The Montana Land Board on Monday approved the state’s purchase of a nearly 5,700-acre property in the Big Snowy Mountains north of Ryegate for a new wildlife management area.
The board, made up of Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and state Auditor Troy Downing, voted 4-1 to approve the purchase of the property owned by Shodair Children’s Hospital. Knudsen was the lone dissenting vote.
The $8.22 million purchase will be managed as a new wildlife management area by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as both year-round and winter range habitat. In August it received unanimous support from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, propelling it to Monday’s final vote at the Land Board.
State ownership will also provide access to tens of thousands of acres of federal public lands. Those include the Bureau of Land Management’s 6,936-acre Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area and the Forest Service’s 88,696-acre Big Snowies Wilderness Study Area.
Shodair received the property in 2019 as a donation 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. The proceeds will go towards construction costs for hospital facilities while opening up new land to the public, he said.
Shodair CEO Craig Aasved addresses Land Board
During the Montana Land Board meeting on Oct. 17, members voted to buy new wildlife management area in Snowy Mountains.
“When I received this phone call that this property was being gifted to Shodair, of course I was elated,” he said. “I’m a Lewistown boy, I grew up in that area, I hunted that property, the Snowy Mountains, I’ve hiked that property and it just was a dream come true.
“But the story is, 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.”
People drive through Shodair Children’s Hospital’s ongoing expansion project during an event launching the facility’s capital campaign in May 2021.THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record
FWP will tap 75% of the purchase price from federal Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds with the other 25% from Habitat Montana, funded by hunting license sales.
A driving force behind the project was the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which assisted Shodair through the process and has pledged a $250,000 grant as startup funding for infrastructure and management of the property.
Mike Mueller, RMEF senior lands program manager, said the project will also help the state better manage elk populations in an area where numbers are far above desired levels.
“Elk management benefits come with this project,” he said. “Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports population objectives are over 900% above objective there, and a contributing factor, one of those, is lack of public access. So this is a public access project.”
The project received support from the Golden Valley County Commission and has seen 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 it’s an excellent access project,” said Scott Laird with TRCP. “It is a legacy project to match those other wildlife management areas of Montana. Like Rob-Ledford, Sun River, Fish Creek Blackfoot-Clearwater, the next should be the Big Snowies.”
The project saw opposition Monday from livestock interests. Ross Morgan and Will Graveley the with Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association based in Avon believed FWP has poorly managed other properties such as the Spotted Dog and Canyon Creek wildlife management areas.
“We feel FWP is overextending themselves on property ownership,” Morgan told the board. “We feel a better direction for Pittman-Robertson money rather than purchasing more land is maybe developing wildlife habitat in places that already (have) access to the public.”
Chief among their concerns were reductions in cattle grazing at Spotted Dog and lack of infrastructure improvements such as fencing and water projects. A better option, Morgan suggested, would be to put a conservation easement allowing access on the property but allow it to be sold to a private party.
Knudsen, in explaining his vote against the project, shared some similar concerns and suggested FWP and the Legislature should look at other ways to provide habitat on private lands. He also questioned why more federal funds were not being spent on other priorities, such as hunter education.
“I do think FWP has got an empire-building problem…” AG Austin Knudsen
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen addresses other Land Board members during a meeting on Oct. 17 in which members voted to buy new wildlife management area in Snowy Mountains.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone in here given my previous comments that I’m not going to vote for this. I’m opposed to this. I’ve made that clear to anyone that’s come to talk to me about this,” he said. “I do think Fish, Wildlife & Parks has an empire-building problem. I do think they have a problem with maintenance and management of a lot of land that they already own, so I’m not inclined to vote for more state ownership of fee land.”
The Big Snowy Mountains WMA will provide year-round and winter range for wildlife. It will also open access to additional federal public lands.Kevin League
Gianforte said in support of the project that he had concerns about the loss of agriculture lands, and instructed language in the deed to maintain livestock 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.
“Under this transaction, Golden Valley is kept whole…” Gov. Greg Gianforte.
During a recent Land Board meeting Governor Greg Gianforte expresses his support for the purchase of a new wildlife management area in Snowy Mountains.
“My insistence that we put this on the deed was that the state has a vested interest in seeing land co-managed both for conservation and production agriculture,” he said. “Because at the point production ag leaves the landscape it has a negative effect on our local communities.”
Gianforte also said the purchase consolidated public ownership and that state ownership would offer better tax benefits to Golden Valley County as opposed to purchase by BLM, which was also a possibility.
Following 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 this was the right reason,” he said. “We committed to, the board at Shodair committed to this and three years later here we’re at. And again, it’s about Montanans, you know opening up access, but then Shodair so we can continue to treat more kids.”
FWP spokesperson 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 Dec. 1 to May 15 to protect wintering wildlife.