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Conservation easement near Whitefish protects valuable wildlife habitat

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | January 11, 2023 1:00 AM

Whitefish landowners recently placed a conservation easement on 655 acres along the Stillwater River. The Flathead Land Trust helped orchestrate the easement on the parcel that consists of rich farmland and wildlife habitat.

The Flathead Land Trust is a non-profit organization that works to protect water sources, birds and wildlife and rich farmland in northwest Montana. They work with interested landowners to implement conservation easements to protect and secure the future of their land.

Flathead Land Trust says that contrary to popular belief, landowners continue to own and manage their land under a conservation easement but have the assurance that the conservation values of their property such as wetlands, riparian vegetation and rich farmland will be maintained in perpetuity.

Laura Katzman, Land Protection Specialist with the Flathead Land Trust, said that typically, a conservation easement protects properties’ values by limiting the future development of the land, meaning it will not have a residential subdivision, gas station, box store, dump or mine on it in the future.

While land has been rapidly subdivided in the Flathead Valley, Doug and Carolyn Kohrs have been buying parcels of land to reassemble a large tract of farmland with key wildlife habitat along the Stillwater River southwest of Whitefish.

Since 2005, the Kohrs have pieced together 655 acres of rich farmland and own it in partnership with their children, Ross, Hannah and Clara. On Dec. 30, the Kohrs family took another step in keeping this large farm and valuable wildlife habitat intact by placing a conservation easement on their 655 acres.

The Kohrs are thrilled to be able to place this special area under conservation easement.

“Our family is excited to preserve this special property that serves as a wildlife corridor along the Stillwater River,” the Kohrs said. “Whitefish and Kalispell have seen many changes and much development in the last several years and our family wants to provide the space for both farming and wildlife to continue to thrive in the Flathead.”

The purchased conservation easement will permanently protect the Kohrs’ investment in farming and wildlife, keeping over 500 acres of rich farmland in agriculture.

“We have some of the best farmland in the nation in the Flathead Valley and keeping some of it in agriculture to grow food for people is critical for the future,” said Katzman. “We are fortunate a federal program is available to provide funding to help keep rich farmland in agriculture and we have landowners interested in doing so.”

The conservation easement will also protect the ecological integrity, healthy river function and water quality of the Stillwater River, as the Kohrs property contains riparian forest and wetlands along 1.7 miles of the river.

The riparian forest and wetlands also provide key wildlife habitat, used by federally listed grizzly bears and a number of other species including black bears, wolves, bobcats, foxes and mountain lions. Elk calves and whitetail deer winter on the property and over 100 species of birds use this area.

The habitat provided by the Kohrs property enhances winter range and wildlife habitat provided by the adjacent 1,557-acre Kuhns Wildlife Management Area and an additional 1,800 acres of contiguous public land.

“The intact riparian area along the Stillwater River on the Kohrs property and the fact that it is contiguous with so much protected property makes it especially valuable to birds and wildlife,” said Katzman. “The variety of wildlife documented on game cameras on the property speaks for itself.”

According to the Flathead Land Trust, in some cases, a landowner can receive cash for a purchased conservation easement on their land, and often landowners can receive tax benefits for implementing a conservation easement.

The Kohrs family was able to receive cash for a purchased conservation easement because of its rich agricultural soils and important bird and wildlife habitat.

The Flathead Land Trust is grateful for the many sources of funding that made this important conservation project possible, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service Agricultural Land Easement Program, Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation through the Heart of the Rockies Keep it Connected Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Mitigation Program.

ADDITIONALLY, THE Flathead Land Trust helped another landowner place 315 acres of prime farmland in the Mission Valley under a conservation easement, to protect the agricultural gem in perpetuity.

For over 50 years, a Mission Valley family has been farming their 315-acre family farm south of Polson. The land contains rich lakebed sediments at the base of the Valley View Hills with a backdrop of the rugged Mission Mountains. It is just south of Pablo Reservoir which provides water for irrigation that is critical for agriculture on the property.

The entire farm incorporates rich soils that have been designated as prime farmland and farmland of local importance by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The conservation easement on the family farm will not only keep rich farmland available for agriculture, but it will also benefit birds and wildlife. The property is adjacent to a 1,849-acre ranch protected with a conservation easement held by Montana Land Reliance.

photo

Doug and Carolyn Kohrs have pieced together 655 acres of rich farmland near the Stillwater River, and own it in partnership with their children, Ross, Hannah and Clara. On Dec. 30, the Kohrs family took another step in keeping this large farm and valuable wildlife habitat intact by placing a conservation easement on their 655 acres. (Provided photo)

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