December 30, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
"The first rule of ecological tinkering is to save all the pieces."
These words of wisdom from the father of the wildlife management profession, Aldo Leopold, came to mind while I was poking around in our garage the other day and found umpteen metal pieces in an old box labeled "chain saw." If you want to know if Sharon's Dad saved all the pieces of his old chain saw, you can buy the box-full for a buck at our garage sale next spring.
My spin on Leopold's advice is this. It may not be critically important if a particular forest or grassland or stream isn't working very well, in an ecological sense, at this particular moment in time. The acre you have in your mind's eye might even look a lot like that old chain-saw-in-a-box: some topsoil over here, some water over there, some pine and fir scattered all around. Although they may not be working very well together to prevent erosion, allow reproduction of native plants, attract insects, and feed wild birds and mammals, we hope that all the building blocks of a smooth running ecosystem are present. Because if all the building blocks remain intact, they can be used to restore a piece of land to its natural function.
The trick is to save the pieces.
As the twentieth century comes to a close, I have resisted the powerful temptation to pick the 100 greatest conservationists of the century, or the top 100 events in wildlife management, or even provide important corrections to existing lists of the 100 greatest athletes and 100 greatest women in rock and roll.
Instead, I would like to reflect on the current situation in the wilds of the Blackfoot and Clearwater Valleys to see if we can find the pieces of our wild heritage that we inherited at the start of the century.
First and foremost, we seem to have saved a large enough box, so far. That is, we still have adequate open space that isn't otherwise covered by houses, parking lots and highways. We've seen quite a bit of growth and development in Seeley Lake and along the Clearwater recently, but we've also lost the developments at Woodworth and Garnet that were bustling at the turn of the century. The Blackfoot has fared much better than the Bitterroot.
In fact, ranchers, timber managers and other landowners and conservationists in western Montana have been working with non-profit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Montana Land Reliance, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to secure open space in perpetuity. In the Blackfoot Valley, approximately 50,000 acres in private ownership will never be subdivided as a result of conservation easements granted in the past 20-25 years. These lands continue to support families and lifestyles that were in place in this valley more than 100 years ago.
Private and public landowners have also been buying, selling and exchanging properties with an eye toward placing sensitive natural resources in public ownership and blocking up private commercial ownerships in locations more appropriate for maximizing profit. The recent purchase of 10,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Company property in the Blackfoot River Corridor by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (facilitated by The Nature Conservancy) is one important example. Ongoing exchange efforts involving Plum Creek and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, FWP and a host of partners on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range are yet another. Equally important are efforts being undertaken by private conservationists to acquire commercial timberlands marketed for sale along the Big Blackfoot, North Fork and Clearwater Rivers.
To see so many people, representing so many diverse interests, working together to maintain open space for a wide range of future uses in western Montana speaks volumes about how far we've come as a society in the space of 100 years. It is not necessary for these people to agree on every aspect of land or wildlife management. They simply agree that we all need space and habitat to preserve future options.
When it comes to saving critical ecological pieces within our remaining open space, we leave the twentieth century facing serious and difficult challenges.
Communities of insects, birds and small mammals depend on native plant communities. Native wildflowers attract specific pollinating insects that help plants reproduce. These plants and insects in turn feed birds and rodents, which then feed larger birds. Today, this food chain is threatened by monocultures of exotic plants such as spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, sulphur cinquefoil and others that were not present in Montana in 1900. Our success or failure in saving our ecological pieces through the next century will in large part depend on our success or failure in controlling the introduction and spread of exotic plants.
Most of us realize that some exotic plants can outcompete some native plants. But, the effects of exotic plants extend well beyond this simple concept. Dean Pearson, a researcher with the Northern Rockies Research Station in Missoula, informs me of evidence for a "new" food chain involving knapweed, gall fly biocontrol agents, deer mice and great-horned owls. He says deer mice really like to eat gall fly larvae in knapweed seed heads, and they consume knapweed seeds in the process. When great-horned owls eat the deer mice, the owls spread knapweed seeds in their pellets. Dean has been able to germinate 1 of 102 knapweed seeds collected from owl pellets so far.
A second challenge we face is understanding the long-term effects of wildfire exclusion from native grassland and forest communities. Wildlife species and communities depend on periodic fires to some extent, and the longer we prevent fire from assuming its natural role, the more likely we are to lose fire-dependent life forms. Although public agencies seem to agree that fire plays an important role in the Northern Rockies, there is much work to be done in developing safe and effective ways to prescribe and control fires. I'm not so sure that a safe, early spring burn serves the same function as a hot, August wildfire. However, I can't afford to pay for fire damage to private property either. We've got a lot to learn, I think.
Well, I bit off a huge topic for such a small column. So, I will bid you an abrupt adieu for the last time in the twentieth century, and enter the twenty-first with optimism that we can build on our successes with elk population restoration, fish habitat restoration, and other major conservation initiatives in the Blackfoot Valley to address the more complicated issues that lay ahead.
And, as long as Trixie's is still standing when I next make my way up from Missoula, I'll know that Y2K is OK with me.