Conservation works best when humans set aside key habitat for critters and consciously choose to build lightly on less sensitive ground. To do that effectively requires hiring scientists—and learning patience.
The theory behind conservation biology is pretty simple: IInstead of tranquilizing and radio collaring wild animals and moving them around the landscape to reintroduce them or manage populations, you protect big parcels of land, connect those parcels with corridors, and let the animals reintroduce and manage themselves. Corridors are the key, and the Big Sky region, especially the stretch from Moonlight to Ennis, is rife with them. Take one far-ranging male wolverine for example. It’s found a mating partner in the Hilgard range to the south of Lone Peak, and another female to the north in the Spanish Peaks. To visit them, it traverses habitat in the Jack Creek drainage that years ago was set aside for just this type of travel. With only 300 wolverines in the Lower 48, and the species long-snubbed for threatened or endangered species protection, that type of gene dispersal is crucial to the survival of the species. If you’re lucky, you might see some tracks out snowshoeing or ski touring. It turns out that Moonlight Basin, and the Jack Creek drainage that runs from the Headwaters to the Madison River, is one big connector, striped by corridors both small and large. Elk, mule deer, moose, black bear, and grizzlies rely on that habitat, and the health of the divided Lee Metcalf Wilderness areas depend on the connectivity it provides. “When you fragment wildlife populations their chances of long-term survival declines,” says wildlife biologist Brent L. Brock who has worked extensively in the Jack Creek drainage. Lee Poole, the founder of Moonlight, knew this when he purchased 25,000 acres here in 1992, and pledged to protect 80 percent of that rugged topography as wildlife habitat and corridors. Paired with the acreage the Montana Land Reliance (a land trust) had already helped set aside, Jack Creek drainage has offered that vital connectivity ever since. CrossHarbor Capital Partners, the new owners, have continued in Poole’s tra-dition, and now, as a new 2,600 acre easement was set to be announced as this issue went to press, the total Montana Land Reliance holdings will exceed 70,000 acres. As with those lands already protected, the new easement—it’s off the gated Jack Creek Road—prioritizes protecting wildlife habitat and corridors first. “Sus-tainability is part of our DNA, and protecting core wildlife habitat is an important part of those initiatives,” says CrossHarbor Capital’s Matt Kidd. The fourteen, 10-acre potential residential sites excluded from the easement were designated by bi-ologists and foresters as the least sensitive zones. And in keeping with Moonlight’s long standing traditions, says Lone Mountain Land Company’s Kevin Germain, who has been working on protecting this area since 2003, “tight design guidelines will ensure that those homes disappear. You won’t see them.” Here’s how such conservation easements work: Moonlight Basin still owns the land, but they’ve entered into a permanent agreement with the Montana Land Reli-ance (MLR) to conserve that land into perpetuity. In its 40-plus year history, the MLR has conserved 1.15 million acres of land in Montana for ecosystem health and wildlife preservation. Much of the work helps sustain the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, of which the Jack Creek drainage is a part. It will be MLR’s job to check-in on the new easements each year to verify that the landowners are living by the agreement. Natu-rally, MLR was thrilled to get this parcel conserved. “This easement will make a last-ing impact,” says Jessica Wiese, MLR’s Southwest Manager. “We’re not a postage-stamp type of land trust. We’re about connecting wild lands. And we’re increasingly aware of the importance of private land on the landscape. We’re incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to conserve with Moonlight.” If you think this is standard operating procedure in the Rocky Mountains, you’re mistaken. The Vail Valley in Colorado is currently in an uproar as new housing in East Vail threatens to displace—possibly fatally—a herd of bighorn sheep. The project is now moving forward despite the concerns, and the fact that a bighorn ram was killed on an interstate ramp in early December, 2019, just as the protests were at their zenith. For its part, says Germain, “Moonlight is trying to be the counterpoint to overdevelopment. We see the urbanization of the American ski area as a loss. Our belief is that we can do well while doing good. We’re here to protect the land, viewsheds, and, most importantly, the wildlife.” With the latest easement, an estimated 86 percent of Poole’s original purchase is on track to be set aside forever. But the land, while protected, won’t sit entirely idle. Logging from generations past, and continuous fire suppression have impact-ed the forests and weakened the habitat. While prescribed burning is not in the forecast because of the adjacent resort and community, mechanical thinning of the forest over many years will once again open up meadows and widely spaced forests, where currently the trees are too thick for all but moose. Such thinning—it’s already begun on previously protected land—involves targeting stands of over-grown and clustered lodgepole and Douglas fir, and reproducing historic densities by removing 30 to 50 percent of the trees on select tracts. Continue to do that for a total of 30 to 40 years, says Brock, and, for another example, snowshoe hare populations will grow sustainably. If they do, endangered lynx might follow—or at least find better hunting as they pass through the area. In the dream scenario that Germain is now working to bring to light, the low-quality wood that’s felled will be chipped into biomass and burned cleanly on-site at a future hotel—displacing many of the propane trucks that now travel up and down the road daily. If viable, the thin-ning and biomass plant will be a closed loop, carbon neutral affair. Ultimately though, it’s the wildlife that will benefit the most. Big Sky and Moon-light have all the wild game that Yellowstone does—minus the bison and ante-lope. Because traffic is severely limited on Jack Creek Road (especially at night when animals are on the move) the drainage will remain a connector. The closure to public traffic has been a point of contention for years, but, say Germain and Brock, as a crucial part of the conservation story, the limited traffic plan is the right thing to do. “Roads are tough on wildlife,” says Brock, “and not just species that we need to see move to maintain genetic diversity. Freedom of home range movement is also important. Animals that live to the north of the road might need to cross it to get to water, and animals to the south might need to move north in pursuit of forage or prey. Safe passage is important for the entire ecosystem.” Expanding the conservation lands and limiting construction to less sensitive spots, however, is far from a wildlife panacea. The region is growing with both residents and tourists. And climate change brings new challenges—many yet to be determined. But augmenting as the easement does a large swath of connec-tive habitat, the latest conservation is a win for wildlife. It’s been shown that most species can coexist with human development, if said development takes a back seat to the flora and fauna. “The area of concern is the uncertainty,” says Brock, who has computer modeled the habitat of the Jack Creek drainage for years and “ground truthed” his work with his boots on. “We still have to figure it out. There’s always uncertainty. And bears get into trouble when they follow their noses to something delicious. But I think we’re leaving enough protected space around the key areas to maintain the connection between the wilderness areas and the greater ecosystem. It keeps us from chipping away at the habitat. The easements are just critical to this.”