Planning For Habitat
The Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests stretch across approximately 3.5 million acres in western Montana and provide important wildlife habitat, coldwater fisheries, and recreational opportunities that support thousands of jobs in the region. But the land-use plans that guide the U.S. Forest Service’s management of these vast public lands were written 35 years ago and need updating to address modern challenges.
In recent years, a seemingly limitless demand for outdoor recreation opportunities, the presence of noxious weeds, and the impacts of decades of fire suppression combined with warming conditions are putting greater pressures on wildlife and habitat in western Montana. Simultaneously, incessant exurban development continues to fragment winter and transitional ranges for elk and deer on neighboring private lands. The Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests’ land-use plans must be updated to conserve the wildlife values of these public lands.
The Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests are home to several important big game migrations and winter ranges for elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep in western Montana. In the decades since the existing forest plans were finalized, new information about wildlife migrations has been collected in a vast research effort. The Forest Service must incorporate the latest science, utilize the best-available conservation tools, and prioritize coordination with other stakeholders to safeguard big game as the agency initiates the forest plan revision process for these public lands.
Upwards of 2,000 elk inhabit the Blackfoot and Clearwater watersheds to the east of Missoula. Many of these animals calve and summer in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness areas located on the northernmost extent of the Lolo NF, as well as in the adjacent Flathead National Forest.As winter snows accumulate, elk travel to winter ranges largely on state and private lands in the Blackfoot River and Swan Valleys. Along Highway 200 in the upper Blackfoot Valley, wintering elk often cross the roadway to graze on both the north and south side of the highway. The quality of this elk habitat has been diminished over time by the spread of noxious weeds, while at the same time, these herds are losing their ability to move freely across the landscape due to the fragmentation and development of low-elevation winter ranges.
Open road densities have been shown to impact nutritional resources on elk summer range and elk also select areas away from motorized routes. Significant blocks of land on both sides of the Swan Valley as well as in the Gold Creek and Belmont Creek areas in the lower Blackfoot watershed were historically owned and operated by commercial timber companies, resulting in high-density road networks and a significant presence of noxious weeds.
Hundreds of elk calve and summer in the Rattlesnake Creek watershed and the high-elevation habitats of the Mission Mountains, which lie within the Lolo NF and the Flathead Indian Reservation, as well as Montana FWP Hunting Districts 201 and 285. As snow accumulates on the east and southern sides the Mission Mountains, elk move out of the high country and migrate onto the lower-elevation open slopes and grasslands, both public and private, of the Swan, Blackfoot, and Clark Fork River Valleys. The Rattlesnake herds move east into the Gold Creek drainage and south onto the open hillsides on the northern edge of the Missoula Valley, including slopes above Butler and Grant Creeks, Mount Jumbo, and Woody Mountain. Threats to these migration routes and winter ranges include invasive plants, the fragmentation and development of low-elevation winter ranges in the North Hills, and dispersed recreation in the Marshall and Woody Mountain areas.
Large numbers of elk calve and summer in the higher elevations of the Lolo National Forest on both sides of the Interstate 90 highway corridor that spans 30 miles from Rock Creek west to Missoula, as well as west of Missoula to the Idaho border. In the lower stretches of the Clark Fork Valley from Missoula to Lookout Pass, wintering elk in HDs 200, 201, and 202 migrate to lower-elevation winter ranges on national forest and private lands on both sides of Interstate 90. These important winter ranges occur primarily east of St. Regis, while Boyd Mountain, Henderson Hill, Coal Creek, Dry Creek, Tarkio, Fish Creek, and Ninemile all provide low-elevation movement corridors and winter habitat. Threats to these migration routes and winter ranges include declining habitat quality due to fire suppression and invasive plants, wildlife-vehicle collisions, the physical barrier presented by I-90, unauthorized motorized recreation, and the fragmentation and residential development of low-elevation winter ranges.
The Lolo National Forest provides extensive habitat for mule deer in western Montana, largely consisting of mixed grassland, shrubland, sagebrush steppe, ponderosa/Douglas fir canopies, mid-elevation canyons, and rock outcroppings. Each year, mule deer move out of the higher elevation Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area north of Missoula to lower elevation winter ranges in the lower Rattlesnake NRA, Mount Jumbo, and Woody Mountain areas. In the lower Clark Fork, deer similarly move down Deep Creek and Dry Creek to winter along the Clark Fork River. Populations of mule deer that summer within the Hoodoo Roadless Area in the Lolo NF near the Idaho border utilize important grassland and shrubland winter ranges within the Fish Creek drainage, which also provides riparian habitats and movement corridors between the Ninemile Valley and the Bitterroot Mountains. Threats to these migration routes and habitats include poor forage conditions due to invasive plants and/or conifer encroachment, competition with other ungulates for limited forage, predation, and the fragmentation and development of winter ranges.
