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More than 6,000 acres of key elk and deer winter range in the heart of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area would be protected under a conservation easement proposed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

FWP would purchase the easement on 6,850 acres from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for $1,599,000, according to Mike Thompson, FWP regional wildlife management area manager.

The payment by one state agency to the other is designed to compensate DNRC for giving up development rights to the state lands involved and the potential lost revenue for the state's school trust, Thompson said.

Funds for the easement would come from FWP's Habitat Montana Program, paid for with a portion of sales of resident and nonresident sportsman's licenses. A public meeting to explain the proposal and take comments is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Community Center.

Initially, Thompson said, FWP proposed to lease the development rights from DNRC. FWP's annual payment would have been about $20,000.

"We decided it would be better to pay it off up front in the form of a conservation easement," said Thompson. "That would offer more protection over the long run, especially if DNRC traded or sold that land in the future."

The state lands within the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area include about 3,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber Co. lands that DNRC acquired in exchange for scattered acreage outside the game range boundaries. FWP agreed to compensate DNRC for its lost opportunity to develop cabin or home sites at the prime location. DNRC is required by law to make the best use of state lands to generate revenue for the state's schools.

The lands under the conservation easement would continue to be managed by DNRC for existing uses, including forestry, and would continue to provide local tax revenues.

FWP has been trying for several years, in a three-phase project, to acquire a total of 7,800 acres of Plum Creek inholdings in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.

The first phase brought 856 acres into state ownership through a fund-raising effort by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Phase 2 involved the 3,000 acres acquired by DNRC in the land exchange with Plum Creek.

The conservation easement, which would also protect an additional 3,800 acres already owned by the state within the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA, would complete Phase 2, Thompson said.

Phase 3, which is not yet a formal proposal, involves an agreement between Plum Creek and the Nature Conservancy for acquisition by the conservation organization of some 40,000 acres of Plum Creek lands in the Blackfoot. Some of that land - about 4,000 acres - is adjacent to and within the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.

"FWP hopes some day to buy that back from the Nature Conservancy," Thompson said. "But we don't have the funds to do that now."

A migratory elk herd numbering over 1,000 animals depends on the winter range provided by the Blackfoot-Clearwater. The range also supports up to 1,000 mule deer and 1,000 white-tailed deer, as well as 29 other mammal species found on the wildlife management area.

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com

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