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Prickly Pear property near Prickly Pear Creek

This old stone building will be left standing on the 36-acre parcel of land along Prickly Pear Creek that the Prickly Pear Land Trust may donate to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. FWP is currently taking comments on an Environmental Assessment on whether to accept the donated land.

About 36 acres along Prickly Pear Creek in the Helena Valley could become public property under a proposal from a nonprofit group to give the land to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Six years ago, the parcel and 230 adjoining acres were slated to become the Aspen Trail Ranch subdivision, with up to 650 homes and businesses. But the landowner lost the property to the bank after a lawsuit halted the development, and after a series of transactions the Prickly Pear Land Trust ended up purchasing the 36 acres using a $190,000 grant from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

George Liknes, the Region 4 fisheries manager for FWP, said the land transfer would preserve open space in the Helena Valley, enhance riparian habitat and provide opportunities for fishing and wildlife and bird watching.

“From a habitat perspective, this has what we look for to try to provide for fisheries and wildlife,” Liknes said. “It’s important to note that FWP will continue to pay taxes, just like any landowner would.”

At this point, FWP is just taking comments on an Environmental Assessment that looks at whether to accept the donated parcel, located about 3.5 miles northeast of Helena on Olsen Road. If it’s developed into a Fishing Access Site, a new Environmental Assessment would be needed. Future plans also include the possibility of hooking into a larger trail system.

Prickly Pear Creek originates in the Elkhorn Mountains and flows north along I-15, passing through Clancy, Montana City and East Helena, farmlands, pastures and small rural subdivisions before entering Lake Helena. The creek is home to a variety of fish species including brook, brown, rainbow and westslope cutthroat trout.

Rainbow and brown trout are common in the stretch of creek in the 36-acre parcel. Wildlife found in the vicinity include white-tailed and mule deer, pronghorn, black bear, mountain lion and a variety of smaller mammals. Resident and migratory bird species that use or travel through the area on a seasonal basis include bald and golden eagles, great blue herons, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, osprey, Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse and a variety of other raptors, waterfowl and songbirds.

FWP notes that currently, public recreational opportunities to streams in the Helena Valley are limited. Four fishing access sites are managed by FWP in the Helena Valley, including one each on the Helena Valley Reservoir, Lake Helena, Hauser Reservoir and near the York Bridge.

No fishing access sites currently are available on Prickly Pear Creek in the Helena Valley, and the only public access to Prickly Pear Creek is in isolated locations off old Highway 15 near Montana City and the Ash Grove cement plant, on unmarked state school trust land and near the Montana Law Enforcement Academy grounds.

“The establishment of a dedicated FAS on Prickly Pear Creek would provide public access over a larger reach on Prickly Pear Creek, may reduce pressure on nearby FASs by redistributing recreational use and would provide additional diversification of recreational opportunities in the Helena Valley in close proximity to Helena,” FWP notes in the Environmental Assessment for the proposed acquisition.

According to recent FWP surveys, the average angler days per year from 2003 to 2009 for Prickly Pear Creek was 1,981, which ranks it as the 184th most fished body of water in Montana.

Only day use would be allowed at the site, which means no overnight camping.

The EA notes that projected annual operating, maintenance and personnel expense for fiscal year 2014 is estimated to total between $300 and $700. If it’s further developed, the annual costs could range from $1,000 to $1,800, which includes weed control, latrine maintenance and groundskeeping.

Currently, the parcel has an abandoned house, garage, stone icehouse, calving shed, chicken coop, hay shed, three other sheds and three collapsed structures and corrals. In order for the donation to take place, all of those outbuildings, except for the historic ice house, must be removed for public safety reasons.

Andrea Silverman with the Prickly Pear Land Trust said they’ve been working with Pacific Steel and Recycling and already have taken about 20,000 pounds of metal from the property.

“We’ve taken out the combine, the cars in the ditch, and that was the tip of the iceberg,” Silverman said. “But we’ve gotten rid of a lot of the big stuff and garbage that had been dumped out there over the years. That was the first step.

They’re also working with a local artist, who is removing some of the old barn wood to reuse. Now they’re trying to figure out what to do with the dilapidated house, which is too structurally unsound to enter.

“If everything goes according to plan — the demolition is the one big thing we’re working on getting coordinated and funded — it’s possible FWP could accept the donation of the property by August or September,” Silverman said.

The Environmental Assessment can be viewed here.

Written comments only will be accepted until 5 p.m. July 14 and can be emailed to gliknes@mt.gov or mailed to: Prickly Pear Creek FAS Proposed Acquisition, Attn: George Liknes, FWP R4, 4600 Giant Springs Road, Great Falls, MT 59405.

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Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com. Follow Eve on Twitter.com/IR_EveByron.

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