Projects and Issues

Upper Missouri River Breaks:
A Remnant of the Wild Missouri is Preserved For All Time

Missouri Breaks SplendorThe Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument (UMRBNM) was the result of one of the very last acts in the administration of William Jefferson Clinton. Then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt visited Montana several times to view the area unsure how to preserve the area against the forces of change without changing it in the process. The end result of consultation with local residents, MWF, Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Resource Advisory Council, by proclamation, this 350,000 acre monument was born.

With the stroke of a pen, the largest undeveloped chunk of US property and 165 miles of the mighty Missouri became the crown jewel in the National Landscape Conservation Service's crown. This temporary agency in the BLM was virtually unknown, having few duties, Clinton's monument designations all over the west changed its mission dramatically. In 2002, that agency was permanently adopted as a department within the Department of the Interior associated with the BLM. BLM's mandate for multiple use transcended into one that prioritizes wildlife and landscape values.

Paddling the White CliffsThe UMRBNM is an amazing landscape by any description. The convoluted terrain, replete with innumerable "coulees" and canyons hosts most of the animal life documented on the Voyage of Discovery made by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark minus the most dramatic examples, bison and grizzly bears. To be accurate, the Audubon sheep which provided a greater part of the food for the expedition through these hills has been replaced by the Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. This niche is being filled today by a sheep herd that boasts a 100% hunter success rate. Elk proliferate in areas where they had been eradicated.

An irony can be found in the presence of the two species, elk and bighorn sheep. On June 2, 1805, Captain Lewis climbed from one of the many draws, known in the west as coulees, to a nearby rise to espy the distant line of white peaks where they rise abruptly out of the plains. The Mandan Indians called them the Shining Mountains, we know them as the Rocky Mountains, and that dramatic section of the mountain range as the Rocky Mountain Front! At the time of the Corps of Discovery's trip, game was abundant in the Breaks but lacking in the high mountains. As homesteaders settled the plains and market hunters depleted wild game stock in more accessible locales, game herds were pushed into the recesses of the mountains. These mountains over 100 miles distant would subsequently provide the transplant stock that would replace big game herds in the Breaks. Today, this area truly is a monument to the efforts of these progressive thinkers and the hunters who provided financial assistance in the form of license dollars.

Hunting and the Monument

Economic and cultural benefits derived from hunting and other outdoor recreation activities in Montana is substantial. Recreation activities, including hunting, fishing and floating, have surpassed agriculture in economic importance to the state, according to a 2003 news release from the MT Department of Commerce.

Hunting is specifically noted as a guaranteed historic activity by the Monument Proclamation. The entire Upper Missouri Breaks area is world famous for its big game herds; the elk, sheep, and deer herds there are consequently highly valued by hunters. A reputable elk harvest occurs within the Monument area almost matching its famous neighbor in regards to hunter success, the adjacent Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. An anomaly associated with elk hunting in the Breaks is that archery hunting eclipses rifle hunting in hunter participation numbers. The UMRBNM is outstanding mule deer habitat with a high hunter success rating, but the shining star of big game clearly is the burgeoning Bighorn sheep herd. Common to the Ervin Ridge, Dog Creek, Bullwhacker Coulee and significant other habitat on the monument, biologists consistently observe 600 sheep during annual aerial population surveys. Consistently, FWP boasts a 100% hunter success rate on sheep every year.

blue-winged tealInterest in bird hunting has increased incrementally in Montana in recent years. The monument is highly suited habitat for sharp-tailed grouse and gray partridge . The islands and riparian areas plus the interface with agricultural crops produce good numbers of ring-necked pheasant. Historic evidence of Sage Grouse breeding areas called ?leks? suggests that it has a high potential for a huntable population. The river?s bounty of ducks and geese doesn't go unnoticed by hunters.

