HELENA - A group of former top wildlife management officials in Montana has sent a letter to the congressional delegation to push for more rapid protection for lands along the Rocky Mountain Front.
The letter is signed by former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks directors Jeff Hagener, Pat Graham and Jim Flynn; former state director for the Bureau of Land Management Gene Terland; noted author and former state environmental services chief Jim Posewitz; and other former FWP supervisors, wildlife biologists and game wardens. They note that the Front has served as a working laboratory for wildlife managers for more than 100 years, and permanent protection is needed to ensure that it will remain that way forever.
"Currently, the RMF contains the second largest migratory elk herd in the lower 48; abundant bighorn sheep and mountain goat populations; a robust and growing raptor population; and the full complement of predators from the time of Lewis and Clark," the letter states.
They note that private landowners have been leading the way, with conservation easements already on more than 100,000 acres and another 100,000 acres under consideration for protection. With that in place, the letter authors say, it's now time for public land managers to ensure that the habitat remain intact.
"Time is not on our side when it comes to preserving those habitats," the letter states. "Acting now helps ensure that our children and their children will continue to enjoy the economies created by large, intact ecosystems. ..."
Last September, the Coalition for the Rocky Mountain Front unveiled the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would add a new layer of protection to 307,000 acres along the Front, while adding 86,000 acres in six chunks to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The proposal was a three-year effort put together mainly by people who live in the area.
Hagener said he was approached by members of the group who asked if he would sign the letter in support of the project.
"It's kind of languishing, so they asked several of us involved in wildlife management to sign on and try to move the process ahead more quickly," Hagener said.
He added that he was happy to do so, having spent time on the Front during his tenure with FWP, as well as having worked for an outfitter there in the 1970s. He also has friends who hunt there.
"My interest there is professional, but it's also personal," Hagener said.
Along with adding to the existing federal wilderness areas, the proposal creates new "conservation management area" designations, which act as buffer zones between private lands and wilderness. They're meant to provide fewer opportunities for road building, logging and development on forest lands along the Front.
In addition, the proposal includes provisions for an additional $200,000 per year to fight the spread of noxious weeds along the Front.
Jennifer Ferenstein, the Rocky Mountain Front coordinator for the Wilderness Society, said the proposal doesn't have a sponsor for a bill yet, and they're hoping this will prompt at least one member of Montana's congressional delegation to move it forward.
"With the delegation in the state meeting with people, it's a good opportunity to remind them about what's so special in Montana, including the Front," Ferenstein said.
She added that there's a possibility of an omnibus lands bill being created this year, and they hope the Heritage Act can be a part of that.
"There isn't one yet, but there's been a lot of rumblings about one because ... a number of folks around the country have been moving forward with proposals," Ferenstein said.
Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at (406) 447-4076 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.