Big Sky Country, big-time controversies

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Montana is officially called “The Treasure State,” but the advertising slogan “Big Sky Country” is equally, if not more, well-known. For good reason. Enter its eastern border on Interstate 94 at North Dakota and exit on a fairly straight shot into Idaho on Interstate 90, and the wheels on the bus will go round and round for 702 miles. You’ll pass through apparently uncivilized ranch land, skirt oil refineries, whisk along the winsome Yellowstone River Valley and then traverse some half-dozen mountain vales before grinding up Lookout Pass. The route will drag and dart through lands owned by private interests, the state of Montana and federal acreages administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Within miles of the interstate highways, resident or itinerant wildlife species may include:elk, wolves, grizzly bears, mule and whitetail deer, mountain lions, pronghorn, sage grouse, prairie dogs and a host of other species.
The state’s bounty of wildlife and landscapes also give rise to a range of controversies, as seemingly broad as the big sky itself. There are many others, but among the broad conservation issues endemic to the Treasure State the following are currently on center stage.
Public access to public lands.
Montana has lots of public land — more than 30 million acres.The state holds the dubious honor of having the most public land inaccessible (blocked or surrounded by private lands) to the public as compared to Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. An estimated 3.2 million acres of public land in the Treasure State cannot be accessed by the public.
Recent efforts such as proposed legislation to allow crossing at corners (envision a checkerboard) and increased funding to purchase easements through private land have gained traction. Groups such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation see access to  public lands as one of the major challenges for sporting folks in the coming decades.
Public land use for maximum public benefit.
Montana public lands, especially those administered by the federal government, have a history that primarily emphasized logging, mineral extraction, grazing and fossil fuel development as economic drivers. Individuals and organizations are increasingly questioning this model from economic and environmental standpoints.
In 2015 the grazing cost on federal land for a cow and her calf was $1.69 per month. Thus the public received $677 for 100 head of cows (and their calves) grazing on public land during a four-month period from June to September. That is nearly $200 less than the cost of a single Montana nonresident elk tag. Could the forage consumed by the cattle support a herd of a few dozen elk? Would the elk herd provide more economic benefit than the cows? Similar questions arise in relation to game birds, bighorn sheep, mule deer and other wildlife. Displacement of such creatures in relation to fossil fuel extraction on public land has economic and environmental impacts. Do these outweigh the fees received on the balance-sheet of public benefit?
Grizzly bear management and delisting.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to delist the grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2007. Environmental groups sued the agency almost immediately. A new delisting proposal is once again on the table and those same groups will likely oppose it again.
Grizzly bear numbers in the Yellowstone area now exceed 700 animals and have for a number of years. The original target population for removing the animals from the Endangered Species List is 500 bears. But, environmental groups claim dwindling food sources in the ecosystem, such as whitebark pine nuts and spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout, along with genetic isolation from other grizzly populations, threaten the bears’ future. Proponents of de-listing point to the steadily increasing bear population in the area, and the fact that researchers have found when food sources such as pine nuts and trout aren’t available, grizzly bears switch to other types of nutrition.
Montana claims the headwaters of the Missouri River. The lion’s share of its most robust tributary, the Yellowstone River, flows through the state as well. The Yellowstone is currently unimpeded by dams, but a proposed project by the Army Corps of Engineers would create a diversion dam for irrigation on the lower part of the river. A federal judge blocked the proposal in September 2015.
Several dams on the Missouri River store water. Management of this precious resource in drought years is increasingly contentious. A decade ago, the largest impoundment on the Missouri (Fort Peck Reservoir) saw its levels drop to the point that most boat launches were hundreds of yards from the water. Downstream interests (irrigation and barge traffic) trumped recreational use on the reservoir to the detriment of the local economy. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimated angler expenditures on the reservoir dropped 50 percent from their $15 million high in 2001.
There’s enough room for anyone to roam under the Big Sky, and enough controversies for anyone, it seems, to latch onto a cause.
Jack Ballard is a freelance writer and photographer with credits in more than 25 regional and national magazines. He’s also the author of eight books. He lives in Red Lodge, Montana and is OWAA’s local conference chair.

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