About the Owen Sowerwine Area

Property Overview

The Owen Sowerwine area (400+ acres) is located near the confluence of the Stillwater River and Flathead River. Its topography is the result of repeated meandering by the Stillwater River and Flathead River channels. A braided pattern of waterways exists throughout the area with abandoned channels, a system of islands, and periodic gravel bars and sand bars characterizing the active nature of the forces shaping the area. The area borders a mile of the Stillwater River, over a mile of the Flathead River, and at least 1.3 miles of braided channels connecting the two rivers and contains a mosaic of wetlands and seasonally wet areas. Much of the property is within the 100-year floodplain of the Flathead River and has shallow groundwater less than eight feet below the ground surface. Most of the property contains dense riparian forest dominated by cottonwood and spruce with a diverse assemblage of native plants, shrubs, and trees of varying ages, downed woody debris, and standing dead trees. This quality habitat is used by over 200 species of birds, fish and wildlife including federally listed grizzly bear and bull trout. Details of the plant, bird, fish and wildlife species are documented in the Owen Sowerwine Baseline Documentation Report, prepared in 2023 in conjunction with the creation of a Conservation Easement.

The area is bordered by private land and development mostly along its western boundary but there are private parcels on the other boundaries as well. However, much of the parcel adjoins public land or private land protected by conservation easements including land owned by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) to the northeast and southeast; private land protected with conservation easements held by Montana Land Reliance to the east, and Flathead County land to the south. The conservation of the Owen Sowerwine property adds to a landscape-scale conservation network totaling almost 13,000 acres of protected bird, fish and wildlife habitat along 43 miles of the Flathead River between the confluence of its forks and Flathead Lake. It has also been identified as an Important Bird Area critical to the conservation of birds by Montana Audubon.

The area consists of an Island Portion and a Mainland Portion, which is divided by the main channel of the Stillwater River. The Mainland Portion contains a network of approximately two miles of primitive developed trails that can be accessed off Willow Glen Drive from Treasure Lane, Greenridge Drive, Howard Drive, and a private access only near Kalispell Montessori School. It also has fences, a kiosk, signs marking trails, two footbridges, a wood crossing, a bench, and bird nesting boxes, but has no roads, parking areas or buildings. 

The Owen Sowerwine area also includes a large island commonly referred to as the “Big Island” (236.9 acres); the northern portion of Leisure Island (30.8 acres); small islands and portions of islands located east of the main channel of the Stillwater River and a small portion of land located in the northern part of the Easement Area accessed by Anderson Lane (64.3 acres); and mainland west of the main channel of the Stillwater River (73 acres) just east of the city limits of Kalispell.  The Island Portion of the Easement Area has no developed trails or improvements (other than a utility line). 


In 1976, the newly formed Flathead County Park Board sent a recommendation to the Montana State Land Board that a 400+ acre tract of State School Trust land in Flathead County be classified as a Natural Area. The tract encompasses a large island (“the Big Island”) in the braided section of the Flathead River, at the confluence of the Flathead and Stillwater Rivers, and portions of near-by islands and mainland shore pieces.  Flathead County committed to paying the state lease fee on the tract, and the County Park Board accepted responsibility for managing the area. Although the official Natural Area designation was never finalized, the area has been managed to maintain the natural qualities of the habitat.

The Chair of the new Flathead County Park Board, and one of the most energetic proponents of this project, was Owen Sowerwine. Sowerwine had previously been a member of the State Land Board. He was well known in the Flathead as an avid outdoorsman, a dedicated conservationist, and a civic leader. In reviewing the recommendation, the Land Board recommended that the area be named after Owen Sowerwine, who died in January 1975. A public hearing on the proposed designation was held in May 1976 in the Community Room of the Conrad National Bank in Kalispell. The public was enthusiastic and the designation process moved forward. In 1978 the State Land Board designated the parcel as class 4 land (for “natural area use”).

