The continuing battle of the Milk River Ranch is headed for a suspension, perhaps forever.
The only portion of the originally proposed nearly $8 million deal between the Aageson family and various state agencies that is unsettled is the $2 million that the Montana University System was considering paying for archaeological and paleontological rights to the 4,000 acres of northern Hill County. As soon as a Gallatin County District Court Judge signs a pending motion, that portion will be put down.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation purchased 1,000 acres for about $1 million first. Then Fish, Wildlife and Parks purchased the other 3,000 acres for $4.7 million at its Dec. 10 commission meeting.
The Board of Regents allowed Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian to look into spending up to $2 million on the rights to allow researchers from Bozeman and Missoula to explore prehistoric and ancient sites on the property.
After the disappointment in FWP’s decision, Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey and chair of the Fish and Game Committee, joined the Aagesons’ neighbor Dan Redding in filing a lawsuit on Dec. 20, asking Gallatin County courts to stop the university from handing over any money.
Brenden, Redding, and their lawyers from fellow state Sen. Art Wittich’s law firm argued that spending the money allocated for research on archaeology rights is a violation of their rights as taxpayers, and that Redding would face the risk of trespassers on his land who might damage his property.
The temporary injunction was granted, with a hearing scheduled for Jan. 23 for both sides to argue their case.
Christian said this week that $1.1 million of the $2 million of research funds on the table for the ranch had already been allocated for other projects, leaving only $900,000 for the Milk River purchase.
Unsure of the actual value of the land, facing a lawsuit to stop any purchase and with bigger issues on his plate, Christian said that the university system is not really worried about the Milk River Ranch purchase right now.
“Now it’s off the burner a little bit because of the session, ” Christian said. “We’ve got budget presentations next week, so we haven’t really had a lot of manpower for that.
“(The lawsuit) is a process I guess that (Brenden and Redding) undertook to hold up the sale, which is fine, but we haven’t really decided where we’re at with what we want to do, ” Christian said. “So we haven’t looked into the lawsuit too much. We’re waiting to see if these are assets we want to pursue. ”
Which is why, on Wednesday, both parties filed a joint motion asking the court to cancel the hearing “until such time as either party requests that the hearing be rescheduled. ”
The judge has not signed the motion yet, so the hearing is still technically scheduled, but if it is signed, as expected, before Jan. 23, it is unlikely that the Aagesons will ever see a cent of university money.