A handful of local folks offered their insights into what the Rocky Mountain Front is all about on Sept. 14, leaving a small but interested audience with nuggets of information on what one of the speakers called a “world class landscape.”
The University of Montana and the Choteau Area Port Authority sponsored the two-day event, “the Rocky Mountain Front Gathering, mountains, wildlife, communities.” Saturday morning’s lineup included Mary Sexton, Brent Lonner, Mike Munoz, Bill Cunningham, Dave Shea, Doug Weist and Courtney Duke Graves. Noted author and photographer, Front aficionado and UM educator Rick Graetz assisted throughout the event at the Stage Stop Inn and during several field trips for the attendees.
The seven speakers used their experience and accumulated knowledge to provide takeaways that they hope will be relayed to a wider audience of friends, families and business owners who might decide to visit Choteau and other local communities, the Rocky Mountain Front and the national forest lands that provide the Front’s backstop.
“We are working on how to promote the Front,” said Sexton, chairwoman of the CAPA board, in her introductory remarks. “We don’t want to be a ‘Whitefish,’ but we want more traffic and want to brand our assets.” That branding would include digitally marketing the towns and the Front.
Sexton mentioned how the periodic improvements to U.S. Highway 89 — the “Park to Park Highway” — have helped, so has the Stage Stop Inn’s expansion in Choteau. “How do we encourage people to come?” she asked, naming several local events that have contributed to the increased traffic including partnering with Old Trail Museum during the geese migration at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Choteau, for example.
Lonner, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist based at Freezout, produced maps that showed the several wildlife management areas along the Front and delved into the current research on what is the status and habits of the Front’s big game, including elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep.
“From the mountains to the prairies, we have a phenomenal diversity of wildlife second to none in the lower 48,” Lonner said. He credited the agricultural communities for their willingness to work with wildlife officials to provide habitat that contributes to the games’ sustainability, from providing land dedicated to game preserves, to tolerating game on their private lands. He also credited conservation easements that result in maintaining blocks of undeveloped landscapes. These have produced a voluntary prohibition of subdivisions mostly in the prairie and foothills west of U.S. Highway 89 which runs through Fairfield, Choteau, Bynum and Dupuyer.
He spoke of the challenges the state has encountered such as a recent die-off of bighorn sheep, stressing that domestic sheep are not implicated in the problem and the subsequent pneumonia is an “artifact of something else.”
Lonner then spoke of the ongoing and past research projects that included GPS collars on roaming big game animals, among other topics.
Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Munoz, a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, has been based in Choteau since 1999. Recreationists have more than 700,000 acres of national forest to explore, he said, naming the many amenities to choose from.
He said the USFS uses seasonal workers, providing an employment opportunity while supporting the outfitters who also use the forest for their livelihoods.
He spoke about grizzly bears, too, noting that a 300-pound food-conditioned bear was euthanized having created a problem in the Pretty Prairie section of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It will be mounted and used for educational purposes, he said.
He stressed that wildfires have their place on the forest landscape, noting research from the federal ag agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, that showed that a 1 percent addition of organic matter (such as from burned up timber) on one acre resulted in an increased soil-water holding capacity of 25,000 gallons. He explained how the second and third “entry of fire” benefits the fire-affected landscape by eliminating the downed logs.
Retired outfitter Bill Cunningham and retired Glacier Park ranger Dave Shea, honed in on the history of the Bob Marshall Wilderness designation and the cultural history of the Front from the days of the Blackfeet hunting grounds to the legacy of the Old North Trail, respectively.
Cunningham introduced his talk with, “Trees lean east and people lean west,” in homage to the frequent windy conditions on the Front. Walking the audience through the development of the wilderness complex in existence today, he explained the latest regulations in the Heritage Act that added more forest acreage to the wilderness designation.
A coalition of people pursued the work under a common denominator, he said, that of “leaving the Front the way it is,” adding, “It’s a world class landscape.”
Farmer and ag business owner Doug Weist offered insight into the economics of the cropping community in the Golden Triangle region, from Great Falls to the Canadian border. He said 96 percent of the farms in Teton County are family-run.
He spoke of the evolving interest in crops beyond low-priced wheat such as pulse crops and hemp. Technology is fulfilling the need to stay solvent, he said. For example, variable rate pivots and fertilizer applicators save water along with costs. He brought to the talk a drone that he uses to scout fields, check on cows and monitor water tanks.
“The modern farm is happening right here,” Weist said. “Our margins are so small now. Economics is pushing us.”
Graves, an Acantha reporter, joined the staff a year ago. She quipped that she and her husband have walked 200 miles in the Bob so far and have seen every species of wildlife except a grizzly bear. She spoke of the challenges of covering local news, doing the “fun stuff and the dull, mundane stuff.” She said everybody has a voice, and the newspaper gives folks an equal voice.
As the morning talks ended, retired Choteau educator Stan Rathman, 91, said, “I came here from Missoula in 1956, and this was a quick reminder why I stayed.”