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A sense of history, purpose,
management of Game Range
The Blackfoot-Clearwater
Wildlife Management Area

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
August 27, 1998

When I picked up the phone earlier this morning, I was surprised to hear Pat Graham on the line. I suppressed my instinctive reply, "I was framed," and was relieved to hear that the purpose of his call wasn't disciplinary. The Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) simply required an informational summary on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.

I promptly sorted through a few paper products we have on hand, and inevitably found my way to the "Game Range Ramblings" file. Certainly, you can obtain a sense of the history, purpose and management of the Game Range by reading the entire file of 300 articles. But, you really can't get the gist of it from any single missive.

I'd like to correct that oversight.

FWP purchased the 10,936 acre Boyd Ranch on November 27, 1948, to establish a wintering area for wild populations of elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer. This purchase was part of a statewide and nationwide effort to restore wildlife populations that were decimated by market hunting and other factors around the turn of the century. As such, it was funded by revenues from sales of Montana hunting licenses and by matching funds from a federal excise tax on sales of arms and ammunition, enabled by the federal Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937. The original purchase price was $160,000.

Along with the original fee-title purchase, FWP assumed grazing leases on an additional 44,000 acres. Since 1956, FWP has completed nearly 50 land transactions (purchases, disposals, exchanges) in a continuing attempt to match the boundaries of critical winter habitat with those of FWP property ownership or control. Major acquisitions occurred in 1957 (Ovando Mountain), 1989 (Dreyer Ranch) and 1995 (corporate inholdings on Blanchard Flats). In 1998, FWP owns approximately 18,000 acres, leases approximately 36,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber Company and leases about 13,000 acres from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (Clearwater Unit). These leases allow FWP to exclude livestock from key winter wildlife habitats, but grant no authority for FWP to manage other land use practices on leased lands.

At 67,000 acres, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area (formerly "Game Range") is Montana's largest state-owned property dedicated to wildlife habitat, and it represents one of Montana's first efforts to assume such management responsibility.

At the time of the original purchase, only about 200 elk used the new Game Range, and elk also wintered on private ranches located further to the east, along Monture Creek. FWP personnel established bait trails from private lands, where elk and livestock operations were in conflict, to the fledgling Game Range in the 1950s. Once elk learned to migrate to the Game Range, the bait trails were discontinued. Additional elk were introduced to the Game Range from Yellowstone National Park to speed population recovery and growth. Because livestock were excluded from the Game Range, elk were able to find abundant natural winter foods to sustain themselves through winter, and hunting regulations are still prescribed to keep elk numbers in balance with the capacity of the range.

Winter elk numbers on the Game Range increased to a high of about 1,200 animals in 1988, with the highest rate of growth occurring in the 1980s. FWP purposely reduced elk numbers in the 1990s to address problems with dispersal onto private ranches. This action, in combination with poor calf survival caused by the severe winter of 1996-97, dropped the population to about 760 animals in 1998. FWP currently plans an increase to about 900 elk over the next three years.

While reliable techniques exist for censusing Game Range elk, deer are much more difficult to count with any assurance of accuracy in forested habitats. Best estimates made with the aid of radio-collared and other marked animals indicate that roughly 1,000 mule deer and 1,000 white-tailed deer traditionally spend winter on the Game Range.

Management is focused on providing the necessary habitat ingredients that elk and deer require on their winter range. Given the natural productivity of the land, emphasis is placed on preventing any potential degradation of the soil or native vegetation. This explains FWP's interest in controlling or eliminating exotic weeds and off-road vehicle traffic, while considering careful applications of prescribed fire and cattle grazing treatments in certain locations.

To ensure that elk and deer have unobstructed access to their winter habitat, and are not driven away by excessive human disturbances, the Game Range core (Hunting District 282) is closed to all public entry from November 11 through May 14 annually. But, to also ensure that the public can enjoy the fruits of public land ownership, the Game Range is open during the rest of the year for driving on roads, hiking, horseback riding, hunting and other allowed outdoor activities. Pertinent regulations are posted on-site or are found in FWP hunting, trapping and fishing regulations booklets.

Behind the scenes, FWP works hard to obtain land-use stability and security across all properties within core winter habitats on and adjacent to the Game Range, as well as on lands of critical importance to Game Range elk and deer on distant summer and fall ranges. We do not now, and may never have the luxury of controlling the fate of each tree or grass plant on the Game Range, nor will we need to. But, to be successful, we do need to influence broad management direction and stability across large acreages in the ownership of others who will collectively determine the fate of Game Range wildlife populations. That explains FWP's continuing efforts to establish and maintain cooperative management agreements of many types with private ranchers, timber companies, land developers, and state and federal agencies. These efforts occupy the bulk of our time - and a fair amount of money - on the Game Range, and are fundamental investments in the future.

After all, the Game Range hasn't lasted for 50 years with its managers standing pat and growing complacent.

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