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Hill County landowners protest ranch purchase

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — More than a dozen Hill County landowners say they are closing about 50,000 acres of private land to public recreation to protest the state's purchase of a ranch along the Milk River in north-central Montana.

Dan Redding said Wednesday that 17 landowners in northwest Hill County are closing their land to hunting, fishing and outdoor activities until further notice. Closure notices will be placed in the Great Falls Tribune and the Independent Record.

"It was kind of our way of pushing back," Redding said of the decision to close public access to private property in the vicinity of the ranch. He said he and other landowners in northwestern Hill County usually allow hunters on their property if they ask permission.

The state Fish and Game Commission and the Land Board disregarded public opinion and opposition to the $5.8 million purchase of the Aageson Grain and Cattle ranch north of Rudyard, Redding told the Tribune (http://gftrib.com/U0A4PF ).

The ranch includes several miles of riverfront property that the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks says is part of an important wildlife habitat corridor that connects with protected lands in Canada.

The land was purchased with Habitat Montana dollars, which come from fees placed on hunting licenses.

The state Board of Regents has agreed to pay an additional $2 million for the paleontological rights to the property.

Prior to the FWP's Dec. 10 vote, several organizations asked the agency to allow more time for public comment. Opponents believed the state was paying too much for the property and that the purchase was moved ahead of other, more valuable purchases.

"We're just opposing the way that the Fish and Game Commission and state Land Board pretty much disregarded any of the public opinions and opposition to this project," Redding said.

Bob Ream, chairman of the FWP Commission, called the purchase an excellent value for the state when taking into account the wildlife habitat, paleontological and archaeological resources and the ranch's connection to protected prairie in Canada.

He argued that the purchase allows the land to be preserved for future generations of hunters, rather than being closed off by someone from out-of-state.

"They can gripe all they want about the price, but there are people standing around waiting to buy up land like that," Ream said.

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Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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