Viewing area in works for sandhill crane stopover

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A pair of sandhill cranes walk with their babies west of Kalispell in this file photo. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake file)

Each October, sandhill cranes migrating from the Arctic to the southern U.S. and northern Mexico pause at a few hundred acres off West Valley Drive near Kalispell.

A 45-acre “pothole wetland,” surrounded by agricultural fields, makes an ideal spot for the birds to rest.

“We have about 400 sandhill cranes that gather” there, said Jan Metzmaker with the Flathead Audubon Society. “To see 400 sandhill cranes in one place is pretty special.”

Birdwatchers must currently observe this spectacle from the roadside. But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks may soon receive a public access easement that will give them a closer, safer look.

Under an easement, a landowner places certain conditions on land use, which a land trust or government agency maintains even as the property is bought and sold. The owner of the area’s fields and ponds, Grosswiler Dairy, Inc., has offered to give a quarter-acre easement to Montana Fish Wildlife, and Parks that would allow for construction of a wildlife viewing area.

An environmental assessment for the project was completed Friday. Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it received 15 comments, all positive, during a two-week period. The rule-making Fish and Wildlife Commission will have the opportunity to take it up at its April 19 meeting.

If it’s approved, design and construction work for the viewing area will proceed, said Chris Hammond, wildlife biologist with the agency.

The plans call for a viewing area about 300 feet from the wetland – far enough, they say, to avoid disturbing the birds. It would have four parking spaces and a path with interpretive stations. The gravel road that currently connects the site with West Valley Drive would also be improved.

Hammond said that Fish, Wildlife and Parks aims to have the project out for bid by early June, and complete the work by early summer.

Its cost could range from $10,000 to $18,000, depending on the amount of improvement the road needs. The agency has already allocated $10,000 for the project, and Hammond says it could receive additional funding or in-kind donations.

The public access easement is part of a larger effort to secure the sandhill cranes’ stopover.

“With all the development that’s creeping up that way, it’s very important that we save a piece of that,” Metzmaker said.

For nearly three years, Grosswiler Dairy, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Flathead Land Trust have been negotiating to protect the entire area from possible development. The groups are now close to closing a deal that will place three contiguous conservation easements, worth $1.4 million and totalling 328 acres, over the site. It’s involved a mix of federal, state and private funds.

“We had over 80 individuals and organizations step up and give money,” said Paul Travis, the Land Trust’s executive director. “It’s a big deal for us.”

Securing public access was necessary to lock in some of these funds, an $85,000 grant from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Flathead Audubon also contributed funds, and Metzmaker, the group’s publicity chair, is pleased with how the deal’s coming together.

“It’s a win-win for everyone, especially the cranes.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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