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FWP Commission approves cattle grazing on Spotted Dog WMA; Senate confirms last 2 commissioners

Cattle regularly grazed Spotted Dog’s 27,616 acres when it was a private ranch between Avon and Deer Lodge. (Julie Kahl)

A new Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission got its first taste of dispute Thursday when it approved cattle grazing on the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area. And, in a twist of fate, a meeting that started with three confirmed FWP commissioners ended with five.

On Thursday, the FWP Commission voted unanimously to allow grazing on the Spotted Dog WMA, even though the majority of comments came from hunters disgruntled with a lack of inclusion in much of the process.

The commission’s decision means Deer Lodge area rancher Dan McQueary will be allowed to graze 120 cow-calf pairs on up to 750 acres each June and July for the next six years, although the pasture will rotate every year.

Region 2 wildlife chief Mike Thompson said he made the arrangement because almost 100 elk sometimes invade McQueary’s ranch in the winter to feed in the lowlands. By allowing cattle to graze the WMA, it should leave more of the lowland grass that elk depend on in winter, Thompson said. It should also help McQueary, so he’ll have less resentment toward elk and the WMA.

McQueary’s resentment was evident as he encouraged the commission to approve the proposal, which he wants expanded in the future. McQueary said the area now has too many elk, and grass on the WMA is too “tall, rank and stale,” because cattle aren’t grazing the ground like they were before FWP bought it in 2010.

Area livestock producers and range managers called it a step in the right direction.

But some hunters challenged the justification that cattle grazing improves elk habitat. Hunter Stan Frazier said the area has experienced only five years of recovery after decades of grazing. He asked that the area be left alone to document what it would do without grazing.

“I reject the premise that elk need cattle to eat the old grass so they can find the green grass,” Frazier said.

Other hunters said they weren’t necessarily opposed to the grazing proposal, but felt that parts of the plan were inadequate – namely insufficient monitoring following grazing – and that FWP didn’t notify the public until plans were close to being finalized, so hunters felt left out.

“We didn’t say we were against it. We said we had concerns. We think the best thing to do is postpone this thing, get us out in the field, let us visit with the experts and resolve this thing,” said Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club.

Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation said the grazing agreements on other WMAs were created with full input from hunters, which is why they haven’t been as controversial.

The commissioners approved the proposal, partly because the lease agreement allows either McQueary or FWP to back out at the end of each grazing period if the plan isn’t working.

But a few of the commissioners also expressed concern about what appears to be an increasing trend of FWP managers not adequately including certain groups in the decision process on various projects. They encouraged the department to turn it around.

“I look at all the work that’s has gone into this, and if we can improve the range and we can weigh in on the monitoring, I think it might be better for wildlife in the long run,” said new Region 3 Commissioner Pat Byorth. “But I would ask the department to be open to listening to sportsmen’s concerns, get a tour out there and get people on the ground when it’s not covered in snow.”

Byorth learned just a few hours before his vote that the Montana Senate had reversed itself and confirmed both his appointment and that of Logan Brower as FWP commissioners.

On Wednesday night, after Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, refused to release their nomination to the full Senate after they were approved by committee, the Senate voted 28-22 against Sen. Jon Sesso’s effort to bring their nominations to the floor.

Then Thursday morning, Sesso renewed his effort and was rewarded when the Senate approved by a vote of 49-1 his motion to consider the nominations of Byorth and Brower.

A few hours later, in a final attempt to scrub the nominees, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, proposed an amendment requiring the Senate to vote for the two nominees separately. But that would have required drafting a new resolution to confirm Byorth by himself. Sesso argued not enough time remained before the Legislature adjourned, and that the committee had weeks to propose such an amendment but didn’t.

The Senate rejected Ellsworth’s amendment on a vote of 34-16 and went on to confirm Byorth and Brower 31-19.

Montana Senate confirms 2 FWP commissioners; Fielder blocks 2 others