, these lands are valuable gauges of biodiversity. The presence of a viable bird population assures there are conditions that support a range of other plant and animal species. Given the significance of avian habitat, it is important we continue to focus attention on protecting these resources and help preserve the open space heritage of our community.

by Gerhard Knudsen

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