Forty acres isn’t much. A nice-sized horse pasture or fishing lake. But in central Montana, a specific 40 acres has been one of the biggest reasons that hunters can’t do the job the public—and state game agencies—expects: managing wildlife populations.
That 40 acres of private land has blocked public access to thousands of acres of public elk habitat for years in the Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown. Numbers from Fish, Wildlife & Parks show what happens when hunters can’t access the resource: the Snowy Mountain elk herd is double biologists’ population objective (the department routinely observes between 4,000 and 5,000 elk during survey flights), and the bull-to-cow ratio is a wild 1:3.
What happens when you have unmanaged game populations? They start to cause problems with neighboring private landowners, who grumble about all those hay-eating critters, and look for ways to benefit from them. For the last several sessions, Montana’s legislature has considered proposals to hand elk management over to landowners and outfitters instead of the public. That’s a bad precedent.
That’s the background for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s interest in helping purchase that 40 acres we talked about. The RMEF, along with FWP, figured out that if they could put the small parcel of private land—which blocks access to a large chunk of the Lewis and Clark National Forest—in the public domain, they could provide access to about 18,000 acres of elk habitat.
Randy Newberg, a RMEF board member and hunting advocate, notes that the acquisition is remarkable not only for the public access it leverages, but for the hunting opportunities it opens.
“The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Red Hill acquisition is in an area renowned for huge bulls, large herds, and unfortunately, extremely difficult public access,” says Newberg. “It is some of the finest elk hunting in America. All hunters benefit from acquisitions such as this; just one of many RMEF has completed while quietly going about its business of protecting key elk habitat and improving public hunting access.”
The Big Picture
Central Montana has become the latest focal point of public access to public lands. Over the last decade, significant landownership changes have taken place here. Nonresident landowners have discovered that here, beyond the glamour and ski towns of the Rockies, they can buy huge chunks of wildlife-rich property.
Other ranches are being leased by outfitters and hunt clubs, further reducing private land that was traditionally open for public recreation. The Big Snowies have developed a dubious reputation as a place where hunters who can afford to hire a helicopter to fly into landlocked public land can have epic elk hunting. But who among us has the money or the will to airlift themselves into a trophy bull?
Here’s where the RMEF really works for rank-and-file hunters. By working together with Montana FWP, the Forest Service, and local landowners, RMEF negotiated a way around this longstanding impediment.
“Projects like this are only possible through partnerships of private individuals, RMEF, FWP and USFS,” says FWP’s Gary Bertellotti. “Without partners that are willing to provide expertise, support, and resources at the right time and point in the effort, opportunities like this one will be lost.