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'Money is starting to show up in big chunks. Local Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation chapters have adopted this as their big project.' - Mike Thompson, FWP biologist

The 50th anniversary of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area this year was a good cause for a celebration, according to Mike Thompson, the state wildlife biologist who's been in charge of the 67,000-acre game range since 1987.

"We knew we had to have a party for one thing," said Thompson. "It was obvious that what they were doing 50 years ago was a pretty good direction for wildlife. So, our citizen's advisory council asked ourselves where are we today. We decided it was time to quit just fixing fences, and do what we need to do to make sure this is doing its job 50 years from now."

So, he said, besides paying tribute to the stewardship that created the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA, Saturday's event will also address its biggest question mark in the future - the 7,800 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land in the core of its wildlife habitat.

A highlight of Saturday's event will be the announcement of an agreement to purchase 856 acres of that crucial habitat and transfer it to public ownership. And the celebration is also designed to be a springboard to launch the rest of the land-acquisition project. A partnership of public agencies and private organizations hopes to raise $2.2 million over the next two years to complete the transaction, which also may involve land exchanges.

"Money is starting to show up in big chunks," Thompson said. "Local Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation chapters have adopted this as their big project. The 50th anniversary is making it happen. There's something magic about 50 years."

The fairlike festivities begin at 9 a.m. at the Horseshoe Hills Guest Ranch just down the road from the wildlife management area. (See accompanying map.) Turn onto Woodworth Road near mile marker 7 on Highway 83, beside Salmon Lake. Follow the signs past Cozy Corner to the celebration.

There will be horse-drawn wagon rides, the famed Eastman World Record Elk Display, the electronic shooting center operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, an old-timers' history booth, self-guided tours, live music, games and prizes.

Food vendors will be serving from 10 a.m. on.

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A dedication ceremony will be held at noon on the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA. Buses will take visitors to the ceremony site, starting at 11 a.m. Speakers will include FWP Director Pat Graham; FWP regional wildlife manager John Firebaugh; and Mike Covey, vice president of resources for Plum Creek.

The dedication will have a "past-present-future theme," Thompson said.

The past will be represented by Merle Rognrud, the Fish and Game Department's wildlife biologist "west of the Divide" at the time the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA was purchased by the state. "He has a remarkable memory of history," said Thompson. "He'll talk about where we've been and what the vision was 50 years ago."

Debbie Austin, the new supervisor of the Lolo National Forest, will talk about present-day resource values, and the broader landscape bridge between the Blackfoot-Clearwater and other public lands, according to Thompson.

Gary Wolfe, executive director and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, will talk about the future of wildlife, and the need for private and public partnerships to preserve wildlife habitat, Thompson said.

Also at the dedication ceremony, a Monte Dolack commemorative painting of the Blackfoot-Cleawater WMA will be unveiled. Prints of the painting will be on sale to raise money for land acquisition. The original will be auctioned at Saturday evening's annual fund-raising banquet of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The banquet is sold out. The chapter also will offer fund-raising game booths and raffles for the WMA at Saturday's celebration.

To lend a dramatic flair to the ceremony, 100 members of the Backcountry Horsemen are scheduled to ride across the range to attend the dedication.

The shuttle busses will return to the guest ranch from 1 to 2 p.m., when the party will continue with live music and beverages.

Thursday - 6/10/99

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