Groups Seal Deal to Protect Transboundary Flathead River

North Fork of the Flathead River, MT

North Fork of the Flathead River, MT | Scott Bosse

The decades long battle over whether to develop the mineral wealth underlying one of North America’s most wildlife-rich river corridors is finally over.

Last week, The Nature Conservancy of Montana and the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced they had raised the $10 million needed to buy out existing mining rights and implement new environmental protections along the North Fork of the Flathead River.  The buyout comes on the heels of legislation the British Columbian parliament passed in 2010 to protect the North Fork from all forms of mining and oil and gas drilling.

Born in the Canadian Rockies not far from the town of Fernie, the North Fork flows south along the western boundary of Glacier National Park before emptying into Montana’s Flathead Lake. Thanks to its pristine water quality, low elevation and location at the interface of dueling climate zones, it supports an unparalleled array of wildlife including grizzly bears, gray wolves, wolverines, lynx, moose and elk.  The North Fork is also one of Montana’s last, best strongholds for native cutthroat trout and salmon-sized bull trout that embark on 150-mile long spawning runs.

Just when it looked like mining and energy companies might finally pry their way into the North Fork, American Rivers highlighted its plight in our 2009 America’s Most Endangered Rivers report. That listing, along with the international media attention provided by the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, helped conservation groups like the National Parks Conservation Association get the North Fork campaign across the finish line.

As a former resident of the North Fork who first fell under its spell while tracking wolves there twenty years ago, this victory tastes especially sweet. To celebrate the victory, my wife and I rafted from the Canadian border downstream to the remote outpost of Polebridge last Independence Day. That night, under a star-filled sky, we stopped in at the Northern Lights Saloon and raised a beer to all those who fought so hard to protect this magical place.