The Land Board's refusal to protect elk habitat near Whitehall earlier this year leaves the area in jeopardy, conservationists say.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks sought $213,000 from Habitat Montana, a pot of money created from the sale of hunting licenses, to amend an existing conservation easement on the Keogh Ranch, 10 miles north of Whitehall. In a 3-2 vote, the Board of Land Commissioners voted it down in September despite concerns of encroaching development near the ranch.

Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox both voted for the FWP plan. It was defeated by votes from Auditor Matt Rosendale, Office of Public Instruction superintendent Elsie Arntzen and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

Since then, Public Lands/Public Access Association President Tony Schoonen and Rosendale have sparred through letters to the editor in The Montana Standard arguing their respective positions on the issue.

Rosendale disagreed that the expenditure of $213,000 for the additional easement to protect the land from agricultural subdivision was necessary. Rosendale said the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Schoonen said Rosendale “opposed the proposal for all the wrong reasons.”

Rosendale has thrown his hat in the ring to try to take Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s seat. Rosendale recently received an endorsement from Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist.

Because the amendment failed at the Land Board Commission, FWP officials say they now hope to find another way to protect the Keogh Ranch from getting carved up. The agency expects to start looking next year for a land trust that would purchase the easement to better protect the ranch. But FWP Land Program Manager Darlene Edge said last week the agency does not yet have anyone lined up to make the transaction a go.

The current conservation easement, which FWP purchased on the Keogh Ranch in the 1990s, put restrictions on the land to preserve the 7,106 acres for elk and elk habitat and other wildlife. Elk herds currently numbering about 1,200 traverse the Keogh’s valley floor to move between the Bull Mountains and the Boulder Mountains.

But the language in the original easement was vague enough that future landowners could potentially subdivide the property into 160-acre tracts for agricultural purposes, such as horse farms, Edge said during the commission meeting earlier this fall. FWP and the current fourth-generation owner of the land, the Fitzgerald family, wanted to work out an additional easement. If it had passed the land board, the additional easement would have protected the land from agricultural subdivision in the future, Edge said.

There is the potential that the land could be subdivided into 44 160-acre parcels, Edge said. Rosendale argued during the meeting that language in the original conservation easement prohibited such a move. But Edge said subsequent owners who bought 160-acre parcels could sue FWP for the right to drill a well because the prohibitions in the original easement were vague.

“The (potential) cost in legal fees far exceed the $213,000 we’re asking for to improve this conservation easement,” Edge said.

Edge said the Fitzgeralds have already been approached by potential buyers.

The Fitzgerald family declined to comment for this story.

If the land does get subdivided, FWP officials are concerned that managing the land for wildlife will become considerably harder because the agency would have to work with multiple landowners instead of one. Agency officials also worry that multiple landowners would not adhere to the rules of the conservation and would allow horses to overgraze the land.

“If this land was to be subdivided to an agricultural subdivision ... there would be habitat degradation. With horse pastures, there is year-round grazing. We can’t control impacts to the land. Hunters would be impacted; it would mean that many more owners to get (hunting) permission from,” FWP wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori said during the meeting.

The landowners give 300 to 500 permission slips for three days of hunting, Boccadori said. The owners also preserve a couple hundred acres for handicapped hunters.

Little Whitetail Creek flows through the land and more than 30 species of mammals, including black bear, moose and mountain lions, cross its pastures. More than 130 bird species, such as golden eagles, blue grouse and Cooper’s hawks, spend time on the ranch.

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An active prairie dog colony calls about a 90-acre portion of the ranch home. The colony is believed to be the westernmost extension of the black-tailed prairie dogs in Montana. Besides the black-tailed prairie dogs, five additional species of concern in Montana — mountain plover, Clark’s nutcracker, long-billed curlew, burrowing owl and ferruginous hawk — call the ranch home.

But the primary concern are elk. 

Mark Lambrecht, director of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which supported the additional conservation easement to prevent subdivision, said “this is prime elk country.”

“Certainly (the subdivision) would have an impact,” Lambrecht said by phone last month. “The elk herd in that area, there’s a route those herds take. Any time you have property subdivided into smaller parcels, it impacts their ability to travel. It impacts hunters’ ability to access those elk.”

But Rosendale argues the $213,000 could be spent in places such as the Dome Mountain Ranch north of Yellowstone and the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area between Elliston and Deer Lodge.

The FWP Commission endorsed the agency's request to begin the early steps toward purchasing the more than 5,000 acres of the Dome Mountain Ranch during a commission meeting this past August. That move will preserve the area for critical elk herds but no dollar amount was established for that acquisition.

FWP Habitat Bureau Chief Rick Northrup said the Dome Mountain project could have other players involved, including the Bureau of Land Management.

The Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area contains around 10,000 acres of inholdings in a checkerboard ownership. FWP would like to purchase the inholdings from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Edge said FWP “doesn’t know the cost,” of that project yet. The agency still has to do an appraisal.

But, she said, if the agency gets approval for that purchase, federal dollars would kick in 75 percent of the needed money, leaving the state with the need to come up with 25 percent.

Rosendale was not available for comment late last week but his spokesperson, Kyle Schmauck, said the “the $213,000 wouldn’t have had real on-the-ground impact (had the amendment gone through) and that money can be spent on other projects.”

“What’s on paper versus what’s on the ground, spending $213,000 to not have a change on the ground, this money can be better spent elsewhere,” Schmauck said.

Stapleton did not respond to request for comment, but Arntzen’s land board advisor, Patrick H. Beddow, said in writing:

"Superintendent Arntzen believes that there were adequate provisions within the original easement and that an amendment did not seem to be required to provide for the protections of wildlife as asked for in the conservation easement."

Fox did not respond to request for comment late last week. Bullock, who chairs the Land Commission Board, was also not available for comment late last week but during the commission meeting, Bullock said he supported the amendment.

“The owners want to do the right thing for the land, but that could change,” he said.

He also expressed interest in the idea that this would “send a message to private landowners that they ought to be dealing with the state,” and he called the amendment purchase “a real opportunity on this,” and would provide “access to quality hunting.”

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