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June 12th Was Truly Golden:
The 50th Anniversary
Game Range Celebration

June 17, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder

Jack Rich, Seeley Lake outfitter, points out historical highlights of the 67,000-acre Game Range on a bus tour for media and state officials.

Denny Sigars, Plum Creek Clearwater Unit manager, passes on a ceremonial deed for the transfer of 333 acres of Game Range lands to Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation President Gary Wolfe, who then transferred it t FWP Director Pat Graham at 50th Anniversary Celebration Saturday.

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Department of
Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Seeley Swan Pathfinder, June 17, 1999


You can thank Jack Rich, that modern-day Nostradamus, for picking June 12th as the day to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.

Over a year ago, on May 19th to be exact, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Citizens Advisory Council was gathered at the Game Range headquarters in contemplation of the upcoming milestone. The actual anniversary date would be November 27, 1998. At issue was the best date to celebrate it.

I still recall enough of Jack's speech to justify quotation marks. "I think June would be an appropriate time for a 50-year celebration. The grass will be green and lush, there will be snow on the mountains and elk will have their calves. It will be a time of renewal in keeping with the idea of passing the Game Range on to future generations."

Once we agreed that June would be the month, it was a simple matter of logistics that brought us to the date of June 12, 1999.

Any of us who attended the long awaited festivities last Saturday at the Horseshoe Hills Guest Ranch, and the anniversary ceremony at the Game Range, know that Jack had foreseen the day very clearly. From a makeshift stage overlooking the expansive meadows of the old Boyd Ranch, every speaker in the ceremony was affected by the overwhelming beauty and warmth of the setting. Nary a cloud dared sully the sky.

Monte Dolack expressed humility at the prospect of unveiling his wonderful artistic impression of the Game Range before the immensity of the Game Range herself. ("The painting looked quite large in my studio," Monte explained to the audience.)

John Firebaugh, FWP Regional Wildlife Manager, repeated Jack's theme of renewal in his opening remarks at the ceremony. "It is appropriate to be here in June," he began, "at a time when the resources we care about are being renewedfrom the elk calves, deer fawns, broods of waterfowl and numerous species of birds and mammals to growth of the vegetation upon which they depend. And, it's a fitting time to recognize the foresight of our predecessors who pursued the acquisition of this important wildlife habitat, and to celebrate the renewal of our commitment to future generations to pass along a healthy, intact Wildlife Management Area for their enjoyment."

"Just look around you!" implored a beaming Gary Wolfe, President of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). "What better place to protect and manage as wildlife habitat?"

About 400 people found themselves in agreement. This attendance estimate is based on reports from FWP's Woody Baxter and Sharon Rose, who confirmed that eight full busloads (conservatively 320 people) were delivered from the parking area at Horseshoe Hills Guest Ranch to the ceremony site on the Game Range, not to mention the 30 additional carloads that Hank Goetz processed (about 70 people, according to Hank) and the 38 mounted Backcountry Horsemen (counted by Jamie Jonkel).

Certainly those who first established the Game Range in 1948 were forward looking individuals. But, "I could never have imagined that something like this would take place on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range," commented Merle Rognrud, as he began his presentation to the huge audience from his unique perspective as FWP's lone wildlife biologist for all of western Montana at the time of the original purchase.

Gary Wolfe was awarded the pleasure of announcing the latest purchase of important wildlife habitat on the Game Range. Pending approval by the State Board of Land Commissioners later this month, FWP plans to spend $372,500 of Habitat Montana funds toward the purchase of the first 333
acres in the 50th Anniversary Project to consolidate state ownership in the heart of the Game Range. Earlier in the day at a meeting held at the Double Arrow Resort, RMEF's Board of Directors approved a contribution of $50,000 to complete this initial purchase. Plum Creek's Clearwater Unit Manager, Denny Sigars, presented a ceremonial deed to Wolfe, who then passed it on to FWP Director Pat Graham, symbolizing the expected sequence of the transaction.

In addition, an option agreement was signed late last week that would commit RMEF to purchase another 523 acres from Plum Creek by June 30, 2000, in order to complete Phase I of the ever-evolving 50th Anniversary Project. As currently conceived, Phases II and III would be accomplished with land exchanges and would involve about 6,000 of the remaining 6,944 acres. Phase IV would address the 944 acres left over, and could involve a purchase of other timberlands for exchange to Plum Creek.

When considering the ambitious 50th Anniversary Project looming before us, June 12th represented little more than the hype and energy leading up to a wildlife management Super Bowl. The incredibly successful fundraising banquet hosted by Wayne and Rena Heaton and the Blackfoot-Clearwater Chapter of RMEF last Saturday evening could be viewed as the opening kickoff. Now, we'll see if we're prepared to play the game, to work through the countless bumps and bruises of complex negotiations and elevated workloads. Or, will we simply be satisfied to have enjoyed the day Jack gave us, losing sight of the purpose for it all?

For my part, I'll always derive comfort whenever I crave it from the memory of 400 people gathered in the Boyd haymeadows on a gorgeous spring day. And, I'll renew my drive to see the project to its appropriate completion whenever I remember the faces of my friends in Seeley Lake and across western Montana who continue to give so generously of their time, their effort, and their hard-earned money, not merely to give myself or others a comfortable memory in our old age, but to finish the task of securing all critical wildlife habitat on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.

I'll need all the motivation I can muster with my boss, John Firebaugh, pushing like someone who's been working toward this moment for the past 20 years. "This effort to date has been a remarkable demonstration of the progress that can occur when public agencies and private organizations work together toward a common goal," John declared as he closed the ceremony. "And, I'm confident we can continue to work together to bring the remainder of this 7,800 acres into public ownership, and provide a legacy for future generations 50 years from now."

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