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State Biologists and Foresters
Finding Common Ground

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
March 25, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
FWP Wildlife Biologist
For the Pathfinder Game Range Column

What if wildlife managers and timber managers combined their expertise to manage forests cooperatively?

What if wildlife biologists made practical and effective recommendations that foresters could follow to design moneymaking timber sales? And, what if foresters could demonstrate to wildlife biologists how timber management can benefit wildlife habitat? Maybe wildlife biologists and foresters could work together on the same lands to enhance wildlife habitat while producing income from timber harvests.

I wonder what could be accomplished for wildlife if Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) cooperated to manage forests across all state lands (FWP and DNRC) on the Game Range, instead of confining forest management opportunities to lands owned by DNRC.

I'll bet if we could ask the elk, deer, birds and bees, they'd say, "Go for it." Managing wildlife habitat by property lines usually makes little sense to the creatures that live there. Property lines blindly cross creeks, meadows, ridgelines and other important habitat features, and adjacent landowners seldom take the same approach in managing their grass and trees. Even if landowners on both sides of the fence are interested in providing wildlife habitat, wildlife often loses anyway if landowners don't cooperate to manage their shared habitat in a similar fashion.

I'd say it's like two people cutting up a picture to make a jigsaw puzzle. If the two work on the task together, no problem. But, if instead they cut the picture into square parcels first and then go off into separate rooms to work on their individual parcels, the puzzle probably won't fit together very well when they finish. And, the quality of the picture, especially a picture of wildlife habitat, will quite likely be destroyed.

Believe it or not, your FWP and DNRC have been guilty of letting property lines dictate forest management on the Game Range. But, now we know better, and the good news is that biologists and foresters at FWP and DNRC are working to develop a joint management plan for the Game Range that would make it difficult or impossible for an elk or a chickadee to tell when they've crossed a property line between FWP and DNRC ownerships.

What's in it for wildlife? Well, for one thing, a joint management plan for the Game Range would allow FWP and DNRC to provide for the needs of wildlife across a combined area of roughly 7,000 forested acres, instead of each agency working separately and less effectively on its own individual parcels. With a larger landscape to work with, instead of fractured pieces, there will be a better opportunity to enhance habitat for extended family groups or subpopulations of wildlife, instead of only for a few animals at a time.

What's in it for the State School Trust? Potentially more income. It is intended that revenues from timber harvested by DNRC on FWP land, as well as on Trust Lands, would provide income to the Trust. However, FWP would not be giving revenues away for nothing. For one thing, FWP would be gaining the services of DNRC forestry professionals to help manage FWP forest stands for wildlife. In addition, revenues generated from the sale of timber cut on FWP land would be used to offset the fee for a long-term "conservation lease" on DNRC lands within the Game Range. As holder of such a long-term lease, FWP would hope to prevent conflicts with other potential future uses of DNRC lands inside the Game Range. The intent is that all market values on both sides of the ledger would balance in the end.

Forest inventories have begun to estimate standing timber volumes on FWP property, for planning purposes. Don Wood, a "retired" professional forester in Seeley Lake, is doing a timber cruise for the love of it, on a voluntary basis. So, FWP and DNRC will soon have estimates of standing timber volumes to use for developing a joint management plan and "conservation lease." Because Don is donating his services, there will be no loss of financial investment if FWP and DNRC are ultimately unsuccessful in entering into a joint management agreement. Thank you, Don, for your very important contribution. You've given us a better opportunity to explore options than we would have had otherwise.

And, would it surprise you to learn that this joint venture is linked with the Fiftieth Anniversary Project on the Game Range? If FWP and DNRC can find enough common ground in this fledgling planning process, Plum Creek Timber Company is waiting in the wings to consider trading some of its lands within the Game Range to DNRC. This would be in keeping with the Fiftieth Anniversary goal to bring 7,800 acres of Plum Creek inholdings within the Game Range into state ownership (FWP and DNRC). But, neither FWP nor DNRC would be interested in working toward increasing DNRC ownership in the Game Range unless the two sister agencies can first demonstrate their compatibility with a joint management plan.

It's big, it's challenging, and it's something we've never done before in Montana. FWP biologists and DNRC foresters relish this chance to set an example for cooperative management that works for wildlife and the State School Trust. We've got a long way to go, and we may or may not be successful in developing a proposal for public review, but if we do, Pathfinder readers will be among the first to know. (Thanks to Tony Liane, DNRC's Area Manager for the Southwestern Land Office, for collaborating with me to develop the questions in the first few lines of this article.)

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