Cream of the Crop

Cream of the CropMontana’s wildlife management areas encompass some of the state’s finest habitat communities.
By Sam Curtis

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
September–October 2007

When hungry elk began ransacking the haystacks and crops of Augusta rancher C. R. Rathbone, the depths of his frustration were evident in the advertisement he placed in the local newspaper: He asked for help from anyone willing to machine gun up to 1,000 of the ungulates.

That was in 1938. Whether the rancher found any takers or not, the elk massacre never took place. But the following year, still frustrated over increased depredation, Rathbone illegally killed an elk on his ranch. The case eventually went to the Montana Supreme Court, and in 1940 the rancher was convicted after the high court concluded that those who own land in Montana must accept “some injury to property or inconvenience from wild game for which there is no recourse.”

Though it agreed with the ruling, the Montana State Fish and Game Commission, which was responsible for managing the state’s wildlife, did not want to alienate farmers and ranchers. The Montana Legislature had earlier passed laws requiring the state wildlife agency to help landowners suffering losses from big game. Also, wildlife populations were finally on the increase, after hitting dismal and historic lows only a decade earlier. The commission didn’t want to antagonize the agricultural community upon whose land the state’s deer and elk freely roamed and fed.

To meet both the court and legislative mandates, and also the needs of the wildlife it was entrusted to manage, the commission decided to purchase ranchland that contained prime winter range. Held in trust for the people and wildlife of the state, this habitat would help feed the growing numbers of deer and elk during the harshest time of year and forestall them from heading to ranchlands.

The first acquisition was in 1940, when the commission bought 1,004 acres of big game winter range in the Little Belt Mountains. That land became the foundation of the Judith River Wildlife Manage­ment Area (WMA), part of what has grown into a statewide system with more than 300,000 acres of wildlife habitat in dozens of WMAs spread across Montana. WMAs encompass all four of the state’s ecotypes: intermountain grasslands, montane forest, plains grassland and forest, and shrub grassland. These biologically rich lands provide habitat for big game animals, waterfowl, and upland birds. WMAs are also home to warblers, raptors, furbearers, federally threatened species, and dozens of state species of concern, including the pygmy rabbit, western toad, and greater sage grouse.

Funding for this vital game and nongame wildlife habitat has come from hunters, primarily through license fees and a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition divided among states to conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat. Montana’s WMA network, like those in many other states, is part of a nationwide wildlife population restoration system known as the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. Based on the objectives of protecting wildlife habitat and maintaining public access to wildlife, the North American approach has allowed the continent’s wildlife populations to grow and expand despite growing and expanding human populations. “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world,” says Jim Posewitz, founder of Orion—The Hunter’s Institute, a nonprofit organization promoting ethical hunting. “Hunters and hunting have created and sustained a conservation system that keeps wildlife as a public and sustainable resource that is scientifically managed by professionals.”

When Montana acquired the first WMAs, the idea of restoring wildlife by protecting habitat was just gaining currency. Today, habitat conservation is accepted as the foundation of all wildlife management. The idea of what habitat is and how it works continues to evolve. As wildlife biologists recognize the inter­connectedness of animal species and plant communities, they have begun to talk about WMAs in terms of entire habitat communities. “Instead of focusing just on elk winter range, we look at the broader intermountain grasslands,” says Steve Knapp, chief of FWP’s Wildlife Habitat Bureau. “Instead of just sage grouse habitat, it’s the sagebrush-grassland community. Instead of just pheasant hunting opportunities, we consider the entire riparian and wetland habitats and the great variety of wildlife all of these habitats support.”

WMAs aren’t just any old lands. “They tend to be cornerstones of larger complexes of wildlife habitat,” says Mike Thompson, FWP regional wildlife manager in Missoula. “The WMA itself may comprise only 5 or 10 percent of that complex, but it provides a key component for wildlife survival.”

Thompson, previously manager of the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA near Seeley Lake, says the same habitat that benefits deer and elk herds also benefits a wide range of other wildlife species, including those FWP has identified as “species in greatest need of conservation.” For example, the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA contains critical elk winter range but is also home to grizzly bears, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, and flammulated owls.

“WMAs can benefit species that are of growing concern to us today and still maintain our original objectives for species that first caught our attention, such as elk and waterfowl,” says Knapp. “They really fit in well with the department’s comprehensive approach to managing all wildlife species by managing broad ecological landscapes.”

Montana’s WMAs still help alleviate conflicts between agriculture and wildlife. That value is underscored each time Wyo­ming reports incidents of brucellosis in elk using feeding grounds. Wyoming maintains 22 of these public feeding areas, where wintering elk crowd together to eat state-provided food. The areas were established to block access of migrating elk to historic winter ranges, where the wild ungulates compete with cattle for forage. The crowded conditions on feeding grounds make the elk more susceptible to diseases such as brucellosis. Montana chose a different approach by purchasing WMAs, which are natural feeding grounds.

