HELENA – Though the Legislature has stripped Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ authority to purchase land in the future, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission gave approval last week for the department to continue negotiations already underway for the purchase of seven properties across the state.
“We can make fee title acquisitions under current negotiations right now for projects in the pipeline, but if the ideal opportunity came up, we would not have the authority to do that,” said FWP director Jeff Hagener.
House Bill 403, sponsored by Rep. Dave Hagstrom, R-Billings, appropriated money for state agency capital projects for the next biennium, including major repairs, environmental cleanup and land acquisition. For FWP, however, the bill excludes the acquisition of land. The provision came after calls from some lawmakers to end FWP purchasing of land.
The department still has the authority to enter into conservation or access easements with private landowners.
While the authority to acquire land has been stripped, effective July 1, 2015, that did not eliminate habitat acquisition programs, and money will continue to accumulate in those accounts, Hagener said. He expects that lawmakers in the next session may try to eliminate the programs entirely, but FWP still has the authority to proceed with land purchases negotiated prior to HB403.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission endorsed FWP’s continuing negotiations on four fishing access sites.
FWP can conduct due diligence toward a potential purchase of a Missouri River fishing access site in Cascade County, adjacent to the Carter Ferry Fishing Access Site approximately 3.2 miles southeast of Carter.
The landowner has expressed interest in selling the 105-acre Missouri River parcel, which would provide a significant addition to what is now a “very small” site, said Bruch Rich, fisheries bureau chief.
FWP can proceed with negotiations on a nearly 57-acre parcel 2.2 miles southwest of Vaughn on the Sun River. The parcel includes three ponds, including one licensed to hold largemouth bass.
Rich touted the site for providing access in a stretch of the river where it is currently absent. FWP will proceed with an environmental assessment including public notices and comment.
The commission gave approval for a fishing access site on the west side of Flathead Lake near Dayton in Lake County. A private landowner expressed interest in selling 15 acres allowing closer access to Wild Horse Island State Park than any of the current public accesses.
Finally, FWP can proceed with an environmental assessment and public comment for a fishing access site 24 miles east of Roundup on the Musselshell River in Musselshell County. The site is privately owned but has been publicly used for years, and the owner is interested in selling it for a formal fishing access site.
The Musselshell site would be the only fishing access site within 90 miles on the river, Rich said. It is adjacent to a county park and could provide up to three-quarters of a mile of river access, he added.
The commission also endorsed FWP’s negotiations on additions to three wildlife management areas.
The North Shore WMA along Flathead Lake could grow by nearly 140 acres if the department purchases three parcels. The properties, which will likely be developed if not acquired, according to FWP, are next to FWP’s North Shore State Park and North Shore WMA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area.
The additional parcels would provide upland bird and waterfowl hunting as well as some agriculture, according to FWP.
The department is developing an environmental assessment and management plan for potentially purchasing nearly 450 acres adjoining the Lost Creek Wildlife Management Area near Anaconda. The property is currently enrolled in the Block Management Program, and offers winter range for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep, according to FWP.
Once completed, the assessment and management plan will go out for public comment.
Finally, FWP proposes a 527-acre addition to the Isaac Homestead WMA along the Yellowstone River. The current WMA is comprised of 530-acre and 745-acre units, with the only legal public access to the larger unit via the river. The proposed acquisition would connect the two units, providing additional pheasant, deer and waterfowl hunting and fishing.
The department will now develop an environmental assessment to go out for public comment.