An economic engine that keeps on ticking

By Jack Chambers

When Montana hunters or anglers wonder what awaits them in heaven, it’s hard to imagine a place better than the Rocky Mountain Front.

It’s why Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks measured more than 90,000 hunter days on its districts along the Front last year. Hunters come from far and wide for all the pronghorn and upland birds in the flatlands; whitetail deer and moose in the river bottoms; black bear, elk and mule deer in the timber; and mountain goats and bighorn sheep in the rim rock.

When hunters visit the Front, they don’t forget their wallets either, which adds up to significant financial activity for local communities. It’s a multi million-dollar pulse of fill-ups at local gas stations, hotel room reservations, food raids at the grocery store, drinks and meals at the taverns and gifts purchased to bring home to loved ones.

In fact, over the past five years, sportsmen have been spending a steady $10 million each year on the Front — even in the midst of a recession. That’s a rock solid number and a rare bright spot when compared to the struggles of the broader economy. It shows just how important this vibrant and sustainable economic engine is for local communities.

But it’s no coincidence the Front remains a huge hunting destination and economic driver, even when other parts of the Front Range have been damaged beyond repair.

Montana’s hunters and anglers have worked for almost a century with local ranchers to conserve this dynamic and breathtaking area. Their first big breakthrough was the formation of the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913. In 1947, they created the Sun River Game Range, followed by the Blackleaf and Ear Mountain Wildlife Management Areas in the 1970s and the conservation easement program currently under way.

But rich as it is, the conservation story of the Rocky Mountain Front remains incomplete.

After all, the Front is only 80 miles from the rapidly filling valleys of western Montana. Montana will continue to grow and develop. Weeds are sweeping over too many native grasslands. Will the Front remain world-class hunting grounds and continue to drive a sustainable economy? It’s up to us.

When it comes to abundant wildlife populations, the crucial challenge is providing enough room for wildlife to roam. Big game needs big country. The most fundamental way to protect our hunting heritage is by protecting the habitat that both wildlife and hunters depend upon.

In today’s Montana, the primeval urge to roam the land with rifle or bow remains strong. That same primeval pull leads us to support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act Proposal, as designed by the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front.

The coalition captured the local wisdom of this land, with hunters and anglers sitting down with ranchers, conservationists and local biologists to plan the future of the Front. Everyone has a seat at the table, and differences are discussed in a respectful, Montana style, neighbor-to-neighbor.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act Proposal brings something for everyone: some areas for motorized recreation, other for wilderness, and provisions for sustainable forestry and ranching on both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.

Hunters have always been at the vanguard when it comes to conserving critical habitats, and special places. The Rocky Mountain Front is deserving of this level of protection. Continuing to maintain the Front the way it is today is the best assurance the land will continue to be a rock solid economic driver for local communities, and ensure our best hunting grounds remains intact.

After all, we need to protect those little pieces of heaven we have right here in Montana, not just for ourselves, but for future generations so that they too can feel the call of the wild.

Jack Chambers is president of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. Co-signed by Greg Munther, chairman of the Montana Chapter, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Tim Aldrich, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.