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Even grizzly bears are getting priced out as Montana real estate booms

A grizzly bear walks through the trees on June 06, 2015.
Public Domain

Montana’s hot real estate market is making it harder and more expensive to conserve grizzly bear habitats. Nonprofit conservation groups trying to connect isolated bear populations face the challenge of a growing human population and the rising cost of land.

Driving down highway 93 south of Lolo, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) grizzly bear manager Jamie Jonkel points out a large swath of open ranch and farmland he says grizzly bears use to make their way across the Bitterroot Valley.

“This is the last connectivity available in the Bitterroot Valley,” he said.

Little arteries of land like this one serve as a path for grizzlies to travel between previously isolated populations of bears. Wildlife managers like Jonkel want the bruins to make the journey between established populations near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks in order to diversify the bears’ genetic pool. This connectivity can also help establish new populations, which is the goal in the Bitterroot.

Getting out of the car in the middle of the lone subdivision in this section of the valley, Jonkel says he worries more that the developments will crop up, making it harder or impossible for bears to pass through.

“Once they get developed," he said, "they’re gone.”

But preventing that development through conservation easements and land purchases has become more expensive and harder because of Montana’s hot real estate market and a growing affordable-housing crisis.

Nearly 1,000 properties, all 50 acres or larger, have sold in western Montana since 2020, nearly doubling the number of sales from the previous three years, according to Montana Regional MLS.

“I don’t want to say it’s the last hurrah for conservation, but certainly the window is closing,” said Mitch Dougherty with Vital Ground, which focuses on conserving grizzly habitat across western Montana.

A short drive north of Missoula, Dougherty is standing off the highway in Evaro Canyon.

“So what we’re looking at here is a couple of opportunities we missed out on this last year in the real estate market," he said.

Dougherty says these days, his nonprofit needs fast cash upfront for easement or land purchases. That’s not like the market before the pandemic, when Vital Ground could spend a year fundraising for projects. In recent years, they’ve been able to close on a number of land deals, but for the most part can’t keep up with how fast land is being sold.

Land sales just outside of cities and towns that provide property owners privacy or room to develop worry bear managers.

“Those are the very kinds of places where, from the standpoint of a bear, it might be looked at as habitat. It allows bears and humans to come in contact,” FWP Grizzly Biologist Cecily Costello said.

She also says that contact often leads to conflict and managers euthanizing food-conditioned bears. That’s in part why Costello and her colleagues are working to identify the land that bears are currently using to move between designated ecosystems.

“It is going to culminate in a map that we would like to make available to NGOs and to management agencies so that they can essentially get an understanding of where they might anticipate bears being in the future, and it helps those NGOs identify the high priority areas for protection under conservation easements or by buyouts,” Costello said.

That map is due out next year.

Conservation groups like Vital Ground hope that rising interest rates will slow the market enough so they can target those high priority grizzly travel areas before they’re gone for good.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.