The Missoula valley in western Montana is a place where native plants and animals are a vital part of the living landscape. Wildlife and wildlands are never far from our door, enriching the lives of all. We are concerned because now, in the face of rapid growth and development, these precious wildlife habitats are disappearing and those that remain are increasingly threatened.
Riparian areas and wetlands occupy less than 4% of Montana’s land area, yet they are used by more than 80% of the bird species found in the state during all or part of the year. Cottonwood riparian forests are especially important because they support a higher diversity of breeding birds than other western habitats, and many species that breed in other habitats forage in cottonwoods during migration. It is also a habitat under threat from a variety of sources that can inhibit the recruitment of young cottonwoods due to overgrazing and competition from invasion of exotic plants. Not surprisingly, riparian cottonwoods and wetlands have been identified as “Tier 1” priority habitats by Montana Audubon and as “Community Types of Greatest Conservation Need” by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The high use of these habitats by birds, their natural scarcity, and the threats to their existence make riparian cottonwoods and wetlands critical components in the conservation of native birds in Montana and elsewhere in the West. Our efforts to protect these important habitats involve interacting with private land owners, governmental leaders and non profit conservation organizations that determine how the landscape is developed and managed.
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.