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The consolidation of public lands in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley has led to a golden opportunity for restoration and conservation
Western Montana’s Blackfoot Valley lies along the southern edge of the Crown of the Continent, a vast complex of land comprised primarily of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas and Glacier National Park. A popular destination for hunting and fishing, the outdoor appeal of the Blackfoot Valley is a critical component to the local economy. Healthy populations of deer and elk inhabit the valley year round, and the Blackfoot River flowing down the middle of the valley supports critical populations of Westslope cutthroat and bull trout. This area also provides important habitat linkage from the Crown of the Continent ecosystem to the Garnet Mountain Range, which runs along the southern edge of the valley.
Today, the BLM’s Missoula Field Office is responsible for the management of 156,000 surface acres in the Blackfoot Valley and the adjacent Garnet Range. The Missoula BLM is currently in the process of updating their Resource Management Plan: a document that will provide goals, objectives, and direction for the management of these lands for the next 20 to 30 years. But before we look at recommendations for the future, it’s important to understand how we got to where we are today.
The area has an interesting past and a long history of conservation efforts. As early as the 1860s, many of these lands were owned by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads. A hundred years later, these lands belonged to corporate timber companies. As a result, vast acreages resembled a checkerboard pattern of public and private land. This fragmented layout made land management more costly and made access challenging.
Starting in the late 1970s, public and private landowners and stakeholders in the valley came together to guide conservation decisions on the future of this extraordinary place. Since that time, hundreds of millions of conservation dollars, from both public and private sources, have been poured into the valley to restore sensible ownership patterns and shore up large tracts of vital wildlife habitat.
The results point to one of the most effective community-based conservation efforts in the country—anchored by the 40,000-acre Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, one of the oldest state-owned game ranges in Montana. The first conservation easement ever placed on private land in Montana occurred in this valley, and now more than 100,000 acres of private lands are in permanent protection for the benefit of fish and wildlife.
Another example of the Blackfoot’s conservation efforts can be seen in the areas around Marcum and Chamberlain mountains. Much of these lands were corporate timber land, but as these logging companies moved out of the area, these parcels were offered for sale. Local and national conservation organizations acquired these lands, eventually transferring ownership to the BLM, guaranteeing long-term, conservation-minded, multiple-use management.
To build on the last 40 years of conservation achievements wrought by sportsmen and women, federal and state agencies, and private landowners, we need to continue to sustain traditional uses of the land, but do so in a way that conserves this important fish and wildlife habitat from the impacts of surface disturbance and development. We need to maintain public access, but in a way that balances road access and habitat needs. And we need to focus land management on the conservation, restoration, and enhancement of key habitats that also support our economy. These lands provide unique opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and other healthy and enjoyable outdoor activities. It is important that these lands are restored and kept intact.
To achieve all of these goals and still allow traditional uses, such as timber management and livestock grazing, to continue, sportsmen are asking the BLM to consider backcountry conservation management for certain areas as the agency revisits its Resource Management Plan. This land management tool exists to help conserve, restore, and enhance large areas of generally intact and undeveloped BLM-managed lands that foster recreationally important fish and wildlife species.
The aforementioned Marcum and Chamberlain mountains fit this bill perfectly. According to the BLM, more than half of the hunter-harvested whitetail deer in the entire district come from these two hunting areas. Also being recommended for backcountry conservation management are portions of the Hoodoo and Ram Mountains, home to healthy populations of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and cutthroat trout—two of Montana’s most sought-after game species. Collectively, these four areas offer important big game habitat and are heavily utilized by sportsmen during hunting season.
With your help, we’ve let the BLM know that by managing these areas for backcountry conservation management, the agency would be ensuring that this sort of sustained use continues well into the future. Of all the letters submitted during the 60-day comment period, 63 percent were from TRCP members in favor of backcountry conservation management.Encouraging backcountry conservation, Montana TRCP members sent the BLM 63% of all comments. Here's why Click To Tweet
BLM-managed lands in the Blackfoot Valley are a significant part of one of the most successful landscape-level conservation efforts in the county. As the BLM spends the next few months drafting their planning proposals for the area, we ask that you stay tuned for opportunities to weigh in by becoming a member of TRCP today (it’s free).
In the future, we’ll keep you posted on this and any other issues that affect your hunting and fishing heritage, specifically regarding places that are too valuable to risk, like Montana’s Blackfoot Valley and the surrounding Marcum, Chamberlain, Hoodoo, and Ram mountains.
