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Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is spread across 1.1 million acres of northeastern Montana. A draft plan for managing the area has been released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Meetings are scheduled over the next two months to explain the plan to the public and to take comments.

There’s no plan to graze bison on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Montana, but there will be changes coming, according to a draft of the refuges’ new guiding plan released last week.

“There’s going to be a lot of change,” said Barron Crawford, refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the proposed alternative, the refuge would be managed to restore natural processes by paying closer attention to the use of fire, grazing and water, he said.

For example, purposely set fires could be used to bring back native species. Stock ponds may be drained or altered to allow a more natural flow of water to improve streamside vegetation. Grazing may be increased in areas where the agency believes the mountain plover might take up residence while grazing may be reduced elsewhere to benefit big game.

“We’re trying to restore the natural processes that influence the native plants and animals of these areas,” Crawford said.

He noted that past practices have reduced many of the palatable forage plants consumed by game. And along streams, buffalo berry bushes have decreased dramatically as streams have dried up.

The restoration work is labor-intensive, he said, but well worth the effort.

Although some ranchers who have grazed the CMR before may be worried that grazing will be shut down, Crawford said that’s not the case. But he did say the grazing would be much more variable.

Another point in the draft plan that’s bound to raise some eyebrows is the elimination of some areas considered for wilderness designation, while the boundaries of other proposed wilderness areas were expanded.

Mark Good, of the Montana Wilderness Association, said it seems contrary to remove possible wilderness areas when they provide habitat for wildlife, which is what a refuge is all about.

“We would like to see them maintain those wilderness areas,” Good said. “Wilderness complements wildlife.”

Crawford said the CMR plan is bound to draw fire from all directions.

“We tried to write a plan that no one is going to be 100 percent happy with,” he said. “I feel it’s pretty balanced in that sense. I also feel it meets or exceeds our mission of managing a national wildlife refuge.”

Since the plan is still a draft, the Fish and Wildlife Service will take its show on the road to explain the preferred alternative to Montanans and to seek comments on the plan. The plan is expected to be finalized by 2012.

Meeting dates, times and locations are:

  • Billings, Sept. 28, 7-9 p.m., Billings Hotel and Convention Center, 1223 Mullowney Lane

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  • Bozeman, Sept. 29, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Holiday Inn, 5 East Baxter Lane
  • Great Falls, Sept. 30, 7-9 p.m., Best Western Heritage Inn, 1700 Fox Farm Road
  • Lewistown, Oct. 12, 7-9p.m., Yogo Inn, 211 E. Main St.
  • Jordan, Oct. 13, 2-4 p.m., VFW Post, 11 S. Main St.
  • Glasgow, Oct. 14, 1-3 p.m., Cottonwood Inn, 45 1st Ave. N.
  • Malta, Oct. 14, 7-9 p.m., Malta High School, 12 S 9th St. W.

Written comments should be submitted by Nov. 16 to Laurie Shannon, planning team leader, P.O. Box 25486, Denver, CO 80225-0486. E-mails can be submitted to cmrplanning@fws.gov. For more information phone 303-236-4317 or 406-538-8706.

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