But many people don't realize how far the populations fell or how hard Montanans worked to restore them, Picton said. Montana actually has more wildlife today than at any time in more than a century.
"People are the ones that took them down, and people are the ones that took them back with help from government, universities and the legislature," said filmmaker Terry Lonner of Media Works Studio in Bozeman, an MSU graduate.
To explain how hunters, government officials and others rejuvenated the state's wildlife populations, Picton, Lonner and Jim Williams, another MSU alum, produced an award-winning documentary called "Back from the Brink: Montana's Wildlife Legacy." Competing against films like "March of the Penguin," the historical documentary won two awards at the 2006 International Wildlife Film Festival. It also received this year's Bob Watts Wildlife Communications Award from the Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society. The film is available on DVD and has been aired on public television and shown in several premiers around Montana.
"The whole purpose of this is not to make money, but to get it out to the people, let the younger people realize that wildlife is an all-time high now compared to 100 years ago," Lonner said.
When Lewis and Clark explored the region in the early 1800s, they found prairies, valleys and riversides teeming with wildlife, the filmmakers wrote in a description of the documentary. The abundance attracted trappers, traders and mountain men who were followed by miners, settlers and free-range livestock. But the population surge and unregulated hunting almost decimated Montana's wildlife and their habitat. Hunters in the1930s felt successful if they saw just one deer track in a day.
That dismal situation was turned around later in the 20th century despite five wars, an economic collapse and the drought of the 1930s, the filmmakers said, noting that hard work turned a story of exploitation and depletion, need and greed into one of restoration, renewal and rebirth.
The documentary grew out Picton's desire to preserve the memories of pioneers and players in recovery of Montana's wildlife, he said. He started out by interviewing old-timers, and ended up with a two-hour documentary narrated by long-time Hollywood actor Joseph Campanella. It incorporates Picton's interviews with historic film footage, paintings and vintage photos.
"This really tells the story of a unique aspect of Montana history that people aren't that well aware of," Picton said.
The filmmakers' next project is adapting the film for classrooms, Picton said. They are also developing a book to complement the documentary.
For more information on the documentary or its major funder, The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation, check the Web at www.mfwpfoundation.org
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135