Broadening the focus
I?f Montana had a “brand,” it would be a “W” for “wildlife.” That’s what a social sciences researcher recently concluded after analyzing websites featuring the name “Montana.” She found that wildlife and wild lands were associated more with Montana than with any of the other lower 48 states.
For most of its history, Montana has managed just a small portion of its famous wildlife. Hunters and anglers pay for the management of roughly 80 game fish and wildlife species with their license dollars and federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear.
Another relatively small group that has received much emphasis over the past two decades are federally endangered or threatened species. Grizzly bears, bull trout, and a handful of others receive special management emphasis and funding through the federal Endangered Species Act.
Both game and endangered wildlife have received considerable attention over the past century. What has been overlooked, however, are Montana’s roughly 550 other species, such as the arctic shrew, pygmy rabbit, black tern, and white sturgeon.
That’s beginning to change. Thanks to the federally funded State Wildlife Grant (SWG) Program, Montana and other states are looking at the status of species that fall in the conservation gap between game animals and those listed as officially endangered. Over the past few years, FWP biologists have used SWG funds to find fish in “fishless” prairie streams, discover a new mammal never before recorded in Montana, and create ways to protect both grizzly bears and local residents living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Recently, Montana and other states each produced a comprehensive fish and wildlife conservation strategy, required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure they spend SWG grants prudently. Montana’s strategy, developed and reviewed by scientists, agricultural interests, conservation groups, and state citizens, identifies 60 “Tier 1” species in greatest need of conservation. The idea is that if we help these animals now, we can prevent them from becoming federally threatened or endangered down the road.
Broadening our scope to look at additional species makes sense for other reasons, too. Anyone who spends time outdoors recognizes that species are connected. For example, a robust mouse population reduces the number of mule deer fawns that coyotes kill, because the small rodents are easier prey. The natural world is filled with these types of ecological connections.
And then there’s the fact that the mission of this department is to manage all of Montana’s wildlife—even bats, snakes, and salamanders.
Broadening our scope will not reduce the department’s desire or ability
to manage game species. Our biologists will continue to do what they’ve
always done for game animals. But what may be different is that fisheries
biologists might also count and measure blue suckers they find when surveying
rivers for sauger. Or we might use SWG funds to pay contractors to survey
species such as northern bog lemmings.
Montana has always been a national leader in fish and wildlife management. Our state’s healthy and economically valuable game populations are proof. By broadening our management focus, we plan to build on the state’s tradition of management excellence and make Montana’s wildlife “brand” even more diverse and abundant.
M. Jeff Hagener is Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks