SUSAN GALLAGHER Associated Press Writer HELENA
New agreements between the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and two federal agencies clear the way for habitat improvement projects spanning 10 years and nearly 260,000 acres in Montana and Wyoming. Agreements the foundation, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management signed Friday for 85,000 acres in western Montana and 174,000 acres west of Pinedale, Wyo., draw on a mechanism called “stewardship contracting,” authorized by Congress a few years ago. The foundation will serve as a contractor arranging habitat work with forest restoration and timber companies as subcontractors, and with groups such as conservation organizations. Funding will come from the federal sale of wood products. Absent the stewardship program, that money would enter a general treasury and performing the habitat work would require obtaining appropriations. “There are so many competing interests for those dollars that often this work wouldn’t get funded,” said Peter J. Dart, president and chief executive of the elk foundation based in Missoula. The stewardship agreements give priority to conservation concerns while acknowledging the importance of timber harvests, according to the foundation. The projects over the next 10 years aim to improve stands of aspen trees in Wyoming, trees important in supporting elk, birds and other wildlife. Work in western Montana will include restoring vegetation where wildfire suppression over the years disrupted natural cycles, Lolo National Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin said. The Forest Service land borders the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area near Ovando. Dennis Stenger, BLM field manager in Pinedale, said the stewardship agreements will serve as a model for potential use in other BLM offices. Advantages of a 10-year contract over customary year-toyear contracts include improved opportunity to monitor the progress of habitat enhancement, and a reduction in paperwork, Stenger said from Missoula, where the agreements were signed. The nonprofit foundation established in 1984 describes itself as an organization that works to ensure the future of habitat for elk and other wildlife. The foundation says it and its partners have permanently protected or enhanced lands with combined acreage nearly twice that of Yellowstone National Park.