Montana’s land board will vote on July 20 on a proposed addition to a wildlife management area near Anaconda. State biologists, a local rod and gun club and several conservation groups say making the section of private land public would protect key wildlife habitat from subdivisions and improve access for recreationists.
Northwest of Anaconda, a 600 acre parcel of private land lies between state trust lands and the nearly 10,000 acre Garrity Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) biologist Julie Golla calls it a missing puzzle piece to large landscape management and conservation goals.
“These specific hillsides are actually very important for winter elk range. So when snow piles up in the Pintlers, naturally elk come down in elevation, and they need these sun exposed, wind exposed hillsides so they can forage for food,” Golla said.
The area also provides key habitat for deer, bighorn sheep, birds and native trout.
Montana’s land board votes on July 20 on whether FWP can purchase the $1.7 million section of private land to add it to the adjacent wildlife management area. FWP says the main goal is to protect key wildlife habitat from subdivisions but it would also open it up to the public.
Chris Marchion is a long time leader of the Anaconda Sportsman’s Club, which supports FWP buying the land.
“When you look at these land purchases that are done for the public there are three things that have to happen,” Marchion said.
One: A landowner wants to put the land into public ownership and is willing to wait several years. The process requires negotiations, an environmental review and public input.
“And that person’s probably not going to get the top price. We can’t pay more than appraisal for a piece of property. So if the property’s going up in value while we’re doing the negotiations, we’re still going to pay an appraisal price. We can never pay any more. So nothing ever comes into public ownership unless the landowner wants that,” Marchion said.
Ray Dvorak is the current private owner. He approached the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and FWP several years ago with the idea of putting the land into public ownership.
“The second thing that has to happen is, the local people that are users of that, we have to be interested in the property. We have to see the value that it’s going to bring,” Marchion said.
A couple people who submitted comments on the proposal said they oppose the land purchase because certain sections won’t be open from December through May 15. FWP officials say this is to prevent people from stressing out elk and deer when they don’t have much food in winter or are calving in the spring.
Another commentator said the county would lose tax revenue if the land went to the state. An FWP official responded that the agency is required by law to pay the county a sum equal to the amount of taxes if it stayed in private ownership.
While some people were opposed, the majority of commentors were in favor of the land purchase, saying it would support wildlife and provide better access to hunt, fish and mountain bike close to town.
“And then the last thing you have to have, the third thing, is you have to have a public entity that wants to take ownership and manage it,” Marchion said.
FWP stepped forward and cobbled together funding with support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the state’s Natural Resource Damage Protection Program.
Since buying and managing land is not cheap biologist Jill Golla says FWP prioritizes purchases that could fill in the gaps around existing wildlife management areas and connect to other large sections of public land. She says the same goes for conservation easements.
“It’s nice if we see a ranch come up for sale and maybe that landowner is interested in doing a conservation easement or selling to the Forest Service or to the state of Montana. But if that’s an isolated peace, that’s not as valuable as something that’s already connected to places that we are improving for the environment,” Golla said.
Rick Northrup, wildlife habitat bureau chief with FWP, says there are 68 wildlife management areas in the state. FWP owns around 387,000 acres and manages around 64,000 acres through leases on land owned by other agencies.
He says not every square inch of Montana was created equal. Some areas are more suited for tillage agriculture while others are better for housing development.
“But there are some areas, I think this is key and it speaks to our history and we’ve fortunately we’ve been able to continue in this fashion, there are some areas that really do have high wildlife value,” Northrup said.
From 1900 through 2018, around 1.3 million acres of undeveloped land have been converted to housing in Montana, according to Headwaters Economics. That’s just shy of the landmass of Delaware.
The number of single family homes has grown by 50 percent since 1990 and nearly half of them were built on large lots with the average size exceeding 10 acres.
Nick Gevock, Montana Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Director, says the 600 acre section of private land near Anaconda easily could have been sold to a developer. A small portion of the original property has already been subdivided and the lots are listed for sale on the open market.
“We know towns are going to grow and communities are going to grow but, you know, you need to talk about where they want to grow and have smart, well planned growth. What we don’t want is sprawl, frankly, into these really important areas,” Gevock said.