Conserving an International Wildlife Corridor: The North Fork of the Flathead River

This blog post originally appeared on our Rockies Expeditions blog on August 16th. Our 2013 Spine of the Rockies Expedition is investigating Large Landscape Conservation through methods of visual and social media while connecting to the Rocky Mountain Region’s strong ties to outdoor recreation and wild spaces. For more on the expedition, visit:

Originating in Southeast British Columbia, the North Fork of the Flathead River runs south across the U.S.-Canada border. It forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park and eventually empties into Montana’s Flathead Lake. The Flathead River valley is the last remaining uninhabited, low elevation valley in southern Canada and supports an incredible array of wildlife including the greatest diversity of plants in Canada and the highest concentration of grizzly bears in inland North America. The region serves as a natural refuge for core wildlife species that have become threatened or endangered elsewhere including grizzly bears, gray wolves, wolverines, Canada lynx, and bighorn sheep. It is also one of the few habitats that is home toboth native west slope cutthroat and bull trout, which travel up to 150 miles to spawn and are particularly vulnerable in the face of climate change. The North Fork is a critical part of the 10 million acre Crown of the Continent, which is one of few naturally functioning ecosystems left in North America, providing Montana and British Columbia with immense cultural and economic value. According to Michael Fiebig,

“The Flathead River valley drains all the major mountain ranges in the crown of the continent. It is a key refuge for both native fish species and for wildlife species and is a critical travel corridor. The tentacles of the Flathead reach up into all the areas that we consider the Crown of the Continent. It’s where the most biodiversity is located and the center for clean, cold water.”

Fiebig works for  American Rivers, which has worked to secure Wild and Scenic river designation in the Flathead watershed

The flathead river right on the boarder of BC and Montana.

Despite the ecological, cultural and economic value generated by the free flowing river and its adjoining ecosystems, proposals to develop and mine the river valley on both sides of the border have threatened the ecological integrity of the region. Due to the cross border nature of the North Fork of the Flathead, management of the region has been divided between the U.S. and Canada. Together, Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton National Park in Alberta form the world’s first International Peace Park, but much of the surrounding land remains unprotected and has been targeted for resource extraction. The areas adjacent to the Flathead River Valley have seen intense resource extraction in the form of mountain top removal and open pit mines. In November 2011, British Columbia passed legislation banning all mining in the Flathead, and, with the help of both the Nature Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, mining companies agreed to give up their leases in exchange for compensation for the costs of exploration. On the U.S. side, 80% of the mining leases have been voluntarily surrendered. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which would ban all future mining on the Flathead is currently pending. Fiebeig explained the significance of the legislation.

“The North Fork of the Flathead Watershed Protection Act will permanently retire mineral and oil and gas leases in the North Fork watershed, making good on our side of the treaty for the mineral leases that were retired on the Canadian portion of the Flathead. It’s a big step in the right direction once the North Fork Watershed Protection Act passes.”

Despite the 2011 legislation banning mining on the B.C. portion of the Flathead, the region is still not protected from future development such as logging, quarrying, hunting and new roads. Conservation groups in B.C. have proposed a plan for the creation of a National Park in the southeastern one third of the Flathead, which would fill out  the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park along natural boundaries. The propos also includes a call for a new “Wildlife Management Area” in the remainder of the Flathead Valley and adjoining lands to the north, which would conserve land encompassing a range of elevations and topography. Preserving wildlife corridors at a variety of elevations is critical to improving climate change resiliency, as it will allow for species to move to suitable habitats as the region warms. If enacted, the conservation plan would provide much needed wildlife protection in the B.C. portion of the Flathead.

The U.S. portion of the North Fork of the Flathead and its surrounding areas are also threatened by future development despite the work that has been done to ban mining in the area. The Whitefish Range, which lies west of the Flathead River in the U.S. in the Glacier View Ranger District, contains expansive multiple-use lands and it is home to a number of tributaries that flow into the Flathead River. Although the Whitefish Range contains large wilderness areas, which have been left largely untouched, logging and recreation have long been part of the area’s history. As populations in the area grow, it will be critical that lands in the Whitefish Range continue to be conserved in a manner that sustains the region’s ecological health.

The North Fork of the Flathead River supports an amazing array of ecosystems that are home to some of the most diverse wildlife populations in North America. The region will continue serve as a key wildlife corridor and refuge for wildlife, especially as climate change continues to accelerate. Due to the interconnectedness of the Flathead River and its adjoining lands and watersheds, it is critical that all these land areas be managed in a way that conserves the ecological health of this incredibly diverse landscape, which is a key part of the Crown of the Continent.

Halsey Landon is field researcher with the State of the Rockies Project

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