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The Montana Fish and Game Commission recently endorsed a project to thin about 1,600 acres on the Threemile Wildlife Management Area in the Sapphire Mountains east of Florence.

As a state wildlife biologist, Rebecca Mowry knows that deer and elk like the forest’s edge.

“They like places where there are meadows with trees close by,” she said. “They like a mosaic of habitat.”

Two years ago, that’s what Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks set out to create in a pilot project on the Threemile Wildlife Management Area east of Florence. Focused on improving forage production on the winter range, improving aspen stands and reducing the risk of fire and bug infestations, the agency thinned about 370 acres.

From what she’s seen and heard so far, Mowry believes that effort is already making a difference.

Recently she spotted mule deer, a species that’s struggling right now on the Bitterroot, browsing inside the area that was treated. A game warden and others have offered reports of elk using the area, too.

“I think it’s doing some good things for wildlife,” Mowry said. “I think it turned out really well as long as we’re able to manage it for weeds. Someday, I would like to see fire reintroduced to keep the underbrush from becoming overgrown. Wildlife doesn’t like a monoculture. That’s what we had here before.”

The project proved successful enough for the Montana Fish and Game Commission to endorse a much larger proposal last week that would thin up to 1,600 acres of the WMA south of the pilot project.

With that endorsement in hand, FWP Forester Jason Parke will begin the field work necessary to gather information needed to prepare an environmental analysis of the project that could go before the commission as early as October.

Once the draft environmental analysis is approved by the commission, the public will have its opportunity to weigh in on the project. That could get started as soon as next summer.

The timelines aren’t set in stone.

As FWP’s only forester, Parke is stretched a bit thin with another project in the works on the Nevada Lake WMA near Helmville and another project about to go under contract at the Blackfoot Clearwater WMA.

“The Blackfoot Clearwater project has been something that has been under consideration for the last eight or nine years,” Parke said. “It took some grant money to make it happen because the timber doesn’t have a lot of value.”

Parke hopes the project at Threemile will produce enough commercial value to help pay for itself. While the timber market is good right now, the loss of a mill at Columbia Falls focused on the use of ponderosa pine has reduced competition.

“It makes it a little more challenging, especially since this sale is a good distance from any mill,” he said.

Before any work gets underway, Parke said a steel bridge from the Marshall WMA near Seeley Lake will need to be installed.

“The bridge that’s there definitely won’t handle logging truck traffic,” he said.

Parke said the road system on the Threemile WMA will also have to be revamped.

“Those old roads were built in the 1970s,” he said. “We are going to have to look at relocating some of those. We will end up needing some new roads and some of the old roads will have to be reclaimed.”

Some of those old roads will only be partially reclaimed to allow for foot and horse traffic.

The project also includes what may be the first Good Neighbor Authority project between the FWP and the U.S. Forest Service.

There are two national forest holdings on the Threemile WMA. The plan calls for working the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and U.S. Forest Service to include those holdings in the thinning project.

“The Forest Service sees the benefit,” Parke said. “They don’t have good access into there. There are some nice 300-year-plus ponderosa pine stands with a lot of ingrowth around them… There will be three outfits working together on that part of the project.”

Like the pilot project, Parke said the focus will be on treating southwest and south-facing aspects to improve forage production that will be valuable on the winter range.

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.