The wisdom behind WMAs
?Reports over the past year of increasing incidents of brucellosis in elk using Wyoming feed grounds have made me thankful for the foresight of Montana’s early wildlife managers in establishing state wildlife management areas (WMAs).
Wyoming maintains 22 feed grounds, where wintering elk crowd together to
eat food provided by the state. The main purpose of the grounds is to block
the access of migrating elk to their historic winter ranges, where the wild
ungulates compete with cattle for forage. The crowded conditions on feed
grounds make the elk more
susceptible to brucellosis and chronic wasting disease.
Montana faces a similar challenge with migrating elk, but we have chosen a different route. Beginning in the late 1930s, we began to purchase and lease prime wintering habitat where elk could feed naturally without mingling in unhealthy concentrations. It’s a decision this agency has never regretted.
Since then, Montana has established 18 elk wintering areas as state WMAs. The two largest are the Sun River and Blackfoot–Clearwater wildlife management areas. Located in western Montana, these and other elk winter range WMAs support roughly 15 percent of the state’s elk herd. Without them, Montanans would have fewer elk to watch and hunt, and the problem of elk depredation on private land would increase considerably.
Elk aren’t the only beneficiaries of WMAs. Freezout, Ninepipe, and Pablo WMAs are wetlands managed primarily for waterfowl, shorebirds, and upland game birds. And a wide range of other wildlife use the habitats conserved in Montana’s WMA system, including migrating warblers, raptors, tundra swans, wolverines, mountain goats, deer, moose, and grizzly bears.
Though the primary purpose of WMAs is to provide wildlife habitat, they are open to public hunting, wildlife watching, photography, and hiking.
WMAs also represent this agency’s commitment to working with local ranching communities to reduce wildlife depredation problems. WMAs are now “part of the neighborhood,” so to speak.
On many, we allow carefully managed cattle grazing. That helps local ranchers, but it’s also good for elk and deer, which benefit from the fresher, greener grass that grows after managed grazing. Often those ranchers incorporate a managed grazing regime on their own property adjacent to WMAs, improving wildlife habitat on the private land, too.
What’s more, FWP pays “in-lieu-of-taxes” equal to what counties would receive in tax revenue if WMA lands were privately owned. And the department aggressively controls weeds to prevent their spread from WMAs to nearby agricultural lands.
Despite all the good they do, Montana’s 300,000 acres of WMAs account for just one-third of one percent of Montana’s land base. And part of that is leased from federal agencies, private corporations, or other state departments. (Minnesota, by comparison, is two-thirds the size of Montana yet has more than 1 million WMA acres.)
Montana has long prided itself on the wisdom of managing wildlife naturally, according to sound, biological principles. To me, that pride is justified every time I compare the sight of elk crowded into Wyoming feed grounds, eating hay or alfalfa pellets tossed from the back of a truck, to that of free-roaming elk grazing natural forage on one of Montana’s scenic wildlife management areas.
M. Jeff Hagener is Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks