Too often in our debates over Montana’s public lands, we seem to forget just how incredibly lucky we are to have these lands at all. This is especially true of the 2.4 million acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the Hi-Line District of central and eastern Montana. These lands are the grasslands, sagebrush, hoodoos and coulee country that may lack the breathtaking scenery of Glacier National Park or the Beartooth Plateau but are every bit as valuable for livestock grazing, energy development, hunting and fishing and a multitude of other pursuits. This is the real Big Sky Country, a working landscape of wind and solitude, gumbo mud and prairie, rich with wildlife and some of our most colorful and interesting history.
This past spring, the BLM released its draft resource management plans for the Hi-Line. The plan has been some years in the making, and it is as yet a proposal, not concrete policy. Studies conducted as part of the planning process show that the BLM has been a pretty darn good steward of these lands — ranges are healthy, habitats are intact and wildlife populations are generally strong.
These are the landscapes that have for generations offered Montanans some of the finest public hunting, sightseeing and camping in the world. The future of Montana’s outdoors-based economy lies in our keeping them intact, and the new management plan offers a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to do just that. A growing number of Montana sportsmen are asking the BLM to commit to conserving specific intact and undeveloped areas on the Hi-Line with outstanding wildlife habitat and recreational values. Focusing on what are essentially backcountry lands of the prairie, sportsmen want to keep the best of what we have, the way it is right now.
Hunters and anglers are asking the BLM to conserve these lands while maintaining public access and allowing for the kinds of improvements: habitat restoration, weed control and, flexible, responsive range management — that can give all of us, sportsmen, grazers, excursionists, and seekers of freedom and solitude, the certainty that our grandchildren will have the same opportunities to use and enjoy the public lands that we have now.
Sportsmen involvement to conserve these intact and undeveloped areas on the Hi-Line is based on a three-year-long mapping project where members of 43 different Montana hunting and fishing groups, from 32 communities, were asked to identify the areas on BLM-managed public lands that offered the most valuable and irreplaceable hunting. A lot of Montana sportsmen reluctantly revealed their favorite honey holes to create that map, and a lot of those special places are on the Hi-Line, from the elk hunter’s paradise of the Missouri Breaks to the antelope, mule deer and waterfowl country up near the Canadian border. The new resource management plan offers the ideal — and possible the only — opportunity to make sure we can protect those crucial areas for the future.
Hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation in the U.S. have become one of the most powerful engines of our economy, accounting for $646 billion in spending every year for everything from guns to trail running shoes to mountain bikes. In Montana, hunting- and fishing- related goods alone create an annual $980 million retail economy. These figures mean healthy businesses, real estate sales, college educations for our children, and a cascade of rural and urban employment opportunities that break the old cycle of boom and bust that has defined our state for so long. All that is required to fuel this particular engine is for us to conserve what we already value and enjoy.
Please join sportsmen in supporting the conservation of the finest tracts of intact and undeveloped prairie backcountry to sustain some of the best hunting and recreation lands on the Montana Hi-Line. Send an email to the Montana BLM at BLM_MT_HiLine_RMP@blm.gov, and ask them to conserve the Hi-Line’s best intact and undeveloped habitat and hunting areas.
(Hal Herring is the Montana Field Representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He writes from Augusta.)