One of our staffers says goodbye and reflects on what our work to enhance habitat and access for American sportsmen and women has taught her
Last spring, I drafted a cover letter that would ultimately land me my job at the TRCP. At the time, I hadn’t hunted or fished much, but I explained that my experience with wildlife science and policy had granted me respect for the mission and work of the organization. I wrote that I believed “pragmatic conservation approaches depend on hunters and anglers.”
In the little more than a year since, I’ve been proven right. Amid challenges that come with the close of a congressional session and start of a new administration—not to mention blatant bills and incremental changes threatening to undermine our public lands, fish and wildlife habitat, and sporting traditions—sportsmen have had, and will continue to have, a unique seat at the table in Washington. We have the opportunity to moderate change in a way that creates balance and benefit for America’s fish and wildlife.
And that’s not all that I’ve learned in my time here.
Once, not long after I started at TRCP, I walked into the office kitchen to find Steve Kline, our government relations director, intensely focused on organizing the coffee pod rack. He told me, only half-jokingly, “This is the most visible work product I get to see all day.”
I think about that moment often. No matter how many meetings we have, conservation doesn’t really have an end point. We may never be able to declare a definitive victory. And when we do engage in discrete battles, success can be hard to see, especially in the federal policy sphere where the TRCP operates (and where Steve often leads the charge.) Sometimes it’s clear, and we either gain ground or lose ground. But often, winning just means we held the line.
Last fall, we shared a list of the top four things lawmakers could do for conservation by the end of 2016, with the second item being “let sage grouse conservation plans work.” That’s it, just don’t mess up what we’ve already got. Yet decision makers continue resurrecting attempts to dismantle conservation plans. Whether it’s a dangerous rider on a defense bill or a secretarial order that threatens to shift focus away from habitat, each time a risk emerges, we round up the troops to defend the good policies already in place. And at times we’re able to celebrate an invisible win: the fact that nothing changed at all.
Conservation should never be red or blue—and as far as sportsmen are concerned, it’s not. Hunters and anglers agree that clean water, sportsmen’s access, wetlands protections, wildlife-friendly infrastructure, and federal funding for conservation should be supported and prioritized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But in the wider political climate, these issues can become partisan, as we saw last year in a House Natural Resources Committee vote on a bill to sell public lands for the primary purpose of timber production. The vote came down almost entirely on party lines, except for a ‘nay’ vote from then-Congressman Ryan Zinke.
That’s why sportsmen’s voices are especially important. We understand that taking good care of our natural resources is an American ideal regardless of one’s political affiliation, and that helps bridge hard political divides and ultimately gets good, bipartisan conservation policy done, like the recent sportsmen’s package. The key is that we have to keep reminding lawmakers that we’re here, we’re paying attention, and these issues are important to us.Sportsmen can moderate change in a way that creates balance and benefit for America's fish and wildlife. Click To Tweet
Earlier this year, when Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced H.R. 621 to dispose of federal public lands, opposition went viral largely because we didn’t have to explain what the bill meant. The intent was explicit right there in the title. And while the volume of grassroots backlash has largely quelled overt attempts at wholesale transfer or disposal, bad public lands bills aren’t gone for good. They’re just dressed a little differently.
If you ask me, the most important work we do isn’t as flashy as combatting the H.R. 621s of federal policy. More often, we strive to turn your attention to the wonky, technical issues that might slip by you if following them isn’t your full-time job.
Take the Farm Bill, for example. At nearly $5 billion in funding for habitat, technical assistance, and sportsmen’s access, it’s the largest driver of conservation on private land, which makes up 70 percent of the country. There’s a lot to keep track of, but along with our partners we make it our mission to follow what’s going on with the many farm-bill conservation programs (CRP, RCPP, VPA-HIP, EQIP, and more) that you may have never heard of.
Because at the end of the day that big bowl of alphabet soup can make or break your opportunities to hunt and fish.
I wasn’t raised among sportsmen, and most of my friends and family see hunters as the antithesis of conservationists. In their minds, it doesn’t make sense that people who kill cute woodland creatures also want to protect them.
When I joined the TRCP team and began considering myself a part of the sportsmen tribe, I fielded this reaction over and over again. And, yeah, it was pretty irritating. I tried to explain how hunters and anglers have a very tangible reason for wanting to sustain critter populations, and how they’re willing to invest their hard-earned money to do so. But despite having the words to explain, I could tell my friends weren’t getting it.
