Montana Restores Backcountry

WMA is 24,200 acres, total. Former PCTC purchased from TNC as part of the larger 310,000-acre Montana Legacy Project. Acquisition was in two phases, the final one completed 7/27/11. Funding came from USFWS Native Fish HCP Program, USFWS State Wildlife Grant Program, USFS Forest Legacy Program, and MT FWP License and habitat acquisition funding.

Montana Backcountry Restoriation

In addition to the incredible fisheries habitat values, the property contains some of the highest value, previously unprotected, Canada lynx habitat in the western U.S. Much of the property is within grizzly recovery area and is heavily used by bears. The area provides habitat for over 150 native species including >30 Type 1 and 2 Species of Concern. The WMA lies within one of the most important wildlife linkage zones in the State, serving to connect the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex with the Mission Mountains/Rattlesnake complex to the west. It provides thousands of hunter days annually and forms the core of the Seeley Lake snowmobile trail system, ranked every year as one of the best in the nation (SnowWest magazine).

Jay Kolbe
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
PO Box 1288 Seeley Lake, MT 59868
(406) 210-9830


  • This is phase I of work planned on the new Marshall Creek WMA to enhance watershed integrity, terrestrial/aquatic habitat quality and wildlife security

Phase I included:

  • Obliteration and storage of ~ 19 miles of closed roads and conversion/creation of ~ 3.5 miles of new non-motorized trail
  • Removal of ~ 30 culverts and restoration of natural stream crossings to reduce failure risk, improve fish passage and reduce maintenance
  • Trail includes 4 new pack bridges and ~ 0.4 miles of new trail in re-route away from W Fork stream corridor, and new trailhead located
    ~ 0.4 miles below the original gate location
  • Cost: ~ ~$75 K from FWP + ~ 10 weeks work for 2 full time employees (in-kind)
  • Contractor: K3 Excavation in Seeley Lake - owned by Chris Copenhaver
  • USFS - Hired and supervised MCC crew, planking and materials for bridges, trailhead signage, hitching posts, etc., Helped with construction oversight on trail construction for 2 days on USFS boundary
  • Montana Conservation Corps (MCC): Constructed ~0.4 miles of new trail (re-route) and installed 4 bridges
  • Trout Unlimited (Rob Roberts) - Helped with project oversight for 4 days while project manager on vacation
  • Significance: Project buffers and connects to ~6 sq. mile roadless headwater basin in W Fork Clearwater and larger block in neighboring drainages

Summary of the North Marshall Creek WMA Clearwater Fish and Wildlife values:


The area contains the majority of the West Fork Clearwater River (West Fork) and Marshall Creek (tributary of West Fork) drainages. The West Fork is a large, freestone tributary system with cold water temperatures and high water quality. Marshall Creek is a smaller, more variable system with coldwater inlet stream, a large mid-elevation lake and outlet drainage that enters the lower West Fork. The greater West Fork watershed is vital for native fish, particularly bull trout, because (1) it supports excellent spawning and rearing habitats for native fish with unique (adfluvial) life histories, (2) it is located in a key position relative to the Clearwater chain of lakes and river system, and (3) it remains a large, connected series of intact aquatic habitat segments located below roadless (USFS) headwaters. There are very few migratory bull trout populations remaining in the Clark Fork Basin, and only a small proportion of these are adfluvial stocks. The West Fork population represents one of the two strongest adfluvial populations remaining in west-central Montana.

Although the West Fork is inhabited by abundant populations of stream-resident and migratory westslope cutthroat trout, this stream stands out as an adfluvial bull trout nursery area. Recent basin-wide sampling and several bull trout telemetry studies in the Clearwater and Blackfoot Basins have highlighted the importance of just a few (five) key tributaries which provide the majority of recruitment for these large systems. The West Fork is one of these tributaries as it supports one of the largest spawning populations (> 35 adfluvial redds in 2007) and serves as the primary rearing area for migratory fish in Lake Alva, Lake Inez, and Seeley Lake. Essentially, the West Fork is the key tributary habitat for the middle Clearwater bull trout metapopulation. Marshall Lake and Marshall Creek support a smaller, separate (possibly disjunct) population of adfluvial bull trout, although there is likely opportunity for connectivity and genetic exchange. Both stream systems support numerous other native aquatic and terrestrial species that would be expected in functional low and mid-elevation stream corridors.