Hunted Species Within The UMRBNM

Big Game

  • Elk
  • Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep
  • Mule Deer
  • Whitetail Deer
  • Pronghorn Antelope

Upland Birds

  • Sharp-tailed Grouse
  • Sage Grouse
  • Gray Partridge
  • Ring-necked Pheasant

Migratory Birds-Waterfowl

  • Tundra Swan
  • Canada Goose
  • Snow and Ross Goose
  • White-fronted Goose
  • Mallard
  • Pintail
  • Northern Shoveler
  • American Widgeon
  • Gadwall
  • Blue-wing and Green-wing Teal
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Common and Barrow's Goldeneye
  • Canvasback
  • Redhead Duck
  • Ring-neck Duck
  • Bufflehead

Migratory Birds-Upland

  • Mourning Dove
  • Common snipe
  • Lesser Sandhill Crane

The Significance of Hunting Recreation

Elk in Velvet

Consider these highlights about hunting and the Monument:

  • 1455 individuals applied for the 198 available 2001 general season elk permits in the Breaks.
  • 2482 individuals applied for 3025 antelope permits available in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks districts that include the UMRBNM in 2001.
  • 537 archers were awarded elk permits provided they applied for those permits as their first choice in 2001.
  • 1.2 million hunter/days for deer, 900,000 hunter/days for elk translates into $360 million in economic benefits for the entire state of Montana.
  • $58,533,640 in license fees associated with big-game hunting, bird hunting, and fishing statewide.
  • A total of 18,782 hunters spent a total of $11,672,603 in 2003 (Click to download full report 124KB PDF).
  • Hunter success rate on either sex Bighorn Sheep permits issued - 100 per cent.

This area in central Montana was set aside to preserve the Upper Missouri River Breaks for the benefit of all Americans. The future of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is bright because of the sustainable fish and wildlife populations, non-fragmented habitats, and public hunting and fishing opportunities. The cultural values of hunting, fishing and sustainable fish and wildlife is recognized and respected.

"It must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies… and where conflicting interests must be reconciled: the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run…" (From the Gifford Pinchot letter, 1905)

What You Can Do

MWF has been an active participant in the aforementioned coalition of concerned citizens and conservation groups that worked together to promote this area and to convince Secretary Babbitt that the Breaks deserved permanent protection. This collaboration has appropriately adopted the name, Friends of the Missouri Breaks and is very active in the process today. The Friends main function is be a local contact group that has the best interest of the new monument in mind. Local ranchers, business people, educators and sportsmen connect within the Friends. Wide reaching interests of open space, quiet areas, wilderness experiences, and sustainable biological values mesh quite well with that of ethical hunting values. These varied interests assures that the Friends will bring a balanced conservation agenda to the table. Collaborative opinions were forwarded to the BLM as comments in the scoping process under the umbrella of the Friends. The Friends will continue to monitor BLM activities within the Resource Management Plan (RMP) process and make every effort to ensure that the conservation community's interests are honored.

Aside from the Friend's efforts, additional input from hunters is essential to the rule making process. The BLM has currently developed alternatives that are to be considered in the upcoming RMP. Public comments were compiled through the scoping process that was completed in the fall of 2002 and alternatives have been developed to incorporate that input. Keep an eye on BLM's Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument web site as the RMP develops from the alternatives.

Floaters, conservationist, angler and hunter, together we can ensure the future of their national, public treasure. The importance of sportsmen speaking with a unified voice cannot be exaggerated.

If you want to be in the loop along with others, email Larry Copenhaver at MWF.

If you'd like to know more about the Friends, contact the Friends of the Missouri Breaks today!

If you want to know more about the landscape monuments and the NLCS; Discover NLCS.

You are an importance piece in this puzzle.


Montana Wildlife Federation      5530 N. Montana Ave., Helena, MT 59601      Mailing address: PO Box 1175, Helena, MT 59624
Phone: 406-458-0227      Fax: 406-458-0373      Toll Free: 1-800-517-7256      Email: mwf@mtwf.org
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