Gradually though, that started to change. When I shot my first turkey and my friends asked me what it was like, I didn’t shy away from explaining the part where I killed an animal, even though I knew it made them uncomfortable. But I also told them about hours spent sitting serenely in silence, the experience of getting out before dawn, and the satisfaction of eating what I’d harvested.
A good friend of mine was genuinely angry when I started working at TRCP, thinking I was somehow betraying conservation ethics. But now, a year later, she’s supportive of my entry into hunting and even asked me to take her clay shooting. She may never kill game herself, but she surprised me in her ability to open her mind to a different perspective.
Hearts and minds can be changed, if only we speak to them with honesty and integrity. And when it seems like there’s bad conservation policy everywhere we turn, that gives me hope for the future of America’s outdoor heritage.
Long-term, sustainable populations of sage grouse are the ultimate goal, but habitat management must be the driver of conservation success
In order to get a shot at a wild cackling rooster pheasant or monster mule deer buck, you have to find the best habitat—so we hunt the healthiest grasslands, brushy draws, uncut milo, and sagebrush, hoping for those wonderful heart-stopping glimpses of birds flushing or antlers catching the light. As sure as any track in the dirt is a sign of game, we know that the best habitat is where we’re most likely to get an opportunity to take a shot.
And it’s habitat that we must conserve and improve if we want to sustain or boost these opportunities.
That’s why managing sage grouse populations towards some number, rather than a goal of quality habitat, is an unsustainable approach. Yet, even before announcing a Trump Administration review of conservation plans that kept sage grouse off the endangered species list, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has called for establishing population goals and managing for numbers, not habitat.
Besides the fact that the Department of the Interior has no authority to set such numbers for the states, this concept of managing strictly for the numbers is fatally flawed. Habitat quality and population strength are inextricably linked and cannot be separated. Here’s why we must follow through on habitat conservation plans crafted at the federal, state, and local level to maintain or boost the number of birds.
It’s appropriate to ask how many animals of a particular species are out there and how many we need. It isn’t possible to count every single member of any species, but wildlife managers have fairly well-developed approaches for estimating the population size of some, like elk, pronghorn antelope, and deer. In fact, population objectives and harvest goals are often set for big game, and we do set recovery goals for species like grizzly bears or wolves. But regardless of the goal, there still must be enough habitat to support these animals.
Upland game birds aren’t like mammals, though, and sage grouse are notoriously difficult to count. While it’s fairly easy to watch and count male sage grouse dancing on their breeding grounds, or leks, in the spring, counting female grouse is challenging and unreliable. They visit leks only once or twice a season and are rarely observed thereafter. While the science on enumerating grouse is advancing, our current techniques rely on using the number of males counted at leks as an indication of how many sage grouse there might be across the landscape. Sage grouse counts are an educated guess.
What we really need estimated counts for is to determine how the birds are responding over time to conservation of their habitat, nearly 50 percent of which has been lost over the past century. Still, because of the volatile effects of drought, disease, and other factors out of our control, scientists and managers have to consider long-term trends in lek counts, not isolated gains from year to year. Short-term increases or decreases in sage grouse numbers just don’t tell the full story.
For example, state wildlife agencies recently determined that dancing sage grouse males increased by 63 percent in 2015, in large part because of increased conservation and rain returning to sagebrush country across the West. However, that was up from one of the lowest counts on record in 2013, and long-term trends across the birds’ range show a decline.
We have to track birds and habitat over long periods of time to best understand if conservation is working. The long-term goal for sage grouse numbers must be to reverse the negative trend and stabilize the habitat needed to sustain healthy populations.
It probably sounds good to say that we’ll increase bird numbers by any means necessary, including captive breeding programs, predator control, and disease management. But some would like to see restrictions on activities and development in sage grouse country minimized while captive rearing and other approaches are used as mitigation for habitat impacts. Science has proven that this won’t work.
Managing to a set population number by releasing pen-raised birds, shooting coyotes and ravens, or focusing on disease control is a flawed workaround that does not address the root cause of the problem for sage grouse in the long run—and that’s the health of the sagebrush landscape. These approaches are already available to wildlife managers and can help in limited situations, but they represent tools that should only be applied surgically. They are not conservation strategies in and of themselves. The truth is that these tools alone do nothing to overcome the habitat loss and fragmentation that is mostly responsible for the grouse’s decline over the past several decades.
Besides, if wild birds struggle to survive, successfully nest, and raise their young in degraded habitat, why do we expect that birds raised in a pen will do better?
