Update from the Field: WMAs and an Interview with MTFWP

It’s starting to feel like spring, and for many folks, including me, that means that the birds are starting to come back to Montana! Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) Freezout Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located near Choteau, Montana, is known as a bird watching mecca. When I started to think about WMAs, I started to think about wildlife habitat and resources across the state to sustain these populations of birds and so many other critters. There are many changes happening within Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP), and MWF thinks it’s important that folks understand when things change within departments and remain aware of how the changes could impact wildlife.

With many thanks to Hope Stockwell, Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division Administrator, and Greg Lemon, Communication and Education Division Administrator, we were able to better understand some of the changes that pertain to Wildlife Management Areas otherwise known as WMAs.                         

WMAs were created as intentional spaces for the resource management of habitat to support wildlife especially in wintertime when resources may be more limited. For example, barley and grasses are specifically planted and grown as winter forage for wildlife so they have a winter range with plenty of food to eat to sustain themselves. Elk, countless bird species, deer, and many others rely on the 68 WMAs and 15 WHPAs (Wildlife Habitat Protection Areas) to survive Montana’s tough and gnarly winters. Across all WMAs, they encompass a total of 453,000 acres of land, and WHPAs total 1,011 acres throughout Montana.

Copied from MTFWP’s website, WMAs “are managed with wildlife and wildlife habitat conservation as the priority. WMAs protect important wildlife habitat that might otherwise disappear from the Montana landscape. Wildlife Habitat Protection Areas (WHPAs) are also managed as wildlife habitat, but are typically smaller properties that require little management, including islands and small isolated land parcels. All of these wildlife properties provide vital habitat for a variety of wildlife including bear, bighorn sheep, birds, deer, elk, furbearers, moose, mountain goats, wolves and an array of other game and nongame species.” Lemon said that, “we don’t have visitor count information but indications are that visitor use has increased substantially in recent years,” and “ an overarching policy is to manage these lands in a manner that makes for good relationships with neighboring landowners.”

Imagine from Steve Fullertons article about Freezeout Lake a WMA in Region 4

Under MTFWP’s recent reorganization, maintenance of and recreation management on WMAs will be administered by the Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division and informed by the Wildlife Division. Consolidated teams are assigned in geographic units to maintain all the agency’s site types in a given area (including WMAs, fishing access sites, and state parks). That means a team might conduct repairs at a state park campground one day and fix fences at a WMA the next. There are 686 miles of boundary fence across the state on all WMAs.

When asked about weed management across WMAs and strategy, Lemon shared “see here for the latest FWP weed management accomplishment report (2021) and statewide weed management plan. The management priorities and associated strategies identified in the plan (page 4-4 thru 4-11) would remain in place.”

If resources are consolidated with the intent to bring more resources to bear across site types, will as much attention be focused on the intentional conservation of such spaces and managing resources for good habitat for wildlife?

According to Stockwell, the answer is a resounding yes. Efficiency is the main priority, and thus, that intent has dictated the trajectory of the reorganization within MTFWP. Maintenance needs haven’t changed, and maintenance has to occur across all sites. Stockwell shared that she hopes “the transition is seamless.”

Specific wildlife habitat functions are the responsibility of the wildlife division. Regardless of the site type, recreational opportunities are going to be balanced with both habitat and resource needs. 

As an example, at WMAs where dispersed camping has increased and resource impacts are observed, MTFWP will consider designating camping areas to help preserve the WMA for its original purpose of protecting habitat. There may be other opportunities for such changes, like at Freezeout Lake where improvements to trails or interpretative materials could better direct crowds while enhancing the visitor experience and ultimately protecting the resource. 

Similar work can be done across other locations with the same goals so that planning is done in a holistic process with planning for recreation and management of the resource and habitat for wildlife. On many of these sites and projects, MTFWP allows for extensive public input, so please sign up for emails and stay up to date on changes because your voice matters. From meetings, to scoping processes, the public is asked to weigh in. Of course, it’s important to be mindful that every project and site is situational.

A bit more about the changes within MTFWP, and specifically to the Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division that Stockwell oversees, is addressing the actual changes within MTFWP and each division. The new division is responsible for recreation management, maintenance, and commercial and special use permits at state parks, fishing access sites, and wildlife management areas as well as river recreation, private land hunting and fishing access programs (including Block Management), trail planning/coordination, four trail grant programs, the state shooting range grant program, and the federal shooting range development program. The division also has robust AmeriCorps and volunteer programs. The final structure of the division is still being finalized but two bureaus have been established thus far:

Access and Landowner Relations Bureau, including:

  • Private land fishing, hunting, and recreational access programs
  • Trail planning and coordination
  • Existing trail grant programs inclusive of motorized and non-motorized
  • Shooting range development and grant programs

Stewardship Bureau, including:

  • Maintenance
  • Capital projects
  • Acquisition
  • Infrastructure and asset management
  • Heritage and cultural resources

Attention is shifting within each bureau to identify pinch points in efficiency and MTFWP is working to have a holistic programming structure without silos, focused on efficiency. There are still questions to be answered and solutions that need to be decided upon, but the above breakdown of information is what MWF received directly from MTFWP with the most recent organizational changes within MTFWP.

Please reach out to Morgan Marks at morgan@mtwf.org to respond, ask questions, learn more, and get in touch!

This blog was edited by Hope Stockwell and Greg Lemon; the blog was written and finalized by Morgan Marks.

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Alec Underwood

Senior Policy & evelopment 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.