Game Range Closed
to Manage Fire Danger

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


August 10, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,

Here's why Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) closed the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range and other Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in west-central Montana.

Last Thursday evening, I was driving on FWP property along the west shore of the Clearwater River. My mission was to ask any campers to leave before I posted the area closed, due to extremely high fire risk.

I didn't find any camps, but I did encounter a man, woman and child who had waded to the west shore from Harper's Lake Campground, which remained open to the public. They were a very nice family, I'm sure. But, the man was walking through the dry grass with a lit cigarette drooping from his mouth.

An instructional experience followed.

Of course, this one incident was not the cause for FWP's decision to close 7 WMAs in administrative Region 2. But, it surely illustrates our reasoning.

Take the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range as an example. It's surrounded on all four sides by privately owned ranches, timberlands, residences and businesses. And, our neighbors are all holding their collective breath.

Because the Game Range is a sea of thick, dry grass that will do nothing but feed any errant spark. This natural crop of forage will be especially important to wintering elk in such a dry year, when plants grazed by livestock elsewhere are unlikely to produce regrowth this fall. And, a good stand of forage on the Game Range will be important for attracting elk from haystacks and feeding grounds on adjacent ranches this winter.

So, as much as FWP is concerned about wildfire, we really can't afford to mow or graze the elk winter range to remove the fuel.

But, we can eliminate some sources of ignition by removing people from the Game Range until the fire danger eases. Game Range grass will remain vulnerable to a spark from one of the surrounding public highways, but at least we will eliminate the cigarette butts, catalytic converters, fireworks, glass shards, and other risk factors from tall grass along the interior Game Range roadways.

That's why we closed the Game Range to all public entry, just like we do every winter. But, in addition to the normal winter closure area, FWP also closed its lands on the west shore of the Clearwater River, from Highway 200 to Elbow Lake. There is a rough, primitive, dirt road along the west shore of the Clearwater, which junctions with Highway 200 just a few yards west of the Clearwater bridge. It's a road that hasn't been closed, summer or winter, for as long as I've been around. So, I'm afraid we're going to catch quite a few folks by surprise when they see the closed gate.

But, there's nothing normal about the fire situation everyone faces this summer. It would be pretty difficult to rationalize closing the main Game Range without also closing the portion of the Game Range that attracts the most concentrated use by the public, and presents the highest risk of an accidental fire start.

At the end of last week, FWP's developed campgrounds in the Clearwater drainage (Clearwater Crossing, Harper's Lake, Salmon Lake and Placid Lake) remained open to the public, and provided good alternatives for recreationists who were displaced by the Game Range closure. However, conditions and regulations are changing on a daily basis. So, FWP recommends that you check with our Region 2 office (542-5500) before expecting to find one of your state-owned Fishing Access Sites or State Parks open this weekend.

Our next Adopt-A-Highway litter pick-up along Highway 83 will be of unusual importance when it takes place in a few days. FWP volunteers will be making an extra effort to pick up bottles and large pieces of broken glass that might otherwise focus this summer's searing sunshine into a flame on dry grass.

And, what about our wildlife? We know we're tired of 100-degree heat, dry ground, flaming vegetation and smoke-choked air. But, what effect will the millenium's most memorable summer have on the animals that can't turn on the air conditioning? Or can they?

Barring a catastrophe, or another episode of short-term memory loss, I'd like to explore this subject next week.

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