In the early 1800s,Lewis and Clark and the David Thompson expeditions explored the area now recognized as Montana. They found prairies, valleys and riversides teeming with wildlife. The news of this plentiful wildlife soon reached trappers, traders and mountain men. This great abundance was the catalyst that opened the American West. But it was also a magnet attracting a population surge that led to decades of abuse. The fur trade industry during the first half of the 1800s brought decimation to furbearing animals such as beaver. Near the end of the fur trade era, a new enterprise increased the human population of Montana with the discovery of gold in the 1850s. Mining camps sprung up over night and mining activities continued to exploit wildlife and its habitat. Transportation systems with wagon roads, steamships and railroads led to an extensive hide hunting industry that severely reduced bison, elk and deer populations. These systems were also expanded because of the federal Homestead Act in 1862. More homesteaders came to Montana than any other territory or state. Hunting was not regulated so they over utilized wildlife for food and sport. They also severely altered wildlife habitat with their agrarian activities. During the late 1800s wildlife took another hit when millions of free ranging livestock were brought into the state to graze the once pristine prairies and valleys that supported an abundance and diversity of wildlife. A combination of all these factors left Montana’s wildlife and its habitat in an alarming condition of despair by the late 1800s.
As the 20th Century drew near, a conservation consciousness was dawning both at the state and federal level. Theodore Roosevelt and Montana Governors and Legislators began establishing policy and laws to protect and preserve the remaining wildlife and its habitat. The Montana Fish and Game Department was established by the legislature in 1901 and non-resident hunting and fishing licenses were also established that year. The first Montana resident hunting and fishing license was approved in 1905the cost, $1.00 per family. Montana citizens, state and federal agencies and universities worked together to take action in restoring the state’s once abundant wildlife. Hunting regulations were strengthened and enforced, game preserves were created, bounty payments were established on predators, planting farm-reared birds was instituted by the state, sportsmen, ranchers and other citizens became actively involved with trapping and transplanting big game and furbearing animals. Universities also advanced the application of scientific wildlife management. Habitat acquisition of important big game winter ranges was also initiated and evolved into wildlife management areas and conservation easements, along with agricultural lands, that today are key to the survival of many wildlife populations.
The people’s hard work and dedication to successfully restore Montana’s wildlife during the 20th Century was so remarkable that it occurred in spite of major difficulties including five wars, an economic collapse, and the greatest North American climate disaster of the 20th Century. Today, we enjoy the abundance and diversity of Montana’s wildlife because of this hard work and dedication and because the people of Montana truly care about wildlife and wildlife habitat. If future generations are to continue to enjoy these resources, we must be ever vigilant to threats against wildlife and its habitat. Only through new insights, progressive management and cooperation between competing groups will Montana's wildlife legacy continue to thrive and never again need to be brought “Back from the Brink”.