Treeless security for big game. Really?

Elk standing in field - Skip Kowalski - Dec 2013Photo Courtesy of Skip Kowalski

The Helena National Forest is rolling out a new amended standard that does not require any security cover during the hunting season. Flying under the radar has been a proposal to the change the security standard that has been in place for three decades.

Trees, officially, will no longer be necessary for big game security during the hunting season, according to the Helena National Forest. What has been a proven, science-based Forest Plan standard for wildlife security during the hunting season for 30 years, has involved a direct relationship between security cover and road density: the more roads within a square mile of public land, the more security cover for wildlife is required, and conversely less security cover is needed when fewer roads are present. But, at no time on public land has security cover been considered unnecessary — until now.

The existing old standard is based on decades of peer-reviewed research by dozens of wildlife researchers. There are no new studies that refute the long-standing science of wildlife security needs on public lands. That research focused on the need to reduce roads, but never did the science suggest that vegetative cover should be reduced as a component of security during the hunting season.

However, the decision has been made to amend the security standard to no longer require vegetative cover anywhere on the Divide or Blackfoot landscape that protects elk, deer, and other big game during the hunting season.

This insidious change is about to accelerate across national forest wildlife habitat, affecting fair chase hunting, and facilitating timber removal.

Montana wildlife can live in a dense forest without roads, but they cannot readily survive on treeless public lands with roads. And as wildlife find themselves less secure, they move to private lands where herds can no longer be managed through public hunting, where private landowners suffer game damage impacts, where commercialization of the public’s wildlife through outfitting too often becomes the landowner’s solution, and a frustrated public finds their favorite hunting spot in a new clearcut, devoid of big game.

On a variety of levels, the pending amendment to the big game security standard will have important consequences. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has agreed to the change in big game security if travel plans for the Divide and Blackfoot landscapes are implemented. But the consequences of treeless public lands will last for years and be manifest in game damage complaints. “Shoulder” seasons are now being implemented by FWP at the request of outfitters and some landowners to harvest wildlife displaced from what had been secure public lands. These “Shoulder Seasons” will occur on private lands – many of which have not been fully open to public hunting during the regular season, but before and after the regular season, elk will be pursued for up to 6 months – from August into February.

Denuding public land security pushes commercialization of wildlife into the hands of those who would “Ranch for Wildlife.” If they haven’t already, Montanans will soon realize that what happens to public lands will determine where public wildlife will end up, and whether they are privatized.

The decision to amend the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest security standard is pending. But there is still time to have a long-term positive effect for big game security by urging FWP to help keep public wildlife on public land, and by advocating for big game security in Forest Plan revision on the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest. Please, step up.

Gayle Joslin is a retired FWP wildlife biologist of 30 years, and member of Helena Hunters and Anglers Association.

Most Montana Bighorn Herds at Risk

USGS_ovis_canadensis_GNP_bighorn_rams_0Credit: U.S. Geological Survey. Photo By: Kim Keating
The National Wildlife Federation and partnering wildlife groups say the future of bighorn restoration depends on reducing the risk of disease by reaching agreements with sheep ranchers. With 39 of 46 Montana bighorn sheep herds at risk of disease passed from domestic sheep, this problem is the main obstacle to future restoration.

Contact between domestic and bighorn sheep exposes wild sheep to bacteria carried by outwardly healthy domestic sheep; these bacteria cause pneumonia, typically lethal to bighorn sheep.

While several factors influence bighorn sheep restoration, pneumonia is widely considered the most important limiting factor. Pneumonia outbreaks have the potential to cause 30-90% mortality of a bighorn population. Additional outbreaks continue to occur within a herd several years after the initial outbreak, affecting lamb survival. Once a herd is exposed to pneumonia, it is often continually affected, making it extremely difficult for the population to recover, much less thrive.

“We need to do more to protect bighorn herds from respiratory disease because population recovery is so much harder after a pneumonia outbreak,” said Tom France, Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.

The solution highlighted in the report is for hunters and other wildlife conservationists to work collaboratively with domestic sheep producers to reduce risk of contact. The report “Challenges and Opportunities for Bighorn Sheep Conservation in Montana” takes the first step toward doing that by identifying domestic sheep flocks within 20 miles of established bighorn sheep herds in the Big Sky State.

