The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously voted today to approve the acquisition of a new wildlife management area proposed for the Lower Yellowstone River.
According to Angie Grove, who chaired the Lower Yellowstone River Corridor Advisory Council, the commission’s vote to advance the Wildcat Bend Wildlife Management Area is a major milestone in a multi-year effort to expand recreational access to the Lower Yellowstone River.
If finalized, the acquisition would be the first purchase to use funding from a $4 million Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks-administered allocation state lawmakers approved in 2021 with an eye toward expanding public access, improving wildlife habitat and encouraging economic development in communities stretching from Hysham to the North Dakota border.
Grove said she hopes that finalizing the deal for the 328-acre Wildcat Bend property located in Rosebud County will facilitate the adoption of other recommendations the council outlined in a November 2021 report.
Nearly 300 people submitted comments to FWP on the proposal, with the majority of them in support. Before FWP can ink the deal, the Montana Land Board will also have to sign off.
Five individuals voiced support for the acquisition during the commission’s meeting in Helena on Thursday, including Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers vice chair Thomas Baumeister, who said the effort reminds him of what’s possible in Montana when politics are set aside.
“The vision is right, the geography is right, the purpose is right, the process is right, the collaboration is right,” Baumiester said. “This is what makes Montana great — having place like this that are held in public trust for all to enjoy.”
Residents of eastern Montana say it’s about time the Lower Yellowstone River is recognized for its recreational opportunities and untapped economic potential. The Legislature has allocated $4 million to start bringing that vision to life.
The price tag for Wildcat Bend is just shy of $1.2 million. A handful of nonprofits and companies have committed funding to cover about half of the price. Partners in the purchase include the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Pheasants Forever, the National Wild Turkey Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, the MeatEater Foundation, OnxMaps, SITKA Gear and two local Pheasants Forever chapters. FWP would use part of the $4 million allocation to cover the remainder.
The property is about 2.5 miles downstream from the Far West Fishing Access Site east of Forsyth. Wildcat Bend would be geared toward recreationists walking or floating up to the property, which includes 2.2 miles of riverfront acreage.
In response to a question by commissioner Susan Kirby Brooke, FWP Land and Water Program Director Bill Schenk said there is no latrine on the site and installing one would cost about $23,000. Schenck also noted that there is a deed restriction on the property geared toward wetland protection and restoration. It’s not expected to interfere with or impede public access, he told commissioners.
Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Lesley Robinson said the most immediately impacted county commissioners are in favor of the deal, something she said is important to her. In a press release issued after the commission vote, Rosebud County Commissioner Robert Lee said he supports the purchase because it was driven by local input and stands to benefit local communities.
“In addition to improving local recreation, these kinds of projects can increase visitation and bring in more tourism dollars for our communities,” said Lee, who also served on the Lower Yellowstone River Corridor Advisory Committee.
The Land Board, which is comprised of five elected officials, is expected to cast the final vote on the acquisition when it meets Nov. 20. Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Troy Downing sit on the Land Board.
The all-Republican Land Board has signed off on other recent WMA acquisitions, including the Big Snowy WMA, which was affirmed last October with a 4-1 vote. Knudsen cast the lone vote in opposition to that purchase, arguing that FWP has an “empire-building problem” and struggles to manage and maintain its existing properties.
Grove told commissioners that if all goes as planned, she’ll be out pheasant hunting the Wildcat Bend WMA next fall.
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