You hear them before you see them, sandhill cranes, their prehistoric calls make you look up and take notice as they set their great wings and land in the fields surrounding the wetlands west of Kalispell.
There’s subdivisions and shopping centers just east of here, but tucked away in these surprisingly rolling hills, are a chain of small pothole lakes.
“It’s the only known significant staging area for cranes in the Flathead Valley,” Paul Travis noted as the birds flew overhead last week.
Travis is the executive director of the Flathead Land Trust, a non-profit organization that has worked diligently over several years to preserve farmland, river bottoms and other key wildlife habitat in the Flathead Valley. The Trust does this primarily through conservation easements, which pay private landowners for development and other rights on their land. Most landowners are farmers and they continue to farm the ground after the easement, they just can’t subdivide it for housing or other development.
The Trust has just under 14,000 acres of land in the valley, including key parcels along the Flathead River and the north shore of Flathead Lake.
The latest project, which was three years in the making, conserves 45 acres of wetlands and 400 acres of farmland in the West Valley. The parcel is tucked away off a nondescript dirt road. Blink and eye and you’d miss it. But once you crest the hill the landscape opens up before you. Below is a large pothole lake and wetland, teeming with ducks, geese, songbirds and the above-mentioned cranes.
Travis said more than 140 species of birds have been counted here. On this day, with cool weather finally arriving in the Flathead after a brutally hot summer, all of them seem to be talking.
These potholes lakes are an oasis — even in this drought stricken summer they brim with water, fed by springs.
The conservation effort cost about $1.4 million, with a patchwork of funding, including federal funding from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Flathead Audubon and the Trust.
Locally-raised funds amounted to about $150,000, Travis noted.
The Grosswiler family owns the land and has been farming in the Flathead for more than 100 years. They wanted to ensure at least a portion on their lands stay in agriculture.
The farmland is an important part of the puzzle, too, Travis noted. The cranes, and other waterfowl, depend on the fields for food as they migrate through the valley en route to wintering grounds to in the southern U.S. and Mexico in the fall and breeding grounds to as far north as Alaska in the spring (a few pairs even breed in Glacier National Park in the North Fork region).
Next year, working with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Trust will build a small public bird viewing area above the wetlands, hopefully with a permanent spotting scope so people can view the birds.
The wetlands and surrounding fields remain in private ownership, he noted and won’t be open to the public.
Travis said the hope in the future is to further protect other potholes lakes in the area. Folks interested in the work the Trust is doing and who want to support its efforts can attend its annual Barn Bash at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Diamond B Ranch. The bash features bluegrass music by the Acousticals, locally crafted beers and barbecue dinner. Cost is $75 per person, $150 per couple. Buy tickets at flatheadlandtrust.org or 752-8293.