Land Board approves purchase of Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area

The Montana Land Board on Monday approved the state’s purchase of nearly 5,700 acres of property in the Big Snowy Mountains north of Ryegate for a new wildlife management area.

The board of directors, consisting of Governor Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and State Auditor Troy Downing, voted 4 to 1 to approve the purchase of property owned by Shodair Children’s Hospital. . Knudsen was the only dissenting vote.

The $8.22 million purchase will be managed as a new wildlife management area by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as a year-round and winter habitat. In August, he received unanimous support from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, propelling him to Monday’s final vote at the Land Board.

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State ownership will also provide access to tens of thousands of acres of federal public land. These include the Bureau of Land Management’s 6,936-acre Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area and the Forest Service’s 88,696 Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area.

Shodair received the property in 2019 as a gift from the Forrest Allen Estate, CEO Craig Aasved told the Land Board, and its sale to the state would benefit both the hospital and the public. Proceeds will go towards the construction costs of hospital facilities while opening new land to the public, he said.

At the Montana Land Board meeting on October 17, members voted to buy a new wildlife management area in the Snowy Mountains.

“When I received this phone call that this property was being offered to Shodair, of course I was thrilled,” he said. “I’m a boy from Lewistown, I grew up in this area, I hunted this property, the Snowy Mountains, I hiked this property and it was just a dream come true.

“But the story is that Shodair is not a real estate company. From the beginning it was very intentional that we sell this property and we wanted to sell it for the benefit of the Montanans.

Shodair Children's Hospital

People drive through the ongoing Shodair Children’s Hospital expansion project during a fundraising launch event for the facility in May 2021.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Disc

FWP will leverage 75% of the purchase price from the federal Pittman Robertson Wildlife Restoration fund, with the remaining 25% coming from Habitat Montana, funded by hunting license sales.

One of the driving forces behind the project was the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which helped Shodair through the process and pledged a grant of $250,000 as seed funding for the infrastructure and management of the property.

Mike Mueller, RMEF’s senior lands program manager, said the project will also help the state better manage elk populations in an area where numbers are well above desired levels.

“The benefits of elk management come with this project,” he said. “Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports that the population goals are over 900% higher than the goal there, and a contributing factor, one of them, is the lack of public access. It is therefore a public access project.

The project has received support from the Golden Valley County Commission and has received support from a number of other public access advocacy groups, including the Montana Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wild Montana and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“It has broad public support and is a great access project,” said Scott Laird of the TRCP. “It’s a legacy project that fits in with these other wildlife management areas in Montana. Like Rob-Ledford, Sun River, Fish Creek Blackfoot-Clearwater, next should be the Big Snowies.

The project saw opposition on Monday from ranching interests. Ross Morgan and Will Graveley of the Avon-based Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association believed FWP mismanaged other properties such as the Spotted Dog and Canyon Creek Wildlife Management Areas.

“We think FWP is overreaching on real estate ownership,” Morgan told the board. “We think a better direction for the Pittman-Robertson money rather than buying more land may be to develop wildlife habitat in places that already have (has) public access.”

Foremost among their concerns was the reduction in cattle grazing at Spotted Dog and the lack of infrastructure improvements such as fencing and water supply projects. A better option, Morgan suggested, would be to put in a conservation easement allowing access to the property but allowing it to be sold to a private party.

Knudsen, in explaining his vote against the project, shared similar concerns and suggested that FWP and the Legislative Assembly should consider other ways to provide habitat on private land. He also questioned why more federal funds weren’t being spent on other priorities, such as hunter education.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen addresses fellow Land Board members at an Oct. 17 meeting where members voted to purchase a new wildlife management area in the Snowy Mountains.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone here given my previous comments that I won’t be voting for this. I object. I’ve made that clear to everyone who has come to me. talk about it,” he said. “I think Fish, Wildlife & Parks has an empire building problem. I think they have a problem with maintaining and managing a lot of land they already own, so I’m not inclined to vote for more state ownership of fief land.

Big Snowy Mountains WMA

The Big Snowy Mountains WMA will provide year-round and winter range for wildlife. It will also open access to other federal public lands.

Kevin League

Gianforte said in support of the project that he was concerned about the loss of farmland and instructed the tongue in the act of maintaining cattle grazing. The current grazing lease lasts until 2031 and the deed includes the requirement for FWP to develop a grazing plan with leases offered to neighboring landowners.

At a recent Land Board meeting, Governor Greg Gianforte expressed support for the purchase of a new wildlife management area in the Snowy Mountains.

“My insistence that we put this in the act was that the state has a vested interest in seeing land co-managed for both conservation and agricultural production,” he said. “Because the moment agricultural production leaves the landscape, it has a negative effect on our local communities.”

Gianforte also said that buying consolidated public ownership and state ownership would provide better tax benefits to Golden Valley County as opposed to buying by BLM, which was also a possibility.

After the vote, Aasved reflected on a three-year effort to sell the property to the state.

“You know you do things for the right reasons and it was the right reason,” he said. “We made a commitment, the Shodair board made a commitment and three years later we are there. And again it’s about Montanans, you know open access, but then Shodair so we can continue to treat more children.

FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said the new wildlife management area will not be open in time for this hunting season. Like many wildlife management areas, the Big Snowy Mountains will be closed from December 1 through May 15 to protect wintering wildlife.

Tom Kuglin is an associate editor in the state bureau of Lee Newspapers. Its coverage focuses on the outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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