Tucked away in the Grass Valley west of Missoula lies an invaluable, but little talked about, network of sloughs, creeks, springs and farmland. It’s called the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area, and while you may not have heard of it before you’ve no doubt seen some of its residents.
Riparian areas are vital to our bird populations. Some 80% of Montana’s bird species use and depend upon them. In the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley IBA, that equates to over 230 unique species that live in, or migrate to, the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley IBA every year. Yet, wetlands are rare occurrences in our state: riparian areas occupy less than 4% of Montana’s land. The incredible variety of species in such a small footprint is why protecting uncommon havens like the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley IBA is so essential.
The process to officially list the Grass Valley riparian area as an IBA got its start over a decade ago. Local birders have always known that Grass Valley's riparian areas and cottonwood groves are home to a huge number of species. But, to officially designate the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley area as an IBA, they had to prove it. So, beginning in 2002, local birders from Five Valleys Audubon and Montana Audubon began surveying the avian populations there. The surveys lead to conversations with local landowners, most of which knew and loved their local birds. Before long, the conversation about birds morphed into conversations about long-term conservation, and that's when Five Valleys Land Trust was asked to join the coalition.
Below, Five Valleys Land Trust Board of Directors member and Five Valleys Audubon member Jim Brown narrates the history of this years-long process, held together by the unshakable belief that protecting bird habitat was important.
Four years later, in 2006, the coalition's efforts led to the official naming and mapping of the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area. In 2009 the National Audubon Society named the area as a Continental Important Bird Area because of its significance to multiple species of conservation concern.
Officially listing an area as an IBA has far-reaching effects. The IBA program is a global initiative to identify a network of sites that are critical for the conservation of birds. IBAs help focus attention on habitats, yet are not legally binding and convey no regulatory authority. The concept is simple: identify areas that sustain healthy populations of birds (usually species of conservation concern), then focus attention on these sites to encourage conservation through habitat management, conservation easements, or other protective measures. Informing landowners about various conservation options, like conservation easements, is an important part of the process. By focusing attention on areas that have high value for birds, the IBA program can help set conservation priorities and contribute significantly to bird conservation over large areas.
Five Valleys Board of Directors member Jim Cusker protected his property in Grass Valley with a conservation easement. Mr. Cusker farms and ranches on the property and sees as many as 80 different species of birds there each year. That's why along with protecting his land with an easement he fenced his property's the riparian zone, which protects the bird nesting sites there. He says,
"It feels good to know that my family's farm will always be a place where agriculture and wildlife can thrive." - Jim Cusker, Grass Valley conservation easement landowner
Today, the Clark Fork River—Grass Valley IBA encompasses approximately 25,000 acres, mostly made up of privately owned lands and some city, state and federal ownerships.
Over 1,390 acres of wildlife habitat and agricultural lands have been protected within the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley IBA by conservation easements. But drawing attention to the IBA didn't only benefit the birds and local agriculture. The community benefits from the 160+ acres purchased for public use within the IBA, assuring that residents and visitors alike will continue to enjoy the IBA's regionally-rare habitat and abundant wildlife.
Header photo by Paul Lebel