Blaine County is supporting efforts to obtain $36.5 million in federal funding to protect open space along the High Divide—an area of wildlife habitat between the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. Most of that area is public land, but, conservation organizations say, some is key private farm and ranch land in danger of development.
The proposal seeks to protect about 20,500 acres of private land, including 2,000 acres in southern Blaine County, during fiscal year 2016.
The money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established by Congress in 1965 to acquire land and conservation easements using fees paid for offshore oil and gas drilling. The fund collects $900 million annually, though much is diverted to unrelated federal spending.
The High Divide proposal is part of a larger one, called the Heart of the Rockies Initiative, that seeks to protect connecting land from southern Alberta and British Columbia to northwestern Wyoming.
According to the Heart of the Rockies Initiative website, which is supported by 24 land trust organizations, private land is often a link between blocks of habitat such as national forests, wilderness and other roadless areas, and tends to include riparian areas, which have the highest biodiversity.
“Yellowstone elk depend on lowland ranches to survive winter. Bears wintering in Banff leave the park searching for spring food. The key—and vulnerable—habitat is often private ground, ranches and timberland,” the website states.
The application for funding has been filed by the High Divide Conservation Collaborative, a cooperative effort among federal and state agencies, ranchers and about 30 conservation organizations. Local representatives of The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust requested the county’s support during a commissioners meeting Feb. 17.
“To bring this kind of federal money to Idaho and Montana is an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often,” said Dayna Gross, conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho.
Keri York, senior conservation coordinator for the Wood River Land Trust, said in an interview that the Blaine County parcels are just west of Craters of the Moon National Monument and along Goodale’s Cutoff, a section of the old Oregon Trail. However, she declined to say who the landowners are or how many are involved.
York said the High Divide Conservation Collaborative unsuccessfully applied for funding for fiscal 2015. The commissioners’ letter urges the secretaries of interior and agriculture to prioritize the application for fiscal 2016.
“This proposal is important to critical habitat and migration routes for many species of fish and wildlife, including elk, pronghorn, sage grouse, salmon and trout,” the letter states. “The High Divide collaborative supports working ranches and local economies by protecting agricultural lands and lifestyles.”
Michael Whitfield, Heart of the Rockies Initiative coordinator, said the proposal has been drafted with the cooperation of five national forests, two units of the Park Service and five units of the BLM. However, he said, it is competing against other proposals that have the support of other units of those same agencies.