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Proposed Purchase of Plum Creek
Property Subject of Public Hearing

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
May 13, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Game Range column for the Pathfinder

I was listening to "Sleeper's Lost and Found Show" on the radio last Sunday morning when I heard the perfect lead-in to this week's column. It seems a little boy asked his mom, the realtor, "Why do they call land with nothing on it a lot?"

A lot of wildlife habitat value is present on the 856 acres of "bare" land FWP proposes to purchase from Plum Creek Timber Company, and we invite you to attend a public hearing at the Community Center in Seeley Lake on May 19 (7:00 P.M.) to learn more about this proposal and provide your input. That is, if you've recovered from this Saturday's (May 15) opening day of antler hunting on the Game Range.

Last week I was inspecting the 856 acres with Scott Laird, Lands Program Manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Scott is a pivotal partner in this proposed land purchase because RMEF has taken on this project as a national priority for fundraising. FWP proposes to contribute up to $500,000 toward the purchase, while RMEF plans to cover the remainder of the purchase price with private donations.

Scott and I didn't find any elk sheds during our hike (Honest!), but this shouldn't sour your opinion of the proposal to purchase this parcel of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. Lying along the east side of Highway 83, between the Best Last Place and Woodworth Road, this property encompasses the heart of the winter range for our migratory white-tailed deer herd. And, when Scott pointed out a pretty good scattering of elk droppings from this past winter, I reminded him that it's an important wintering area for bulls.

Why do we want to buy the Game Range all over again? If someone isn't asking this logical question right about now, I'd be surprised. After all, if the 856-acre parcel wasn't already part of the Game Range, many of you would already be scouring its ravines and benches, looking for that rocking chair rack that eluded you last hunting season.

The answer is equally logical. The lands posted as "Game Range" are owned by FWP, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (i.e., State Lands) and Plum Creek. While FWP lands are managed to protect and enhance winter habitat values for elk and deer, DNRC and Plum Creek lands are managed to generate income. These are not necessarily competing purposes, but if Plum Creek ever decided to sell its lands in the heart of the Game Range to someone who was not interested in cooperating with FWP, critical wildlife habitat could be lost to subdivisions or other developments.

So, this proposal to buy 856 acres of Plum Creek land is not intended to expand FWP's "empire" and increase the size of the Game Range. Instead, it would protect some of the best of what we already take for granted. It would prevent serious habitat losses in a location where they would be measured in markedly reduced deer and elk numbers. And, it would remove the very possible threat of land development while we still have a fair chance to do so.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to speak about this proposal to a group of folks in Seeley Lake. One person asked why Plum Creek wouldn't just donate the land. Of course, I liked the way this person was thinking, but I had to reply responsibly.

"Plum Creek has already made a substantial donation on this property," I suggested. This 856 acres is not currently on the market for sale. Plum Creek has given the public a chance to negotiate a purchase price on the basis of a fair market appraisal, in the absence of other motivated bidders. Further, Plum Creek is offering the 856 acres to the public in one large block, rather than in smaller, higher-priced parcels. As a result, FWP and RMEF will almost certainly acquire the land for less than would otherwise be possible.

These 856 acres are part of the often-mentioned 7,800 acres that FWP identified several years ago as key Plum Creek inholdings for future acquisition. If this purchase of the first 856 acres is completed this summer, as proposed, work will continue on a variety of options to obtain public ownership for the rest of the 7,800 acres. But, even if no further progress on the larger effort is ever realized, this proposed purchase of 856 acres stands on its own as an important acquisition for white-tailed deer and elk. Its value is not dependent on any potential future action.

Although not required, I would encourage anyone who plans to attend the May 19th hearing to call in advance for a copy of FWP's draft environmental assessment. This will give you a chance to become more familiar with the proposal and formulate your questions and comments before you arrive. FWP's phone number at the Missoula office is 542-5500.

And, even though Scott and I didn't find antlers, Jamie Jonkel and his volunteer crew did find quite a few antlers across the Game Range during their carcass survey on May 1! Contrary to popular suspicion, those antlers remain where they were dropped, awaiting your arrival. This year, I'd offer a word of caution, though. You might wait for daylight before busting in on the grizzly sow that was transplanted onto the Game Range last week. Just a thought.

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