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Lake Helena WMA

Conservation: Landowner Programs Habitat Montana

Public-Private Land Conservation

The Habitat Montana Program came into existence from a need felt by the people of Montana and as a result of legislation passed in 1987. Portions of several big game license revenues are earmarked for the protection of wildlife habitat, particularly "important habitat that is seriously threatened." Montana hunters, outdoor recreationists, and conservation organizations have long considered the Habitat Montana Program essential to their interests, and without their support this program would not exist today.

View the Habitat Montana Story Map 

About the Habitat Montana Program

A fundamental concern dating back to the 1940s, but still true today, is the interest in keeping priority wildlife populations abundant through conservation of key seasonal habitats. Conserving wildlife habitat and providing compatible outdoor recreation are considered by many citizens to be important endeavors that support Montana’s way of life.

In the 1980s, conservationists discussed the possibility of setting aside consistent funding for the Department for purchasing priority habitats when they became available and, of equal importance, to provide consistent funding for managing properties once acquired.

The 1987 Montana Legislature saw the introduction of HB 526, which would be funded with hunting license fees. The debate was between those who did not want the Department buying land and those who saw habitat conservation as the foundation for maintaining priority wildlife populations.

The compromise by the legislature was authority given to the Department to purchase interests in land, with the legislature directing the agency to attempt conservation easements or lease before fee title acquisition. Fee title purchase was still allowed because the legislature understood the landowner would determine which method was in their best interest.

HB 526 became reality and is currently generating about $5-6 million per year for conserving “important habitat that is seriously threatened." Approximately 92% of revenue for this program comes from nonresident hunting licenses. Habitat Montana also generates about $750,000 annually for conducting maintenance work.

Over the program’s history, FWP’s work on wildlife land projects have varied. Early efforts using Habitat Montana funds focused on expanding existing wildlife management areas such as the Blackfoot-Clearwater (deer and elk winter range), Judith River (elk winter range) and Ninepipe (wetlands/waterfowl and pheasant habitat) or acquiring new WMA’s such as Robb/Ledford (elk winter range), Dome Mtn.(elk winter range), and Mt. Silcox (bighorn sheep winter range).

With the establishment of the Forest Legacy Program in Montana, FWP broadened the scope of habitat conservation to include high priority forest lands that are at risk of conversion. This has resulted in a number of predominantly forested lands enrolled in FWP conservation easements, including the Thompson-Fisher, North Swan, Kootenai Forestlands, and Haskill Basin.


Requirements for Land Acquisition

Since the start of Habitat Montana in 1987, the state legislature has adopted statutes with specific requirements for land acquisition processes.

FWP’s wildlife land acquisitions include the following program and statutory process requirements (this list does not include negotiation, due diligence, and other real estate transaction steps):

  1. Internal request for habitat proposals 

  2. Proposal ranking and initial selection using standardized ranking criteria

  3. Initial endorsement by the Fish and Wildlife Commission

  4. Conduct public scoping (for projects of 640 acres or larger)

  5. Develop a Management Plan for the property

  6. Work with the county weed coordinator to assure weed FWP field review to determine silvicultural prescriptions for a portion of the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA, Missoula County (Photo Credit: M. Thompson). 2019 Habitat Montana Legislative Report 9 management compliance on fee title projects

  7. Develop a Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) environmental assessment that includes analyses of potential impacts to social/economic values, neighboring properties, tax revenue, government services, employment opportunities, local schools, and private businesses

  8. Make documentation available to adjacent landowners as well as the general public

  9. Notify the affected county commission with project details and analysis materials

  10. Conduct a public hearing during the public review period

  11. Publish a decision notice

  12. If the project remains viable, present the project for final approval(s).

Goal and Benefits


Conserve and restore important habitat for fish and wildlife.



FWP offers incentives to landowners to conserve habitat on private land, including, in some cases, the purchase of a conservation easement.

Although FWP’s core purpose with Habitat Montana and related programs has been incentive-based strategic habitat conservation, the societal benefits of these projects are often broader.

