Small World: The politics of public and private lands

This is a “What a Small World We Live In” piece.

1973: I, with friends, am backpacking in the Mission Creek drainage on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, in the Mission Mountains, arguably in the top 10 most beautiful places in the lower 48. We are climbing to Mission Falls, headed to a planned campsite at the base of the falls. Then we spot the grizzly bear several hundred yards away. A discussion ensues. We cede the territory and retreat.

1990: My friend Tom and I are hunting pheasants along Mission Creek, but way across the valley from Mission Falls, over on the west side. We knock on a door and get permission to hunt some mowed fields surrounded by impenetrable thickets of alders and willows. The springers disappear into the thickets only to generate a cacophony of pheasant calls and wingbeats and dog expressions of frustration, while Tom and I stand in the field for most of an hour, wondering if we will ever see Beep and Doctor Dog again. We had no hunt, but the springer boys had the hunt of a lifetime.

Greater sage-grouse (click to enlarge)

1992: I return to the same farm on Old Freight Road. My net worth has grown from zero to a little bit. I knock on the same door. The same owner comes out, only he is packing a revolver on his hip. I turn on the charm. I give him a business card and ask him to call me if he ever wants to sell the place. He promises that he will.

1995: I call the guy. Just checking in. His wife answers the phone. They just sold the place to the neighbor, farmer Kranz, for $400 per acre. I try not to puke. I mention my prior discussion. “Oh yes, we have your card on the refrigerator. My husband and his brother had a falling out and they decided to sell the place. Sorry we did not call.”

1997: I am up on Old Freight Road looking over the view. I spot farmer Kranz cultivating a field. I pull up and strike up a colloquy. I knew him from seeking permission for other hunts. I tell him the whole story about the guy who forgot to call me. We discuss changing land uses, including McMansion-building activities. I ask him to call if he decides to sell land on Mission Creek, knowing that my slow rate of growth of assets will never catch the growth rate of stunning Flathead Valley real estate.

2001: I find myself working for coal-bed methane operators in Campbell County. I buy some land in Flathead Valley and find that everyone there worked at one time in Campbell County. The carpenter, the freight hauler, the hardware store attendant — all had worked in the oil and gas industry in Gillette.

2002: I tell my operator-clients that these pesky sage-grouse are likely to become the ultra-land use issue in the Powder River Basin in a few years. I was correct.

2003: While working in Campbell County, I hear complaints about a guy who works for the BLM in Buffalo, Wyoming. I don’t know the guy at the time, but I hear a lot of complaints that he unreasonably forces operators to minimize disturbance of the environment. We’ll just call him “Billy.”

2003: My friend Tom and I buy a 2,500 acre ranch near Winnett, Mont., to hunt birds and try to answer the question asked by a crusty old rancher-realtor: “Just exactly what is it you boys want to do here?” We did not know for sure; we wanted to improve habitat for sage-grouse and pheasants. Of the ranch’s 2,500 total acres, 1,100 were owned by the federal government, administered by the BLM.

2005 or so: Some anti-Fed clients are celebrating the fact that “Billy” took a transfer from Buffalo, to Lewistown, Mont.

2005: I am making the rounds with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Montana Dept. of Natural Resources, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation ServiceMontana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and yes, the BLM, talking about how to improve habitat and looking for help. I go to the BLM office in Lewistown to discuss fencing and other wildlife-friendly improvements to our Winnett ranch. My first assigned specialist is my old friend farmer Kranz’s daughter, Katy, from St. Ignatius, Mont., freshly out of college and anxious to help me improve my ranch. Her youthful enthusiasm was quickly curbed by her superiors.

2006: I get a letter from the BLM in Lewistown complaining about overgrazing, citing stale data. I explained that I was working on this, trying to raise money for more fences and more water tanks, so we could rotate those cows. The club moss had grown before my tenure. I was treated like a career overgrazing apologist. My new BLM resource specialist was the ex-Buffalo guy, “Billy.” I invited Billy out to the ranch. I told him that I knew the prior owners had abused the land, and I was working hard on solutions. I mentioned to his companion that it was somewhat ironic that a guy who represented the gas industry in Wyoming was improving habitats in Montana. We all laughed. Then I got the compliance letter.

2008: Everyone in Wyoming is worried that the sage-grouse will cause a shutdown of everything from ag to the energy industry. Hmm, I wonder. If the sage-grouse had more cover, would it tolerate other disturbances? My sage-grouse at the Winnett ranch were very secure while nesting under good sagebrush and grazing under an alfalfa canopy. So I write to the Buffalo BLM manager: Could you make these ranchers who are overgrazing public land stop eradicating the sagebrush? Birds who can hide will survive hawks and noise a lot better than birds standing out like targets in the open prairie. BLM manager writes back, saying “We can’t control use of BLM land which is fenced in with private land in Wyoming.” Whoa!!! Tell that to Billy, who is complaining about my BLM permit land, which is fenced in with my deeded land in Montana.

About the same time: I learn that Katy Kranz, farmer Kranz’s daughter, had become disillusioned with the BLM and moved back to St. Ignatius, at the base of Mission Falls. I wish her well. The career bureaucrats, not so much. But the sad thing is, the bureaus need people like Katy, with fresh, problem-solving enthusiasm.

I think I will go knock on farmer Kranz’s door next fall and see if he has any pheasants, or land for sale. This will complete the loop.

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Published on March 15, 2011

  • Emily Smith

    Oh, and your local or state extension specialist should also be able to help you set up habitat monitoring and a grazing plan that both meets your needs, satisfies BLM requirements for use of their land, and gives you your own data for tracking range quality and grouse habitat.

  • Emily Smith

    You are very welcome for the information. I just can’t believe that out of all the people you talked to no one mentioned state Extension resources. They are one resource that’s major purpose is education for the people of their state.

    Montana Cooperative Extension should also have a helpful variety of resources and staff you can access. [website: http://www.msuextension.org/ related sub-page: http://animalrangeextension.montana.edu/articles/wildlife/main-habitat.htm ] I am not familiar with their programs, but you should be able to contact them for additional information. Also, you should be able to arrange a visit to your ranch by a county or state agent if you so desire.

  • RT

    Emily, if there were a Sage Grouse award for contributing useful information, you would be the winner. I have been bugging sage-grouse scientists for over a year about overgrazing and sage-grouse. Thank you.

  • http://www.fontgoddess.com/ Emily Smith

    Here is the downloadable extension bulletin on grazing and grouse habitat management:
    Grazing Influence, Objective Development, and Management in Wyomings Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat
    B-1203
    http://www.uwyo.edu/cessupport/agpubs/Search_Details.asp?pubid=1261

    Most if not all of the authors are easily contactable for any additional questions you may have.

  • http://www.fontgoddess.com/ Emily Smith

    Have you tried working with UW Cooperative Extension? There are county and state extension specialists who exist to help you with problems like this. My dad works at UW doing this very thing, and his specialty is range management.

    More info: http://www.uwyo.edu/ces/

  • Coal Miner

    Ah, it’s the one that got away that you always dream about. It used to be women; now it’s tractors and ranches.

  • http://www.diamondtailranches.com Mary Flitner

    Welcome to the world. And it isn’t even as simple as you indicate. One place we seem to agree – any bureaucracy is only as good as its staff at that moment.

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