BLM and Wilks Ranch: massive land swap

Missouri River Breaks
Photo Credit: Dan Harrell / USFWS
Montana's Missouri River Breaks                                                                                                                                                       

A land-exchange offer between the Bureau of Land Management and Wilks Ranch Montana has been the topic of discussion for elk hunters since March. 

Initially, the Texas brothers, Dan and Farris Wilks proposed a trade, which called for BLM to give up land—within its boundaries—for public access to nearly 60,000 acres in the Missouri River Breaks through Bullwhacker Road, as well as 1,200 acres of Red Hill Road in Fergus County. 

This would then also open up 10,000 acres of national forest in the Big Snowy Mountains, along with other random parcels, which would benefit BLM.

In return, the two would be acquiring a particularly special area of land—Durfee Hills. These 2,700 acres of land are perhaps the most well-known location for elk hunting in Montana, which, to some, is the main problem surrounding the trade.

Though Durfee Hills has no road access and therefore can only be reached by way of plane or helicopter, some still suggest that it is the best location for elk hunting and do not wish to see a trade anytime soon.

The deal has since been put on hold while BLM weighs its options.

Should the trade come to fruition, BLM would lose Durfee Hills along with 11 parcels that are currently landlocked within the Wilks’ property. 

This would not be all bad for the agency though, since BLM has been trying to gain access to the 60,000 acres of land in the Missouri River Breaks that is no longer accessible after a road leading through that location was named private in 2011.

Texas businessmen Dan and Farris Wilks, have managed to obtain great amounts of land in recent years, making them Montana’s largest private landowners. In total, the Wilks’ own over 276,000 acres throughout seven counties.

To some, that is reason enough for opposing the deal. 

Another main concern, which was addressed during a conservation meeting in Bozeman, Mont., is the business of exchanging land and making sure the switch is even.

Among other things, an equal trade has to do with the value of the land and the current state of its wildlife. The appraisal of land, however, can be a lengthy and costly endeavor.

It is a difficult task because there are things that need to be done before the appraisal can be made, but on the other hand, it is hard for the people to make a solid choice before that appraisal is made, said Joe Perry, chairman of the Public Land/Public Wildlife Council, as reported by The Billings Gazette.

While nothing has been set in motion yet, most all can agree that access to such a large amount of land is the mutual goal.

The BLM has since stated that it will begin preparing for an environmental assessment—which is under the National Environmental Policy Act—to lend aid in the deliberation of the matter. Road access and matinee to this area will also be discussed.

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