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Land Trust seeks support for critical river habitat

| October 19, 2022 6:45 AM

Hungry Horse News

The Flathead Land Trust is asking for letters of support for a conservation easement on the Owen Sowerine area on the Flathead River near Kalispell.

Owen Sowerwine is located in the heart of one of the most complex sections of the Flathead River, an area near the confluence with the Stillwater River with intertwined channels, islands, sloughs, wetlands, and riparian forest. It borders over a mile of the Flathead River, a mile of the Stillwater River, and at least 1.3 miles of braided channels connecting the two rivers.

The area provides excellent bird, fish and wildlife habitat and helps sustain the integrity, healthy function, and water quality in the Stillwater and Flathead rivers and Flathead Lake. It is a designated Important Bird Area and provides critical habitat for over 150 species of birds as well as for federally listed grizzly bear and bull trout. Together with adjacent lands that are protected Owen Sowerwine helps provide an interconnected network of over 12,000 acres of conserved open space and quality habitat at a landscape scale along 50 miles of the Flathead River and north shore of Flathead Lake. It also provides public access for outdoor activities and conservation education opportunities for local schools only a half mile from Kalispell’s city limits.

“It is an ecological gem and community asset,” said Laura Katzman of the Flathead Land Trust.

 For the past 40 years, leases and licenses held by Flathead County, Montana Audubon and the Flathead Audubon Society have allowed the area to be managed for its natural habitat. Fees associated with these leases and licenses were paid to compensate the State School Trust.

The proposed conservation easement would replace the current license and ensure that the Owen Sowerwine would be managed for its natural habitat in perpetuity. It would also generate predictable, annual revenue to benefit K-12 education through an investment of the initial lump sum received for the purchased conservation easement in the permanent trust fund, Katzman noted.

Because State School Trust land needs to generate income for K-12 education in Montana, without the conservation easement, the future of Owen Sowerwine as an ecological gem and community asset is not secure, she said.

DNRC would have to consider other land uses for Owen Sowerwine such as cabin sites, residential uses, or commercial uses to generate funds for Montana schools. DNRC could also consider a land exchange with a private landowner for similar waterfront property found elsewhere in Montana if that would result in more funding for Montana schools, Katzman noted.

DNRC is currently undergoing scoping to obtain comments from the public to inform their environmental analysis per the Montana Environmental Policy Act process to consider Flathead Land Trust’s proposal to purchase a conservation easement on Owen Sowerwine. People can e-mail comments on the proposal to Kara Neal at kara.neal@mt.gov or send them to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Attn: Kara Neal, 655 Timberwolf Pkwy. Ste. 2, Kalispell, MT 59901.

Comments are needed by the end of the month.

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