Missoula County approves subdivision over concerns over 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 Junction received Missoula County approval last week, though it sparked wider debate about the slow fragmentation of wildlife corridors in western Montana.

Huson Acres, represented by the Montana Northwest Co., will comprise five lots on a lot just south of Interstate 90. The property will not be densely developed — just one unit per five acres — but it will 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 ensure wildlife connectivity in these increasingly fragmented landscapes?” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Whether this is developed or not doesn’t change the fact that you still have wildlife trying to cross four lanes of the highway.”

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. Foxes have been seen in the fields and moose “regularly” cross the highway using the terrain.

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

“We’ve put a lot of effort into mitigation and have tried to keep a boundary of the highway and keep small farming so it’s not a fully developed parcel on all sides,” said Lynn Edens of the Montana Northwest Co. setbacks in trying to soften it and keep it open to the area it is. But there is a lot of development around it, so it fits in well.”

Grizzly bears have been sighted near Frenchtown and Huson crossing the highway into the Clark Fork River and into the Bitterroot Mountains. Each follows a similar route, although crossing the highway can be a fatal undertaking for any kind.

Missoula County Commissioners asked Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to support transportation bills, including funding for wildlife crossings. The latest Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes such funding, but as connectivity dwindles as Montana’s population grows, maintaining open natural corridors becomes an increasingly challenging task.

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

“There are better and less good areas for land distribution,” county planner Tim Whorley told commissioners.

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