Last Friday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) released a decision notice to purchase about 41,000 acres of land centered in the Fish Creek watershed in Mineral County west of Missoula, bringing the state a step closer to protecting a vital migratory corridor and establishing, perhaps, the state's second-largest park.
The $14 million purchase, which the FWP Commission and Montana's Land Board must still approve, would create a 33,295-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and potentially set aside 7,650 acres for Fish Creek State Park.
"Fish Creek has had a pretty rough life," says Mack Long, supervisor of FWP's western region. "It's been heavily logged. It's been burned. And in spite of all those things, it continues to function as one of the major connectivity corridors—connecting everything from Bob Marshall country over to the Mission Mountains, to Nine-Mile, to Fish Creek, and into the proposed Great Burn wilderness area, and even down into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness."
The deal marks the first transfer of lands to the state as part of the Montana Legacy Project, through which the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Trust for Public Land is purchasing more than 300,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land to be handed over to government agencies.
The landscape provides migration routes for grizzly bears, wolves and other rare carnivores. It's important winter range for elk, deer and moose, and holds abundant bird species. It also contains Fish Creek and its tributaries—prime habitat for the threatened bull trout.
Chris Bryant, TNC's outreach director in western Montana, calls the watershed the best bull trout-spawning habitat in the lower Clark Fork River system. "I have my own reasons for liking the drainage," Bryant adds. "I can only tell you it involves huckleberries."
The public expressed near-unanimous support for the WMA, but not for the park. Of the 97 comments submitted before the Feb. 19 deadline, 29 opposed the park, largely because of impacts on fish and wildlife.
"They expressed some concerns," Long says, "and our response is that we'll take three years to put together a long-term plan, and we'll incorporate public comments and concerns into the development of that plan."