Friday, December 19, 1997As a five-year, $350,000 wildlife habitat agreement comes to a close this month, FWP and members of Canyon Creek's Grady ranching family are proposing to enter a new agreement that will forever protect important wildlife habitat from subdivision and other disturbances on more than 12,900 acres of private ranch lands.
With the completion of a draft environmental assessment and management plan, FWP is proposing a $2.35 million purchase of a conservation easement that would protect about 20 square miles of important wildlife habitat on the Grady ranches north of Helena.
In 1992, FWP negotiated a habitat agreement with rancher Ed Grady under which the Grady Ranches received $350,000. Under the terms of the agreement, the total payments made by FWP to the Grady Ranches would be either returned to the agency at the end of the five-year term, or applied toward the purchase of a permanent conservation easement. Under this proposal, all of the money paid by FWP would be applied toward the total cost of the conservation easement.
The proposal focuses on three interlocking properties owned by Ed and Eileen Grady, the Grady Ranch Company, and the Grady Livestock Company. The property is located near the community of Canyon Creek, about 25 miles northwest of Helena. The proposed easement is strategically located adjacent to public lands and the recent Sieben Ranch's conservation easements, which further protects critical wildlife habitats and migration routes along the Continental Divide.
"This is the culmination of an agreement which began five years ago. At that time, many landowners were suspicious of conservation easements. We entered our agreement with the Grady Ranches more than a year before this agency had any luck in negotiating any substantive conservation easement agreements to protect wildlife habitat and Montana's ranching values," said FWP Director Pat Graham. "Today that climate of suspicion has changed considerably. We have many more ranchers who want easements than we have money to purchase them."
Funding for the purchase of the easement comes from FWP's legislatively created Habitat Montana Program, which seeks to protect critical wildlife habitat through conservation easement, lease, or fee title. Habitat Montana is supported by hunting-license revenues earmarked for habitat protection. Since 1994, FWP has purchased or acquired 17 conservation easements to protect more than 104,500 acres of private land.
"Back in 1992, the Grady family wanted to see how wildlife management and ranch management could work toward common goals to maintain the area's traditional ranching values and still protect and improve wildlife habitat and maintain the tradition of free public hunting and fishing access, " Graham said.
Most of the land included in the Grady proposal lies west of the Lincoln Road (Highway 279) with some land lying east of the road. The area is well known for its elk and deer hunting, attracting about 1,425 hunter-days annually. The easements would ensure free public-hunting access to these lands in perpetuity.
Graham said that the Grady property could be prime for suburban development. "Anyone driving up the Lincoln Road can see how the area between Silver City and Lincoln is already being subdivided. The Grady property is near a state highway and a county road runs through the ranch. It has access to power and utilities, and it's near a popular ski hill," he said. "There is little question that the property could be readily subdivided but right now the ranch provides a great deal of public recreation and important winter range for elk and deer. It's this critical habitat that we're trying to protect."
Over the past five years up to 53 percent of the elk and 75 percent of the mule deer wintering in Hunting District 343 have used the Grady Ranch. In addition to providing critical winter range habitat for elk and mule deer in the sagebrush and grasslands, the conifer cover found on the property provides important thermal and hiding areas. Other wildlife species that occur on the property include black bear, red fox, badger, coyote, fisher, marten, and wolverine. An occasional wolf, lynx, and grizzly bear pass through. Blue and ruffed grouse occur, as do long-billed curlews, goshawks, merlins, a variety of owls and woodpeckers, and numerous other wildlife species.
"Like all of the conservation easements we negotiate, this one is about the Montana way of life," Graham said. "It preserves open space, wildlife habitat, hunting and fishing opportunities, and the ranching values that have made them all possible."
FWP is accepting comment on the proposal through Jan. 20, 1998. A public hearing will be held Jan. 14, 1998, at the Best Western Colonial Park Hotel, 2301 Colonial Dr., in Helena beginning at 7 p.m. FWP's final Environmental Assessment and decision notice is scheduled for Jan. 23, 1998. FWP is expected to make its recommendation to the FWP Commission on Feb. 5. If approved by the FWP Commission, the State Land Board could consider final action on the recommendation in February.
The proposal can be obtained from--and comments sent to--FWP Helena Area Resource Office; 930 Custer Ave. West; P.O. Box 200701; Helena, MT 59620-0701. Beginning Monday, Dec. 22, it will also be available on FWP's Internet site at: fwp.mt.gov. For more information call 406-444-4720.