Fifty years of public stewardship has returned the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area to its prime. The addition of 7,800 acres of Plum Creek lands will make a good thing even better.
BOYD MOUNTAIN - Sixty years ago this fall, Wes Woodgerd killed his first elk on Boyd Mountain, in the middle of the Boyd Ranch, now the heart of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.
Woodgerd, who was 22 years old that fall, bagged the elk during a late-season depredation hunt organized by the state Fish and Game Department in response to complaints from Rich Boyd and other area ranchers about crop damage caused by elk.
Ironically, 10 years later in 1949, Woodgerd was working as a hired hand for Montana Fish and Game on the Boyd Ranch, which had been purchased along with neighboring property as a sanctuary for elk and other wildlife. It was the state's third wildlife management area, and is today its largest, at 67,000 acres.
Woodgerd would go on to a long career in resource management and conservation that culminated as director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks from 1973 to 1977.
The Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area would become a haven for a herd of up to 1,200 elk, as well as 1,000 each of mule deer and white-tailed deer, and many other wildlife species.
Now, on the area's 50th anniversary, FWP is preparing a celebration to honor the stewardship that created the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA, and also the private-public partnership that is dedicated to preserving its future.
The celebration is Saturday.
A fairlike atmosphere, with a variety of activities, should make it "one of those events that you remember for the rest of your life," said Mike Thompson, a FWP wildlife biologist and manager of the agency's Region 2 wildlife management areas in western Montana since 1987.
A highlight of Saturday's festivities will be the expected announcement of an agreement to purchase 856 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land in the core of the Blackfoot-Clearwater. The purchase of this key deer and elk winter habitat is the first phase of a four-phase plan to acquire and transfer to state ownership 7,800 acres of Plum Creek lands within the WMA.
The purchase agreement is the work of a partnership that includes FWP, Plum Creek, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Five Valleys Land Trust and the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA Citizens Advisory Council.
The FWP Commission last week approved the use of $500,000 of the department's Habitat Montana funds for the purchase. The remainder of the cost will come from money raised by the Elk Foundation for the project.
Plans to acquire the remaining Plum Creek lands in the Blackfoot-Clearwater would occur in three additional phases, according to Thompson. Those plans involve possible land exchanges with the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Last week, on a visit to the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA, Woodgerd told Thompson that the site looked much the same as when he worked there 50 years ago - only better.
After the recent rains, the range wore a fresh green blanket of native bunch grasses, sprinkled with the varied hues of balsam root, sticky geranium, lupine, snowberry and other wildflowers. A soaring red-tailed hawk surveyed its domain from the patches of clearing blue sky overhead.
"Honestly, they were having problems with elk depredation on the ranches here 10 years before the state bought it," said Woodgerd, who looks wiry and fit as he nears his 82nd birthday. "They had late-season hunts on the Boyd ranch to kill elk that Boyd was complaining about. They were logging here then. Anaconda Company had railroad tracks to haul out the logs on horse-drawn carts.
"Cliff Boyd bred horses, big Percherons, to sell to the logging teams. When the state bought the land, it had a lot of unbroken horses on the open hills on the Clearwater side. So the place had a bunch of one-ton animals there that were wilder than the elk. They tried to gather 'em up and load 'em in a stock truck, but those horses took out the side of the truck, and away they went. They finally got the horses out of there in '48 or '49. But the result was that the range on those open hills was really bad, and the e
lk weren't using it. They wintered in the timber on the Cottonwood (Creek) side."
Early attempts failed to lure elk to those open hills overlooking the Clearwater River with feed pellets, said Woodgerd.
"It looked like that was the prime winter range," he said. "But the elk didn't stay there because of the poor condition of the range."
After he received his masters degree in wildlife technology at the University of Montana, Woodgerd put in a stint as a wildlife biologist at the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA from 1953 to 1955. At that time, he said, the range harbored a couple of hundred elk.
Records show that by 1955, grass conditions on the WMA had improved considerably, Thompson said.
"You guys had the right instincts," he said. "Now that's the core of the winter range. We usually have a single group of around 600 elk there every winter."
