In 1905, the trees that grew along the western edge of the Sapphire Mountains in the current Threemile Wildlife Management Area were large and well-spaced.
A lot has changed since then.
Shortly after 1905, the area was logged for the first time to provide timbers for the mining operations in Butte. It was logged again in the 1970s.
Using old government land surveys, a forester with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation completed his master’s thesis several years ago to determine the historical condition of the site before those first saws arrived.
“All the trees back then were generally larger with an average space of 47 feet in between them,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Forester Jason Parke. “Today the average spacing is about 10 feet between trees.”
Before 1905, Parke said the average number of trees per acre on the westerly slopes was about 20. Today, there are 423.
Historically, the forest was about 90 percent Ponderosa pine and 10 percent Douglas fir. That’s changed, too. Now there are about 40 percent Ponderosa pines and 60 percent Douglas firs.
This summer, Parke hopes that a proposed vegetative management project on both state and federal lands on a portion of the Threemile Wildlife Management Area will put the forest on a trajectory that will more resemble its historic conditions.
“Historically, the area had a lot of low intensity fire that wildlife adapted to over thousands of years,” Parke said. “That’s the reference condition that we would like to get back to starting with this project.”
Copies of the state’s environmental analysis of a proposed project that will treat 1,492 acres of the 6,284-acre Threemile Wildlife Management Area will be available at an open house hosted by the Stevensville Ranger District on Wednesday, Feb. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the North Valley Public Library in Stevensville.
The Bitterroot National Forest is proposing to thin about 238 acres within and adjacent to the game range.
Comments on both the state and federal portions of the proposed project will be due mid-March.
Parke said the hope is FWP’s environmental analysis will be ready to present to the Fish and Game Commission in April, with a contract going out for bids soon thereafter. If everything comes together as planned, work on the project will get started in June or July.
“We’re hoping to get the majority of the work completed this summer,” Parke said.
The plan does call for shutting down the logging operation during the general rifle season.
“It’s a popular area for hunters,” he said. “We want to ensure that hunters have the opportunity to use their WMA.”
This is the second vegetative management project that’s occurred at the wildlife management area.
In 2015, a pilot project treated 372 acres on the northern end of the game range.
“We had a tour up there in the summer of 2016 with some local user groups, county commissioners and others,” Parke said. “Everyone seemed really happy with what they saw. We also did an informal survey of hunters that fall and they thought it was good, too.
“The take away for us was that there was support to expand the treatment on the WMA,” he said.
The project will be the first implemented by the FWP using the Good Neighbor Authority authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, which allows the state and U.S. Forest Service to partner on projects that benefit watersheds.
The Good Neighbor Authority allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements with states to restore watersheds and provide management services on federal and state lands.
Montana’s first Good Neighbor Authority project north of Butte was sold last fall. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation worked with the Forest Service to put that project together.
Parke said he is leaning on DNRC to help facilitate the Good Neighbor Authority on this project.
“It does make sense for us all to work together,” Parke said. “The Bitterroot Forest has landlocked parcels on the game range. We will be able to use the same road system that we will temporarily reopen to treat those parcels. It’s a good opportunity to work together.”