BILLINGS – Riparian habitat along the coveted Bighorn River north of Hardin is being proposed for acquisition by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The 425 acres borders the south end of the 141-acre Grant Marsh Wildlife Management Area, creating a larger block of habitat for species ranging from whitetail deer to pheasant and waterfowl. In addition, the Montana Department of Transportation is developing an adjacent 50-acre parcel as a wetland.

If approved, the pieced-together parcels would create the largest block of public land along the Bighorn River providing a boat launch, ponds, hunting opportunities and wildlife habitat. Details of the property are contained in a draft environmental assessment proposing the acquisition.

“I know our wildlife guys are pretty excited about that addition,” said Bob Gibson, information and education manager for FWP’s Region 5 in Billings.

Although the last Montana Legislature put the brakes on FWP’s purchase of many new properties, the restriction only applies to funds collected after 2015, Gibson said. The funds for this purchase were acquired in 2013, skirting the new constraints. The deal will also have to be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the State Land Board, he added.

The $1.57 million purchase price would be paid for with a combination of federal dollars earned from a tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition awarded to states for wildlife conservation, as well as from Montana’s own fee assessed on hunting license sales through the Habitat Montana program. FWP would continue to make the land’s annual tax payments.

Gibson said the Grant Marsh WMA, located about 7 miles north of Hardin off Highway 47, already receives regular use by warmwater anglers, waterfowl and pheasant hunters. Although the area is home to whitetail deer and the occasional elk, they usually abandon the property once they are pressured by hunters, he said.

Grant Marsh WMA was purchased in 1978. In 1989 about 77 acres were developed into a fishing access site that includes a boat launch. Although the Bighorn River farther upstream – just below Yellowtail Dam – is internationally acclaimed for its trout fishery, by the time the river reaches Grant Marsh it has transitioned to more warmwater species like smallmouth bass, sauger and the occasional northern pike.

The entire length of river is a green stripe through dry country, making it a wildlife mecca. In the fall and winter the river teems with geese and ducks, some migratory and others that take up permanent residence.

“The majority of the Bighorn River Valley has been converted to intense irrigated cropland,” the draft environmental assessment noted. “This addition would conserve one of the largest blocks of intact riparian habitat remaining in the Bighorn River Valley while broadening the conservation footprint of the existing Grant Marsh WMA. A productive complement of wildlife habitat including mature cottonwood galleries and native shrub thickets exist on the property. As a result, this parcel supports pheasants, mule deer, white-tailed deer, Merriam’s turkeys, waterfowl and a variety of other nongame wildlife species. With nearly two miles of river frontage, the addition of this property would not only expand public hunting but also facilitate fishing and other public outdoor recreational activities.”

A portion of the property is flood irrigated cropland. FWP is considering leasing out that area to a farmer at no cost in exchange for having food plots left for wildlife. The current landowners, Billings residents Darell and Robin Tunnicliff, “would retain oil and gas rights to the property, however no surface occupancy would be allowed because a majority of the parcel is within the 100 year floodplain,” according to the draft EA. “Surface mining for removal of gravel or other minerals would not occur.”

Cattle may be grazed on the new property if acquired by FWP, but “only as a management tool to benefit the wildlife habitat.

“The Bighorn River riparian corridor is key to maintaining stable white-tailed deer, pheasant, wild turkey and furbearer species populations, primarily because it provides winter habitat,” the draft EA stated. “Most of the surrounding uplands lack suitable winter habitat components. The lower Bighorn River also provides habitat for many nongame species, both migratory and resident. The proposed project is expected to have only positive benefits to fish and wildlife habitat because riparian areas would be protected from conversion to cropland or other incompatible uses and they would instead be enhanced for wildlife benefit.

“The Bighorn River corridor provides important habitat for migratory wetland birds, as well as numerous species of raptors and migratory songbirds. There is an active great blue heron rookery on the property. Additionally, the area is used year-round by bald eagles.

Concern by surrounding landowners about additional public use is a common concern when FWP acquires property. According to the draft EA, “FWP would work to manage use on the WMA in ways that minimize conflicts with neighbors, such as providing adequate parking, fencing, and signage so that the public can easily recognize public and private land boundaries. Additional wildlife food resources to be established on the WMA have the potential to reduce game damage conflicts with neighboring landowners.”

The public has until 5 p.m. on Feb. 24 to comment on the proposal. Written comments can be mailed to: Megan O’Reilly, Wildlife Biologist, 2300 Lake Elmo Drive, Billings, MT 59105 or emailed to moreilly@mt.gov.

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