On the heels of the controversial purchase of a ranch in Hill County, local residents had a consistent message to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks during a meeting about a wildlife area northwest of Havre, near the edge of that very ranch — don’t fix something that’s not broken.
The issue is grazing on a 2,600-acre wildlife management area just northwest of Fresno Reservoir.
Local farmers Shawn and Jessica Wall lease the grazing rights on the area, and have since it was opened to grazing in 1992.
People at a meeting in Havre — about 15 people attended — said the Walls have taken good care of the land where they lease grazing, and that the grazing their cattle do benefits the land, waterfowl and wildlife FWP are trying to enhance. Every speaker said the current policy should not be changed.
FWP is taking comments on a draft of an environmental assessment just done on the area by FWP’s Havre Area Wildlife Biologist Scott Hemmer, in which the EA recommends grazing be continued for the last two years of the Walls’ lease, while a management plan is written for the area.
Hemmer urged people to submit comments in writing, as well as making comments at the meeting, so their exact ideas can be submitted to the FWP Commission, which will make a decision on the recommendation at its April 11 meeting.
Mark Sullivan, FWP Region 6 wildlife manager out of Glasgow, said looking at grazing on wildlife management areas is going on statewide. Part of the reason is due to pressure from groups questioning why grazing should happen on areas set to increase wildlife and benefit hunters, but having official plans in place needs to be done regardless, he said.
“We do have to justify how we manage these lands to the landowners and the public,” he said, adding that FWP’s primary objectives are to manage wildlife and recreation in the state.
He and Hemmer both said that, in the past, EA’s should have been done for every management area where grazing is allowed, but generally have not.
Hemmer said that a management plan will be in place by 2014, with the draft expected to be completed this summer. That plan will determine whether grazing will be allowed in the area, which FWP started leasing from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1975 to use as a wildlife management area.
Shawn Wall asked how politics would be weighed in drafting and approving the management plan.
Political pressure doesn’t always jive with the science written down by the biologist who studies the area, Wall said.
“How do you weigh that? Does politics always win?” he asked.
Sullivan said politics should not be a factor.
“This plan should be based strictly on what our wildlife objectives are up there, and the strategies we need to meet those objectives,” he said, adding that he didn’t mean to imply that the drafting of the EA and the management plan were due to political pressure.
Hemmer agreed, saying FWP needs to be able to show a plan and justify it.
“We have to be able to say what is our management priority; how are we meeting that; how does grazing impact it,” he said.
Sullivan said he doubts the FWP commission would cancel the grazing lease for the next two years.
“I don’t see this not getting approved,” he said.
But audience members said what they are afraid of is what could happen after that — if the management plan cancels grazing.
Several people commented that, as the draft EA notes, grazing tends to improve the quality of wildlife habitat.
Hemmer said that the three-pasture rotation system — where one section is idle, and the cattle are rotated through two others during the season, with the pastures grazed early, late and left idle rotated each year, provides some benefits to wildlife habitat.
He noted that the EA shows that some minor problems or possible problems for some wildlife species or plant species can arise.
Sullivan said that, even if grazing is continued in the management plan, it might be open for public bid, and someone else might get the lease.
Larry Johnson said he thinks that would be a mistake, and cited issues in other areas of the state where having different producers every few years has hurt the condition of the land. FWP knows that the Walls have taken good care of the land, going above and beyond what the need, he said.
“You’ve got to have good people,” Johnson said. “The Walls are great people.”
Several people also said policy needs to be set. The issue of people possibly losing their livelihood — and the controversy over FWP’s purchase of the Milk River Ranch — never should happen again, they said.
Jessica Wall said the possible change could change their entire lives. FWP should keep agriculture and sports separate, she said.
“What you need to realize is, this isn’t a hobby,” she said. “This is a livelihood.”
Comments on the environmental assessment on grazing on the Fresno Wildlife Management Area need to be submitted by March 16.
The EA can be found online at FWP’s website, http://fwp.mt.gov, under “News” and “Public Notices.”
Comments can be made at that site, or by email to email@example.com, or via mail to: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, ATTN: Fresno Reservoir WMA Grazing Lease Extension, 2165 Hwy 2 East, Havre MT 59501.