Parker Heinlein

Parker Heinlein

The Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge used to offer the best public pheasant hunting in Montana.

It no longer does.

Not even close.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Russian olive eradication program has effectively put an end to the good hunting there.

For years now the USFWS has been cutting down olive trees on the refuge. As the trees went, so did the pheasants. The feds blame the decline on drought and predators just like they did when the Northern Yellowstone elk herd suffered dramatic losses following the reintroduction of wolves. Just a coincidence they say.

The fast-growing Russian olive, a popular windbreak tree in Montana, has been deemed an invasive species by the USFWS. On the Bowdoin they are being cut down. On the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge they’re being poisoned.

Fear of forestation in a part of Montana where the landscape remains primarily treeless baffles me.

Russian olive berries are an important food source for pheasants — another introduced species — but by far the most popular game bird in the state.

Once federal programs like this gain momentum they are hard to stop. Someone somewhere thought this a good idea and didn’t consider the consequences. Or more likely, didn’t care.

Unlike the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which tries hard to maintain a good working relationship with hunters and fishermen, USFWS is simply another soulless government entity.

Although the Bowdoin now has to share a manager and a game warden with Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge because of budget concerns, funding for cutting down olives appears to be limitless.

The decline in hunting hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Gallatin Valley Chapter of Pheasants Forever used to fund habitat projects on land bordering the refuge. They’re spending their money elsewhere now.

And fewer bird hunters are making the drive to Phillips County. It’s just not worth it anymore.

Not that folks up here care about the Bowdoin. We’re pretty much against everything anyway, including buffalo and out-of-county hunters.

There are still birds up here, but not as many as there used to be, and the best public pheasant hunting spot in the state is no longer the Bowdoin, thanks to the feds.

I stopped by refuge headquarters recently to voice my concerns and found the place locked, a note on the door read: “Sorry. We’re needed in the field.”

I suspect whoever works there was probably out hunting — somewhere else.

Parker Heinlein is at pman@mtintouch.net