LOGAN -- Federal wildlife officials will hold public meetings in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming on their proposal to buy conservation easements along the Bear River.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to acquire up to 920,000 acres from willing sellers at an estimated cost of $745 million.
From its headwaters in Utah's Uinta Mountains, the river flows north through Wyoming and Idaho before reaching its confluence at the Great Salt Lake.
The watershed conservation plan is designed to spare wildlife habitat as well as farm and ranch lands from urban sprawl and residential development, agency officials said.
The river system passes through three national wildlife refuges and provides critical wetland and upland habitat for a variety of species, including grizzly, elk and deer.
The river also is critical habitat for the Bonneville cutthroat trout, and the entire watershed supports more than 270 species of migratory birds on the Central and Pacific flyways.
The wildlife service notes various groups have mounted efforts to preserve key areas within the Bear watershed, including The Nature Conservancy.
The group purchased a 6,700 easement for the protection of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and other species along the Bear's east fork.
Joan Degiorgio, regional director of the conservancy, said the federal proposal would help protect an often overlooked but critical watershed.
"I call the Bear River the Rodney Dangerfield of rivers, versus the Colorado and Green, which have a lot more sex appeal than the Bear does," she told the Deseret News. "The Bear has always been important for supply of agricultural water and as a hydropower source, but it has been behind as a conservation priority."
Because most of the land along the river is privately held for use for farming and ranching, Degiorgio said, it's important for the federal government and others to work with landowners on a willing basis to preserve critical watershed areas.
The Utah Farm Bureau has been involved in providing input on the plan and is supportive of conservation easements, said spokesman Matt Hargreaves.
Such easements allow for land to remain private property, but impose restrictions on development. Under the contracts, grazing would not be restricted.
Funding for the easements would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is supported primarily by off-shore oil and gas leases.
Meetings are set for Tuesday in Logan, Wednesday in Randolph, Thursday in Montpelier, Idaho, Friday in Preston, Idaho, Dec. 10 in Cokeville, Wyo., and Dec. 11 in Evanston, Wyo.