The Montana Land Board has put a possible acquisition of state land on hold, adding at least another month to the multi-year process of expanding a wildlife management area near Anaconda.
On Monday, the Montana Land Board voted unanimously to table a popular proposal to allow Fish, Wildlife & Parks to buy 829 acres adjacent to the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area.
Montana State Auditor Troy Downing phoned into the meeting to make the motion, saying he was uncomfortable with approving the purchase because there might be a problem with the property title, although he didn’t elaborate.
“I think a continuance is in order not because of the merits or lack thereof. But it was brought up that there was some cloud on title. I’m not opining on whether those are high risk or low risk. I just think it’s within our best interest to make sure those are cleared up,” Downing said.
A “cloud on title” is a document or claim that might make the title doubtful. They’re usually discovered during a title search at the beginning of purchase negotiations.
In this case, that title search would have been conducted about two years ago, when the property owners, Gayle and Roger Burnett, first offered to sell the Willow Creek Addition to FWP. That’s when Mike Mueller, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation lands program manager, started working with the Burnetts to conserve such an important piece of land.
“We have a history with these landowners that goes back six or seven years. They’re very, very conservation-minded. They have a vision like the rest of us. This property could be sold privately, subdivided, who knows. They’ve already had a lot of interest in it,” Mueller told the FWP commission on June 22.
Mueller is a seasoned professional when it comes to walking conservation easements and land sales through the long process of negotiations with public land agencies and finding critical funding.
For about two decades, he’s been responsible for several such acquisitions that near Anaconda have added public land and expanded both the Mount Haggin and Garrity Mountain wildlife management areas. One of those was Zekes Meadows, part of the Burnett’s property that was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service six years ago. So Mueller isn’t likely to have overlooked a detail like a title hiccup.
Burnett’s offer to sell the Willow Creek Addition was brought to the FWP commission at the beginning of this year. With the FWP commission’s initial approval, an environmental assessment was completed and put out to public comment in February.
Many responded with enthusiasm at being able to preserve more of the region’s dwindling open space for wildlife, including elk, pronghorn antelope, moose, beaver, black bear, and numerous birds, amphibians and reptiles. Fish would benefit too. Willow Creek and Mill Creek both sustain wild populations of native Westslope Cutthroat trout and potentially threatened Bull trout.
The Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club pointed to the threat of the 5,000-acre subdivision planned for development just across Highway 569 from the Willow Creek Addition.
“Wildlife uses this parcel throughout all seasons to sustain themselves and so it’s now already benefiting Mount Haggin WMA. This is prime mule deer country. Losing this land to a subdivision would be a loss for the WMA and the conservation easement properties bordering it to the East,” the Sportsmen’s Club wrote. “Soon, the other side of the Mill Creek Valley will be fully developed, and if these were developed too, it would really lessen wildlife habitat and its ‘wildness.’”
Only one commenter out of 36 was opposed to the proposal. Don Ueland of Ramsey owns the Willow Glen Ranch next to the Burnett property and didn’t want the state to become his next-door neighbor, even though FWP owns a conservation easement on his property. But if the sale went through, Ueland wrote that he wants the public to use the Burnett’s ranch road for access instead of using the county road that crosses his ranch. He also wants to be allowed to graze his cattle on the Willow Creek Addition and use water from the Willow Creek well for stock water.
Mueller said the Burnetts were giving FWP a bargain. After the environmental assessment was complete, an assessment valued the property at more than $3 million. But that includes the value of some structures, which the Burnetts would donate to FWP. So the sale price would be $2.59 million.
Mueller and FWP have secured funding from three main sources, including $1.94 million from federal Pittman-Robertson Act funds, $389,100 from Habitat Montana and $258,400 from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation $50,000 from the Heart of the Rockies Initiative.
The FWP commission unanimously voted in support of the acquisition on June 22.
Mueller told the Land Board it was important to protect land next to existing WMA’s “because of the irreversible impacts that could happen if we didn’t acquire those.”
“Due to their age and health reasons, I’m amazed (the Burnetts) have stuck with us,” Mueller said. “We only bring the best of the best. This is such diverse habitat with the wildlife and fisheries. But the location is everything. There’s been a lot of development interest on this property. The landowners keep pushing back and giving us a little bit more time. I’m hoping this project can move forward.”
It didn’t move forward this month. Obviously, Mueller and the Burnetts are hoping that things will go better at the next Land Board meeting on Aug. 15.
Gov. Greg Gianforte did not attend, so Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras chaired the meeting.