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Patty Marten of the Bitter Root Back Country Horsemen heads to the next water bar in need of repair on the Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area in this file photograph. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will ask for permission to begin  negotiations toward the acquisition of 600 acres adjacent to the popular WMA at Thursday's Montana Fish and Game Commission meeting. 

The Montana Fish and Commission will consider proposals Thursday that could have major impacts on two wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the Bitterroot Valley.

At the Calf Creek WMA, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials will ask the commission to endorse a proposal to begin analysis and negotiations for acquiring about 600 acres adjoining the popular 2,333-acre wildlife management area northeast of Hamilton.

Acquisition of the property would block up the WMA with neighboring public and private lands that are mostly already protected from potential future development.

The property is composed of three parcels sandwiched between the Calf Creek WMA to the east, existing conservation easement-protected private lands on the northwestern edge, and a block management areas on the west and south. The land consists of open, low-elevation, south-facing shrub and grassland slopes and some sections of forest that provides security cover and winter range for somewhere between 50 and 100 elk.

If FWP acquires the property, it will provide walk-in access for hunting and recreation to national forest lands in an area that currently offers little access through other privately owned lands.

If the commission endorses the proposal, FWP officials will work with the landowner and begin an environmental assessment that would allow the public to weigh in.

“The proposed addition is an important opportunity to protect big game winter range that is contiguous with the WMA,” said a briefing paper. “The property has the potential for being developed, which would directly impact wintering big game habitat on this property as well as impacting adjacent habitat functions on the WMA.”

The commission will also consider a proposal to thin about 1,600 acres on the Threemile Wildlife Management area eight miles east Florence.

During the winter of 2016-17, FWP completed a pilot project that thinned 372 acres on the WMA in an effort to improve understory forage production for wildlife, reduce conifer expansion in meadow, and reduce the risk for wildfire and beetle infestations.

That project was well-received by FWP biologists, sportsmen’s clubs, legislators, local leaders and the public, said a briefing paper.

The current proposal calls for using a combination of commercial and non-commercial understory thinning and prescribed fire to achieve similar habitat goals. The project would also include improvements and potential relocation of current roads to improve hunter access and reduce road maintenance expenses.

If the commission endorses the proposal Thursday, FWP will prepare an environmental assessment for public review. A final EA and a recommendation would be presented to the commission later this year.

The commission meets Thursday at FWP Headquarters in Helena. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. and will be streamed live to all FWP regional offices. It will also be audio-streamed online at fwp.mt.gov.

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.