Over the past few months, many of us in Montana have taken stock of the essentials in our lives. A University of Montana public lands survey conducted after Covid-19 restrictions went into effect makes clear that Montanans overwhelmingly consider wild public lands as essential, for several reasons. Among them: wild public lands enable our wildlife to thrive and boost our opportunities to hunt, fish, and view wildlife.
Perhaps nowhere in the state do these reasons ringer truer than in central Montana, where some of the last remaining intact grasslands in the U.S. serve as the most productive big game habitat in North America. Big game, especially elk, thrive here because there are so few roads and other kinds of development.
But that could very well change under a final resource management plan (RMP) the Bureau of Land Management released in February for the 650,000 acres of public lands in central Montana administered by the Lewistown Field Office. The RMP opens 95% of this area to oil and gas development.
The Lewistown Field Office tried to release a better plan in 2016 based on input it gathered from Montanans, especially hunters. As part of that input, the office identified 200,000 acres in this area as having “wilderness characteristics,” mostly lands adjoining the Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. A 2016 draft of the Lewistown RMP proposed protecting half of those 200,000 acres to protect wildlife.
The final draft released in February protects none of those acres, and instead opens them up to oil and gas leasing.
It’s clear that Interior Sec. Bernhardt, who oversees the BLM, tailored the final Lewistown RMP for the benefit of the oil and gas industry. He did so at the expense of not just our wildlife and our outdoor way of life, but our outdoor recreation economy as well.
According to a study that Headwaters Economics conducted in 2016, big game hunting accounts for nearly $4 million in economic expenditure in four different hunting districts within the Lewistown planning area, with $3.8 million coming from elk hunting alone. This makes hunting one of the largest economic drivers in the county, one that Lewistown and other communities in this part of the state cannot afford to lose in a post-pandemic economic recovery.
What makes Bernhardt’s move to open central Montana to oil and gas leasing all the more infuriating is that there is little oil and gas potential in this part of the state.
Then why he is doing it?
So that oil and gas companies can pay next to nothing on oil and gas leases, making it easy for them to bolster their portfolios and make their companies look more attractive to investors.
Companies get away with this outdated practice thanks to a loophole in the law that allows them to buy leases off the shelf at bargain-basement prices if those leases go unsold during auctions. Once oil and gas companies hold a lease, it means they can manage their public land parcels as they see fit, and that can mean destroying wildlife habitat and locking the public out.
Currently, more than 260,00 acres of public lands in Montana are controlled by mostly out-of-state and foreign oil and gas companies that exploited this loophole.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Bernhardt is going stop selling out our public lands to his oil and gas buddies. Our best bet then for protecting wildlife in central Montana is for Congress to close this loophole allowing private companies to control public lands for their own financial benefit.
Please join us in asking our Congressional delegation to do just that.
Jamie Wolf is the vice president of internal affairs for the Montana Wildlife Federation. Tony Bynum is a hunter and professional outdoor photographer based in north-central Montana.