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Don Cameron, manager of the 71 Ranch in Ingomar, pushes calves from their mothers before vaccinating the herd and banding the calves.

BILLINGS – Should Montana Republican lawmakers saddle up to take control of federal lands, they might be without one important, generally conservative group – cowboys.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages 7.8 million acres of land in Montana and all but a few hundred thousand acres are leased for grazing at the incredibly low rate of $1.34 for enough forage to feed an animal for a month. The U.S. Forest Service also leases grazing land for the same low price.

Montana also leases grazing land using the same forage formula, but the state charges no less than $11.41, with the possibility of the price being driven higher by competitive bidding.

The price difference between the state and federal government, as well as the difference in leasing terms, has ranchers pulling back on the reins as Republicans, who have made a state takeover of federal lands part of their party platform, ride ahead.

“I think it’s a pretty big decision,” said Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “The topic has been discussed, but I don’t know if we’ve ever gotten down to the finer details.”

The ranch groups that tend to align themselves with Republican lawmakers are being cautious in what they say about a state takeover of federal land. As one industry representative said, there’s a real “with us or against us” attitude among Republicans supporting a takeover. No one wants to be alienated for pointing out the potential negatives for the livestock industry.

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agriculture group, recognizes a need to at least discuss the state taking over federal lands, but stops short of endorsing the move.

“I think it’s a discussion that should be held because of the mismanagement of our federal lands,” said John Youngberg, Montana Farm Bureau Federation CEO. “Do I think we should just take over 30 million acres of federal land in Montana tomorrow? I don’t think that’s reasonable.”

Federal management of forested land in Montana hasn’t been poor, Youngberg said. He sees missed opportunities for tree thinning and support for the timber industry in the northwest part of the state. That issue alone should stir the discussion of a takeover of federal land.

But on the largely unforested federal acres managed by BLM, there are grazing terms that have made the status quo appealing for nearly a century. The federal government began issuing grazing leases in the 1930s after range wars broke out between ranchers who until that point were free to graze livestock on federal land without question. The lease established who had grazing rights and also tied federal grazing land to particular ranches. As long as a rancher paid his grazing fees, the federal land assigned to his operation would never be offered to someone else. Between BLM and the Forest Service, there are roughly 5,000 grazing leases on federal land in Montana on 7.84 million acres.

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State grazing leases work differently. The land goes out for competitive bid every five or 10 years. The rancher currently leasing the land has a “right of preference” that allows him to match the high bid of his competitor, but if he declines, the grazing lease is issued to someone else.

It isn’t clear whether the state would issue grazing leases on newly acquired federal land under the same terms as state land is currently leased. Montana issues grazing leases on 4 million state acres, said Kevin Chappell, state ag and grazing bureau chief. The money collected is used to fund Montana public schools. Last fiscal year, state grazing fees contributed $11.6 million to schools.

Whether the state would fold federal grazing land into the school trust land system isn’t clear Chappell said. Current discussions amount to water cooler talk.

The real attraction of converting federal grazing land to state land would be accessibility to the politicians making decisions that affect ranchers.

“I think the state’s a better neighbor,” Youngberg said. “If I want more weed control on state land, I go to the Legislature and have a legislator introduce a bill. We don’t get that kind of result when we go to Congress.”

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