Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
By Brian Baxter
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is seeking public input on a potential proposal for a conservation easement on approximately 7,274 acres of productive timberland adjacent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is located about 36 miles southeast of Libby in the Pleasant Valley area.
Southern Pine Plantations Montana, LLC (SPPMT) recently purchased the lands from Weyerhaeuser Company. This proposed conservation easement would allow SPPMT to continue sustainable forest management, preclude development, sustain forestry jobs, protect valuable wildlife habitat along a key migratory corridor, and provide permanent, year round public access to popular recreation lands. This property also supports grizzly bears and Canada lynx. The U.S. Forest Service Legacy Program and FWP’s Habitat Montana program would be the funding sources if this proposal proceeds to completion.
As far as the actual refuge adjacent to the proposed conservation easement lands goes, it is a recent success story. For over 100 years Pleasant Valley was managed for livestock. Now, on refuge land, wildlife comes first. In recent times since the refuge was created, staff and cooperators are restoring wetlands, streams, and native vegetation. Reviving the natural habitats and benefiting wildlife is the refuge goal. Dahl Lake once stretched the entire floor of Pleasant Valley. This was a glacially carved remnant of the Pleistocene Period. Over time, the lake became wetlands and reduced in size. In the 1950’s, drainage projects reduced a wetland area of 1,000 acres plus to less than 180 acres. In 1996, the area ranch called Lost Trail Ranch was purchased by the Montana Power Company, and the company transferred ownership of the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as partial mitigation for wildlife impacts and lost habitat as a result of the operation of an off-site hydro-power plant. In 1999, this 7,885 acre property became the 519th refuge to be added to the National Wildlife Refuge System and was officially named Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge.
LTNWR was mainly established for migratory birds and their foraging and nesting habitats, as well as for the conservation and enhancement of all fish and wildlife resources including endangered or threatened species.
The uniqueness of the refuge is multi-faceted. This haven for birds, mammals, amphibians, other wild creatures and plants contains over 1,000 acres of a rare ecosystem limited to the northwest part of the U.S. These Palouse prairie lands contain relict, native, bunchgrass prairie that provide wildlife forage, cover, and nesting habitat. There are approximately 3,400 acres of native and 1,125 acres of non-native additional grasslands. Combined grasslands provide food and cover to grassland birds, small mammals, and large mammals such as elk and deer. And they also provide habitat for the threatened plant species the Spalding’s catchfly. Valuable riparian areas and wetlands of over 1,700 acres, combined with riparian scrublands of alder, willow, birch, and hawthorn is important foraging and nesting habitat for diverse migratory birds including flycatchers, catbirds, vireo’s, and Lazuli Buntings. Forest and aspen groves occupy over 3,000 acres of the surrounding slopes of the valley. Species include lodge pole pine, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, cottonwoods, and quaking aspen. A variety of bird species, elk, and small mammals utilize these habitats. As the seasons turn, an astonishing number of wildlife species too long to list here inhabit and pass through this sanctuary. For more information, see fws.gov/refuge/Lost_Trail/seasons_of_wildlife.
Although the refuge does not have an abundance of mature and older growth forests that provide life requirements and habitat for grizzly bears, gray wolf, and Canada lynx, the surrounding areas of Forest Service and Plum Creek, then Weyerhaeuser, now Southern Pine Plantations Montana LLC do have some. The refuge lands, in combination with the forest lands of these other entities, provide important linkage areas for these species. At the time of this writing, SPPMT, LLC representatives were not available by phone for comment. However, as the general situation stands, Southern Pines Plantations Vice President Pat Patton was quoted in a March 31, 2020 article in the Trumbull Times as saying, “I don’t plan to cancel the open lands policy. We had the opportunity to cancel it and we decided to re-enroll in the block management agreement.”
Officials had stated that the new owners of large tracts of Montana timber land does not intend to break longstanding access agreements allowing people to use the lands for hunting and fishing. As far as the comment period on the proposal to acquire a conservation easement, comments are due by May 5. Written comments to MTFWP may be addressed to Kris Tempel, Habitat Conservation Biologist; 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT. 59901. Electronic comments can be sent to email@example.com and for more info go to http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/.
Job Service faces unprecedented demand,
adapts to conduct business remotely
By Tracy McNew
The COVID-19 Pandemic has undeniably impacted lives across the nation with the cancelling of all major public events, closing of businesses and schools, and orders for the general public to stay at home. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, our national unemployment rate in March increased from 3.5% to 4.4%. Although that increase may not sound significant, it amounts to millions of individuals. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 6,606,000 initial unemployment claims were filed during the week ending on April 4, and the four-week average of initial claims was 4,265,500 each week.
In Montana, Job Service offices are facing a need to help more people than ever with the added burden of doing it all from a distance. Even though our local Job Service office is closed to walk in traffic, employees are still working harder than ever to assist those of us who have been most impacted by this situation.
Johnette Watkins, Manager at Libby Job Service said, “We are so glad that we are able to be available to help people, even though our office is currently closed to the public. The gratitude that people express when they realize that there is a real person available to help them through this stressful time has been overwhelming!” Our job service can be reached by calling 293-6282 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Please leave a message if you don’t get through, they are experiencing a very high call volume right now, but rest assured that they will call you back.
Locals with questions about unemployment insurance are encouraged to call Job Service, especially when they can’t get through to the state. Many job service employees statewide have gone through special training to help answer unemployment questions during this stressful time, and more training is being done to make them even more proficient, said Watkins. Job Service also remains available to help with resumes, job searches, and training needs during this time.
Watkins says that the most important thing to know right now is to file right away if you become unemployed. This can be done by creating an account in http://montanaworks.gov then clicking on the “File Unemployment,” link. A few weeks ago, it was difficult to get through, but the online filing portal has been upgraded to handle increasing capacity. It is also being upgraded to accept those who are newly eligible because of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) which expanded unemployment benefits to the self-employed, independent contractors, and to gig workers. Information for the self-employed can be found at http://dli.mt.gov/self-employed-contractors.
The CARES Act, signed into law on Friday, March 27, also includes a $600 per week increase in unemployment benefits for four months. According to Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry (DLI), the $600 weekly supplement will be backdated, but as of April 10, there is no specific timeline cited for when the money will be received by those on unemployment. Montana DLI’s website has a resource guide for COVID-19 that is updated daily and can be accessed at http://dli.mt.gov/employer-covid-19 for the most current information.
Part of the reason that CARES Act unemployment benefits have not yet been fully implemented is because each state has to wait for direction from the U.S. Department of Labor on development and implementation of the new law. Then the computer system changes need to be made which will allow payments to be processed. According to Job Service, “When guidance has been received, funds made available and programming changes are complete, and DLI will be able to process the applications, an announcement will be made by press release, on http://dli.mt.gov and social media.”
While Libby’s Job Service office is closed, they continue to work and are not only available to help local residents impacted by COVID-19 but anyone contemplating a career change or interested in exploring training options. They remain a trusted community resource, they are just serving us in a different way.
This graph depicts the number of new unemployment claim filings in Lincoln County Montana over the past few years. The recent spike is unprecedented due to shutdowns related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Image courtesy of Montana Department of Labor.