Topical Issues That Impact the Rocky Mountain Front

Authors: Willie Freimuth, Sarah Anne Devaney, David MogkDept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Preservation vs. Conservation

At first glance, the terms conservation and preservation may hold similar meanings. However, there are key differences between the two practices, and their implementation on the Rocky Mountain Front has far-reaching implications for the wildlife and the people of the area. Generally, conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while the goal of preservation is to protect nature from use. Overall, efforts on the Rocky Mountain Front seem to strike a balance between conservation and preservation--many efforts prioritize involvement of landowners and locals along with protecting wildlife habitat and natural landscapes. For more on general information regarding conservation, visit the National Park Service website.

Take a look at the overview and links on conservation efforts on the Rocky Mountain Front, and decide for yourself: how much preservation in wilderness areas is too much? What are the benefits and drawbacks of conservation efforts? What is the carrying capacity of the region with respect to wildlife, logging, grazing operations? What are current issues plaguing conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountain region, and how should we address them? See the economic analysis of the impact of public lands in this area done by Headwaters Economics (September 2013) report Montana's Rocky Mountain Front: "This report analyzes the Front's land, people, and economy, how the region has changed in important ways during the past several decades, and the potential impact of the proposed Rocky Mountain Heritage Act on the Front."

Conservation Efforts and Wilderness Study Areas

The Rocky Mountain Front is one of the most biodiverse places in the contiguous United States. With the exception of the free-roaming bison, nearly all species documented by Lewis and Clark in 1806 remain at stable or increasing populations. Tectonic and climatic features along the Front generate a mix of prairie, forest, and alpine tundra that yield a high diversity of animals and plants. Several measures have been implemented to protect the biodiversity of this area.

The Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area was instituted in 2005 and covers nearly 1,000,000 acres of Lewis and Clark, Pondera, and Teton counties. The project is meant to protect the unique, diverse, and largely unfragmented ecosystem along the Front, and to prevent drastic anthropogenic change caused by large residential and commercial development. For more information, see the full Land Protection Plan for the area.

Learn more about the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area Act (S.B. 364 introduced in the 113th Congress, February 14, 2013 (and Summary Report). This bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on December, 19 2014. See the article from the Montana Wilderness Society History Made with Passage of the Rocky Mountain Front. A map showing the new additions to this wilderness area can be found at WildMontana The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act By the Numbers.

Below are some of the current conservation efforts on the Rocky Mountain Front.

  • Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front--"The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front is an organization of ranchers, outfitters, hunters, anglers, and conservation groups working to protect the Front. The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association, and Montana Wildlife Federation are the three groups on the steering committee of the Coalition. To learn more about the coalition and its members contact 406.466.2600 in Choteau."
  • Land Protection Plan--basic information on the conservation area and land management goals.
  • Nature Conservancy--Rocky Mountain Front--much of the land west of Choteau, including Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, is under control of the Nature Conservancy. Partnering with local landowners and the community, they have developed a working conservation strategy for the area.
  • The Conservation Fund--working closely with ranching communities in the Front region, this project is set to protect 250,000 acres of wildlife habitat.
  • Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge--12 miles north of Great Falls is Benton Lake, a wetland ecosystem created during the last glaciation. A breeding ground for most of the nation's waterfowl, over 200 species of bird have been documented in the area. The Benton Lake Refuge is part of a larger wetland management district with locations all across the state.

Wildlife Management: Preservation v. Conservation II; Public v. Private

The "North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" has 7 essential principles: 1) wildlife resources are a public trust to be managed by governments for the benefit of all citizens; 2) unregulated commercial markets for wild game that decimate wildlife populations are eliminated; 3) allocation is by law, meaning that laws are developed by citizens and enforced by government agencies to regulate the proper use and management of wildlife; 4) opportunity for all, which means that every citizen has the freedom to view, hunt and fish, regardless of social or economic status; 5) wild game populations cannot be killed casually, but only for a legitimate purpose as defined by law; 6) wildlife will be considered an international resource because wildlife migrates across political boundaries; and 7) science is the proper basis for wildlife policy and management, not opinion or conjecture, in order to sustain wildlife populations (Boone and Crocket Club Position Statement, 2014). The abundant wildlife resources of North America were significantly diminished during the period of exploration and development of the American West (ca. 1850-1899) resulted in extinction of some species (e.g., carrier pigeon) and near collapse of populations of large game animals (bison, elk, deer, antelope). In response, the first game laws were enacted, and a public debate began about how to best manage wildlife: a preservationist approach that advocated that public lands should not be used for timber harvest or hunting (e.g., John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club), or advocates of management and wise use of resources for the enjoyment of all (e.g., local sportsman's clubs; Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Theodore Roosevelt and colleagues in 1887 whose mission included: elimination of market hunting, establishment of the national Wildlife Refuge System, the Forest Service, National Park Service, with an emphasis on hunting ethics, research and education, and establishment of a grants program) [Historical information provided by Dr. Joshua Millspaugh, Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.

