The measure must now go to the state Land Board for approval. It's next meeting is Sept. 19. If OK’d, the new wildlife management area could open to the public by next year.
Hailed by public access proponents and Commissioner Brian Cebull who called it a “jewel,” the property provides access to additional federal lands as well. 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 on the south side of the mountain range abut the property.
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The land is being sold by Helena-based Shodair Children’s Hospital for $8.22 million. The property was donated to the company by the Forrest Allen estate. Allen’s parents, Stanley and Carrie Allen, homesteaded in the area in the early 1900s.
Seventy-five percent of the payment for the land purchase would come from federal Pittman Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds with the other 25% from Habitat Montana, money collected from hunting license sales and taxes on recreational marijuana.
The project has been more than two years in the making.
Shodair’s CEO, Craig Aasved, told the commission the sale of the property will benefit the Montana children that the facility cares for, helping to fund the completion of a $10 million medical office building for genetic services and an outpatient clinic. This is in addition to a new $66 million hospital under construction.
Shodair was assisted in its attempt to ensure the land went into public hands by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The Missoula-based group’s Mike Mueller called the land deal a public access project “beyond your wildest dreams.” In recognition of that, Mueller said RMEF awarded its largest grant ever – $250,000 – to help fund the construction of a parking lot, weed treatment and fencing that FWP has planned at a total cost of $714,000.
“We’re excited about this one,” Mueller said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ staff, including regional wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor, drew praise for thoroughness in preparing the proposal. Thomas Baumeister, of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, called it a “flawless project,” and Commissioner Pat Tabor of Whitefish said it was “exceptional work” by FWP’s staff. Rod Bullis, of Helena Hunters and Anglers, called the decision the right thing to do and a project that will be a significant part of the commission’s legacy.
Lewistown-area resident Dick Raths encouraged anyone supporting the land purchase to urge the State Land Board to support the acquisition. The Land Board is composed of the governor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general and commissioner of securities and insurance.
According to FWP’s environmental assessment, “the proposed Big Snowy Mountains WMA is entirely native mountain/foothill and prairie grassland habitats,” ranging in elevation from 4,750 to 6,000 feet. The acreage provides habitat for elk, deer, black bears, the occasional moose, mountain lions, bobcats, pronghorns and other native species, including at least 22 state Species of Concern.
“Nongame species such as golden and bald eagles, long-billed curlews, ferruginous hawks, and mountain plovers are also observed.
“The property is surrounded by large absentee landowners who rarely allow recreational opportunities to the general public,” the EA stated. “The lack of public access to elk is the largest contributing factor to the elk population being roughly 900% over objective.”
An existing 15-year grazing lease is in effect until April 1, 2031, which FWP will honor.
A complete Big Snowy Mountains WMA Management Plan would be written within the first year of ownership.
The WMA would be closed each year to public recreation from Dec. 1 through May 15 to allow wildlife undisturbed access to winter range habitat.
Motorized use would be restricted to designated roads and parking areas.
Dispersed camping would be allowed unless posted otherwise. Camping would be limited to 16 days in any 30-day period. Public use would be limited to walk-in or horseback access from the two designated parking areas.