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Montana Land Board signs off on 328-acre Lower Yellowstone acquisition

The 4-1 vote allows Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to purchase the $1.2 million property east of Forsyth.
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Posted at 7:52 AM, Nov 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-23 09:52:25-05

The Montana Land Board voted earlier this week to acquire a 328-acre property on the Lower Yellowstone River to improve public access and protect wildlife habitat. The 4-1 vote clears the way for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to add what will become the North Wildcat Coulee Wildlife Management Area to its wildlife management acreage.

The property, known as Wildcat Bend, is located in a riparian area east of Forsyth. It’s a “primitive” property about 2.5 river miles downstream of the Far West Fishing Access Site, and will be accessible by foot or by watercraft, reports the Montana Free Press. The proposal was forwarded to the Land Board after the Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously affirmed the acquisition in an October vote.

Conservation organizations, several of which have been working to expand recreational facilities and wildlife habitat along the easternmost stretch of the Yellowstone for years, cheered the development.

Noah Marion, Wild Montana’s political and state policy director, described public land purchases as a “no-brainer” and said the process that preceded the Land Board’s vote merits replication.

“The process that got us to today’s vote is a blueprint for how the state should think about acquiring and managing public lands: with input and support from the community and for everyone’s benefit,” Marion wrote in an email.

“I am deeply grateful to the Montana Land Board and every partner who has played a crucial role in securing this exceptional, wildlife-rich property,” Mike Penfold, a member of the Lower Yellowstone Citizen Advisory Committee, wrote in an email. “Wildcat Bend will not only serve as a new destination for Montanans to hunt and fish, but it will also become a permanent asset for local communities.”

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Penfold added that he’s “very eager to see more projects like Wildcat Bend reach fruition.”

Two years ago, the Gianforte-appointed advisory committee on which Penfold served released a report designed to guide FWP’s administration of a $4 million Lower Yellowstone fund geared toward expanding public access, protecting wildlife habitat and bolstering local economies.

The Land Board is composed of the state’s top elected officials. Gov. Greg Gianforte, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Troy Downing sit on the Land Board. The board provides revenue to the public school system by leasing state trust lands for logging, grazing and mineral development.

Knudsen issued the lone “no” vote on the acquisition. He argued that a river channel migration could compromise access to a portion of the property, creating a legal problem for the state.

“I have real concerns that there’s hair on this cake,” Knudsen said. “There could be a dispute over the ownership of that old riverbed. I’ve been involved in enough of these cases privately that I think that is more than an outside likelihood.”

Both Gianforte and Downing touted their votes in emailed press releases yesterday. Downing noted that more than 250 small businesses in the state support the acquisition, as does the Rosebud County Commission. A statement from Gianforte’s office said the acquisition will open access to 2.2 miles of Yellowstone riverfront and support multiple game species, including mule and white-tailed deer, Merriam’s turkey, ring-necked pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and waterfowl.

“For too long, public access to the Lower Yellowstone River has been challenging for anglers, floaters, hunters and hikers alike. That’s why we’ve made boosting public access along the Lower Yellowstone a top priority,” Gianforte said.

Wildcat Bend will be purchased with a combination of public and private funding. About half of the funding for the property’s $1.2 million price tag is coming from the FWP-administered Lower Yellowstone fund that state lawmakers established in 2021. A handful of nonprofits and corporations, including 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 will supply the remainder.