Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


Landscapes, Public Land and Boundaries


I didn’t write this as an expert on land management and wildlife issue, or as a representative of any organization. I did write it as someone with strong concerns about where society as it relates to those issues is headed, and as an area resident who would like to meet others for informal discussions about the issues presented.

Gentrification of the West

I’m from Nevada. My Dad was born and raised on a ranch in the Smith Valley area of Nevada that my grandparents owned. When Dad came back from World War II, he wanted nothing to do with the ranch, nor did his brother and sisters. So my grandparents sold it.

I spent a good part of my childhood living on another ranch near Carson City, Nev. where my uncle was foreman. Those ranches were in lush areas surrounded by sun baked, high-desert. Now those lush areas no longer feed cattle but are crowded with massive homes and overwatered golf courses: gentrification of what used to be prime ranch country.

I call it gentrification because we 99 percenters can no longer afford to live there. This has resulted in a changing social landscape that is happening throughout the west.

Here in the upper Blackfoot River area of Montana, multi-generation ranches may hit the real estate market when kids are grown and have no interest in maintaining the tradition. Those large tracts of land are often sold to wealthy “outsiders,” folks who do not live here year round.

Those part-timers call it a ranch, but... a ranch is where they raise and sell livestock, period. And the owner of that ranch is the one checking fence lines and cows about to calve. I heard an interview several years ago with Wally McRae, a third generation rancher and cowboy poet from Forsyth, Mont. To paraphrase one of his comments: “These newcomers are coming here for the lifestyle. But for us multi-generational ranchers, it’s a way of life.”

Public Lands

An issue that is of paramount importance to me is proximity and access of public lands. Remember, I’m from Nevada where more than 80 percent of the land is owned by the federal government (owned by you and me), most of it by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Statewide for Montana, roughly 30 percent is federal land with the bulk of that in the western third of the state. Most of that third is owned by the US Forest Service (USFS; again, it belongs to you and me).

Mixed with the USFS lands are those owned by BLM, US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service. In addition to federal lands are those owned by Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

A trend with many newcomer landowners is to block access to public lands. I was on the phone recently with a FWP employee, trying to find out why an area of DNRC is signed with “No Trespassing”. FWP posts signs on DNRC and private lands that are part of a Block Management Area (BMA) program to promote hunting on lands enrolled in that program. Though DNRC lands are open to public access, they are included for signage as part of the BMA administered by FWP.

FWP also posts no trespassing signs on adjacent private lands that do not allow access as part of the BMA program but are adjacent to open areas. Private lands bordering the DNRC lands that are now posted with “No Trespassing” signs were recently purchased by a wealthy non-resident.

The FWP Region 2 BMA supervisor assured me that the “no trespassing” sign on that DNRC public land would be changed: “no trespassing” would be blocked out but “no shooting/safety zone” left due to its proximity to private land, which is as it should be. Thank you, FWP.

There is a growing movement advocating for transfer of federal lands, especially those owned by the USFS, to state ownership. If that happens, who will foot the bill of the first major forest fire, once the state’s coffers are emptied?

Just to give an idea of fire suppression costs, I’ll use one fire of last summer as an example. The Roaring Lion fire near Hamilton, Mont. burned 8,658 acres. Cost estimate for suppression is $11,000,000, yes, 11 million dollars. I could load you with more figures but it is overwhelming when looking at the total acreage those advocates want transferred to DNRC; revenue that might be generated by increased timber and other resource extraction versus management costs of that vastly increased acreage, especially wildland fire suppression (and prevention) costs.

Below is a link to a September 2014 article in the Billings Gazette by Brett French who researched management costs and revenue that might be generated. The bottom line: It is believed by many that if the transfer proposal is successful that DNRC would be liquidating much of that transferred federal land, selling to private parties because of massively increased management costs of those lands.

From the Billings Gazette:

And on another note I’ll add: Lands with no public access privatizes our public wildlife.

Landscapes and Boundaries

When I look at a landscape, I’m seeing wildlife habitat; wildlife belong to no one and everyone.

I recently read an excellent book titled, “A Journey through America’s Heart: Yellowstone” by Bozeman author David Quammen. Quammen discusses many of the controversial issues of wildlife management in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One of those issues is the seasonal migration of elk from the upper elevations within the park to large ranches in Wyoming outside the park.

Acre by acre that elk winter range is being eaten by developers, building homes and loading the area with people, many who claim to be wildlife advocates and environmentalists.

To quote from Quammen’s book, “Wes had a piece of advice, he told me, for the righteous, out-of-state greenies he sometimes met, affluent people with their vacation home sites and little hobby ranches carved out of these mountains. If you really want to help Yellowstone wildlife, he’d say, ‘Burn your house down and go back to California’.”

Landscapes in the west contain geographic, political, social and even economic boundaries. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is vast and contains each of those boundaries, as does the upper Blackfoot River area where I currently live.

This upper Blackfoot area is south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The geographic boundaries of federal, state and private lands are fixed. To the west is the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range, an area owned and managed by FWP and established as elk winter range.

Wildlife boundaries are dynamic, not fixed. Elk don’t (and can’t!) abide by geographic boundaries and thrive throughout this area, year round.

Economically, it’s a double-edged sword. Hunters, who add to revenue generation, flock to this area. But ranchers have to deal with elk damaged fences and elk foraging on crops.

And grizzlies. Increasingly they are pushing further south to forage in fields where they hadn’t been seen in many decades and can be a serious factor during bovine calving.

And wolves. There are several established packs in the area. Wolves may be a serious cost factor considering not only depredation claims on livestock, but preventative measures that mean additional time invested by ranch owners and the possible hiring of range-riders.

Added to the mix of geographic boundaries and economic concerns is the issue of the changing social landscape. That’s a tough one, maybe the hardest to address. I know that for me, personally, it’s a hard one to accept.

But the ultimate bottom line for me, I cannot and will not live in a sanitized landscape.

“Thinking like a Mountain”

From “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I recently took a drive south of Ovando and noticed elk on a pasture and was reminded of that economic double-edged sword. I got out of the rig with my camera and photographed over two hundred elk, many of them bulls. The bugling was almost constant. And though in a cultivated pasture, it felt so wild and was thrilling to hear.

I relayed this to a friend who told me that she and her husband were watching a much smaller herd of elk that took off running. She said she’ll never forget feeling the ground vibrating from their pounding hooves.

Hoof beats ~ heartbeat.


I thank Brett French of the Billings Gazette, Erik Nylund with Senator Jon Tester’s office, and Derek Davenport with the Darby Ranger District/USFS for information and David Quammen for inspiration to be able to write my feelings and concerns for that which is so important to me.


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