Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is reviewing half a dozen applications for its new habitat leasing program following the agency’s first round of applications.
Earlier this year, FWP launched an ambitious initiative to lease up to 500,000 acres of private land for colonization of prairie grassland wildlife over the next five years. Leases also require a public access plan.
The agency received seven applications during its initial phase, which ended in September, six of which “look promising,” spokesman Greg Lemon said. Staff are currently following the matter and conducting due diligence, he added.
“We weren’t sure what to expect because when a new program comes up, landowners usually tend to watch a few of their neighbors go first and see how it works for them,” Lemon said. “So we think this is a pretty good start that will build momentum.”
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FWP plans to tap state funds from the Habitat Montana account, which uses royalty dollars for land purchases and conservation easements leveraged with federal funds for 30- or 40-year leases. The program would prioritize prairie habitats for funding, particularly in light of sage grouse declines, including sagebrush grasslands, mixed grass prairies and wetland grasslands portions of 45 counties in east and southwest Montana.
The terms of the leases would include restrictions on development and granting some public access. FWP would pay a one off fee of 5-10% of a property’s value per hectare.
FWP has billed the program as yet another solution to preserving habitat while securing public access, particularly for landowners not interested in the permanence of a sale or easement.
Hunter access is a major challenge in many parts of Montana where private landowners restrict or prohibit hunting. Programs like Block Management or other access arrangements have worked to develop millions of private acres; and the state has also purchased game reserve tracts or secured shelter easements on private land to accommodate hunting.
But FWP land purchases, as well as conservation easements allowing access, are contentious due to disagreements over some projects as well as policy. In a recent Land Board vote to purchase the Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area, Attorney General Austin Knudsen voted against the measure, in part because of his belief that the state should not purchase additional land.
Rental contracts do not have to go through the state board for approval either.
Some conservation groups have also raised concerns about the new lease program, questioning whether it could reduce or even eliminate permanent easements or land purchases funded by hunter dollars.
FWP Director Hank Worsech said in announcing the program that the agency will seek a five-year permit of up to 500,000 acres from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. This would allow FWP to enter into leases without individual Commission approval.
That plan has changed. Lemon said officials decided it “made more sense to assess them in bulk or individually” at the commission. He said the decision was not taken because of opposition from the commission and that the agency could reassess its decision and seek longer-term approval for the program in the future.
Marcus Strange, director of state policy and government relations for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his organization is not opposed to the program, but noted that questions remain about the program’s progress and public participation.
“While I’m excited about adding tools to the conservation toolbox and not dismissing short-term relief, in theory the public still has no clarity about the MAPA process in terms of when new rules will go into effect or what the possibility of.” public to help shape this major shift in the publicly funded Habitat Montana program,” he said. “I want to believe that the Director’s Office is acting in the best interest of the public; However, we won’t know if that’s true until they shed light on these changes and the mechanisms behind them.”
Tom Kuglin is the Associate Editor of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. Its reporting focuses on outdoor, recreation and natural resources.