History is not always kind to forestland.
Take the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, south of Missoula, where fire suppression and a lack of forest management opened the door to several large wildfires that burned especially hot, destroying stands and negatively impacting wildlife habitat.
More than 55 years ago, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks or FWP acquired what is now the Threemile Wildlife Management Area on the eastern side of the valley in the Sapphire Mountains. It is publicly accessible winter range for elk and mule deer. It’s also overly dense with a thick canopy leading to the potential long-term loss of productive habitat and a greatly elevated risk of both catastrophic wildfire and beetle kill outbreaks. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is collaborating with FWP, the Bitterroot National Forest and other partners on a multi-year project to enhance nearly 2,000 acres of land.
So far, crews thinned 1,265 acres of forest by removing potential ladder fuels and reducing the overly thick canopy that blocked the sun from reaching the forest floor, thwarting the growth of grasses and other wildlife-friendly vegetation. They also removed conifers from 227 acres of what were historic grasslands as well as conifers competing near aspen stands to promote growth and regeneration of aspen. The work took place during winter months to better protect the grassland and soils. The result is increased production of grasses, forbs, browse and other forage used by elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose and other wildlife while reducing the potential for crown fires. Biologists will apply what they learn by monitoring elk habitat use and vegetation condition toward future wildlife management practices.