The risks are real. Last year, pneumonia outbreaks caused significant die-offs among bighorns near Paradise and Gardiner. Twenty-six bighorn herds in Montana experienced large die-offs between 1984 and 2015, with more than half of these die-offs occurring in the past decade.

“During winter 2009-2010 pneumonia outbreaks in the West, Montana bighorns took the biggest hit of any western state or province, losing an estimated 20% of our statewide total,” said Brian Solan of Helena, president of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. “In addition, many of those herds have not rebounded from that disease event and have continued to struggle with lamb recruitment almost seven years later.”

The worst-case scenario is playing out in the Tendoy Mountains of southwestern Montana, where a once-thriving bighorn herd has never recovered from a pneumonia outbreak in the 1990s. Via hunter harvest, followed by agency removal, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) managers are currently eliminating Tendoy bighorn sheep which still carry the disease, inhibiting population recovery. Once infected bighorns have been completely removed from the Tendoy Mountains, FWP’s goal is to start a new herd by introducing disease-free bighorns.

“Our mission is to put and keep sheep on the mountain, which means raising and spending millions of dollars of private money to translocate sheep, and trying to keep them healthy following release,” said Kevin Hurley, conservation director of the Bozeman-based Wild Sheep Foundation Conservation. “In putting and keeping sheep on the mountain, the Wild Sheep Foundation works closely with wildlife managers, domestic sheep producers, and sportsmen stakeholders.”

While there is no simple solution suitable to all situations, the wildlife groups urge increased awareness of the risk to bighorns, increased collaboration with producers and a multi-faceted effort to keep bighorns and domestic sheep separated in time and space.

“The good news is that win-win solutions exist that will make bighorns more secure; separation is the key,” France says. “We need to work together to keep wild and domestic sheep separated, or we risk one bighorn die-off after another.”

“Bighorn sheep are a symbol of Montana’s wild heritage, treasured by hunters and all Montanans,” said Kathy Hadley, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “This report lays out some of the key issues surrounding bighorn sheep restoration around the Treasure State. Tt also shows the importance of finding ways to work together with landowners who have domestic sheep if we’re going to restore bighorns into their historic ranges, grow their numbers and ultimately build more hunting opportunity for this incredible species.”

You can read the full report via National Wildlife Federation’s website Bighorns Big Risks

Montana’s massive public lands rally, one year later

President’s Day is a good time for Montanans to look back a year ago at the remarkable display of support for public lands that came together in a massive rally at the state Capitol.

On that day, 500 Montanans crammed the rotunda to show how much public lands mean to them. Organized by MWF, Montana Wilderness Association, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the rally brought together everyone from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to Montana Audubon – and the crowd included hunters and hikers, bird watchers and ATV riders, berry pickers and photographers. It included Montanans of all walks of life, every political persuasion and all ages. Our mountains, forests, foothills, prairies and rivers are more precious than gold, and it showed in the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The rally came in the midst of a state Legislative session that saw an unprecedented attack on our public lands. Some state legislators pushed for the “transfer” of national forests and other public lands to state ownership. They glossed over the details, including that such a transfer would require the largest expansion of state government since statehood and massive tax increases to cover the management costs including firefighting. Ultimately, the state would be left to sell off our lands to cover those management costs.

The transfer of public lands would also dramatically curtail the access that Montanans enjoy. It would lead to less multiple-use recreation, which is the charge of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Proponents of the transfer had their talking points down, and they didn’t want to let facts get in the way of their story line. But we’re not falling for it. And the 500 people who turned out to keep public lands in public hands helped defeat every bill looking at the transfer of federal lands.

The takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last month in Oregon brings another point about last year’s public lands rally into sharp focus. While our members were passionate and fiery, nobody brought guns (even though many were life-long hunters with cabinets full of them). Nobody vandalized public property, threatened public servants, or laid claim to owning public buildings or land.

The Malheur occupiers espoused the public land transfer agenda by invading a community, taking over public property, and threatening government employees. Here in Montana, we defeated the public land transfer agenda by exercising the constitutional right to peaceably assemble. We should all be proud of our democratic process and grateful to our elected officials for hearing the will of the people.

Nick Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped secure nearly 70% of the fishing access sites in Montana.

In a strong statement of support for conservation, the 2017 budget being offered by the Obama Administration proposes to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The President’s budget calls for $900 million for the fund, which includes more than $26 million in funding for the addition of new lands to wildlife refuges, national forests, trails, and other public land areas in Montana.

