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Boise, Idaho • A federal agency has established a 7,000-square-mile watershed conservation area in three Western states that includes major migration corridors for birds and mammals, officials said Thursday.
The Bear River Watershed Conservation Area in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming is part of a plan to protect wildlife habitat by buying perpetual conservation easements from willing private landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
The agency said it has identified some 1,400 square miles of potential easements that connects the northern and southern Rocky Mountains.
The conservation area includes national wildlife refuges in each state and the 500-mile Bear River. The river starts in the Uinta Mountains in Utah and flows north into Wyoming before making a U-turn in Idaho and flowing south back into Utah where it becomes the largest surface water source for the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
The river is noteworthy for not having an outlet to an ocean as well as ending its 500-mile path just 60 miles from where it originates.
The federal agency found wide interest in the conservation area in the public process leading up to its formation, said Bob Barrett, project leader and manager of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge for Fish and Wildlife in Utah.
"The sense of good land stewardship is widely shared in all three states," he said.
Officials say the Bear River watershed is important to migrating birds traveling on the Central and Pacific flyways. Of the 200 species found in the area, about half rely on wetlands, including sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans and white-faced ibis.
The agency also links migratory routes for elk, pronghorn and other mammals, and the rivers and lakes in the watershed support native fish, including Bonneville cutthroat trout.
Conservation easements generally allow traditional activities such as livestock grazing and haying but prohibit subdivisions or conversion of native grassland to cropland. Land that's part of an easement remains in private ownership, and public access is under the control of the landowner.
The Bear River watershed conservation area has been in the public planning stages for years and included an environmental assessment, with the initial plan completed in 2013.
Fish and Wildlife said it received a conservation easement donation of 30 acres in June in Box Elder County in Utah that prompted the conservation area to be established.
Officials said a review and approval of that donation led to Thursday's notice posted in the Federal Register formally announcing the conservation area.
Easement prices are based on local market appraisals, with federal money coming from the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965. Barrett said the cost of easements can vary, depending on the amount of land involved and location. He said the agency had not yet purchased any easements for the new conservation area and didn't have estimates on potential costs.
Federal officials said the easements will help preserve agricultural lands that are used by wildlife and increasingly converted into residential developments.
"The collaborative efforts of conservation partners in the Bear River watershed will be crucial to preserving this working landscape that is such an important resource for people and wildlife," federal officials said in the 240-page conservation plan.
Jim DeRito, a fisheries restoration coordinator for Bear River for Trout Unlimited based in Idaho, participated in the process involving the new conservation area.
"It's a huge benefit not only to what we're doing here in Idaho but to establish easements in other parts of the watershed that maybe don't have a land trust," he said.