Sandhill Cranes Sunset in West Valley – Photo Credit: Dick Walker

by Gael Bissell

For years, I have been hearing from birders about the West Valley ponds, located about five miles northwest of Kalispell, which consist of a variety of pothole wetlands that support an amazing diversity of shorebirds, waterfowl, and other bird species. Thirty years ago, they were identified as potential mitigation wetlands for Kerr Dam. A decade ago, people started reporting and photographing hundreds of Sandhill Cranes congregating in this area each fall. More recently, as part of an interagency citizen science spring waterfowl project, observers documented thousands of spring migrants who depend on these melting ponds and open farmlands for food and rest and they move north to breed.

Laura Katzman

It took a while, but finally these ponds found a champion in Laura Katzman, Land Protection Specialist, with the Flathead Land Trust. Before moving to Kalispell nearly 10 years ago, Laura was the fisheries management biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks on the Lower Clark Fork River working with Avista Corporation and other private/public partners to protect habitat for native fish. She was instrumental in protecting about 1,500 acres of the upper Bull River and shoreline of Bull Lake, an area that is now the Bull River Wildlife Management Area. Having grown up near the Horicon Marsh area in Wisconsin, Laura has a strong appreciation for wetlands and birds. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Resource Management from University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and Master’s in Fish and Wildlife Management from Montana State.

After starting work with the Flathead Land Trust in 2010, Laura worked with staff and partners to protect thousands of acres as part of the Flathead River to Lake Initiative. Five years ago, she discovered and clearly recognized the incredible habitat values of West Valley and reached out to the private landowners to see if they were interested in conservation. Gradually, through time and getting to know the long-term landowners who have raised their families on these farms for over 100 years, one family stepped forward to put a conservation easement on their 400 acres of farmland and wetlands. Piecing together a project in this neighborhood of development and valuable commercial gravel resources was no easy task. While Laura researched and found a number of federal grants that would help with the purchase of conservation easements, she also had to find a significant amount of private funding. But the icing to this project would be to fulfill a need for a public viewing area. Fortunately, the landowners were willing to work with the Flathead Land Trust and other partners to donate a public viewing area overlooking one of the larger pothole wetlands.

To raise the private funding needed, Laura and other Flathead Land Trust folks reached out to foundations but also the local community, non-profit organizations, and other neighborhood groups and in two years raised over $150,000 of private money needed to match to federal grants. Flathead Audubon’s generous members provided $15,000 of those dollars!

Laura is clearly one of those rare folks who is up to the task of successfully putting complex conservation projects together. In 2018, all the needed funding and approvals finally came together and the conservation easement is now in place on 400 acres. Additionally, the West Valley Pond Viewing Area will be dedicated and open for public use on October 6, 2018 (see page 6).

The Flathead Audubon Society thanks Laura for her commitment to local conservation of our important bird and wetland habitats and in developing the West Valley Ponds conservation project from its humble beginnings. We look forward to partnering on other bird habitat projects in the future.