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Commission Kicks Off
Game Range Campaign
to add 7,800 more acres

 

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
September 24, 1998

 

Their thumbs sprang up in unison, like ground squirrels from their holes, quivering with enthusiasm and anticipation.

Such was the thumbs-up response of Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Commission to our proposal for making next year's fiftieth anniversary bash a celebration for the future, as well as a fitting commemoration of the past.

At the Commission's regularly scheduled monthly meeting on September 11 in Helena, FWP outlined its approach for bringing some 7,800 acres of Plum Creek timberlands into state ownership and management within the heart of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. And now, with the commission's blessing, we are able to announce this strategy to the public.

It's kept a gleam in the eyes of our Game Range Citizens Advisory Council since they first resolved to tackle this project earlier this year.

Since then, we've accumulated a list of partners and cooperators that reads like a phone book. They include the Advisory Council, Plum Creek Timber Company, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Five Valleys Land Trust, Monte Dolack, Bureau of Land Management, Lolo National Forest, and MT Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Now, with the formal addition of FWP and the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission to this list, we want you to know about the land we hope to leave behind as the next generation's inheritance.

The 7,800 acres of interest lie on top and around the west, north and east slopes of Boyd Mountain. It's where most bull elk retreat to spend every winter, away from the large herds of cows and calves that congregate in the Game Range grasslands. It's where most elk of all descriptions spend winter when snow on the grasslands gets too deep or crusted to paw through. It's the most critical unit of winter habitat for white-tailed deer and it supports about half of the Game Range's mule deer each winter.

It's owned and managed for timber production by Plum Creek. And, while this cooperative arrangement between corporate timber managers and FWP has persisted for as long as we've had a Game Range, Plum Creek and FWP both recognize that the world is changing fast. Pressures on wildlife habitat and in the business world have intensified so much that it's harder than ever to meet divergent goals on the same confined land area. This is especially true in critical wildlife habitat like the Game Range.

Our greatest concern is that the land might eventually be sold to others who would subdivide it or manage it in a manner that would effectively remove habitat from the elk and deer that depend upon it each winter. Plum Creek has no plans for selling the land at this time, but no one can guarantee what will happen in a future where businesses must keep all options open to stay competitive.

We can no longer afford to leave the fate of the Game Range to chance.

Plum Creek has agreed to consider options for bringing its inholdings within the Game Range into public ownership. They require only that we present them with proposals that allow the company to make sound business decisions while benefiting the public and its wildlife.

With Plum Creek's generous cooperation, it's up to FWP and our partners to develop strategies that would benefit all. At this earliest stage of discussions, we have outlined some reasonable possibilities for land exchanges, involving Plum Creek, FWP, Forest Service and other public agencies, that might contribute about 5,000-5,500 acres toward our goal. In return, Plum Creek would obtain timberlands scattered across western Montana, in locations away from exceptional wildlife habitats.

To acquire the remaining 2,000-2,800 acres, additional timber tracts would have to be purchased for exchange with Plum Creek. This has been an insurmountable stumbling block when we've asked the state to acquire these lands in the past. With so much public demand for conservation easements across Montana, decision makers could never quite allow themselves to pour an entire year's budget or more into only a single project.

But, then, we've never seen such a ground swell of public interest and support for capping off this fiftieth anniversary year with something really special. We told the Commission that people don't want the state to break the bank for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. They just want the state to commit priority, time, effort and a portion of the necessary funding to match a pledge of the same from the private sector.

So, it was with great enthusiasm and optimism that the Commission agreed to lend its support and FWP's resources for a private fund raising campaign to complete the acquisition of all 7,800 acres over the next year or two. Five Valleys Land Trust, Monte Dolack and numerous private individuals are already pulling together at this writing, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is considering the best way for North America's leader in elk habitat conservation to throw its weight. The Commission understands that if negotiations and fund raising efforts succeed, FWP will ask the Commission to authorize a contribution of $500,000 from the state's Habitat Montana program.

We hope to have the details of specific proposals for land exchanges and purchases worked out in time to announce at the grand fiftieth anniversary celebration on June 12, 1999, along with a final fund raising challenge. Be alert for raffles, the Monte Dolack poster, banquets and other opportunities to get involved during the coming months.

With the Commission's permission, we're out of the chute and we're gonna give it a ride!

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