Commission approves north Montana ranch buy

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana wildlife commissioners approved the final piece of a $7.8 million ranch purchase along the Milk River near the Canadian border on Monday, despite objections from neighboring landowners and some lawmakers.

On a 4 to 1 vote, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners agreed to pay $4.7 million for 2,992 acres of river bottom and other land on the Milk River Ranch in order to expand recreational opportunities.

The state earlier agreed to pay $1.1 million for an additional 1,513 acres of the ranch, through the Land Board chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. It's paying $2 million more for rights to archaeological and paleontological artifacts on the site, through the Montana Board of Regents.

Schweitzer on Monday dismissed complaints the price was too high. He said the deal gives the state control of a property that has great value as a wildlife corridor, a dinosaur research site and a location with spiritual significance for several American Indian tribes.

"It's a fair deal," Schweitzer said. "One half of one percent of land in eastern Montana is a river bottom ... This is 40 miles of river bottom in the vast prairie."

The ranch is owned by Aageson Grain and Cattle.

Neighboring landowners and others said the ranch's hunting and fishing opportunities had been overstated, and that a second appraisal was needed to ensure the state was getting a fair deal. They urged commissioners to delay their Monday vote.

State Sen. John Brenden, a Scobey Republican, said he and other opponents were considering legal action to stop the deal, but had not finalized their plans.

Several landowners who spoke Monday threatened to cut off public hunting access on their properties if the deal went through.

Brenden pointed to a similar pushback against public hunting in recent months following the state's relocation of Yellowstone bison to eastern Montana's Fort Peck Reservation. That move also came over objections from surrounding communities.

"We people up here in eastern Montana and north central Montana and northeast Montana are sick and tired of it," Brenden said.

He added that the Milk River Ranch deal appeared to have been rushed through, possibly as political payback for past campaign contributions to Democrats by the ranch's owners. Schweitzer dismissed the allegation as "silly."

Richard Beatty, an attorney for the Aageson family, said they first approached the state about conservation easements for the ranch in 1998, and had been in discussions about a possible sale since 2008.

Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission Chairman Bob Ream said the purchase would protect an important wildlife corridor and needed to go through before someone else bought the property.

"There's no doubt in my mind if we turn this down, that this ranch will be bought up by other folks," Ream said. "This is an opportunity we can't pass up."

State officials said the land will provide habitat for a variety of game animals, from pheasant to elk. They said it would help ensure a wildlife habitat corridor between animals north and south of the U.S.-Canada border, while also preserving archaeological and paleontological history found on the ranch.

Commissioner Ron Moody, whose district includes the ranch, cast the only vote in opposition. He said the substantial price being paid would prevent the commission for now from buying other properties for preservation, by draining the amount of money available for such purchases.

Dozens of neighboring landowners, state lawmakers and ranchers and farmers from across north-central Montana spoke in opposition prior to Monday's vote.

They raised multiple objections, including over the loss of land used for agriculture, alleged shortcomings in the appraisal process and the need for further study to justify the purchase.

Kris Hansen, a Republican state lawmaker from the Havre area, said earlier hearings were inadequate. She said the details of the deal had changed since it was first proposed.

"At the very least, re-open this for an actual hearing on the facts now present," Hansen said.

Most of the land will be managed by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for hunting and fishing, while the rest will be managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to generate money for schools.

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