July 29, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
. . . The Blackfoot-Clearwater "Game Range West" is a very different world from the lands we know as the Game Range on the east side of Highway 83.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) owns and manages prime wildlife habitat on both sides of the highway. Yet, FWP management practices and strategies vary dramatically, depending on which side of the road you're on.
On the east side of the highway, within the boundaries of special Hunting District (HD) 282, FWP has acquired an additional 3,820 acres in fee-title ownership in the 1990s, and now is a partner with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Plum Creek Timber Company on an option to purchase another 523 acres by this time next year. Also on the east side, FWP acquired a conservation easement on 634 acres of the Reinoehl Ranch in 1998, and is currently working diligently with numerous project partners to eventually acquire an interest in 6,944 remaining acres of Plum Creek inholdings.
But, gains on the east side have come at the expense of FWP fee-title ownership on the west side of Highway 83. In the 1990s, FWP traded ownership of 1,872 acres on the west side of the Clearwater River to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to enable FWP's acquisition of nearly twice as much land in HD 282 (as mentioned above). And, FWP traded ownership of another 254 west-side acres in 1998 for the Reinoehl Conservation Easement, which is locatedyou guessed iton the east side of Highway 83.
FWP still holds approximately 1,040 acres in fee-title ownership on the west side of the highway (in parcels clustered around the Clearwater River between Clearwater Junction and Mile Marker 3), but even on these lands, management practices are obviously very different from those on FWP lands on the east side.
On the east side of the highway, you don't see cattle on FWP lands. On the west side, you see an electric fence that FWP erected to introduce livestock from an adjacent ranch onto FWP rangelands.
On the east side of the highway, in HD 282, you'll see signs posted during the general big game hunting season that restrict elk and deer hunting to special permit-holders, and you'll see signs posted in winter that prohibit all public access. On the west side, you'll normally find no such restrictions on FWP property (though we did post an emergency winter closure in 1992 to provide sanctuary for dispersing elk after a wildfire burned the primary winter range).
On the east side, you'll find fewer noxious weeds per grassland acre per year, on the average, than you'll find on FWP property on the west side of Highway 83. This is due to a lower management tolerance for weeds by FWP on east-side acres and a higher priority for spending limited funds to spray weeds. We also go to greater lengths to physically prevent off-road travel by motorized vehicles on east-side grasslands. (Has anyone ever wondered why barrier posts line the edge of the main cross-country road across the Game Range in HD 282?)
Despite these and other marked differences between Game Range West and Game Range East, I contend that wildlife habitat is being managed and conserved on both sides of the highway for the first 2-3 miles north of Clearwater Junction. The obvious differences in management go along with differences in the way elk use the properties during winter. Although some elk live along the west side of Highway 83 in most winters, and lots of elk cross over and back from time to time, the indispensable winter range for up to 1,000 elk occurs on the east side, in HD 282. This key winter range requires a level of intensive management that is not required to provide wildlife habitat on the west side of the highway.
I suppose you could say that we're robbing parts from FWP lands on the west side of Highway 83 to keep our lands on the east side operating at peak performance. But, unlike the stock car racer, we want our parts machine to run, too. It may not be as "flashy," and it may not generate as much "horsepower," but the land FWP robs for some of its parts must still provide basic components of wildlife habitat and compatible outdoor recreation.
So, when FWP traded away 254 acres on the west side, between Blanchard Lake and Clearwater Junction, we retained the basic components of wildlife habitat in the form of a conservation easement on that land (now known as the Clearwater Guest Ranch). And, FWP retained fee-title ownership of the river's eastern shoreline to maintain a narrow corridor of access above the normal high water mark for fishing, hiking and other recreation. The land will continue to serve wildlife and the public, but property rights above and beyond these basic needs were exchanged to acquire more wildlife habitat elsewhere, on the east side of Highway 83.
The risk we run is that our lands on the west side might someday resemble the mythical automobile that Johnny Cash built by sneaking parts out of the factory each day in his lunch pail. Between the intensively used public camping areas and cattle grazing on FWP lands, intermingled with timber sales, cabin sites and new land developments on neighboring lands, we could end up with a fragmented landscape that our nesting bald eagles, wintering white-tailed deer and other sensitive wildlife may no longer choose to occupy. Being aware of the risk is at least half the battle, and now we just have to avoid getting too carried away with our strategy to get the greatest possible benefit from the property rights in FWP ownership.