by Laura Katzman, Flathead Land Trust
For years Flathead Audubon has worked with Montana Audubon to ensure the 442-acre Owen Sowerwine property owned by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), located at the confluence of the Stillwater and Flathead rivers just east of Kalispell, was managed as a natural area for use by the public for recreational and educational purposes. The Owen Sowerwine property has quality forested riparian habitat and wetlands, and has been identified as an Important Bird Area critical to the conservation of birds by Montana Audubon. The property is used by over 150 species of birds and wildlife and has been recognized and managed for its natural values for over 40 years.
Local citizens tried to get Owen Sowerwine protected as a natural area under the Natural Areas Act of 1974. The purpose of protecting it as a natural area was to ensure the perpetual protection of the natural integrity of the area while allowing for its use and appreciation by people with minimal impact. Although it was never officially designated as a natural area, Owen Sowerwine has been managed as a natural area since 1978 through leases and licenses held by the Flathead County Parks Board, Flathead Audubon, and Montana Audubon under two successive management plans. The most recent 10-year lease, held jointly by Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon, was set to expire in February 2020. But DNRC agreed to extend the lease if a permanent solution to manage Owen Sowerwine as a natural area was being pursued.
In 2020, Flathead Land Trust began working with Flathead Audubon, Montana Audubon, and DNRC on a permanent solution for maintaining Owen Sowerwine as a natural area through a purchased conservation easement. The conservation easement will maintain the integrity of the natural habitat of Owen Sowerwine for birds and wildlife and for the benefit of education and enjoyment of the general public in perpetuity. Most of the funding for the purchased conservation easement will be sought from the North American Wetland Conservation Act by Flathead Land Trust. The goal is to have a completed conservation easement by 2023.