Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland addresses a crowd gathered to celebrate the newly conserved land in northwestern Montana on Aug. 20. Credit: Keely Larson / MTFP

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland traveled to Montana last weekend to commemorate the newest addition to the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the first land added to the system during Haaland’s time as secretary.

Standing on top of a flatbed trailer serving as a stage outside of Marion in northwest Montana, Haaland, joined by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and a representative of the Trust for Public Land, celebrated the Lost Trail Conservation Area, 100,000 acres of land surrounding the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. FWS approved the Lost Trail Conservation Area in 2021.

The most recently acquired section is a 38,052-acre conservation easement that FWS, TPL and CSKT purchased from Southern Pines Plantation Montana. SPP will continue to own the land, but the land can’t be developed. 

“Today we’re not just celebrating the expansion of our National Wildlife Refuge System, we’re celebrating new opportunities for children and families to connect with nature, hunt, fish, hike and view the wildlife now, and for generations to come,” Haaland said.

The Lost Trail Conservation Area is near Glacier National Park, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the Selkirk Mountains and part of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. It provides habitat and migration corridors for elk, mule deer, grizzly bears, wolverines and Canada lynx.

“The Lost Trail will provide these species a real chance for sustained and connected populations into the future,” Williams said. “And like other lands in this area, the Lost Trail Conservation Area has been made possible because of mutual interest, solid relationships and an unyielding commitment to Montana’s natural resources.” 

A conservation area is a wildlife refuge that consists mostly or entirely of conservation easements on private land. Chris Deming, Northern Rockies land protection director with TPL, said the permanent Lost Trail Conservation Easement maintains private land ownership, but ensures public access. 

“It peels off the development right so we know that what you see is what you’re going to see forever,” Deming said.

“Bringing the outdoors and the wonders of the natural world closer to people is at the heart of the Department of the Interior’s mission.”

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland 

A collaborative study considered wildlife migration corridors in the area and found that many of those corridors are north of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge on land that is now part of the conservation easement, Deming said. 

Scientists with the CSKT Wildlife Management Program collared elk on the Flathead Reservation and found that they travel through the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, then further north, and eventually migrate back to the reservation, said Whisper Camel-Means, a wildlife biologist with the program. 

“That was something that wasn’t previously understood as occurring, and so that was a really big deal to see that connection and understand more fully that historical connection that our people had with this vicinity,” Camel-Means said.

Malcolm Carson, TPL’s senior vice president, described the Lost Trail Conservation Area as a puzzle piece in a public and private landscape. More permanent easements may be added within the area’s 100,000-acre boundary.

“Today’s project will ultimately help in stitching together over 250,000 acres of protected land with other nearby Rocky Mountain conservation projects ranging from Glacier National Park to the panhandle of Idaho,” Carson said.

Haaland touted the Lost Trail Conservation Area’s ability to support local economies. Funding for the conservation area was provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Great American Outdoors Act.

“Bringing the outdoors and the wonders of the natural world closer to people is at the heart of the Department of the Interior’s mission,” Haaland said.

“Today we share. We share something in common and that’s our love for the land and as we keep it and preserve it for future generations, and to keep it pristine and clean and take care of the wildlife, and just be able to enjoy it.”

Steve Arca, Séliš-Ql̓ispé language instructor, Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee

Steve Arca, Séliš-Ql̓ispé language instructor with CSKT’s culture committee, ended the celebration with a prayer, expressing gratitude for the land the event was hosted on. 

“Today we share. We share something in common and that’s our love for the land, and as we keep it and preserve it for future generations, and to keep it pristine and clean and take care of the wildlife, and just be able to enjoy it,” Arca said.

As Arca spoke, 18-month-old Hadley Farron cooed, sitting on the ground in the shade created by her mother. Hadley was about to go on her first backpacking trip with her parents, and her mom, Laura, is optimistic about Hadley’s outdoor opportunities. The family traveled from Missoula for the celebration.

“Any time we’re out on public lands, definitely something that comes to mind is just trying to instill that love of nature in her and thinking about what it’s going to be like for her, and if she ever has children, what it’s going to be like for them,” Farron said.

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Keely Larson

Keely Larson worked for two community newspapers in southwest Montana before starting the University of Montana's environmental and natural resources journalism graduate program. During her first year of grad school, she freelanced for Outside Business Journal and the Montana Standard and received the Crown Reporting Fellowship. Keely is MTFP's fire reporting intern for summer 2022.