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A local land trust has purchased a property along Bear Canyon with hopes of building a new trail, but it plans to first study wildlife and traffic patterns there amid concerns from landowners.

Chet Work, executive director for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, said the nonprofit has officially purchased an 18 acre property along Bear Canyon Road — a move that’s been largely opposed by neighbors in the area. GVLT originally hoped building a trail there could enhance public access on approximately 6,500 acres of adjacent state trust lands.

However, an outcry from Bear Canyon residents this fall prompted Work to reconsider GVLT’s vision for the property. The neighbors worry improving public access could disturb a sensitive wildlife corridor that runs through the canyon.

The residents claim paragliders on nearby state trust lands have already driven wildlife away from the area and that improving public access would only exacerbate the problem.

To gauge the project’s impacts, GVLT plans to start conducting wildlife and traffic studies in the spring. The studies could continue through at least another year, Work said. If they indicate that public access can be maintained while conserving wildlife, more studies of the property’s wetlands and soils will be done.

“We would love to have done this due diligence prior to acquiring this property, but the real estate market being what it is, we don’t have years to consider things,” Work said. “Unfortunately we had to act and purchase the property in advance.”

The traffic study will involve monitoring users along Bear Canyon Road to see who is using recreation points throughout the canyon. The wildlife study will involve gathering data on animal species in the area and tracking their seasonal migration patterns, according to Work.

“I think in order to understand the seasonal nature of the habitat value, we’re going to have to take it across four seasons, and that’s just being responsible,” he said. “Our hope is that we can balance the recreation against the habitat if there is a seasonal nature to the habitat used by wildlife.”

Work said the land trust is considering introducing seasonal closures on the property, depending on what they find out. The property will be closed to the public while the studies proceed.

Lauren Oakes, a landowner along Bear Canyon who is also an ecologist, said she’s happy GVLT is conducting a wildlife study, but she still has concerns about the way the issue is being framed.

Oakes said it still seems like the land trust is driving forward with a plan that will have impacts, though “it’s a good thing to do an assessment and look at the wildlife that’s currently there.”

To Oakes, GVLT owning the property could help protect it from development, but “building a trail is not an act of conservation.” Building a house on the property would likely have less of an impact on wildlife, she said.

“You can talk about how the Gallatin Valley is changing and increasing in population size, but if they put out a trail now, they’re the ones getting out in front here,” she said.

Tim McGough, another Bear Canyon landowner, said he feels people aren’t aware of the unique biome that exists on the state trust lands, since nearby trails receive a lot of foot traffic. He said he’s “100% for a wildlife study” so more data can be gathered on the conservation value of the area.

McGough said he worries a new trail would bisect the animals’ migration route, and he isn’t sure how GVLT could manage traffic on the trail to reduce the impact on wildlife. “In my opinion, it’s just totally going to change it,” he said.

Scott Wuebber, president of a local paragliding club, said the hill on the state trust lands is one of Bozeman’s only safe, easy hills for beginning paragliders to practice on. Some paragliding schools have bought permits from the state to train there, he said.

To Wuebber, cutting off access will only make it harder for local paragliders to keep their skills sharp, and Bear Canyon landowners have overstated the impacts of paragliding on local wildlife. He said other factors, including noise from nearby construction, could be contributing to the problem.

“Paragliders don’t fly close to the ground,” he said. “Our intent is to stay up high. It’s not like we’re buzzing through the trees flying and screaming.”

Wuebber said he recently helped form a local chapter of the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association in Bozeman so people can “understand who we are and what we do.”

“We want to be good neighbors and users of the land,” he said.

Work said it’s clear that more conflict is developing between habitat and recreation in the Bozeman area.

“If we feel like use of the property for recreation is incompatible with the conservation values we identify through this wildlife study, then we could maintain the property as wildlife habitat, we could sell the property and allow it to be developed or we could find something in the middle,” he said.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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