FWP Commission approves Bitterroot land purchase, OKs Placid Lake pike regs

By Laura Lundquist - May 29, 2020 - Originally published in the Missoula Current 

An emergency kill order and some new Fish, Wildlife & Parks property and easements could benefit local fish populations and increase access to some special places.

Thursday’s FWP Commission meeting generated a number of good easement possibilities, a few of which have been years in the making. But first, commissioners approved a emergency change to Placid Lake’s fishing regulations to allow anglers to catch, kill and report all Northern pike found in the lake.

Fishermen should take all pike caught in the lake to FWP so biologists can collect information that could help identify the source of the invasion. Then fishermen can take the edible parts home.

Placid Lake drains into the Clearwater River below Seeley Lake and is normally home to only kokanee, largemouth bass, and bull and westslope cutthroat trout. Pike haven’t been there, and FWP biologists want to keep it that way, because the predator could decimate the trout populations.

So when they pulled in a pike during a May 8 monitoring survey, they raised the alarm. FWP commissioners responded by granting the emergency regulation.

“We’re seeing too many of these (introductions). It’s too bad,” said Missoula region commissioner Tim Aldrich. “We gotta take every reasonable measure we can to figure out what’s going on, and halt what’s going on with additions to the fishery of Placid Lake. That’s a marvelous fishery, so this is really important.”

Other commission decisions could open up more lands in the Bitterroot and Yaak valleys to the public.

Fans of the West Fork of the Bitterroot are cheering the approval of the purchase of 97 acres surrounding the 1.5-acre W.W. White fishing access site along the West Fork Road, the only public fishing access on the West Fork. Only three public comments out of 25 didn’t support the purchase.

Purchasing the additional land has three benefits: it adds public access to the adjacent U.S. Forest Service land and will allow for the addition of a few amenities such as campsites and vault toilets. Most importantly, it will keep the land around the fishing access from being developed into a subdivision since the landowners have received several offers from private parties.

Kyle Barber, Bitterroot Land Trust conservation director, has worked on the project for a few years but said the effort had a longer history.

“This has been the vision of a private landowner and her deceased son for a few decades,” Barber said. “It’s over 15 years in the making, and we’re really grateful to them for sticking through this long process.”

Farther north, a conservation easement is being considered on 540 acres west of Victor. The Hackett Ranch bordering the Bitterroot National Forest along Sweathouse Creek has allowed public hunting through the Block Management Program for 24 years. They’ve also informally allowed public access to the trail leading to Sweathouse Falls in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Again, the popularity of the Bitterroot has raised concerns over the ranch being lost to development. So the Bitterroot National Forest is going through a process to make the trail easement official, and FWP wants to piggyback on that by creating a conservation easement for wildlife habitat. With commission approval, FWP will begin negotiations with the Hackett family.

Finally, the commission approved the purchase of the Wild River conservation easement on 50 acres sandwiched between the Kootenai River and U.S. Highway 2 northwest of Troy. The 50 acres are mostly surrounded by public land but is private so it could have been developed. Now, it will help conserve the river that is home to endangered white sturgeon and threatened bull trout.

Mitch Doherty of the Missoula-based land trust Vital Ground Foundation said his organization started investing in land nearby in 2011 because it’s a wildlife corridor for grizzly bears to travel from the Purcell and Cabinet Mountains to the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery area. Vital Ground is buying the land beneath the conservation easement with the help of a $396,000 land acquisition grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the conservation easement. The Foundation will manage the property and continue to pay property taxes.

“This ensures the security of that wildlife corridor in perpetuity, and also provides public access to enjoy the property and access to the Kootenai River,” Doherty said.

The commission approved more conservation easements and grazing leases around the state, prompting sportsmen to praise the commission for approving all the projects that allow more public access and conserve wildlife habitat.

“I heard the commission opening up appreciating our opportunity in Montana to enjoy these lands. And then you proceeded to approve all these wonderful access projects,” said Thomas Baumeister of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “What a wonderful day in Montana to be part of this and to experience this.”

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