Proposed Establishment of the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area
As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service’s) continuing effort to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people, the Service is proposing to establish a Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area. Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Planning Policy, we seek your involvement in the planning process for this proposed Conservation Area.
The Service is implementing the first step of a planning process, which includes engaging the public through public scoping. The purpose of public scoping is to provide the public with an overview of the planning process and seek public input, including comments, issues, ideas, and suggestions. Upon completion of the scoping phase, the Service will determine the next steps, which includes development of a Land Protection Plan to establish the Conservation Area. We will continue to update and engage the public throughout this planning process.
Building on decades of success working with private landowners in Montana, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to establish the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area in southwest Montana. This area of Montana is known regionally and nationally for its significant biological resources. Across this landscape, the large working ranches and rural character play a vital role in conserving fish and wildlife habitat.
Agricultural lands in western Montana are being lost to residential and commercial development or converted to other non-agricultural uses. Such development tends to fragment habitat and erodes the agricultural land base that is important for wildlife populations across the state.
What is being proposed?
If created, the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area would authorize the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with willing sellers to acquire up to a proposed 250,000 acres of conservation easements within the proposed 5.7-million-acre Conservation Area boundary (see map). The proposed acquisition boundary denotes the area within which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could purchase easements from willing sellers, pending available funding. It does not indicate that all of the land in that boundary would be acquired for the Conservation Area. See map of potentially eligible lands.
Conservation easements protect wildlife habitat while also protecting open space and working lands into the future to help preserve the rural way of life, including ranching. Acquisition of conservation easements would be voluntary and would occur over time as funds are available and allocated.
Money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund would be used, as available, to purchase easements within the Conservation Area. These funds are derived from federal offshore oil and gas leasing and are not taxpayer dollars. No fee-title acquisition would be authorized.
How would the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service easement program work?
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service easements are designed to be compatible with working ranches. The easements typically restrict subdivision and development but contain no restrictions on grazing and allow for existing agricultural practices. Easements also typically permit existing and/or reserved residences and agricultural buildings. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service easements purchased within the proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area will not require public access.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only purchases easements from willing sellers. Landowners always have the right to accept or reject an easement offer.
Unlike fee title acquisition, easements enable the land to stay on the county tax rolls because the property remains in private ownership. Conservation easements have proven to be an effective approach to conserving fish and wildlife habitat in Montana.
What biological resources will benefit from this easement program?
The proposed project area is a stronghold for wildlife that has disappeared from much of their historic range and is the centerpiece for connectivity between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Crown of the Continent, and the wilderness of central Idaho. In particular, this area includes high priority connectivity and movement corridors for wide-ranging species such as grizzly bear, pronghorn, elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. River systems and wetlands in the valley bottoms are essential to many species, including the few remaining native populations of Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states. In addition, the intact sage steppe habitat in this landscape is some of the highest quality in the nation and supports numerous wildlife species, migratory corridors, and winter range habitat.
Study Area for Consideration: Proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area project boundary map
Map of potentially eligible lands: Proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area: Potentially Eligible Lands
PUBLIC SCOPING PERIOD
We will be conducting a public scoping period starting September 20th and ending November 27th, 2023 (extended from October 26th to give the public additional time to provide input on the project). The scoping period will include three in-person public meetings.
IN-PERSON PUBLIC SCOPING MEETINGS:
- October 10, 6-8PM in Wisdom at the Community Center, Wisdom, MT, 59761
- October 11, 6-8PM in Dillon at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Office, 840 North Montana St., Dillon, MT 59725
- October 12, 6-8PM in Alder at the Fire House, 29 Upper Ruby Road, Alder, MT 59710
October 23, 6-8pm in Butte at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives Building, 17 W. Quartz St, Butte, MT 59701
CAN’T ATTEND A MEETING?
If you cannot attend a scheduled meeting and have questions about the project, please contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at MOHWCA@fws.gov
HOW TO SUBMIT COMMENTS
Comments can be submitted in multiple ways:
Mailing Address: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Attn: Ben Gilles, 922 Bootlegger Trail Great Falls, MT 59404
Or on comment cards provided at the in-person public meeting.
Public Scoping: September 20 – November 27, 2023
Draft Land Protection Plan and associated NEPA documents Available for Public Review and Comment: Spring 2024
Final Land Protection Plan and associated NEPA documents: Fall 2024