Community shows concern about Robb-Ledford land exchange

ALDER – Residents of the Ruby Valley and members of the greater Madison County community gathered Thursday evening at the Alder Fire Hall to give public comment and discussion on a proposed land transfer between the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The proposed area of discussion is the Robb-Ledford Wildlife Management Area, which covers approximately 28,000 acres located in the Upper Ruby Valley. According to a statement issued by both FWP and DNRC, the purpose of the land exchange is to consolidate ownerships so that each agency can manage a block of property instead of interspersed, checkerboard pieces of land.

The exchange would divest FWP of its land in the Robb-Ledford in exchange for DNRC land within four other WMAs around Montana.

Other motives for the exchange include improving the effectiveness and efficiency of management programs and reducing the prospect of resource management conflicts that may arise between the two agencies.

FWP Habitat Section Supervisor Rick Northrup was present at the meeting to discuss the proposal, answer questions and explain the steps that must be taken before the land exchange takes place.

“This is very preliminary,” Northrup said of the proposal’s current status. “It’s more of an initial scoping to find out what the pulse is of the community.”

Many people in attendance at the meeting seemed wary of the proposal, and expressed concern over how management strategies might be impacted by the exchange between the two state agencies. While FWP typically runs wildlife management areas for the benefit of sportsmen and wildlife populations, the DNRC collects monies collected from grazing leases to benefit the state’s school trust fund.

Madison County commissioner Dave Schulz emphasized the need for public input from local stakeholders who could potentially be impacted by the land exchange, especially since the deadline for public comment on the initial scoping process is Monday, April 30.

“There is some immediacy in having this meeting and certainly giving people an opportunity to hear what’s going on, have some comments and then 10 days in order to put a comment together,” Schulz encouraged the audience at Thursday’s meeting. “We want to know what you think so that we can comment accordingly.”

Several members of the audience questioned what the land exchange and potential change in land management strategies means for the local wildlife populations. In years past the Robb-Ledford WMA has been prime wintering grounds for elk populations in the upper Ruby Valley, and has been closed to public access to limit disturbances to the wildlife.

Sheridan resident Dan Crismore wanted to know what the proposal means for elk and sportsmen alike in the area.

“Historically we’ve looked at a lull of elk population on that Robb-Ledford in the last couple years, but how was it this year?” Crismore said.

Crismore also worried what the result might be if FWP transfers management control of the WMA to the DNRC, as well as how sportsmen’s access to public lands could be affected.

“That has big economic values to our community here,” Crismore said.

“Our management’s changed and our elk aren’t protected, and all of a sudden they’re down on the private land,” he said. “We’re impacting these guys that are our neighbors and our friends with our elk.”

Garry Williams, DNRC Area Manager for the Central Land Office in Helena, was also present at the meeting to offer insight into the land exchange process and explain what happens to the proposal from here.

“We need to go through some type of process to measure the issues and the public sentiment before we go to the land board for a preliminary approval for any land exchange,” Williams said.

“We have quite a bit of analysis we have to do. We need to make sure from a (school) trust standpoint that we’re getting equal value lands, as near as possible equal acreage,” he continued. “We have to look at future income. There are public hearings that need to be done later, so its an in depth process.

“FWP has an interest in all their WMAs to have better control of these leased lands… to gain the certainty of having those areas protected for wildlife purposes,” Williams explained.

From the DNRC’s standpoint, part of the decision will certainly be financial. The values of the lands proposed in the entire trade package must add up so as to be beneficial for the state school trust fund, he said.

“We don’t have anything firmed up,” Williams emphasized. “There’s lots of things to think about. Now is certainly the time to raise issues, raise questions, let opinions be known.”

The deadline for public comment on the initial scoping process is Monday, April 30. Written comments should be submitted to John Grimm at the Helena DNRC office, PO Box 201601 Helena MT 59620-1601 or email at jgrimm@mt.gov.

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