Missoula County approves subdivision amid concerns of fragmented wildlife corridors

Missoula County remains concerned about the slow fragmentation of wildlife corridors as the county’s population continues to grow and development spreads. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

A plan to place a small subdivision on 17 acres near the Huson interchange won approval from Missoula County last week, though it prompted a wider discussion on the slow fragmentation of wildlife corridors in western Montana.

Huson Acres, represented by the Montana Northwest Co., will include five lots on property located just south of Interstate 90. The property won’t be densely developed – just one unit per five acres – but it does continue the slow fragmentation of open space and the corridors used for migrating wildlife.

“Highway 93 north and south, and along I-90 east and west, how do you provide wildlife connectivity in these ever more fragmented landscapes?” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Whether this is developed or not doesn’t do anything about the fact that you still have wildlife trying to cross four lanes of interstate.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks didn’t weigh in on the project, but at least one resident did, saying American Kestrels use the property, along with hawks and bald eagles. Fox have been seen in the fields, and elk cross the freeway “on a regular basis” using the property.

The parcel also sits within whitetail deer winter range. County planning staff and project representatives said certain covenants built into the development will address wildlife impacts as best they can.

“We’ve done a lot of effort on mitigation and trying to keep a boundary from the freeway and keeping small agriculture so it’s not a completely developed lot on every side,” said Lynn Edens with the Montana Northwest Co. “We’ve set setbacks in there to try and mitigate and keep it open for the area that it is. But surrounding it, there is a lot of development, so it does fit right in.”

Grizzly bears have been observed near Frenchtown and Huson crossing the freeway to the Clark Fork River and into the Bitterroot Mountains. Elk follow a similar route, though crossing the freeway for any species can be a fatal endeavor.

Missoula County commissioners in 2019 asked Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to support transportation bills that include funding for wildlife crossings. The latest Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act does include such funding, but as connectivity dwindles as Montana’s population grows, maintaining open wildlife corridors has grown increasingly challenging.

Tester negotiated and supported the infrastructure bill and Daines voted against it.

“There’s better and not-so-good areas for land division,” county planner Tim Whorley told commissioners.

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