"Last winter, considering the whole wildlife management area, we had just over 1,000 elk here. It's been as high as 1,200 in the late '80s. That was too many. They started to disperse onto neighboring ranches."
Permit hunting for antlerless elk in the '90s has brought the elk numbers down to a level the WMA can sustain, he said.
A few things about the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA have changed in the past 50 years, Woodgerd and Thompson realized while comparing notes on their respective tenures.
Land exchanges and conservation easements have consolidated more land within the area over the years, Thompson said. Plum Creek, following Champion International, now owns the timber lands that were once the Anaconda Co.'s.
Noxious weeds - spotted knapweed and leafy spurge - just starting to be a nuisance 50 years ago, are a constant, ongoing management problem today.
In the '50s, Woodgerd recalled, widespread summer livestock grazing was allowed on the site. Today, Thompson said, FWP provides summer livestock grazing leases only on the periphery of the WMA, in exchange for winter range for elk on surrounding ranches.
During his time on the Blackfoot-Clearwater, Woodgerd said, the state wildlife officials had some problems with livestock trespassing on the range after grazing leases had expired in the fall.
"One day a rancher came up and said he had some cows up there and he was having trouble getting them out," said Woodgerd. "There was a young bull elk up there that the Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton had been experimenting with. They released him on the range and he was half tame. But his hormones began to stir, and he gathered up a half-dozen white-faced cows, and they were his. That old bull wouldn't give the rancher his cows back. I was finally able to run him off with a shotgun."
Another change in the WMA is the makeup of the deer population on the range. It was almost entirely mule deer 50 years ago, Woodgerd said. Today, Thompson said, deer numbers are about equally divided between mule deer and white-tailed deer.
Hunting on the WMA today is regulated by special permits awarded in FWP's annual license drawing, Thompson said. Although the hunting season was restricted 50 years ago, Woodgerd said, anyone was allowed to hunt on the Blackfoot-Clearwater.
On their tour of the game range last week, Woodgerd and Thompson saw the tracks and scat of a grizzly bear. Grizzlies are not uncommon on the site these days, Thompson commented. There were black bears, said Woodgerd, but no grizzlies on the range 50 years ago.
Woodgerd took a hiatus from his work with the state wildlife agency from 1959 to 1962, when he was the assistant leader of the University of Montana's wildlife research unit. He spent those three years helping John Craighead with his landmark grizzly bear studies in Yellowstone Park.
After that, Woodgerd returned to work for the Fish and Game Department as a wildlife biologist at Miles City, and then as the agency's district supervisor in Glasgow. In 1965, when the department took over management of the state parks from the Highway Department, Woodgerd moved to Helena as administrator of the new Recreation and Parks Division. In 1973, Gov. Tom Jud
ge appointed him director of the agency.
"I had autonomy there that nobody else has enjoyed," he said. "I suspect I was stepping on a lot of toes. Judge didn't indicate he would reappoint me, so I retired in 1977."
Woodgerd, a Missoula native who now lives in the Bitterroot Valley, obviously enjoyed his recent visit to his old stomping grounds on the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA. He talked about the ranchers and fellow department employees he knew back then, and the old Boyd Ranch house he lived in that burned down in 1988, when wildfire swept across the range and roared on past Ovando.
"It hasn't changed that much," Woodgerd said. "After that rain it's so fresh and nice looking. The management area has done its job. It's provided the things it was purchased for."
That's the point of Saturday's 50th anniversary celebration, Thompson said.
"Most people aren't aware of what's here," he said. "Most of the elk in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area winter here. And it's due to the foresight they had 50 years ago. That's what we're doing with this anniversary, recognizing what these people put together in the '40s and '50s. It was a good enough idea that it stood the test of time for 50 years.
"Now this is a test of our stewardship, to see if it can make it another 50 years. And in truth, the answer is no. We need to address this lands ownership issue. That's the weak link. You can see subdivisions just across the road. So, the question is are we going to stay ahead of the curve?"
"I'd love to be in your shoes," Thompson told Woodgerd, "to have done something young in your career that you could look back at 50 years later, and see that it's still such a success."
Thursday - 6/10/99