Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

RMEF: Ensuring the Future of "Other Wildlife" Too

The mission of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage. "Other wildlife"consists of a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, fish and other forms of animal life, including birds.

Photo courtesy Stacey Boyd
The story

It’s not hard to see flycatchers, falcons and sapsuckers as “birds of a feather,” but elk? No problem, once you consider that all four species “flock together” to the same habitats regardless of whether they wear antlers or wings, talons or hooves. They’ve got good company, too. A wide assortment of wildlife seeks out the same key spots in certain seasons, an overlap that also creates an ideal opportunity for conservation interests to join forces. 

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is a prime example. It focuses its work on elk, but makes a point of always looking for collaborators in virtually every project it does, which has helped the foundation conserve more than 6.5 million acres over the past three decades. 

Clark's Nutcracker
Currently, RMEF is partnering with a number of other organizations all contributing time, talent and resources toward four Montana projects that benefit elk and nineteen bird species listed as “species of concern” by Montana’s Natural Heritage Program. That includes Goshhawks, Grosbeaks and Great Gray Owls, just to name a few, as well as scores of other bird species considered to be “at risk” due to habitat loss and degradation. Collaboration is an essential step in securing a bright future for these incredible animals.
Northern Goshawk

RMEF and its partners are right now focusing part of their efforts on the Beaverhead, Helena and Lewis and Clark National Forests. To date, this coalition has succeeded in permanently protecting almost 7,000 acres of important bird, elk, and other wildlife habitat, and is currently hard at work on saving another 2,940 acres. After purchasing the land, RMEF then conveys these parcels to the Forest Service, which will develop a management plan to maintain, and if need be, restore critical habitats for species of concern within these new additions, while looking out for the needs of elk, other wildlife and public access as well. 

How it happened

Back in 2008, the Forest Service lands specialist Bob Dennee approached RMEF requesting support for his efforts working with the Tenderfoot Trust to acquire key wildlife habitat on Tenderfoot Creek, a tributary of one of Montana’s most highly regarded trout streams, the Smith River. These parcels were owned by the Bair Ranch Foundation, which hoped to place its land in the hands of the Forest Service to become publically accessible ground. RMEF researched species and habitat data for the proposed project, and based on these conservation values, sought out partners including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Cinnabar Foundation and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust. All three provided financial help to match federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Tenderfoot Project

Despite so much support and interest, land conservation can be a slow process, and six years later the work continues on the Tenderfoot project. RMEF and its partners have so far protected 5,760 of 8,220 acres. Bald Eagles sat on Montana’s list of threatened species when this collaboration began, but have since been downgraded as their populations have rebounded. Peregrine Falcon, though, remain a species of concern, and Montana Natural Heritage staff has added another three other bird species to its list in the project area -- Veery, Northern Goshawk, and Clark’s Nutcracker. Those additions add to the importance of conservation at Tenderfoot Creek.

Pileated Woodpecker
 While Tenderfoot has progressed, RMEF and its partners added three other Montana acquisition projects that have so far resulted in permanent protection of 1,250 acres of elk and bird habitat in the Helena and Beaverhead National Forests.

Some of the at-risk birds that benefit from the partner’s habitat protection work in the Lewis and Clark, Helena and Beaverhead National Forests are Neotropical, meaning they breed in Montana but winter in warmer climates as far south as South America. Can you imagine Neotropical birds arriving back in Montana, exhausted from their long journey, only to find the habitat they and their ancestors have always depended is now paved over? Permanently protecting habitat aims to avoid that.

The Neotropical birds known to use RMEF’s Montana project areas include Brewer’s Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, Ferruginous Hawk, Flammulated Owl, Golden Eagle, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Sage Thrasher, Veery and Williamson’s Sapsucker. At-risk resident birds that winter in Montana include the Brown Creeper, Clark’s Nutcracker, Evening Grosbeak, Great Gray Owl, Northern Goshawk, Pacific Wren, and Pileated Woodpecker. Another species known to use the area is the Black Rosy-Finch, which is extraordinarily dependent on Montana, as 38% of its entire population breeds within the state, making conservation of the alpine areas needed by this unique species all the more critical.

RMEF supports public agencies’ habitat stewardship work by awarding conservation grants and providing volunteers to get habitat enhancement work done. Beyond these project areas, RMEF is working hard to conserve sagebrush and grassland habitat, reduce juniper encroachment and weed infestation, which not only benefits elk but also Sage Grouse, Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks and Brewer’s Sparrows, just to name a few. RMEF has also enhanced tends of thousand of acres of aspen habitat used by Purple Martins, Pileated Woodpeckers and scores of other species. 

Flammulated Owl
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has identified vital habitat types that elk and at-risk bird species need. RMEF and its partners use this information to help focus attention on these habitats in the acquisitions. The habitats include riparian and wetland areas, mountain streams, broadleaf forests, grasslands and sagebrush that the state identifies as of “greatest conservation need” in its Comprehensive Fish and Wildlife Strategy. 

RMEF partnership work in the Beaverhead, Helena and Lewis and Clark National Forests has: 
  • protected 6,910 acres that support elk, mule deer, and nineteen bird species of concern. 
  • protected 2.24 stream miles that support westslope cutthroat trout, is working to protect another 4.37 miles that have the potential to support westslope cutthroat trout. 
  • created new public access on 6,910 acres with another 2,940 acres now in the works.
  • placed responsibility for maintaining 6,910 acres of elk and bird habitat with the US Forest Service.
Bob Springer
RMEF Project Development Specialist

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