Hunting and livestock groups faced off regarding a plan to let cattle graze on the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area north of Deer Lodge.
On Thursday, the Montana Fish and Game Commission unanimously approved letting Deer Lodge rancher Dan McQueary run cattle on a rotating set of pastures in the public property in return for letting elk use part of his ranch for winter range. But while some praised the lease agreement for helping private landowners co-exist with public wildlife, many sporting and wildlife groups complained they were cut out of the process.
“I feel more and more we are hearing from the public wanting to be engaged well before an environmental assessment comes out,” Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Martha Williams told the commissioners. “The public demand to be engaged earlier has grown.”
FWP Region 2 Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson acknowledged he had not kept area sportsmen’s groups included to the extent they wished. He explained that the deal was between the agency representing the public and the landowner, not the interested outside groups, landowner and agency.
For his part, McQueary said the deal was needed to compensate him for the losses he’d incurred since the Spotted Dog went from a century of private ranching to public ownership.
“When the cattle grazing was removed, in my opinion the grass got tall, rank and stale,” McQueary said. “The elk went gradually toward where there was better feed for them. Over last five years, that’s moved more and more elk toward our property.”
Ranchers like Chase Hibbard argued in written comments that allowing cows to graze there would improve forage for elk. Hibbard testified he had been running cattle on the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area for 37 years, which improved both plant health and water-holding capacity in the soil. He said since 1992, elk numbers there had gone from about 2,000 to 4,500.
“If our experience is any indication, there is great potential that properly managed cattle grazing on the Spotted Dog will be good for range, good for the elk, good for the hunters and good for the community,” Hibbard wrote the commissioners.
Others doubted that theory, pointing out that elk had evolved on those grasslands for thousands of years before ranchers added cattle to “help them out.”
Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Dave Chadwick cited recent research showing wildlife habitat on the Spotted Dog had been hurt by past grazing activity and still hadn’t recovered. Allowing more grazing would increase potential for invasive weeds like cheatgrass to get established there and risked damaging its wetlands.
While the proposal indicates FWP and the ranchers will fence and monitor cattle activity to avoid those problems, Chadwick said the costs of that activity aren’t included in the plan.
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Chadwick also questioned why FWP appeared to be providing services to private landowners at the expense of hunters and the general public.
“Additionally, we feel that the use of sportsmen dollars to pay for the temporary fencing and continued maintenance by FWP is not in line with the intent of managing for wildlife within (Spotted Dog) and for the benefit of the general public,” Chadwick wrote. He added, “We question why the department is trying to advance the proposal without properly involving local sportsmen’s groups. While we understand that some negotiations are best done individually with landowners, sportsmen’s groups have not had an adequate opportunity to participate in the development of this proposal.”
Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association President Dan Conn wrote the proposal could be a model for elk refuges across Montana.
“The grazing system proposed in the DEA would provide some relief for the nearby landowners who bear the brunt of the impacts from elk trespassing from the (Spotted Dog) onto private property, while also resulting in the public achieving access to public elk on public property,” Conn wrote. “Approximately 8 percent of the (Spotted Dog) would be part of the study in total — hardly enough to negatively impact the (area). Additionally, 2,100 acres of private property will be rested every year, which will also provide additional elk habitat.”
That didn’t mollify many speakers at Thursday’s commission meeting in Helena. Chris Marchion pointed out the Spotted Dog was bought as a wildlife refuge with public money from a settlement between mining companies and the state for toxic waste damage done to the Clark Fork River.
“As public owners, we’ve got to have some respect and we’re not getting it,” Marchion said. He mentioned examples where volunteer hunting groups had helped landowners fix fencing and build calving areas to offset the impacts of wildlife grazing and hunter access. He said FWP should at least include stronger provisions to protect against the spread of noxious weeds from cattle grazing.
Hellgate Hunters and Anglers President Adam Shaw added the plan didn’t address how wolves and grizzlies might be dealt with if they attack livestock on the WMA. He noted the Spotted Dog is a critical corridor for grizzlies to connect their major recovery areas in the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.
University of Montana wildlife biologist Joshua Millspaugh said the research on livestock and wildlife sharing grasslands can be contradictory. While some show cattle grazing can improve the quality of vegetation for elk, other studies show they compete for the same plants.
“My opinion is that many of these papers that report negative effects can be tied back to overgrazing,” Millspaugh said. One challenge is that each study’s results depend greatly on the specific ground studied, so it’s hard to say if one conclusion applies to a different place.
The lease will run for six years, after which all parties will re-evaluate how cattle and elk are reacting to the arrangement.