Bighorn River land purchase will add 425 acres to Grant Marsh Wildlife Management Area

April 24, 2017

Coveted by hunters of waterfowl, whitetails and upland birds — as well as for angler access — land along the Bighorn River in Montana is a prized, scarce and expensive commodity.

So the fact that 425 acres along the famed river was OK’d for purchase by Fish, Wildlife and Parks as an addition to the 99-acre Grant Marsh Wildlife Management Area this week is a big deal. The property is located about seven miles north of Hardin off State Highway 47.

“This will conserve one of the last, largest blocks of intact riparian habitat in the valley,” Darlene Edge, lands program manager for FWP, told the State Land Board during its Tuesday meeting on the proposal.

The board unanimously approved the $1.57 million purchase. On April 14 the Fish and Wildlife Commission also endorsed the land buy.

“This opens up some important public opportunity,” said Dan Vermillion, commission chairman.

During the public comment period the project received many letters of approval.

“It was just an unusual amount of support,” Edge said. “Normally when people support stuff you don’t hear from them.”

The purchase will be finalized once FWP receives the portion of the grant money that will come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees distribution of Pittman-Robertson funds, gathered from taxes on firearms and ammunition. Those dollars will cover 75 percent of the purchase. The other 25 percent will come from the state’s Habitat Montana fund, which is funded by the sale of hunting licenses.

The wildlife management area is located about seven miles north of Hardin off State Highway 47.

Once all the paperwork is forwarded to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Edge said it would take about six to eight weeks to finalize the deal.

Although the last Legislature locked up the Habitat Montana fund from being used for land purchases, the dollars FWP will use are coming from the 2013 budget, Edge explained to the State Land Board, so those funds don’t conflict with the newer law.

Habitat Montana dollars collected since 2015 can be used to purchase easements, but Edge said the landowner wanted to sell the property.

That worked out for Nick Gevock, conservation director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and Randy Knowles, of the Russell Country Sportsmen Association, who both asked the State Land Board to endorse the purchase.

“This really is a great project,” Gevock said. “The habitat is very rich for wildlife. It will offer excellent hunting and angling opportunities for the public.”

“I looked at it on the map, and it’s a nice clean deal and good for the sportsmen,” Knowles said.

The current WMA is home to a variety of waterfowl, upland birds and deer. The sale should be finalized in time to allow for hunting this fall.

Water restrictions

The recent Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting also led to the approval of a no-wake boating area at Duck Creek Bay on Fort Peck Reservoir, which has seen a “substantial increase in motorboats in recent years,” according to an FWP staffer. The no-wake zone will extend from the boat ramp to the mouth of the bay.

A similar request for a no-wake zone in the Bay of Park Grove, along the Fort Peck Dredge Cuts below the dam, was denied by the commission.

Parasite control

With all of the focus on zebra mussel infections, Commissioner Vermillion asked Fisheries Bureau chief Eileen Ryce if boats using the Yellowstone River would face decontamination this year. Last summer the river experienced a parasite outbreak that led to a temporary emergency closure of all river recreation and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of whitefish.

“I’m worried that PKD (the parasite) is going to be moved down the chain of priority,” Vermillion said.

Ryce said there are no plans for Yellowstone River decontamination stations at this time, although increased state funding to try and contain the mussel infestation isn’t species specific.