The Lolo National Forest provides habitat for both stable and recovering bighorn sheep populations. Huntable populations of bighorn sheep occur in locations such as Rock Creek, Paradise-Thompson Falls, and Petty Creek, while a recovering herd occurs near Bonner Mountain. The Bonner herd, while considered non-migratory, moves between nearby seasonal ranges on Sheep Mountain, Wisherd Ridge, and Woody Mountain. They also cross Highway 200 to Bonner Mountain. Two separate herds inhabit the Rock Creek drainage. The lower Rock Creek herd (HD 210) numbers around 150 animals. This population remains within the lower stretches of Rock Creek and will winter in the lower elevations near the creek bottom and move up into the upper timbered slopes and open grasslands in the summer. The upper Rock Creek herd numbers around 300 animals and inhabits the east side of upper Rock Creek, with some sheep moving east into upper Willow Creek in the winter months. The Petty Creek Herd is considered non-migratory and is estimated to be 130 to 150 animals. While the seasonal movements of bighorn sheep in these areas are typically not as extensive as elk or mule deer, they similarly utilize specific seasonal habitats to complete their lifecycle. Threats to bighorn sheep and their habitat include successional changes in vegetation, human development and disturbance, vehicle collisions, disease transmission from domestic livestock, and genetic bottlenecks.
Elk that calve and summer in the Sapphire Mountains migrate west to winter on the grassland/sagebrush slopes on the eastern benches of the Bitterroot Valley throughout Hunting Districts 204, 216, 261, and the northern portions of 240, which is located on the western side of the valley. This stretch of winter range runs along U.S. Route 93 between the communities of Lolo to the north and Darby to the south. The largest number of elk generally winter on the east side of the highway but will cross the roadway to utilize habitat on the west side as well. Larger wintering populations tend to congregate around Davis Creek, Eight-Mile (MPG Ranch), Burnt Fork, and Lower Willow Creek. These winter ranges include both public lands within the Lolo National Forest and adjacent state lands and private ranches. Threats to these migration routes and winter ranges include invasive plants, conifer encroachment, roadway barriers, vehicle collisions, and the fragmentation and development habitat. Residential development and associated winter range fragmentation are of particular concern on the foothills and valleys east of the communities of Florence, Stevensville, and Hamilton along the base of the Sapphire Mountains.
The East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River are the headwaters for the main stem of the Bitterroot River and provide excellent big game habitat. The East Fork herd has historically higher populations. The East Fork tends to hold less snow, more open winter ranges, and more productive grass and shrub communities than the West Fork. Surveys conducted in 2021 counted 4,052 elk in HD 270, which has one of the largest elk populations in western Montana. Approximately 2,000 elk winter on the CB Ranch and French Basin areas. During the 2020 general rifle season, the FWP check station at Darby documented more than 4,000 hunter trips—2,500 of which were to HD 270. Many elk in the East Fork migrate up through the headwaters and over the Continental Divide to the high-elevation summer ranges of the Anaconda-Pintler Range in the Big Hole River watershed, an area managed by the neighboring Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. Many of the elk that summer north of Highway 43, north and west of Wisdom (HD 321), will migrate back into the East Fork to winter. Threats to these big game populations, migration routes, and winter ranges include predation, invasive plants, conifer encroachment, degraded grasslands, and the fragmentation and development of private lands.
Elk habitat in the steeper, wetter, and more heavily timbered West Fork of the Bitterroot watershed falls within HD 250. In 2021, surveys counted 806 elk in this area, fewer than one-quarter of the number of animals found that year in the East Fork. As with the Sapphire elk herds, these elk summer in higher elevations of the Bitterroot National Forest and then migrate down to the open slopes near the valley bottom, primarily on private ranches. Threats to these big game populations, migration routes, and winter ranges include invasive plants, conifer encroachment, degraded grasslands, predation, and the fragmentation and development of private lands. Between 2005 and 2009, elk surveys showed severe declines in elk numbers and recruitment, primarily in the West Fork of the Bitterroot in HD 250. An ensuing study completed in 2014 showed that suboptimal habitat and predation (primarily by mountain lions) had contributed significantly to reduced adult elk survival and calf recruitment.
