ZOOMVILLE — The Flathead Reservation Fish and Wildlife Board, adjusting to the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic, held its meeting via ZOOM. And adjusting to what is becoming another new normal, climate change, is affecting how wildlife managers do their job.
A couple of items — pheasant hunting and road closures — on the meeting docket, were related to both the new normal of climate change and the pandemic.
The changing climate and its effects on wildlife was the focus of the discussion about upland game bird hunting in the fall on the Flathead Reservation. The concern is bird hunter-bear conflicts in the Millie’s Woods area that is located east of Highway 93 in a mix of CSKT-owned land and fee land between East Post Creek Road and Red Horn Road extending towards the base of the Mission Mountains.
CSKT Natural Resources Department Wildlife Program Manager Dale Becker said there have been pheasant hunter-bear conflicts in the Millie’s Woods area since the 1980s but there has been an uptick in conflicts recently. He said, at times the conflicts have been going on into December, a time when bears would normally be in their winter dens. However, climate change has been changing the biological dynamics of wildlife worldwide including the Flathead Reservation.
The Gray Partridge hunting season on the reservation is from Sept. 1 through Jan. 1; the Pheasant hunting season is from Oct. 10 to Jan. 1. But due to bears hanging around longer in the fall in the Millie’s Woods area Becker proposed the closing of the area to bird hunting from Sept. 1 to Jan. 30.
Becker said there wasn’t a lot of bird hunting in the area consequently the closure wouldn’t affect a lot of bird hunters.
Rodd Richardson, former US Forest Service employee, countered that claim, maintaining there was a lot of hunting going on in the Millie’s Woods bird hunting zone. He said the lengthy closure would essentially end bird hunting there. He advised that there should be signage posted there and tribal game warden presence in the area to inform hunters about the reason for the closure.
Natural Resources Department Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Division Manager Tom McDonald agreed with Becker’s assertion that climate change is resulting to wildlife adapting to the changes in weather and could put hunters in harm’s way.
“This is about climate change,” McDonald said. “We don’t want to put people and bears in danger.”
The Millie’s Woods area closure item passed.
On another wildlife issue, Becker said the white swan production this season was disappointing. The usual count is around 60 but this year it was 39. He said the same pattern was observed in white swan habitat areas north of the Flathead Reservation.
Tribal Fish and Game Chief Dan McClure discussed the closure CSKT lands this summer due to COVID-19 concerns. The CSKT closed tribal lands from June 4 to September 7 to people that don’t live on the Flathead Reservation. The lands remained accessible to non-tribal members during daylight living on the Flathead Reservation with the proper permits, and to all people living in the closed areas regardless of time of access.
McClure said the closures did result in an increase of reservation non-tribal people buying permits to access the closed areas.
McClure said 28 people were hired to post the various locations throughout the reservation. They had 19,162 contacts; 3,686 were denied access; no citations were issued. McDonald Lake had the highest number of contacts with 4,100 that included 1,300 denials. Other high use areas were Buffalo and Sloan’s bridges.
McClure said there were some minor issues with new residents on the reservation that maintained they were unaware of jurisdictional issues on the reservation. “We had people from out of state purchase property on the reservation who were not told by realtors how things are here,” he said, speculating that many of the new residents were fleeing metropolitan areas due to the pandemic.
Jim Williams, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said, a “crush of humanity has showed up in Montana” buying property, most are coming from Texas, California and Washington. He added that he was feeling good though because of the 25-year-old effort of buying property for conservation efforts and not available for sale. He said there has been 20,000 new Department of Motor Vehicles registrations in the Flathead County.
Tom McDonald said the influx of many thousands of people seeking sanctuary from the pandemic in the area and on the Flathead Reservation, has created a challenge related to informing and/or educating them about regulations on the reservation. “It is a huge challenge getting the information out to them,” he said, adding that realtors and local news outlets should be a part of getting the information out.
The pandemic and climate change will continue to pose adjustment problems for land and wildlife managers who have to dance to lead of too hard to control dancers well into the future. Those who recognize the reality of the new normal and adjust to it will be dancing longer than those that don’t.