The Augusta-Choteau area is an example of where these competing philosophies have played out in the past century.

  • Sun River Wildlife Preserve: "In 1913, Montana established the Sun River Game Preserve, the first of several set up during the next decade to provide places where elk were safe from hunters and could graze on forage without competition from livestock." See this account of The Amazing Saga of Montana's Elk by Sam Curtis, Nov-Dec 2007 Montana Outdoors. See this account of Sun River Game Preserve`s Centennial Year by Jim Posewitz, Nov 15, 2013 published as a guest column in the Missoulian.
  • Sun River Wildlife Management Area is managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In Lewis and Clark County, approximately 9 miles northwest of Augusta. The north edge of the WMA is south of the Sun River as it leaves Sun Canyon. From Augusta, take the Gibson Reservoir/Sun Canyon Road northwest approximately 3.5 miles. Where the road splits, take the left fork to the counties road end at WMA Boundary. It covers almost 20,000 acres and provides hunting and trapping opportunities for antelope, black bear, mule deer, whitetail deer, and elk.
  • The Boone and Crockett Club maintains the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch. "This 6,500 acre property lies in the foothills of the east slope of the Rocky Mountains near Dupuyer, Montana. The property abuts thousands of acres of national forest and wilderness areas and contains critical winter habitat for elk and mule deer. Additionally, whitetail deer, cougar, and grizzly and black bears regularly use this property and bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats occur in adjacent national forest lands. This unique environment offers the perfect laboratory to study the coexistence of agricultural land uses and wildlife for research purposes... to stimulate private sector leadership on wildlife research, education, and management, the Boone and Crockett Club purchased a working cattle ranch in prime wildlife habitat along Dupuyer Creek on the East Front of the Montana Rockies. The mission of the ranch, known as the TRM Ranch, is research, teaching, and demonstration of integrated livestock/wildlife conservation that is integral to the economic viability of private and adjacent public lands. The Club is also interested in maintaining and enhancing the stewardship roles of rural families who make their living through shared uses and management of natural resources and thus helping to conserve the natural wealth of our nation".

What do you think? What is the best policy of wildlife management in Montana? Preservation (Sun River Wildlife Preserve; closed to hunting) vs. Conservation (Sun River Game Management Area, open to hunting), and public ownership of lands (USFS, State of Montana) vs. private stewardship (TRM Ranch)?

The Endangered Species Act, Land Rights, and Grizzly Bears: How Much Conservation is "Enough?"

Despite great success in preserving species and the pristine landscape, there are issues that accompany conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountain Front area. Recently, grizzly bears have made a return to the Front and have been seen wandering onto the plains as far east as Great Falls. Attacks on livestock and people have been reported recently, with bears wandering onto the plains which is part of their natural habitat. How should human-grizzly bear conflicts be managed and hopefully prevented?

Additionally, overlap of conservation area and private land entails issues. Though some conservation easements provide private landowners with ample rights and tax benefits, there are some federal entities (Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service) charge landowners grazing fees per animal on federal land.

Much of the conservation efforts in the region operate under federal regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While popular opinion is flooded with support, the new administration is taking strides to weaken federal regulations in favor of stimulating economic growth and giving states the freedom to control wildlife regulations. Since its inception in 1973, the ESA has been attributed to great successes and controversies (see these NPS pieces on the reintroduction of wolves and conservation of grizzly bears in Yellowstone). What role do people and politics have in conservation? At what level should the government have a hand in managing wildlife?

Though a bit dated, Montana Outdoors has a provocative piece on the ESA as it relates to Montana. What are your thoughts on conservation policies and practices in Montana?

Oil and Gas Exploration

During the 1980's, the Reagan administration allowed several oil and gas exploration leases in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and the Badger Two Medicine area without consulting Blackfeet tribal government or performing any environmental analysis (actually, because of these explorations, Egg Mountain was discovered). While the leases were deemed invalid in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, it was not until 2016 that leases were retired on sacred Blackfeet land of the Badger Two Medicine area. However, backlash from the Lousiana-based energy company Solenex ensued, and a lawsuit and trial is currently underway. The Solonex party argues the leases were terminated illegally and the ramifications extend beyond oil and gas into contract law and property rights. Proponents of the lease termination--including the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, Montana Wilderness Association, National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society--emphasize the cultural significance and traditions regained by the Blackfeet. Additionally, the Badger Two Medicine area is a key migration route for iconic species, like grizzly bears and wolverines. Where do you think the land rights of the Badger Two Medicine area lay? How do we determine land ownership in today's world?

See the news release Interior Department Cancels Remaining oil and Gas Leases in Montana's Badger-Two Medicine Area.

Read the article The Rocky Mountan Front Blues--by Hal Herring, June 24, 2013, High Country News.

For more on the Badger Two Medicine, see its significance to The Wilderness Society and their report Drilling in the Rocky Mountains: How Much and at What Cost? (2004) .

The Montana Wilderness Association looks at the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act of 2014 and the High Country News explored the Rocky Mountain Front blues.