That’s not to say free-ranging wildlife stay off private land. Deer and elk are oblivious to boundaries, and many continue to feed on adjacent ranchlands, sometimes causing severe depredation problems. Years ago, wildlife managers came up with an innovative—and at first controversial—solution: Allow, on some WMAs, carefully managed cattle grazing. One of the first sites for this experiment was Fleecer Mountain WMA near Divide. Wildlife managers worked with local ranchers to rotate cattle grazing between a pasture on private land and WMA pastures to periodically rest vegetation so it could regenerate. According to Mike Frisina, manager of the WMA at the time and now the FWP range/habitat coordinator, this rest-rotation grazing system on and next to WMAs improves the forage on private land both for the rancher’s cattle and the deer and elk that feed there in winter. Another benefit is that cattle grazing, in some cases, actually improves wildlife forage on WMAs. “When we have a lesser-quality grass such as smooth brome that gets too coarse for elk and deer, having it periodically grazed down by cattle improves the palatability, and game animals will go in and use it,” Frisina says. Over the past 20 years, several ranchers with lands next to WMAs have entered into grazing agreements with FWP that improve the quality of forage for both cattle and wildlife over entire landscapes. “I guess we’ve ma­tured along with our WMAs,” says Frisina. “By integrating management of our WMAs with adjacent private lands, we’re improve the situation for wildlife.”

Another way FWP integrates WMAs into local neighborhoods is by making prop­­erty tax payments and aggressively controlling weeds to prevent their spread to nearby agricultural lands.

Biologists and scientists with FWP and other agencies and institutions often conduct studies and habitat management experiments on WMAs. In one study, University of Montana researchers discovered that aspen stands on the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA provide essential habitat diversity for a variety of wildlife species, including cavity-nesting birds. FWP wildlife managers re­sponded by fencing many stands to prevent elk from browsing the trees. Also on the Blackfoot-Clearwater, FWP has been studying the use of insects to control knapweed and other harmful invasives without damaging native flowering plants. “We’re transitioning to what is called ‘biological control’ in areas where chemicals are harming forbs,” says Thompson. “Forbs are part of the food chain for insects and a variety of nongame wildlife.”

Though managed foremost for the benefit of wildlife, WMAs accommodate a wide range of recreational uses. Ninepipe WMA, south of Pablo, has outstanding pheasant and waterfowl hunting on its 3,950 acres of restored and enhanced wetlands and the adjoining grain fields sharecropped by local farmers. Archery and rifle hunters stalk elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and pronghorn on the sprawling 58,188 acres of Mount Haggin WMA, the largest in the system. Like other wildlife management areas, the numerous units of the Milk River WMA in Phillips County offer excellent hunting as well as wildlife watching, which continues to gain participants each year. “Hunters know where the WMAs are, and they use them all,” Knapp says. “But we’re also seeing more birders, photographers, and others keying in on these areas.” Beartooth WMA, north of Helena, is popular with horseback riders and hikers. Freezout WMA, west of Great Falls, is a nationally renowned waterfowl viewing area. “Freezout is a particularly accessible WMA,” says Knapp. “I go up there each spring with my mother, who turned 90 this year,” “She can see huge flocks of waterfowl from the vehicle. ”

WMAs account for just one-third of 1 percent of Montana’s total land base. That’s not much wildlife habitat, especially when considering the increasing acreage of land surrounding WMAs being bought for subdivisions. The fast-growing development fragments the habitat that many species on WMAs use at various times during the year. “With land prices climbing the way they have, it gets harder and harder to buy new WMAs or expand the borders of existing ones,” says Jeff Herbert, assistant chief of FWP’s Wildlife Division. “That’s why the department has begun trying to broaden the ‘footprint’ of WMAs in order to secure high-quality habitat over a broader landscape.”

To expand the effects of WMAs, FWP purchases conservation easements from willing sellers on private lands containing prime habitat abutting the state lands. FWP pays a lump sum in exchange for the landowner agreeing to limit development and carry out land improvements, such as rest-rotational grazing, that help wildlife. In many cases, land­owners have sought out the easements, recognizing benefits to both the WMA and their own property. “One landowner sold us a conservation easement on property where a future owner could have built homes right up against the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA boundary,” says Thompson. “We didn’t want that to happen, and neither did he. The conservation easement was a perfect solution.”

Such creative approaches to protecting habitat are becoming increasingly important. Each year more houses, shopping malls, and fences are built on lands across Montana that for thousands of years have provided wildlife habitat. “Wildlife is a public resource, but in much of Montana, most wildlife lives on private land,” says Herbert. “We probably will never be able to replicate the acquisitions we made in the mid-20th century and vastly expand our WMA system. But by working with landowners adjacent to these critical habitats, we’re trying to leverage the tremendous wildlife value of WMAs and expand their effectiveness.” Bear bullet

Because WMAs are managed principally for the benefit of wildlife, they are closed from December through May. For specific opening and closing dates as well as other WMA regulations, maps, and management information, visit the FWP website at

Writer Sam Curtis lives in Bozeman.