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Timber harvesting and wild game

by By WARREN ILLI
| September 19, 2023 7:00 AM

For this outdoor column, I want to discuss how to improve big game populations in Northwest Montana.

On Aug. 22, the Daily Inter Lake ran a front page article about the general dissatisfaction that many local hunters have with the scarce big game populations in the region. What that article didn’t discuss is what has caused these low biggame numbers.

So, I will give you my opinion of what the problem is.

The no. 1 big game animal in Northwest Montana is the whitetail deer. Whitetail deer can exist in almost any kind of forest environment. But they do best and thrive in young timber stands or a forest environment which has a mix of old, middle-age and young timber stands.

Old and dense conifer timber stands let very little sunlight and rainfall to the forest floor. When a mature forest is logged, preferably clear-cut, sunlight and rainfall reach the forest floor, producing a wide variety of grasses, forbs and small woody plants that provide excellent deer and elk food.

Recent wildlife research has shown how essential high-quality spring, summer and early fall habitat is for a healthy deer and elk herd. For years, wildlife managers argued for good winter range as the key to expanding deer and elk herds. New wildlife research has shown that deer and elk can easily survive a tough winter if they have good fat reserves provided by good spring, summer and fall habitat.

Thirty or 40 years ago, Northwest Montana had a thriving timber industry supported by timber sales coming from national forest lands. That timber harvesting created lush second growth forests plus a good supply of new forest opening. Timber harvest units provided an almost endless supply of great deer and elk food. The result was lots of deer and elk.

When Lewis and Clark journeyed across Montana, about 1802, they reported on the vast game animals on the plains of Eastern Montana. When they reached the Lolo Creek drainage in the Bitterroot Valley, just south of Missoula, they headed west up that drainage to the Bitterroot Divide on the current Montana and Idaho border. Even though they were expert hunters, they had to kill a horse in order to have sufficient food to survive.

During those days there were no roads and logging in the Lolo Creek drainage, just uncut virgin old growth coniferous forests. Game animals were very scare in those old-growth coniferous forests.

Now fast forward to the early 1970s when I moved to Montana. Lolo Creek was one of my favorite hunting areas. During my first hunting season in Montana, both my wife and I filled our elk tags in the Lolo Creek drainage. I shot my second elk, the next year in the Lolo Creek drainage. I also shot a number of great whitetail bucks in the Lolo Creek drainage.

When I hunted Lolo Creek, there was a paved road, U.S. 12, running the length of the creek. There were hundreds of miles of logging roads, all open to hunter traffic. There were thousands of acres of logging units that produced an almost unlimited supply of good deer and elk food. Game was abundant and hunters, including me, were highly successful.

Contrast that with the Lewis and Clark days with no roads, no logging and very little big game.

This is a prime example that road building and logging, if done properly, can produce healthy populations of big game and great hunting. If forest management is left to the whims of mother nature, you never know what you may get.

Another example of where logging has caused a great increase in deer, is my home state of Minnesota. When I cut my teeth on deer hunting in the 1950s, Minnesota deer hunters were killing about 65,000 deer per year. The current deer harvest goal is about 200,000 deer each year.

Even with a slight decrease in deer habitat due to human development, what has caused this dramatic increase in the deer population? The answer is logging.

In the last couple of decades, the timber industry has built several OSB plants in Northern Minnesota. OSB plants use wood chips from low quality hardwood trees to make OSB boards which have replaced plywood as a primary wood building material. Every OSB plant requires raw material, trees, from thousands of acres of lowgrade hardwood timber harvested from the forests of Northen Minnesota.

This widespread increase of timber harvest has provided deer with a vast new food supply which has resulted in the dramatic increase of the deer herd. This is another example of more deer and better deer hunting caused by the harvest of older timber stands.

So a major part of the answer to more big game is to increase the amount of timber harvesting in Northwest Montana. The other major reason for fewer deer and elk in Northwest Montana is the abundance of large predators like wolves and mountain lions that chew on deer and elk, 24-7.

But that is another story for another day.