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Ear Mountain

Ear Mountain rises northwest of Choteau on the Rocky Mountain Front.

CHOTEAU – For all the work needed in the woods, there's at least as much to do back in the office regarding the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks analysts have several long-term projects underway that will affect how hikers, riders, hunters and neighbors experience the 1.5 million-acre backcountry. Much of the to-do list was reviewed at an annual public meeting on Saturday that's been convening every spring for more than 30 years.

This years' gathering attracted everyone from Choteau business owners and ranchers to horseback riders who could trace three generations of family experience in the Bob. In between were outfitters, airplane pilots, snowmobile riders and representatives from conservation groups like the Montana Wilderness Association.

Big-game populations have undergone some complicated swings, according to FWP biologist Brent Lonner. After peaking around 5,500 in 2011, elk numbers have dropped to about 4,500 this spring. Wolf numbers followed the same pattern, Lonner said.

However, those estimates depend on biologists' ability to count elk – which changes depending on how much snow the Rocky Mountain Front receives. Lonner said this winter and the 2014-15 season were both low-snow years. That allowed the elk to roam widely instead of bunching into easily countable herds on winter range. So while some areas like the Sun River Game Range appear below population objective, Lonner said the whole Front was probably about 30 percent above objective.

On the other hand, bighorn sheep show a steep decline after relatively steady growth until 2010. Herds on the Rocky Mountain Front are included in a statewide study looking for the causes of disease outbreaks that have devastated herds in the Bob, and the Rock Creek and Bitterroot areas near Missoula. While a kind of pneumonia tends to finish off the sheep, different strains of bacteria are suspected in starting the illness in different parts of the state.

While state biologists work on that, planning staff on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest are midway through drafting a new forest plan. The plan describes the forces and trends at work on the forest, what kinds of conditions people want to see there and what needs to be done or discouraged to achieve those conditions.

Forest planner Wendy Clark said that includes everything from how much timber can be harvested to how wide trails should be in backpacking areas. It also examines area waterways for possible designation as Wild and Scenic River designation, inventories all the campgrounds, picnic areas, roads and trails people use, and catalogs all the wildlife, vegetation and geological features.

The wilderness inventory and Wild and Scenic River study were released to the public last winter. Public meetings and comments will be gathered this spring and summer, with a draft environmental impact statement due by next spring. After additional public review, the final plan could be adopted around spring or summer of 2018.

The Flathead National Forest is about a year ahead of the Helena-Lewis and Clark. That's important, because the Flathead has the job of making the Forest Service compliant with a multi-agency plan to manage grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains when they are delisted from federal Endangered Species Act protection. That delisting could occur for grizzlies in the Bob in the next two or three years, depending on the success of a similar delisting effort for bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem nearing finalization this spring.

The Lolo National Forest, which also manages significant parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, begins its forest planning work in two years.

"It scares the pants off of all of us about how much work we have to do to get there," Clark said. "It's a pretty aggressive timeline for such a big task."

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