The Canyon Creek Wildlife Management Area northwest of Helena near Flesher Pass could grow by about 30 percent under a plan brought forward by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday endorsed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ request to complete analysis and public review on the more than 700-acre donation. The property is currently owned by Stimson Lumber Company and RMEF has a purchase option on the table.
“It’s been for sale for some time and the biggest reasons we want to raise funds to protect and conserve the property are public access and the fish and wildlife values,” said RMEF Senior Lands Program Manager Mike Mueller.
RMEF is concerned that another landowner will take acreage, called the Specimen Creek property, out of timber in favor of subdivision. The area is known habitat for elk, deer and multiple carnivore species as well as fish in three different creeks, Mueller said.
“With the highway running right through there’s a lot of development potential and that could impact public access,” he said.
RMEF has received a $250,000 commitment from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust and must continue raising funds to purchase the property, Mueller said.
FWP’s proposal notes that if it takes donation of the property, additional weed control and perimeter fencing is needed to meet wildlife management area standards.
Mueller said that Stimson has taken good care of the property.
“It’s in great shape,” he said. “Actually because of the forestry management that has occurred, because it’s been actively managed and logged, that piece of property is just as healthy if not healthier than some of the public lands around it.”
At Thursday’s commission meeting, FWP Wildlife Division Administrator Ken McDonald called the project a “high priority” for the department.
“We’re interested in adding to the WMA because it is important wildlife habitat and stream values for fish like westslope cutthroat,” he said.
Montana Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Nick Gevock spoke in support of the project.
“This is exactly the kind of property we need to be protecting for elk and for public access,” he said.
Habitat Montana has been the agency’s historic funding source for land conservation. Last year, prohibitions on using the funds for land acquisition were passed with conservative lawmakers citing concerns about the amount and type of land FWP has purchased.
Because the Canyon Creek addition would come through a donation, the Habitat Montana restrictions do not apply, McDonald told the commission.
When asked after his testimony, McDonald said that FWP is not actively looking for donations as a work around to the legislative spending restrictions. RMEF brought the proposal to FWP and the department is considering it, he said.
The commission did endorse several conservation easements using Habitat Montana funds, which are allowed under the law.