A group of conservation organizations and governmental agencies have pooled their resources to help the Pocatello-based Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust hire a full-time Bear River watershed conservation coordinator.
Kiley Heaps, who recently earned two master's degrees in anthropology and geographic information systems from Idaho State University, started with the land trust on March 1 and is training to spearhead the conservation efforts within the Bear River watershed.
Kiley will coordinate acquisitions of conservation easements along the Bear River within Wyoming, Idaho and Utah, in addition to helping land owners access state and federal conservation programs to enhance the conservation values of their properties.
Her position is being supported by the land trust, Bear River Land Conservancy, Intermountain West Joint Venture, Mule Deer Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, two regions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
"Kiley's position is a high priority because of the significant conservation values the landscape represents," said Matt Lucia, executive director at the Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust.
Heaps has stepped into her position at a key time for the scenic watershed. Development pressure has been mounting along the Bear River corridor, Lucia said.
"It's happening and it's definitely a challenge," Lucia said. "The thing we have working in our favor, is the established partnership in the landscape since 2004 and we have a solid block of protected lands that we are building upon. Our strategic landscape approach ties in with state and federal lands and other conservation easements."
Furthermore, Lucia said the watershed's land owners are now well aware of the opportunity the land trust affords them.
The land trust has five separate projects in the works to protect conservation easements within the Bear River system, totaling 7,000 acres. The projects range widely in terms of how close they are to coming to fruition.
Four of the pending projects involve working cattle ranches, whose owners sell development rights to their properties in perpetuity. Language in their agreements requires them to install wildlife-friendly fencing as they make fencing upgrades. One rancher the land trust is working with already surrounded his properties with the special fencing, which facilitates wildlife movement.
Heaps plans to facilitate a dialogue with landowners throughout the course of the Bear River, having face-to-face interactions as much as possible.
On Thursday, Lucia and Heaps were scheduled to tour a ranch in Idaho's Rocky Point area, which Lucia said is a significant corridor for migrating mule deer.
The land trust has had significant resources to put use toward protecting land and improving habitat near the Bear River since its founding. Lucia explained the land trust has worked in partnership with the Bear River Environmental Coordination Committee, which comprises state and federal agencies and conservation-related nongovernmental organizations. The committee is responsible for investing mitigation funds that PacifiCorp must award toward Idaho Bear River watershed conservation, under the terms of its re-licensing agreement for operating Bear River hydropower projects.
PacifiCorp provides hundreds of thousands annually in mitigation funds toward conservation easement acquisitions and habitat restoration projects.
"Each one of these properties has unique habitat characteristics, all of which play some role in providing habitat for big game, upland game such as sage grouse sharp-tailed grouse, water fowl and a host of conservation priority species," Lucia said.