Game Range Ramblin's

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


July 3, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


Do you say Upsata or Opsata when you go fishing at the lake that's located just two miles northeast of the Game Range headquarters?

If you're using the Forest Service map or following the signs to the FWP Fishing Access Site, you're probably saying Upsata. But, if you're referring to a topographic map, or grew up in the neighborhood around Ovando or Woodworth, you most likely say Opsata.

And, if you're looking for FWP's most recently proposed conservation easement in the Blackfoot, you'll also have to get used to seeing Upsata spelled with an "O."

The Opsata Conservation Easement would pertain to a 64-acre property owned by Robert C. Sparks, and an adjacent 310 acres owned by the Bandy Ranch. It's part of the landscape that Meriwether Lewis described as the "prairie of the knobs" when he and his party entered the vicinity of Monture Creek on July 6th, 1806. Lewis wrote:

Set out a little after sunrise passed the creek [Monture Creek] a little above our encampment. East 14 M. to the point at which the river leaves the extensive plains and enters the mountains. These plains I called the prairie of the knobs from the number of knobs being irregularly scattered through it. Great number of the burrowing squirrels in this prairie of the species common to the plains of the Columbia. Saw some goats and deer. The hunters killed one of the latter. Saw some Curloos, bee martains, woodpeckers, plover, robins, doves, ravens, hawks and a variety of sparrows common to the plains, also some ducks.

Much of this part of the Blackfoot Valley is still as Lewis described it. In addition to the wildlife species that Lewis listed, today this area is also noteworthy as a nesting area and summer habitat for an increasing population of sandhill cranes. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented use of the Sparks property and adjacent lands by long-billed curlews, black terns, vesper sparrows and 13 waterfowl species. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that these lands are part of the fall-winter-spring range for the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk population, which is seldom far from mind.

But, it's the exceptional wetlands habitat value of the Sparks and Bandy properties that fuels FWP's interest in the proposed Opsata Conservation Easement. And, that's why FWP proposes to apply revenues received from sales of Montana migratory bird stamps, with the endorsement of FWP's Wetland Protection Advisory Council, a citizen board appointed by the FWP Director.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead agency on this project, as they are with so many other projects involving partnerships for wildlife habitat and agriculture across the Blackfoot Valley.

Mr. Sparks is interested in selling his property, which is already divided into 3 lots of about 20 acres each. You'd never know the property is already subdivided by looking at it. There are no buildings or structures of any sort. But, by being legally subdivided, the Sparks property would offer an unusual and valuable development opportunity in Powell County, where the County Plan currently prohibits new divisions of land into parcels smaller than 160 acres for residential development. Such development would ruin the unique habitat values of this land, and would compromise wildlife habitat effectiveness for some distance on adjacent lands that are already protected by conservation easements.

The Service became aware of Mr. Sparks' intentions and quickly assembled a partnership to purchase the property. Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, the Blackfoot Challenge, and the Chutney Foundation agreed to share the cost of the purchase, along with the Service. Mr. Sparks agreed. The Service and Mr. Sparks agreed on a property appraisal of $186,000, and the Service approached FWP to join in this effort. All of which led to FWP's current proposal to contribute $40,000 to the project.

The plan calls for the property, once purchased in the name of Ducks Unlimited, to be donated to the Bandy Ranch. The Bandy Ranch headquarters is the first place north of the Game Range headquarters, and is owned and operated jointly by the University of Montana and Montana State University. The Bandy Ranch maintains a working cattle ranch as the setting for research on wildlife and agricultural topics that will hopefully address land management issues in rural Montana.

Management direction on the Bandy Ranch is compatible with the protection and sound management of wildlife habitat on the Sparks property. But, just to be sure in the unforeseeable future, both the Service and FWP will secure their investments with perpetual conservation easements. That way, it won't matter whether it's the Bandy Ranch or WalMart who owns the landit will remain undeveloped and available as wildlife habitat.

FWP's conservation easement would address a couple of important management considerations that the Service easement will not. FWP's easement would require that minimum standards of periodic rest from livestock grazing be incorporated in the pasture rotation to ensure that nesting cover is provided around the wetlands. FWP's easement would also guarantee reasonable public access (by foot) in the fall.

With this in mind, FWP began to consider a more appropriate land area for its easement, which would better correspond with the land area necessary to manage effectively as a livestock grazing unit and for public access. Because the Bandy Ranch would become owner of the Sparks property, it was easy to look at adjacent lands on the Bandy Ranch for an expanded easement area. That's how we settled on the proposed total of 374 acres for FWP's proposed easement. Both properties are similar in their habitat values and appearance.

You can read all about it in FWP's draft environmental assessment, which is available by calling me at 542-5500, or by looking at FWP's Internet home page at www.fwp.state.mt.us. You might also consider joining us at our public hearing at the Ovando Church on July 16, beginning at 6:30 P.M.

It would be a good evening to drive by the Bandy Ranch on the way between Seeley Lake, Cozy Corner and Ovando, and listen for the long-billed curlews before they fly off for the rest of the summer. You'll never forget the call, once you learn to identify it.