The Marshall WMA area is comprised of moist spruce-fir forest types ranging from 2400 ft. elevation near the lower W. Fork of the Clearwater to over 6600 ft. at the summit of Mt. Henry. An over 10-year Canada lynx research program led by the USFS RMRS indicates that the Priority Area contains some of the highest-quality, most productive, lynx habitat in the contiguous U.S. For example, the West Fork alone forms the boundary of 3 individual adult male home ranges and is heavily used by all of them throughout the year. Resident females with home ranges in the West Fork and Marshall Cr. drainages were significantly more fecund and longer-lived than female lynx occupying other portions of the lynx's southern range. These resident females' offspring regularly dispersed from their natal ranges and contributed to the long-term persistence of lynx populations in the Blackfoot watershed. In addition, male dispersers provided important genetic connectivity with metapopulations throughout the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The Priority Area is proposed Lynx Critical Habitat and its conservation and sound management will be crucial to the eventual recovery of the species within the Northwestern Montana/Northeastern Idaho Lynx Core Recovery Area.

Much of the area is within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Recovery Area and includes and is directly adjacent to modeled grizzly bear denning habitat. Grizzlies use the area for foraging post-emergence through fall; FWP data indicates particularly high use of the Area's lush riparian corridors. The Area is part of an important east-west mid-elevation movement corridor for many sensitive species connecting the NCDE with the west Swan Valley and Mission Mountains Wilderness. Wolverines are commonly observed there and the Priority Area is one of the only portions of the Blackfoot and Swan watersheds where fisher are still known to persist. Marshall Lake is an important common loon foraging lake and may provide nesting habitat. Bald eagles, goshawks, and pileated woodpeckers are heavily use the Area as do many species of passerines, amphibians and bats endemic to mid-elevation boreal forest types. A pack of 6-8 wolves has been routinely observed using the Area for the last two years. The Priority Area supports between 200 and 250 elk during summer and fall in addition to numerous moose, white-tailed deer, mule deer, mountain lions, and black bear.

Sportsmen, wildlife and fish can celebrate restoration of nearly 25,000 acres of new Montana Backcountry. While BHA members are too familiar with battles to hang onto existing backcountry, there are far too few examples of restoring quality backcountry to a heavily logged and roaded forest.

In 2011, sportsmen benefited by final transfer of land ownership to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks of a huge block of timberland formally owned and heavily logged and roaded by Plum Creek Timber Company. This project was successful only with cooperation with The Nature Conservancy and federal funds (Montana Legacy Project) along with state hunting and fishing license and habitat acquisition funding. The purchase enabled the beginning of a new restoration era for the upper Clearwater drainage in western Montana.

Restoration activities began almost immediately with a $75,000 contract to obliterate/storage 19 miles of unneeded roads, convert 3.5 miles of road to a non motorized trail, removal of culverts, construction of 4 pack bridges, and constructing a trail away from a streamcourse. Two Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologists, Ladd Knoteck (a BHA member) and Jay Kobe planned the restoration work and worked daily on the project to assure desirable results were achieved. The youthful Montana Conservation Corps provided much needed trail handwork and Trout Unlimited’s Rob Roberts furnished additional equipment oversight.

This biologically rich area is extraordinary, even for Montana. It is a vital wildlife corridor between the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex and the Mission/Rattlesnake Wilderness Complex. It is home to an extraordinarily productive population of lynx, as well as wolverine, wolves, grizzly bears, fisher, black bear, deer and 250 summering elk. The upper end of the West Fork Clearwater upstream from the project area has been recently proposed for Wilderness through a community based collaborative process.

Another huge benefit of this restoration is habitat for wild trout. The future of the West Fork of Clearwater drainage is now secure. Inhabitants of the West Fork are not ordinary trout. They are an uncommon population of lake rearing westslope cutthroat trout (adfluvial), as well as a very significant bull trout population. Removal of roads will lessen sedimentation as well as catastrophic mass failures, as well as poaching of spawning adults.

In the past few years, cooperation and funding have allowed 310,000 acres of formerly industrial land in western Montana to be acquired for public use and managed now by public agencies. Most of this land was given away by our government to encourage railroad construction across the West. While some railroads were built, others weren’t. Certainly a lot of wood flowed from these lands but the price to wildlife and fish was high. This rare restoration opportunity is not only unusual, but significant. No only for sportsmen, but also to our wildlife, fish and wildland heritage.

About Caitlin Thompson