Bird viewing area opens in West Valley

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Sandhill cranes feed in a field near a pothole pond west of Kalispell. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

A bird and wildlife viewing area is opening to the public on nearly conserved property in the West Valley.

The public viewing area overlooks a unique pothole wetland surrounded by agricultural land that is part of the only known staging area for sandhill cranes in the Flathead Valley. More than 80 partners and contributors from the community assisted in creating the viewing area, according to the Flathead Land Trust.

“This incredible project wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t received such a huge outpouring of support from this community,” said Paul Travis, Flathead Land Trust executive director. “We are beyond grateful and it’s so exciting to know that this ecological and community treasure will continue to be here for so many generations of people and birds to come.”

A celebration of the conservation project and a grand opening of the public bird viewing area will be held Saturday, Oct. 6 from 5-7:30 p.m. A shuttle from West Valley School will provide rides to the viewing area s there is limited parking. RSVP to Laura Katzman at lkatzman@flatheadlandtrust.org or 752-8293.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes use the area of the West Valley each fall to rest and refuel on their annual migration from nesting grounds in Canada to wintering areas in the southern United States. The sandhill cranes roost in the pothole wetlands at night and feed in the adjoining agricultural fields during the day. The area is also used by over 150 species of other birds including tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds each spring.

Flathead Land Trust recently completed conservation easements with the Grosswiler and Marvin families to conserve almost 400 acres of this critical area and provide for the public viewing area.

Under the conservation easements, the land will remain in private ownership and continue to be farmed and managed by the landowner while protecting the valuable bird and wildlife habitat in perpetuity. The families have been farming in the West Valley for over 100 years and the conservation project will preserve their agricultural legacy.

“Continuing farming in my great-grandpa’s honor is very meaningful to me, but more so, to know my children can continue that tradition so we will have multiple generations living his legacy is incredible,” says Tanner Marvin, who lives on the conserved property.

While conservation easements do not always allow public access, the Grosswiler and Marvin families have generously allowed for a quarter acre of the conserved land to be used as a public viewing area. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks helped facilitate the project by accepting a quarter-acre public easement for the viewing area and road. The viewing area is expected serve as an educational site for local schools and other groups.

Two federal grants from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and North American Wetland Conservation Act provided most of the funding needed to complete the conservation project and the landowners donated over a third of the value of the project.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Flathead Audubon, the AGL Foundation, Montana’s Outdoor Legacy Fund, Montana Ducks Unlimited, Flathead Pheasants Forever, the International Crane Foundation, and nearly 70 individuals donated to the project.

Other supporters of the project include the Whitefish Community Foundation, Flathead Beacon Foundation, Applied Materials Foundation, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Mitigation Fund. FWP, Flathead Valley Community College, Quail Roost Foundation, Flathead Audubon, and Flathead Electric Co-op funded the construction of the bird viewing area.

To get to the bird viewing area from Whitefish, take Highway 93 South and turn right on Church Drive,then take a left onto West Valley Drive for about 1.5 miles. The viewing area is on the left hand side and has signs.

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