Over the span of habitat conservation projects, benefits have included:

  • Wildlife Management Areas purchased through the Habitat Montana Program provide critical wildlife habitat, including winter range, for big game herds. 

  • Access to outdoor recreation has been secured and enhanced. Big game hunting in Montana is important to our economy as well as our way of life. In 2016, deer, elk and antelope hunters spent nearly $325 million in Montana. 

  • Soil and water are conserved.

  • Landscape-scale ecological functions are sustained.

  • Watershed quality has been maintained and improved for communities, fisheries, and other downstream users.

  • Accomplishments have supported the removal of species from federal Endangered Species Act listing or avoidance of listing.

  • Conservation easement projects have helped support keeping ranchers on the land and maintaining rural and agriculturebased lifestyles.

  • Conservation easements have averted urban-sprawl in fire-prone forest settings and related fire management issues.

  • Rural business and agricultural economies have been supported and enhanced.

  • The wood products industry has benefitted by retaining and supporting sustainable working forests.

  • Scenic open-space values have been preserved.

  • Other less tangible quality-of-life benefits have been maintained or enhanced.

Partner Support

Habitat Montana came into existence from a need felt by the people of Montana. Montanans cherish their wildlife and outdoor opportunities. Montana hunters, outdoor recreationists, and conservation organizations have long considered the Habitat Montana Program essential to their interests, and without their support this program would not exist today.

Conservation organizations have often partnered with FWP to protect tracts of important habitat for their mutual conservation benefit.

The program has a committed constituency that values enduring conservation.

Partners include:
  • Private Landowners

  • The Nature Conservancy

  • Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

  • Ducks Unlimited

  • Pheasants Forever

  • Vital Ground

  • National Wild Turkey Federation

  • Mule Deer Foundation

  • Trout Unlimited

  • Safari Club International

  • Cinnabar Foundation

  • The Trust for Public Land

  • The Conservation Fund

  • The Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes

  • United States Forest Service

  • United States Bureau of Land Management

  • United States Fish and Wildlife Service

  • Bonneville Power Administration

  • Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust

  • Blackfoot Challenge

  • Montana Wildlife Federation

  • Northwestern Energy; PPL-Montana

  • Butte Skyline Sportsman Association

  • Anaconda Sportsmen Club

  • Montana Audubon

  • Five Valleys Land Trust

  • Flathead Land Trust

  • And many other organizations

Conservation Easements


Part of Habitat Montana's goal is ensuring the viability of high-valued wildlife habitat around the state. FWP understands the importance of working lands to Montana and its people and communities. These working lands, whether they're timber lands, farmlands or grazing lands, are often vital for wildlife as well. 

Landowners interested in using a conservation easement to protect traditional farmland, ranchland, or timberland, and to conserve natural resources such as wildlife habitat, may partner with FWP.

In addition to monetary compensation, landowners may:

  • Realize tax benefits from a conservation easement

  • Gain help in pursuing habitat-friendly agricultural practices

  • Ensure the protection of scenic and open spaces


What is a conservation easement?

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that limits certain uses of the land in order to protect its specific conservation values. 


Why does FWP hold conservation easements?

Conserving open, working lands and wildlife habitat through conservation easements is fundamental to FWP’s role in stewarding the public’s fish and wildlife resources.


What are the objectives of the conservation easements FWP holds?
  • Protect vital fish and wildlife habitat
  • Demonstrate compatibility between sustainable agricultural practices and effective wildlife habitat
  • Retain working lands that support traditional cultural and economic values of local Montana communities
  • Maintain open space and managed recreational access opportunities for the public


What happens after a conservation easement is in place
  • Land stays in private ownership and management; if the land is sold, the easement remains intact
  • Forest and/or agricultural production of the property continues under a sustainable management plan, which helps achieve the conservation goals for the land
  • Landowner continues to pay the same property taxes so there is no loss in revenue to county governments 


FWP Wildlife Division

(406) 444-2612

Or your regional FWP office