RYE CREEK - Standing in front of a crew packing binoculars, Mike Mueller sounds the challenge of a bull elk through his camouflaged call.
For a moment, the crowd goes silent in hopes of hearing a reply.
A half-mile off on top of a distant ridgeline, a herd of elk stops grazing for a moment to look his way.
None utter a sound.
Still, Mueller, the senior lands program manager of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, can't help but smile.
"That's exciting to see," he said. "Good habitat. Good management. Put those two together and you'll see elk every time."
On Tuesday, Mueller was part of an entourage of county commissioners, local sportsmen and state lands representatives touring property being considered for exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and CB Ranch.
The proposal calls for swapping 1,920 acres of national forest land for an equal amount of ranch land in an effort to simplify boundaries between the two entities.
Today, the ownership is in a checkerboard pattern that both sides say makes management difficult.
One section of ranch land is an inholding surrounded by national forest and state lands separated by miles from the 25,000-acre CB Ranch.
Another section of national forest land has no legal public access.
Craig Barrett - a former board chairman of Intel Corp. and owner of CB Ranch - said the exchange is all about cleaning up boundary lines to allow for better management of land and wildlife habitat.
As the yellow tour bus bumped along the steep and windy road, Barrett talked about his long-term plans for the Bitterroot ranch.
"My wife and I first came for a visit to the Triple Creek (resort) in 1988 and we fell in love with the area," Barrett said.
In 1999, Barrett purchased the first 10,000 acres of his ranch. He eventually added lands previously owned by Darby Lumber Co., which had all the merchantable timber removed, and a former game farm that was ready to be subdivided into 20-acre tracts.
Since then, crews working for Barrett have planted between 80,000 and 90,000 ponderosa pines on lands that were burned or clear-cut. They've used helicopters and ATVs to spray noxious weeds and they've installed new culverts.
Officials along on the tour said the result has been a documented decline of sediment reaching Rye Creek and the Bitterroot River.
"My vision for this ranch is that it will end up as a large protected piece of property," Barrett said. "I want it to become a natural preserve that will support populations of mule deer, whitetail, elk and a collection of mountain lions and bear and bighorn sheep."
In 2004, Barrett worked with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to put 2,000 acres in conservation easement. He plans to do the same with the lands he will acquire in the exchange.
The exchange does face some opposition.
The Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association is against the deal.
The association's president, Tony Jones, said the Forest Service is giving up lands that have better big-game habitat.
"What the CB Ranch wants to give up has been bulldozed and logged over," Jones said. "It's just not good wildlife habitat."
But John Ormiston, a former Forest Service wildlife biologist and longtime association member, said places like the CB Ranch are important for the long-term viability of big-game herds in the Bitterroot.
North of Connor, private lands winter two-thirds of the elk herd in Bitterroot Valley. The rest are found on national forest and state lands, Ormiston said.
"This is an excellent example of how we can protect these valuable wintering grounds on private land from subdivision and other development by working with a willing landowner and a land trust," Ormiston said.
The proposed exchange could mark the end of a long effort to block up federal lands that were given away a century ago as an incentive to the Northern Pacific Railroad.
David Genter of the Big Sky Land Group has been working for years to help make that happen.
In 2005, as a member of the Trust for Public Lands, he helped acquire federal funding to purchase 5,760 acres of land from Darby Lumber Co. that was added to the Bitterroot National Forest.
In 2007, the CB Ranch exchanged 1,280 acres for 640 acres of state lands to continue that process of blocking up public land.
"What we started off with was a checkerboard from hell," Genter said. "The sections of Darby Lumber Co. land were clear-cut so severely that you could actually see them in photographs from outer space."
Genter said he appreciates the efforts of the CB Ranch to address the myriad issues on that abused landscape.
"I've seen a tremendous amount of stewardship and those efforts are healing these lands," he said. "The sedimentation in Rye Creek has been dramatically improved to the point that bull trout are again beginning to migrate up into the creek."
Roylene Gaul of the Bitterroot Forest said boundary management is a "huge issue" for the agency.
"It makes it easier for the public to recreate on lands that are contiguous," she said. "I know a lot of these lands are cut over, but 25 years from now those small trees that you see growing on the hillside will have grown to large trees and my grandchildren are going to be able to enjoy that."
The Forest Service is reviewing the environmental assessment on the proposed exchange.
Bitterroot Forest environmental coordinator Amy Veirs said the assessment will probably be available for public comment sometime in October or early November.