Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Public land lovers celebrated Monday after the state land board voted to allow Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to purchase a new wildlife management area. But it comes with a few strings that could affect other wildlife areas.

On Monday morning, the land board voted 4-1 to allow FWP to purchase almost 9 square miles in the southeastern foothills of the Big Snowy Mountains 20 miles south of Lewistown to create a new wildlife management area. Attorney general Austin Knudsen cast the lone “no” vote.

Mike Mueller, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation lands project manager, said he hoped the land board would pass the proposal, which was was three years in the making and had the support of many organizations and individuals.

“This is a really big deal for the state of Montana and our partners,” Mueller said. “This is a great story about leaving Montana legacy.”

It seemed like few could object to the proposal, considering its origins. The Shodair’s Children’s Hospital, a nonprofit hospital in Helena, wanted to sell the property to FWP after rancher Forrest Allen donated it to the hospital upon his death in 2019.

Shodair Children’s Hospital CEO Craig Aasved, who grew up in Lewistown and hunted the property, said the sale would help fund the construction of a new replacement hospital.

“Shodair is not a real estate company. From the very beginning, it was very intentional that we would sell this property, and we wanted to sell it to benefit Montanans,” Aasved said.

A nearby rancher has a lease to graze cattle on the property until 2031. FWP lands program manager Bill Schenk said the purchase deal would allow cattle grazing on the property in perpetuity.

“The state has a vested interest in seeing land conserved for wildlife habitat while also keeping ranchers on the landscape for the benefit of our communities,” said Gov. Greg Gianforte, Land Board chair. “We married those two interests in this agreement, keeping the land available for cattle grazing while opening access for hunters to pristine wildlife habitat in the Big Snowies. This is a win-win for Montana.”

The Golden Valley County Commission also backed the project, because under state ownership, the property would continue to contribute to the county coffers. Schenk said there had been an option to sell the property to the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area along the northern edge of the property. But locals preferred that it went to FWP, Schenk said. The county would have received less tax money if the federal government bought it.

The money to pay the appraised value of $8.2 million was already lined up, Mueller said. Federal Pittman-Robertson money would pay 75% of the price with a 25% match from Habitat Montana money, Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust. The Elk Foundation has also raised $400,000 to help FWP with set-up and property improvements including fencing, invasive weed control, water developments, signage and maps.

Elk Foundation legal counsel Grant Parker made a point of telling the land board that the property title was “incredibly clean.” In July, the land board stalled an 829-acre expansion of the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area near Anaconda because an opponent questioned whether the land title was clear. 

Representatives of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Wild Montana all voiced support because the land would also provide more access to public land in the Big Snowy Mountains. During FWP’s public comment period, 97% of the 107 comments were in favor of the purchase. The FWP commission approved the purchase in August.

But on Monday, two members of the Avon-based Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers opposed the purchase, saying FWP already has too much property. 

“FWP steps in and buys prime ranch property,” said Ross Morgan of the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers. “Now, private landowners and ranchers are up against state government and government in general buying more land to benefit wildlife when this is an area that’s already 900% over objective (for elk). Sounds like pretty good wildlife habitat to me already.”

A 2020 FWP evaluation of the Shodair property indicated it was unlikely that a rancher could buy the property or get the benefit of a grazing lease. 

“Many properties along the Big and Little Snowy Mountains have undergone land ownership changes in recent years. These land ownership changes are often to buyers primarily interested in recreation over agricultural values, along with associated public access limitations,” the evaluation concluded.

The Shodair property sits in hunting district 535, and except for its northern boundary, it’s almost surrounded by land purchased in 2011 by the Wilks Brothers of Texas, one of the state’s largest landowners who made their fortunes in oil and gas fracking. The hunting district is over population objective because large landowners like the Wilks don’t allow public hunting on their land, so the elk population can’t be controlled.

“Thank you to every member of the Land Board who approved the Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area,” said Dick Raths, a rancher who has witnessed an influx of new wealthy landowners to the region. “This is a highly strategic purchase that will help stem the loss of historic hunting opportunities and public access in the Big Snowy Mountains.” 

The Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers formed in 2010 when FWP bought the 27,161-acre Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area south of Avon. Morgan said Monday that leasing was allowed on the Spotted Dog for a few years and then FWP didn’t renew the lease. He didn’t want that to happen in the Big Snowies.

Education secretary Elsie Arntzen asked if perpetual grazing leases could be applied to all FWP properties. Schenk said it applied only to the Big Snowy Mountains but FWP has grazing leases on several wildlife management areas.

“There is an increasing effort to look for grazing opportunity on other WMA’s. I can’t tell you about too many particulars, but I know we’re looking hard at Spotted Dog and other places as well,” Schenk said.

That increasing effort worries some sportsmen, like Greg Munther of Missoula, who don’t want to see wildlife management areas turned into state grazing leases. 

Munther has been involved with the Spotted Dog for years and was disappointed when FWP started a five-year pilot project in 2019 to allow limited grazing. Munther said FWP hasn’t done any monitoring to determine if grazing has a benefit.

Before 2019, he’d seen the grass start to recover after years of heavy grazing. But the area is still inundated with noxious weeds, which doesn’t help wildlife, and that would only be made worse by more grazing. 

“There’s this tremendous localized pressure to graze Spotted Dog, which was purchased with sportsmen’s dollars solely for elk winter range and wildlife purposes, not a community benefit,” Munther said. “I’m not opposed to grazing - some grazing - but it has to be beneficial to wildlife, not just to produce grass for cows.”

In a 2009 Society for Range Management review of grazing effects on wildlife, several Montana scientists, in addition to some from Idaho, Arizona and Texas, found that grazing could be used with some wildlife species if it was rotational and not continuous.

“We propose that the alternative to continuous grazing is to develop grazing strategies that are appropriately stocked and are managed to provide blocks of undisturbed cover at times that allow for plant reproduction and energy storage and wildlife reproduction and survival,” the study concluded.

It is unknown what grazing strategies will be used on the new Big Snowy Mountain area.

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