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This map shows the Wilks brothers' holdings

This map shows the Wilks brothers' holdings, shown in red, as they relate to the adjoining hunting districts in central Montana. Green land is Forest Service, blue is state and yellow is BLM property.

BILLINGS -- The big just keep getting bigger.

Montana’s largest private landowners — Dan and Farris Wilks — moved up six notches in an annual survey of the nation’s largest landowners.

The Wilkses jumped to No. 22 on the recently released The Land Report 100, compiled by editor Eric O’Keefe and sponsored by Fay Ranches, a real-estate brokerage headquartered in Bozeman.

The report’s top 100 list focuses on deeded acreage owned by individuals, families, family-owned companies and foundations. Although not covering all large landowners, the report does hit the high notes.

Going up

In last year’s report, the Wilkses — who started buying land in Montana in 2011 with their purchase of the N Bar Ranch in Fergus County — had amassed about 276,000 acres. In this year’s report, the Wilkses’ acreage had risen to 347,500 acres, an increase of 71,500 acres. According to Forbes.com, part of that increase was attributed to the brothers’ purchase of 36,000 acres in Idaho.

In Montana alone the Wilkses own 341,845 acres, according to Montana Cadastral mapping figures, making them the largest private landowners in the state. That figure now tops Plum Creek Timber Co., which for years was the largest landowner in the state. Plum Creek’s holdings are pegged at 262,601 acres, mostly in the Seeley-Swan area of northwestern Montana.

Montana’s center

The Wilkses, on the other hand, have staked out the majority of their Montana property in central Montana. Looking at a map, the Wilkses’ holdings have been clustered near where Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley counties adjoin — expanding out from their first purchase of the N Bar Ranch onto adjoining property.

The Wilkses stated on a website they created to promote a land exchange with the Bureau of Land Management that they are “interested in re-establishing a premier Black Angus ranch at the N Bar.” Farris Wilks also told a gathering at a state Fish, Wildlife and Parks council that he, his family and friends also enjoy hunting elk on the property, mainly with archery equipment.

Wilks was invited to the meeting partly in an attempt by FWP to woo the landowners into allowing more public access to their lands to reduce elk herds that the game agency sees as over objective.

Land records show that, as of August, the Wilkses owned 57,000 acres in Hunting District 411, southeast of Lewistown, and 129,000 acres in HD 530, northwest of Roundup. Since August, however, the brothers have added more than 30,000 acres just to their Montana holdings.

Fencing issue

Earlier this year, hunters in the Lewistown area rose up to successfully beat down a proposal by the Wilkses to exchange a ranch they purchased that would provide access to public land north of the Missouri River Breaks for 4,800 acres of BLM land within their central Montana holdings. The majority of that BLM land is a contiguous block known as the Durfee Hills. Some hunters have flown into the landlocked hills to hunt elk that spill over from the Wilkses’ N Bar.

This summer the Wilkses built a new fence around the BLM’s Durfee Hills, carving a wide swath through the timbered lands to erect the five strands of barbed wire. Hunters using their GPS units complained to the BLM that the Wilkses’ fence extended onto BLM property. After initially denying the claims, the BLM decided to have the property professionally surveyed after the complaints multiplied.

“It may likely start next week,” said Stan Benes, field manager for the BLM’s Lewistown office.

Benes said the BLM had wrongly presumed that the Wilkses had surveyed the boundary before building the fence. He also noted that hunting-quality GPS units are not as accurate as a cadastral survey.

“We got a lot of calls,” Benes said. “Now we can say, ‘Hey we hear you and are going to go out and get a survey.’ Since then, the clamor has eased up.”

Clamor extended

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte, of Billings, told his fellow commissioners at last week’s meeting that he received almost daily updates from archery hunters complaining that the Wilkses’ fence was meant to impede the passage of wildlife from their ranch onto the BLM’s Durfee Hills.

“There was a lot of public outrage and it all came back to the fencing operation,” he said.

Photos taken of the fence show it is a standard five-wire barbed-wire fence. Wildlife advocates prefer to see the top wire dropped, to make it easier for elk and deer to jump over, and the bottom wire raised, to allow antelope and other animals to crawl under.

Commission chairman Dan Vermillion said it is in the long-term interest of sportsmen and wildlife for the department to keep an eye on such boundary issues, especially as large land purchases continue in Montana.

“The department needs to be diligent in making sure the public interest is protected up there,” he said.

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