You’d be hard pressed to find a healthier, more ecologically sound example of our conservation legacy than the Rocky Mountain Front – a rugged 200-mile overthrust wall of steep, reef-like mountains rising from the Great Plains alongside the communities of Augusta, Choteau, Dupuyer, Pendroy and Browning. Elk, bighorns, pronghorn, badgers, wolverines, lynx, mountain lions, wolves and an abundance and diversity of other wildlife thrive on this land; Clear, clean rivers sustain some of the last remaining healthy populations of westslope cutthroat trout; Grizzlies still wander out onto the plains like they did when Lewis and Clark came through; The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared it the “top one percent” of wildlife habitat remaining in the Continental U.S., and it provides some of the best hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational opportunities in the nation.
Always a scared place for the Blackfeet Nation, the Front remains a remarkably special place today -- and that didn’t come about by accident or lack of effort.
This legacy dates back to 1913 when – in response to pressure from hunters, anglers and others – Montana legislators created the Sun River Game Preserve, setting aside 195,877 acres of critical elk habitat in the upper reaches of the Sun River drainage. Years later, hunters and ranchers set aside their differences and worked cooperatively to establish a zone for Sun River elk to winter where they wouldn’t raid haystacks and knock down fences. In 1947, in a deal brokered by hunters, one rancher sold 20,000 acres of prime elk winter range to the state now known as the Sun River Game Range, a wildlife management area administered by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). In the 1950s, hunters, anglers and wildlife officials and others rallied to keep oil and gas exploration and a missile site out of the preserve.
The legacy continued through the 1970s with the creation of the Ear Mountain and Blackleaf Wildlife Management areas to protect elk, mule deer and grizzly habitat. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up until today the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), Trout Unlimited, Montana Wilderness Association, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and other organizations have worked cooperatively with local ranchers, outfitters, guides, county commissioners, tribal leaders, businessmen and others to stop irresponsible gas and oil development within areas critically important for wildlife.
This legacy also provides benefits to other places. Over the years, state wildlife officials have used bighorn sheep from the Sun River herd to re-establish the species in many other parts of Montana. With westslope cutthroat trout – Montana’s state fish, and a sensitive species of concern – still persisting along the front, fisheries biologists are tapping into this genetic pool in ongoing efforts to restore the subspecies to other parts of its original range.
Threats to this special place persist, but we have a significant opportunity to continue this great conservation legacy by supporting and helping ensure the passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. MWF is among more than 20 hunter and angler-based conservation organizations, including Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to support the Heritage Act.
“Hunters really started to get the connection between good, unbroken habitat and restoring game populations one hundred years ago when they lobbied for the Sun River Game Preserve, the first of its kind in Montana,” says Gail Joslyn, a retired FWP biologist who spent most of her career working along the Front. “It’s what makes the Front so special, and why we need our representatives to help us finish the work that we began so long ago.”
Sponsored by Montana Senator Max Baucus, the Heritage Act would establish a Conservation Management Area on 208,160 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands that would be managed to keep things the way they are while protecting these lands from unwanted changes such as excessive motorized use and road building. Activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, outfitting, chainsaw use, firewood gathering, cutting of trees for posts and polls, motorized recreation, mountain biking and grazing would continue to be allowed as they are now. In addition, the Heritage Act would add about 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear Wilderness complex to protect these lands from potential threats while allowing for the continuation of hunting, grazing, outfitting and other traditional uses. The Heritage Act would also prioritize the eradication and control of noxious weeds on about 790,000 acres of land.
“The Rocky Mountain Front is a sportsmen’s paradise and considered worldwide as a crown jewel of the West,” Sen. Baucus says. “We have an obligation to protect our outdoor heritage for our kids and grandkids. It’s also critical for our economy to protect the treasures that bring people to Montana to open businesses, work, live and raise their families here. This is a balanced bill and a great example of a Montana-made proposal future generations will be proud of.”
The legislation is based on extensive public discussion, input and support from a variety of people of diverse backgrounds and interests who have set aside their differences to accomplish a common goal: To keep the Rocky Mountain Front as it is. An endorsement from the Great Falls Tribune called the Heritage Act, “politics as the art of the possible,” stating: “The measure embodies the ‘art of the possible’ by drawing and redrawing lines and allowing uses that have been painstakingly worked out with the folks who use the area the most.”
Many locals agree:
“My family has been ranching here for 128 years,” says Karl Rappold, a rancher from Dupuyer who has been fighting for years to protect the Front. “The Heritage Act will help protect the Front’s wild lands and working landscapes for generations to come.”
Roy Jacobs, a hunter and taxidermist from Pendroy, shares similar thoughts. “I truly believe that the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage proposal is one of the most thoroughly thought out plans I have ever seen,” he says. “It doesn’t offend anyone or any group in any way. It truly leaves one of the world’s grandest remaining landscapes intact for future generations to experience and enjoy.”
The Heritage Act took a major step forward this past November when it was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The legislation will soon be brought before the full Senate for consideration. If passed it will then be brought before the House where Montana Rep. Steve Daines remains undecided in regards to the Heritage Act.
To ensure the continuation of our tremendous legacy it’s up to all of us to urge our elected officials in Washington DC to support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. As Choteau hunter and outfitter Dusty Crary said the day the legislation cleared the Senate committee: “The Heritage Act has been custom-tailored to meet the needs of traditional uses while also protecting the beauty of the Front for future generations. It took a lot of work to get this bill just right, and I hope today’s bipartisan momentum can carry it forward to the finish line for us.”
To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and what you can do to help, check out The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front’s website at: http://www.savethefront.org
An avid hunter, angler and wildlife advocate, Dave Stalling has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited. He is a past two-term president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, a founder of Hellgate Hunters andAnglers in Missoula and a recipient of the Les Pengelly Montana Conservationist of the Year Award. He lives in Missoula.