It’s been said that once elk habitat is gone, it’s gone for good. But what if there was a way to restore elk habitat that already fell victim to development? Or more specifically, what if you could return important elk feeding grounds and winter range to the way it was before a home was built on a given site? That’s exactly what the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation pulled off in southwest Montana.
In late 2014, RMEF acquired 631 acres of grassy winter range 24 miles south of Ennis along the Madison River adjacent to the 6,557-acre Madison-Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA). In fact, the entire southern edge of the property borders the existing WMA while the east edge borders Bureau of Land Management land that provides access to the Madison River. It’s a pristine piece of property that provides crucial winter range for 2,000 elk as well as hundreds of mule deer, antelope and other critters. The acquisition increased the overall size of the WMA by about 10 percent.
It’s just that there was a problem, a big problem—a 3,096-square-foot cedar-siding log house on the property. Actually, there was also a 1,260-square-foot garage with guest quarters as well as an unfinished 2,500-square-foot building. Those structures, as well as a man-made, three-acre pond stocked with non-native, farm-raised fish, were not exactly ideal for elk country.
So RMEF developed a plan by notifying locals that the home would be available for purchase through a sealed bidding process with the winner assuming full responsibility to remove the structure from the property. The winning bid came in at $20,000.
“They (the winners of the bid process) were motivated both by helping RMEF with its mission of conserving elk habitat and finding a new home in Montana in an area that was already impacted by a planned subdivision and out of occupied elk habitat,” said Mike Mueller, RMEF senior land program manager.
Moving day came several months later. Workers from a moving and rigging business located some 200 miles away traveled to the site. They jacked up the house from its foundation and placed a heavy duty towing trailer underneath. A big rig then negotiated a slight downhill path off of the property. The home successfully towered over fencing as it rolled down a narrow dirt road, across a bridge over the Madison River and down the highway to its new location.
“As I watched that house roll off of crucial elk winter range and down the road, all I could think of was RMEF’s commitment and spirit to conserve elk country can move houses!” said Mueller.
As for the remaining structures, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) will reclaim them for management objectives and administration purposes. The actual home site will most likely be reseeded and the pond reclaimed as well. The land is now permanently open to public access during hunting season and beyond. It will be conveyed it to FWP later this year.
“RMEF and its partners will turn back the clock on residential subdivision, habitat fragmentation and loss, and the restricting of public access when we can. The bottom line is we saved the integrity of one of Montana’s oldest and most popular WMA's by reestablishing a buffer along its northern boundary. It took a total team effort to pull this miracle off. God did not want this house to stay where it was,” said Mueller.
Man may not be able to move mountains but, in this case anyway, he can remove a house to conserve and protect elk and elk country.