Sportsmen Taking Charge of Predator Problems
By: Toby Bridges
Montanans, and those who visit the State of Montana, are blessed with a bounty of beauty. Only a few other areas of the United States come even close to matching the Treasure State's abundance of mountain vistas, crystal clear rivers and lakes, or wide open grasslands that roll out as far as the eye can see...then some.
Vast stretches of public owned land make up much of what makes Montana such a great place to live or visit. There are right at 17,000,000 acres of National Forest and another 8,000,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management administered lands within the state's borders. All of Glacier National Park's 1,012,837 acres are situated in Montana, while about 67,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park and another 60,000 acres of the Bighorn National Recreation Area extend north out of Wyoming into the state. Altogether, there are more than 5,000,000 acres of "State of Montana" owned lands, including many state administered wildlife management areas and public hunting and fishing areas. Tribal lands also make up roughly another 5,000,000 acres, on much of which non-tribal members are allowed, for a price, to outdoor recreate - hunt, fish, hike, camp, etc. To all of this state, federal and tribal owned lands, you can also add the more than 1.1-million acres of Montana administered as National Wildlife Refuges by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Due to the very natural and diverse land features of Montana, primarily the many major and secondary mountain ranges and the deeply cut canyons of the Missouri Breaks, nature had already carved out many areas that would remain wild long after the first white settlers arrived in Big Sky Country. The state is the fourth largest in the country, and statewide only topped 1-million residents in the past couple of years. Cities with populations larger than 50,000 remain few and far between, generally separated by distances of 100 to 120 miles. To cross the state on interstate highway from east to west is more than a 700-mile drive - fortunately with lots a nice scenery.
These Montana elk once readily migrated up and down the mountains as the seasons changed. Now, they stay in the valleys, seeking refuge from wolves and other major predators among human settled areas. Now wolves, lions and
bears are coming right down and hunting in the back yards of rural residents.
Montana's wildness comes to it naturally, and in many regions of the state the distances between state highways can be 50 or more miles - connected by secondary gravel county roads or U.S. Forest Service roads. Some of the larger inaccessible areas, without any roads whatsoever, have been created by the state's 15 National Wilderness Areas - altogether accounting for roughly 3.5-million acres of wild, uninhabited, and for the most part inaccessible land. Travel in these areas is either by foot or by horse or mule - which totally shuts out the majority of Montana residents.
Montana's big game hunters once lived for the wilderness early seasons, and those with the ability to pack in
would set up camps such as this in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area for a shot at bugling elk in the rut. Now, the more remote an area is, the more predators have destroyed huntable big game populations.
The first of these areas were established in 1964, with the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson, were the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area (1,009,356 acres), the Montana portion of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (251,443 acres in Montana alone), the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness (158,615 acres), the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness (94,272 acres), and the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness (28,562 acres). These were already inaccessible wild lands at the time, and Montana's sportsmen and outdoor oriented residents cherished the idea of these areas being protected as true wilderness areas - forever.
In 1972, the 239,936 acre Scapegoat Wilderness was added to the list of Montana wilderness areas, and the Mission Mountains Wilderness was established in 1975. Then in 1976, the UL Bend, Medicine Lake and Red Rock Lakes Wilderness Areas were created, followed by the Welcome Creek, Great Bear and Absaroka-Beartooth areas in 1978. The Rattlesnake area that borders the city limits of Missoula was officially designated a National Wilderness in 1980, followed by the designation of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in 1983.
All of these areas had long been favored backcountry of hunters, anglers, hikers, campers and wildlife watchers, and extending protection to keep them as pristine as they had always run into very little opposition. Now, many of those who supported designating those 3.5-million acres, or so, as safeguarded wilderness are questioning the real intent of those behind this early re-wilding of the West - namely the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana.
Instead of pristine beauty, this is what many hunters find when they pack back in 15 to 20 or more miles into one of Montana's wilderness areas. This old burn is nearly 20 years old, and offers little in cover or forage for elk, deer and
other big game.
These so-called pristine wilderness areas have recently taken on the aura of discarded lands. Instead of pristine beauty, those who are physically fit enough to hike 10...15...20 miles back into the remote country of large wilderness areas such as the Bob Marshall or Scapegoat generally find a landscape that is severely scarred by uncontrolled and unmanaged wild fires - with no attempt to reforest burnt slopes. In many areas, entire mountain sides that burnt off twenty or thirty years ago remain nearly barren and treeless. Leaving everything to nature has proven to be little more than encouraging natural disaster.
There are those who will quickly point out that fire is a good thing, and that new growth provides forage for a bounty of wildlife. If that is true, where is all of that wildlife? Many of the National Wilderness Areas within Montana have become wildlife dead zones.