This is why the notion of managing for numbers, not habitat, is unpopular with wildlife agencies and the majority of governors in Western states who were key partners in creating conservation plans for sage grouse. Most have made it very clear to Sec. Zinke that they have little appetite for shifting the focus from habitat to population-based approaches. Furthermore, while some of the states still have a few issues to resolve with the federal government, the majority of states and the stakeholders want to keep the federal and state conservation plans moving forward without interruption.
The forthcoming review of federal plans has sportsmen and women concerned that the DOI may attempt to shift its focus away from securing quality habitat, the most critical factor in conserving sage grouse, and toward less scientifically-sound population management techniques. The collaborative effort to conserve sage grouse over the last decade has been the largest in history, and if largescale captive breeding or predator control efforts would have been effective, states would be using those tools today.
It was the promise of habitat-focused federal and state plans for public lands, along with voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, which led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to its historic decision not to list the species in September 2015. We need to implement those plans and track both habitat management and how the birds are responding to ensure we don’t wind up back where we started years ago, when this historic collaboration began.
How a float through the Owyhee River’s backcountry showcased a need for long-term flexible management
Drawn to the solitude and beauty of desert rivers, I recently set out with family and friends to raft the winding waters of the Owyhee River. Over the last six years, I’ve fished for bass and hunted chukars along the breaks, traveling past miles of public land. Starting in Nevada and meandering through Idaho and Oregon to the Snake River, the Owyhee is 346 miles long, shaped more than 12 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. You see the evidence as it cuts through vertical canyon walls of basalt, rhyolite, and volcanic ash.
It has a rich history, and petroglyphs, the images that were carved or picked into rocks up to 7,000 years ago, are a frequent sight. But this wild country also holds the future of many of our sporting traditions, with opportunities to pursue mule deer, California bighorn sheep, chukars, smallmouth bass, and wild trout.
Our trip started in the community of Rome, Ore., at the boat ramp located on BLM public land. As we launched our 15-foot inflatable raft, all tension faded away, and the oars set a rhythm. In harmony with the moving water, we followed the river, taking in the topography and staying on course by following the map and river markers.
Soon, we were rowing Class III and IV rapids, fishing for bass, scanning the hills for wildlife, and camping along the river. I’m a visitor here, but for some people, this is where they make a living and local hunters have filled their freezers with the Owyhee’s big game and birds for decades.
For my friend Dave, who has outfitted fishermen on this river for 20 years and is with us on this trip, this is a place that he would like to see kept the way it is, or made even better. Just how to manage these lands is a delicate balancing act—one that could be up for debate.
The Owyhee River corridor was dedicated by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River in 1984 to protect 120 miles of the free-flowing river and preserve the cultural values of the landscape around it. Adjacent to protected stretches are backcountry areas that are not permanently protected that provide important migration corridors for wildlife, grazing leases for ranchers, and great upland hunting opportunities. All of this is managed by the BLM’s Vale District office, which is responsible for balancing the demands on this valuable and intact backcountry.
The Owyhee country is an arid, hot desert, vulnerable to wild fires, noxious weeds, and illegal off-road vehicle use. For sportsmen and women to continue to enjoy the Owyhee backcountry areas for hunting and fishing, it is critical that the wildlife habitat is conserved and land-management is flexible enough to allow continual management needs of the entire landscape.
This is why we’re working at the local level to encourage the implementation of backcountry conservation management areas through the agency’s Resource Management Plan, which serves as the outline for the BLM to manage public lands in a healthy way for wildlife and multiple uses. Every 20 years or so, the BLM Vale District amends their Resource Management Plan dictating how the BLM lands in the district are managed. This involves a public process through which citizens can give feedback on the management of areas outside protected corridors like the Owyhee River.A float through #Oregon's Owyhee River showcases a need for long-term flexible #backcountry land mgmt: Click To Tweet
Given the aridity of the landscape, some active management is necessary to control wildfires, minimize the spread of noxious weeds, and maintain habitat quality. Backcountry conservation management areas make sense, because they are flexible enough to allow active management while protecting these special places.
The TRCP and our partners have recommended that backcountry areas are managed under the principle of multiple use—to conserve intact, undeveloped lands that contain important wildlife habitats, provide high-quality recreation opportunities, and retain other traditional uses of the land. If you enjoy visiting and using BLM lands, it’s important that you understand this is a public process and share your input as a sportsman on how these lands are a managed.
You can email the Vale District BLM Field Office at email@example.com and let them know that backcountry conservation management areas will maintain management flexibility, while protecting special places where you love to hunt and fish. Share how important these lands are for you and future generations of hunters and anglers.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More