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FWP purchase opens Yellowstone River island complex to public use

Aerial photo of two island parcels in the Yellowstone River
Courtesy Beartooth Group
The conservation-focused investment firm Beartooth Group recently sold two island parcels to the state of Montana, making them accessible to the public.

A more than 100-acre island complex in the Yellowstone River near Reed Point is now open to the public for recreational use after a Bozeman-based investment firm sold the land to the state of Montana.

The conservation-focused Beartooth Group initially bought two island parcels as part of a larger ranch purchase. The firm's founder, Robert Keith, says selling the island properties to the state helps ensure they continue to be wildlife habitat and maintain river health.

“There’s also, of course, public recreational access, which of course we all know and love in Montana," he said. "So whether you’re camping, rafting, floating, fishing, even hunting, you’re able to access these islands now without fear of having a barbed wire fence and a 'no trespassing' sign up."

The island parcels, each about 50 acres in size, are just upstream from the Indian Fort fishing access site and will now be managed by Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks.

“There’s fish habitat by having trees in the river. There’s places for birds to perch," said Mike Ruggles, the regional supervisor in the Billings District. "It already has deer, occasional elk, various birds including turkeys that move through, and so it just provides this really nice riparian habitat."

FWP paid around $140,000 for the island parcels with Natural Resource Damage Program funds. The mitigation funding came from a $12 million settlement with ExxonMobil following a 2011 oil spill in the Yellowstone River near Laurel.

According to FWP, there is more than $6.5 million remaining in the NRDP’s ExxonMobile Yellowstone River Oil Spill fund.

Patrick Byorth, water director for Trout Unlimited, helped connect Beartooth Group to the state’s NRDP funding. He says keeping these islands in their natural state, in public ownership, will allow them to continually perform important floodplain functions.

“They’re the kidney of the river. During flood times they actually absorb sediments and pollutants, creating new soils and processing pollutants in the soil to keep the river clean," he said. "They also store water in the soils and release them in times of scarcity late in the summer."

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.