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Representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a series of meetings seeking public input on a proposal to expand its conservation easement program on the Rocky Mountain Front and the Blackfoot Valley, and to establish a new, similar program in the Swan Valley.

The three meetings — May 17, 18 and 19 — will provide an opportunity for the public to learn more about the program, in which the federal government would purchase perpetual conservation easements on private land from willing sellers. The easements would be in Lewis and Clark, Teton, Pondera, Missoula and Powell counties, and the land would be managed as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The USFWS already has more than 100,000 conservation easements along the Rocky Mountain Front and in the Blackfoot and Centennial valleys of Montana.

“The Service and private landowners continue to find common ground in Montana,” said Gary Sullivan, Fish and Wildlife’s Montana realty supervisor. “Together, we have recognized protecting important fish and wildlife habitat and maintaining working ranches go hand in hand. Conservation easements are an effective, proven approach to accomplishing both of these objectives.”

The conservation easement program along the Front was established in 2005, while the one in the Blackfoot Valley goes back to 1994.

“The Blackfoot Valley has a long and successful history of collaborative conservation efforts that have resulted in protecting large working landscapes, maintaining rural economies, and restoring watershed health,” said Kevin Ertl, a USFWS biologist working in the Blackfoot Valley. “Conservation easements have been an essential tool for the Service and for private landowners working to accomplish these objectives.”

The USFWS hopes to expand the program’s boundaries in those two areas to create additional opportunities to work with private landowners and other conservation partners. In the Swan Valley, the USFWS hopes to initiate a similar program.

No property titles are exchanged in the programs; instead, the landowner continues to own the property but may receive tax incentives in order to limit development of a parcel with a conservation easement on it.

At the meetings, which are in an open-house format, USFWS will share information, answer questions and take public comments as part of the early stages of putting together Environmental Assessments (EA) for each of the three areas. The EA will look at the potential impacts of the conservation area proposals.

The May 17 meeting, which focuses on the Rocky Mountain Front easement expansion program, will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. in Choteau at the Stage Stop Inn, 1005 Main Ave. North.

The May 18 meeting is from 4 to 6 p.m. in Condon at the Swan Valley Community Center, and will discuss establishing a new conservation easement program in the area.

The May 19 meeting will run from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Ovando School, 108 Birch Street, and will address concerns and issues surrounding possibly expanding the Blackfoot Valley easement program.

At the public meetings, people can sign up for a contact list, which will be used to advise the public when the draft EA is available and how to access it , which will probably take place in mid-June. At that point, the federal agency will provide information, including an address, where people can submit comments.

Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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