State agencies look to swap thousands of acres in Upper Ruby

Two state agencies are proposing a land swap that could change the management of the Robb-Ledford Wildlife Management Area.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing to trade their holdings in the Robb-Ledford Wildlife Management Area in the southern Ruby Valley to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The swap would consolidate the DNRC holdings in and around the Robb-Ledford WMA. In return FWP would receive sections of DNRC land within four other WMAs around Montana.

The goal of the swap for both agencies is to consolidate the checkerboard-pattern land holdings around the WMAs.

“We’d consolidate our ownership within Robb-Ledford and they’d (FWP) consolidate their ownership in other wildlife management areas,” said John Grimm, DNRC Real Estate Section Supervisor.

The proposal was released last week for public comment during what both agencies consider a scoping period. The comment period ends April 30, after which the agencies will go through the comments and see if the proposal needs to be modified.

“It’s just the initial public scoping we’re doing now to see if there’s public support for this or not,” Grimm said.

The trade would give FWP ownership to more than 19,500 acres of DNRC lands in the Sun River, Spotted Dog, Blackleaf and Beartooth WMAs in exchange for transferring 17,000 acres of FWP land in the Robb-Ledford to DNRC ownership.

And though the land would remain public, the two agencies have different management objectives. FWP manages their WMAs for the benefits of wildlife and sportsmen. The DNRC manages their land for the benefit of the state School Trust Fund.

If the swap were to go through, the FWP land in the Robb-Ledford would likely be leased for grazing, said Kevin Chappell, chief of the DNRC Agriculture and Grazing Management Bureau.

However, those kinds of decisions are going to be influenced by public comment on the proposal, Chappell said.

“I don’t know that we’ve really made some hard and fast decisions on how we would manage that,” he said. “That’s part of the scoping process to get some feedback on what people’s expectations would be.”

Currently the DNRC collects more than $6 million annually off of grazing leases on their lands around Montana, Chappell said. This money goes toward public schools, both K-12 and the university system.

Currently, grazing is leased in much of the Robb-Ledford WMA on both DNRC and FWP land. How the proposed land swap would impact current grazing lease holders is still a bit unknown.

Neil Barnosky is a rancher in the Ruby Valley and one of four ranchers in the Ledford Creek Grazing Association. The association has grazing leases on land managed by four public agencies: Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, DNRC and FWP.

He’s not sure how the land swap will impact the grazing association. Like most people, Barnosky is just learning about the proposal.

“We really don’t know exactly how it impacts us if that trade would go through.” Barnosky said. “I would be surprised that it wouldn’t effect us, but I don’t know how really.”

For FWP, the proposed trade seemed logical because the DNRC already owns quite a bit of land in and around the Robb-Ledford, said Rick Northrup, FWP spokesman in Helena.

“The department has been grappling with DNRC inholdings on our wildlife management areas in various parts of the state for 10 years or more,” Northrup said. “DNRC thought that the Robb-Ledford area, because they have so much other landholdings there, they thought that might be a good fit for them.”

Another aspect of the Robb-Ledford that makes a swap more attractive is that the land was purchased by FWP with sportsmen’s dollars from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation back in 1988. Often lands within WMAs were acquired with some federal dollars, which make selling or swapping them complicated, he said.

The FWP land in the Robb-Ledford WMA was purchased from the Ledford Creek Grazing Association in 1987 by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation with the help of a $500,000 donation from Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. The RMEF sold the land to FWP in 1988.

The Elk Foundation plans on commenting on the proposal by the April 30 deadline, said Blake Henning, Vice President of Lands and Conservation with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“We are in the process of discussing, talking about it and firming up what our official opinion will be on it,” Henning said.

FWP told the Elk Foundation about the proposal a few months ago, he said.

The Robb-Ledford was the Elk Foundation’s first land acquisition, Henning said. Since then, the organization has often worked with state and federal land and wildlife agencies to protect wildlife habitat and public access.

“What our emphasis has been is get critical wildlife habitat protected and in public ownership,” Henning said.

The transfer of ownership from one public agency to another isn’t really out of the ordinary, he said. The important thing is that the land remains open to the public and continues to be managed to a significant degree for wildlife habitat.

In the past the Robb-Ledford has been wintering grounds for a portion of the upper Ruby Valley elk herd. It is typically closed to public access from Dec. 1 to May 14 to protect the wintering wildlife from disturbance.

Still, the land swap has left local ranchers and sportsmen with several unanswered questions, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.

Schulz and the Ruby Valley Wildlife Group, which is an informal group of local sportsmen, will hold a meeting April 19 in Alder with both FWP and DNRC officials to gather more information about the land swap, Schulz said. The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Alder Fire Hall.

Officials from both agencies emphasized that the proposal is just in its initial public comment phase and nothing about it is set in stone.

“It’s certainly important that folks view this as a start to a conversation on how best to proceed,” Northrup said.

To see the entire proposal, go to http://dnrc.mt.gov/PublicInterest/Notices/Default.asp and look under Scoping Notices. Comments can be sent to John Grimm, PO Box 201601, Helena, MT 59620-1601 or emailed to jgrimm@mt.gov.

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