A dedication ceremony took place September 9, 1978. An article in The Daily Inter Lake the following day begins: “It became official Saturday. A wild thicket enfolded in the coils of the Flathead and Stillwater Rivers is now protected under the name of Owen Sowerwine, the longtime Flathead Valley resident and conservationist who initiated the fight to preserve the area.” The dedication ceremony was attended by members of Sowerwine’s family, then-Lieutenant Governor Ted Schwinden, members of the Flathead County Park Board, (then chaired by Arnold Jacobsen of Whitefish), and a number of other county and state officials.

The site was managed by the Flathead County Park Board through 1995. By 1994 the yearly state lease fee had risen from the original $200 to $550, and Flathead County indicated it could no longer afford to retain the lease. Recognizing the value of the area to the public and the importance of the bird habitat, Flathead Audubon Society stepped forward in 1996 to assume the lease, pay the fees, and manage the area.

When a new assessment in 1999 threatened a significant increase in the lease fee, Flathead Audubon Society joined with Montana Audubon to negotiate a long-term license for the area with an affordable fee. A 10-year agreement was finally reached in the spring of 2001 and Montana Audubon became the official license holder, and provided insurance for Audubon-sponsored activities at Owen Sowerwine. Flathead Audubon paid the bulk of the yearly license fee and carried out the management of the property.

When this license expired at the end of February 2011 a new 10-year license was signed. Montana Audubon was again the official license holder, while Flathead Audubon remained the on-site manager. In fall 2019, the license was reassigned to make Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon the joint license holders, with Flathead Audubon continuing its management role. The two Audubons share the cost of the annual license fee and both contribute to the management costs.

The final 10-year license was set to expire in 2021, all parties realized that a long-term solution was needed if the Owen Sowerwine area was to continue. After various options were investigated, the option that looked the most viable was a Conservation Easement. This option was specifically made possible by the inclusion of one sentence in a state law (MCA 77-2-101 (e) (iii)), which authorized a non-profit corporation to hold a Conservation Easement on the Owen Sowerwine natural area. Work began in earnest to create this one-of-a-kind Conservation Easement through Flathead Land Trust. Through the hard work of employees of Montana DNRC and Flathead Land Trust, and volunteers for Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon, the Owen Sowerwine Conservation Easement received unanimous approval at the State Land Board meeting on December 18, 2023.

The original management plan (Owen Sowerwine Master Plan) was written in the late 1970s by the Flathead County Park Board. With the signing of the first 10-year license in 2001 came the task of writing a new management plan. Working together, Montana Audubon, Flathead Audubon, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation updated the original plan to create a new Management Plan, which was officially approved by the Montana State Land Board in January, 2003, and it remained in effect until the a Management Plan was created in conjunction with the Conservation Easement approved by the State Land Board on December 18, 2023. In the very first management plan, the forward was written by long-time Flathead Valley conservationist and philanthropist Sam Bibler, and he called on the managers  “… to keep the heavy hand of man as much out of the management as possible, and to proceed as carefully and thoughtfully as possible.” Under the Conservation Easement, this calling can continue in perpetuity.

Conservation Easement Protection

On December 18, 2023, the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners, approved a Conservation Easement (CE) for the Owen Sowerwine property, State School Trust land which is under the administration of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The Conservation Easement is held by Flathead Land Trust (FLT), and Flathead Audubon Society (FAS) has agreed through a Memorandum of Agreement with DNRC and FLT to be a Third-Party Cooperator to manage the area. 

As a Third-Party Cooperator, Flathead Audubon has the responsibility of approving, coordinating and scheduling all group use in such a way that protects the Conservation Values delineated in the Conservation Easement. Briefly, these include things such as: preservation of native species of vegetation and wildlife, supporting natural riparian/wetland areas and river health, maintaining public access for low-impact and dispersed use for conservation education and recreation, and providing undeveloped open space as a wildlife travel corridor with foraging opportunities and security, both of which are particularly important for migrating birds. 

In compliance with the terms of the CE, ALL group use is restricted to the mainland portion of Owen Sowerwine. (The Conservation Easement and Management Plan documents are available on this website.)