The Bitterroot National Forest provides extensive habitat for mule deer in western Montana. Populations remain stable in some areas of the forest while trending down in other areas. Total population estimates in FWP Region 2 have shown a decline of 27 percent over the past ten years. Hunting Districts 204, 250, 262, 261, 270, and the southern portions of 240 are all popular mule deer hunting districts. Mule deer hunting permits in HD 270 are the most highly coveted antlered buck permits in the state of Montana. Last year, 8,500 hunters applied for 45 available permits. HDs 262 and 261 also offer highly coveted hunts. During the summer months, mule deer generally inhabit the higher-elevation timbered lands in the Sapphires, moving down in the winter to lower-elevation grasslands on Three Mile and Calf Creek Wildlife Management Areas, as well as other winter ranges on private land around the Burnt Fork of the Bitterroot River and Dry Creek. Private lands on and around the MPG Ranch in HD 204 also provide important winter range. In some instances, smaller populations of mule deer may remain year-round in the same general locations, including in HD 262. Threats to Bitterroot NF mule deer migration routes and winter ranges include invasive plants, conifer encroachment resulting in poor forage conditions, and the fragmentation and development of winter ranges.
The Bitterroot National Forest provides habitat for both stable and recovering bighorn sheep populations. Stable populations of bighorn sheep occur in locations such as Skalkaho Pass (HD 261), Painted Rocks (HD 250), and the East Fork of the Bitterroot (HD 270). The Skalkaho herd numbers about 80 animals. This unit provides sheep habitat on the state-owned Calf Creek WMA and has a high percentage of private land (>50%). The Painted Rocks/Watchtower herds utilize winter ranges in the Selway River drainage and the Painted Rocks Reservoir. These sub herds total about 120 animals. While the movements of bighorn sheep across the landscape are typically not as extensive as those of elk or mule deer, herds in the Bitterroot utilize migration routes and seasonal ranges to complete their lifecycles. The largest and most mobile of these three herds is the East Fork herd, which numbers around 200 animals. In 2019, a collared ram in the East Fork moved 15 miles into the higher-elevation habitats near the divide before returning to its traditional ranges. Important winter ranges for this herd include the southwest facing slopes of Sula Peak, Robbins Gulch, and Spring Gulch. While many of the ewes and young rams remain in these areas for the summer, many of the mature rams move to habitats near Fish Lake, Hope Lake, and Charity Lake. Threats to bighorn sheep and their habitats include successional changes in vegetation, human development and disturbance, predation in lambing areas, vehicle collisions, disease transmission from domestic livestock, and genetic bottlenecks.
Below are six key policy recommendations to ensure that the revised forest plans for the Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests conserve these migration routes, winter ranges, and Montana’s renowned big game populations.
Utilize GPS collar data and credible anecdotal information about big game movement across the forests—including high-priority migration routes and winter range—and establish management areas to provide consistent management direction and conservation for these habitats across the planning area.
Develop standards and guidelines to manage open road and trail densities at or below determined levels to maintain habitat function, manage for invasive species, and require the addition of wildlife passages or wildlife-friendly design components for existing and new infrastructure. This includes establishing seasonal restrictions on certain uses of the land to avoid impacts on big game at key stages in their lifecycles, as well as actively managing both motorized and non-motorized recreation.
Collaborate with other federal and state agencies, tribes, and local governments when developing plan components for habitat used by big game species. Specifically, the USFS should work with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and reference the agency’s mule deer and sheep management plans, as well as its elk management plan currently under revision.
Prioritize strategic land acquisitions that connect and conserve seasonal habitats, reduce habitat fragmentation, and consolidate management—in conjunction with private, county, state, and tribal land conservation efforts—to protect important winter ranges that are threatened by development.
Prioritize vegetation treatments to improve forage quality and reduce conifer encroachment on open grassland meadows, brush fields, and winter ranges. In addition, the plan should specify that livestock grazing in known bighorn sheep ranges should be managed to prioritize maintenance of overwinter forage for bighorn sheep.
Establish management areas for backcountry conservation to protect habitat security for big game in large blocks of summer range and transitional ranges and to provide for semi-primitive non-motorized recreation—including hunting and fishing. Incompatible development activities should be restricted, and active habitat restoration should be directed to restore wildlife habitat and ecosystem function and processes, while facilitating climate resilience and adaptation.
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