“This is great news for Montana’s hunters, anglers, and everyone who enjoys our outdoors,” said Kathy Hadley, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “These funds will protect crucial wildlife habitat, hunting opportunity, and access for outdoor recreation.”

For more than 50 years, LWCF has been one of our nation’s most successful conservation programs. The program puts aside a portion of federal revenue from offshore oil and gas leasing to fund land conservation and improve access to public lands, parks and waterways. Funding allocated to LWCF does not come at taxpayer expense.

Since 1964, the LWCF has resulted in roughly $16 billion in spending nationwide, protecting everything from backcountry national forest lands to urban parks. Montana has received over $400 million in funding from LWCF. These funds have protected important lands in the Blackfoot Valley, on the Rocky Mountain Front, in the Greater Yellowstone region, and all over the state. LWCF funds have also been used to acquire key parcels that open up large areas of “land-locked” public land for hunting and fishing.

The budget proposed by the Obama Administration builds on an agreement in Congress last December to provide $450 million in funding for LWCF.

Montana Senator Jon Tester, Senator Steve Daines, and Congressman Ryan Zinke all support full funding and permanent authorization for LWCF. Their bipartisan support and reliable leadership on behalf of the program will be crucial to securing enactment of the full funding proposed by the President.

President’s Proposal to Fully Fund LWCF

BLM Supports Local Sportsmen, Denies Durfee Hills Land Exchange

Durfee Hills elk herd
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has decided against a land exchange with two of Montana’s largest private landowners, billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks. The Wilkses were proposing to exchange the Anchor Ranch, which sits just north of the Missouri River in Blaine County, along with other lands, for a landlocked parcel of BLM property known as the Durfee Hills which sits inside the Wilke’s NBar Ranch in Fergus County.

Mark Albers, BLM’s Central Montana District Manager, announced his decision to the district’s Resource Advisory Council in Great Falls. He said he made the decision against pursuing the deal when he considered all of the priorities facing his office.

Local sportsmen of the Central Montana Outdoor group, along with the help of the Montana Wildlife Federation, worked tirelessly to stop the transfer. Doug Krings, speaking on behalf of Central Montana Outdoors said that “you only get to keep what you are willing to fight for.” He also made it clear that “the sportsmen of Central Montana and beyond are not against land exchanges, they are simply against bad deals. It is very easy to stay focused on this particular issue, because what we are doing is in the best interest of the American sportsmen.”

The Montana Wildlife Federation looked at the proposal on a value-for-value basis that considered several criteria, including the quality of the habitat; presence of huntable populations of wildlife including elk, mule deer and sage grouse; and public access and hunting opportunity. “We felt it was not a good deal, it was not a fair trade at all,” said Bill Geer, chairman of the access committee for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “The Durfee Hills are far and away a much greater value.” And while the Durfee Hills are only accessible primarily by air, in recent years, more and more hunters are accessing the area via airplane for a relatively affordable fee.

The Durfee Hills has had roughly 200 elk hunter days per year, and high success rates, according to data from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In addition, the area is the only remaining federal lands available for public big game hunting in Herd Unit 530, and is the core habitat for an elk population that numbers over 5,000 strong. In contrast, the Anchor Ranch, in Herd Unit 680, has walk-in access off of nearby dirt roads and the elk herd is small enough to warrant hunting by special permit only.

One of the arguments that was made in favor of the land trade was to open the Bullwhacker Road, which leads to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument south of the Anchor Ranch and the hunting opportunities it offers. However, that area is already accessible by boat on the river. It is also accessible via roads farther upstream. The Montana Wildlife Federation will continue to work to increase public access into the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument for sportsmen moving forward.

The Montana Wildlife Federation praises the BLM on their decision to not pursue this land transfer. The Durfee Hills offer great value for sportsmen and wildlife and should remain in public ownership for the public to enjoy.

MWF Durfee Hills Official Comment Letter

Join Today

Add your email to start protecting Montana's natural treasures.

Alec Underwood

Federal Conservation Campaigns Director

Alec is responsible for developing and implementing MWF’s federal conservation advocacy and policy campaigns to protect Montana’s fish and wildlife. He spends most of his free time hunting big game and fly fishing Montana’s cherished trout rivers. He also enjoys backpacking, skiing, photography, and woodworking.