"In September 2008, I went into the Bob Marshall with three friends who were going to hunt elk and deer. During the twelve days we spent in the wilderness, we saw deer and elk every day, along with a few mountain goats and a handful of bighorn sheep, plus several black bears. I returned to the same area in 2011, and during three days of scouting in the very same basin I never saw one living thing larger than a squirrel. Putting in ten to fifteen miles a day on foot, I never saw one single fresh set of elk tracks...and could count the number of fresh deer tracks on the fingers of one hand. The only tracks in abundance were those of wolves," says LOBO WATCH founder Toby Bridges, of Missoula.
On the way back to the trailhead where he had parked his pickup a few days earlier, Bridges encountered a young outfitter and his wife - bringing out their hunting camp on mules, even though it was only the second day of archery season. He asked why they were pulling out so early, with the backcountry rifle hunt just a week away. They told him that their camp had been 12 to 14 miles into "The Bob", and they had been in for a week to scout...and had found nothing, and in a week had seen only a couple of sets of fresh tracks, other than wolf tracks.
The loss of elk, moose, deer and other big game in remote wild areas is now bringing wolves down into the human inhabited valleys in search of prey - wild or domestic.
The young outfitter shared in anguish, "It's not good. It's really bad...The Bob has been lost!"
Zach Muse, of Lincoln, has hunted the Scapegoat Wilderness area with his father and grandfather ever since he could ride a horse. His father and grandfather had hunted the area since well before it was designated a wilderness area in 1972. Ever since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service driven Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Project, beginning in 1995, which implanted wolves back into the area, Muse has watched the quality of hunting deteriorate quickly. Spending more than a week or more each season some 20 or more miles from the nearest road, the past few years have been a bust for him as well, maybe seeing just 10 to 12 deer during a stay in "The Wilderness". The hunting has gotten so bad, many outfitters who used to pack into the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas have simply shut down. One former outfitter, rancher Rick Dunkerley, also of Lincoln, said he just could not continue to take money from clients, then show them nothing.
Many Montana residents, especially those who spend a great deal of time in the outdoors hunting, fishing, hiking and camping in remote back country have also witnessed the same loss of big game. That's understandable since today's wildlife managers seem to take great joy in declaring these wild areas "core predator areas". But, what happens when there is no longer enough elk or deer to keep wolves, bears and mountain lions fed?
The answer is easy, those apex carnivores move to where there is a more abundant source of prey - both wild and domestic.
The large wild expanses have become the absolute worst places to hunt these days. The more remote the area, the greater the impact predators have on wild ungulate populations, and in those areas with such restricted access for hunters, wolves, bears and mountain lions see very little management - and, for the most part, absolutely no control. Unfortunately, if groups like the Montana Wilderness Association , the Montana Wildlife Federation or the Wilderness Institute of the University of Montana have their way, much more of the state will become designated wilderness areas. Unless something is first done to severely cut back the number of major predators in Montana, those areas will suffer the same fate as the 15 National Wilderness Areas already established in the state.
Elk populations in most all of Western Montana are 60- to 80-percent below objectives, due to this kind of predator waste. Still, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks continues to sell elk hunting licenses to keep the revenue rolling in, and continues to enforce extremely restrictive hunting regulations which insure a less than adequate harvest of apex predators.
There are 39 Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, comprising just over 1,000,000 nearly roadless acres. Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service has effectively turned another 4,000,000 or so acres into "semi-wilderness" by shutting off public access through road closures. Most of these areas are found in the western one-third of the state - which has been the hardest hit by an over population of predators. Throughout much of this region, elk populations are right now close to 80-percent below objective, moose have been nearly wiped out, and deer populations are in serious decline.
"If a map could be overlaid with the fifteen National Wilderness Areas in Montana...with all of the Wilderness Study Areas...with the national and state parks...with all of the interconnected National Forests and expanses of Bureau of Land Management areas...with all of the National Wildlife Refuges...with all of the state Wildlife Management Areas...and any other public lands which in one way or another severely restricts public access and public use...it begins to look remarkably a lot like the agendas of radical environmental groups like the Wildlands Network or the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative," claims Toby Bridges of LOBO WATCH.
Bridges points out that the goal of those two groups is to return most of the West back to wilderness, which means even greater restrictions on human use of the land, or for that matter even humans living on the land. Could all of this be part and parcel to also achieve the United Nation's very anti-human Agenda 21?
Opponents of Montana Senator Jon Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" say the legislation fits in way too nicely with the agenda of permanently shutting a majority of residents out of another 700,000 acres that would be designated "Wilderness". In return, the carrot he's dangling in front of the state's hurting lumber industry is the promise of temporary forest jobs. The "Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act", sponsored by Senator Max Baucus, is another extremely suspicious piece of legislation, which would tack on 67,000 acres of roadless National Forest to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which also includes the Scapegoat Wilderness and the Great Bear Wilderness. According to proponents, this legislation would preserve the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains for future generations.
Opponents say the "Save the Rocky Mountain Front" campaign is just another radical Wildlands Network effort to shut people out by making access too difficult for most to enjoy the area. They feel it is just more public land grab by agenda driven environmental groups.
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