Our Montana Wildlife Management Areas are a public trust resource. Purchased with hunters’ dollars, they are owned by the people. Present and future generations of Montanans are the legal beneficiaries of the trust. Fish, Wildlife & Parks is the “trustee”, obligated to manage these trust lands to benefit the public owners.
However, special interests are always ready to turn the benefits of a public trust resource into private gains, even at the expense of public needs and values. They seek to (1) obtain privileged access to our public trust lands, and (2) control the trustee. They will use the legislature and the law to accomplish their private goals. Public diligence is needed to assure proper management of trust resources for public benefits. And so it is with our state WMAs and FWP.
Livestock on our WMAs
Private domestic livestock graze wildlife forage and cover, and displace wildlife, on at least 21 WMAs. In some cases, entire WMAs are in livestock grazing programs.
Limited livestock grazing can be a useful tool for managing vegetation to benefit some types of wildlife. But levels and frequency of livestock use on our WMAs almost always exceed beneficial levels. Most WMA pastures are grazed 2 years out of every 3. FWP has not been able to provide clear evidence that wildlife populations, especially big game, have responded positively to the effects of livestock grazing on WMAs. In fact, most data indicate negative effects. Effects on streamside vegetation and fisheries are often ignored. Abundant scientific literature documents negative impacts of cattle grazing to wildlife.
Usually, FWP is paid for public forage used by private livestock, mostly at less than private-land rates. FWP expenses for managing private grazing have included costs for fencing and water developments, and costs for fencing cattle out of wetlands and other habitats prone to severe use. Personnel costs for monitoring grazing projects and for preparing and administering contracts and environmental assessments are never reported, and must be large.
FWP touts “good landowner relations” as a benefit from private grazing on our WMAs. No doubt, there is some truth to this claim. But neighborliness does not usually require one neighbor’s access to the other neighbor’s property.
Many private grazing cooperators allow hunting on adjacent private lands, but this is seldom required in contracts to graze public lands. Some cooperators are already paid for hunter access through the Block Management program.
If the private use of WMA forage is considered a trade, compensating for big-game use of forage on private lands, this goal should be clearly stated and analyzed in each environmental assessment for each WMA grazing contract. It is likely that the amount and value of WMA forage used by livestock exceeds the value of forage used seasonally by big game on adjacent private land.
On 21 of our WMAs, each private grazing project is unique with its own set of public benefits and costs. However, the overall program is immense, as are costs for managing the program. In reviewing numerous environmental assessments for many grazing projects, it is clear that private benefits greatly exceed net public benefits.
Livestock Trailing across WMAs
The most narrowly focused special-interest use of a WMA is supported by law. This law provides special privileges to one domestic sheep operation on one WMA. However, it could be used by other livestock operators on other WMAs. The law requires permitting of livestock trailing across any WMA under almost any circumstances. Unlike all other commercial uses of WMAs, FWP may not require a fee for livestock trailing, or for forage used in the operation. (Currently, over 16,000 domestic sheep are trailed in up to 6 bands, twice yearly across Robb/Ledford WMA, taking at least 2 days for each passage. The forage removed is not trivial.) The law allows trailing for up to 4 days across a WMA! FWP may not analyze the impacts of such trailing as the law exempts trailing across a WMA from analysis under the Montana Environmental Protection Act. In the public interest, this law should be repealed.
Required Logging Access
Recent Montana law threatens to make wildlife habitat a secondary goal on forested WMAs, with timber management a priority. It (1) requires FWP to have a forest management plan and timber sale program funded with FWP monies, (2) requires an annual timber sale, and (3) requires FWP funds be used to remeasure the annual sustainable yield of timber from FWP forested lands at least once each 5 years. In requiring that FWP’s forest management plan be based upon the annual sustainable yield, and in emphasizing the measurement of annual sustainable yield, the law will make it politically difficult for FWP to permit anything less than this amount of timber to be removed from forested WMAs each year. FWP receipts from sale of timber may only be used to plan additional timber harvests on WMAs. For timber companies, it’s about like owning the land, while FWP pays the property taxes. Another law needing repeal.
Haying and Sharecropping
Other WMAs have contracts for removal of hay and for sharecropping to produce a variety of agricultural crops. Wildlife responses to these activities are seldom, if ever, measured adequately. Public benefits are assumed but unclear. Total public costs are unreported. Some WMAs have both private grazing and sharecropping or haying projects.
With sharecropping, a portion of the agricultural crop is left unharvested for wildlife, often pheasants, to use. If the unharvested portion is 20% of the area, the wildlife value of the agricultural crop would have to be 5 times as great, on a per-acre basis, as the year-round value of land not placed in the sharecropping program and growing native vegetation – just to break even!
Private Capture and Control
The strategy of “capture the public trust resource and control the trustee” is a major threat to Montana wildlife and Montana wildlife lands. The constant but incremental loss from the public trust has gone largely unnoticed for too long. There is an urgent need to hold our legislature, and FWP, accountable for this loss. A widespread critical focus on WMA management is one place to start.
FWP WMAs with private livestock grazing
1Area of WMA, may exceed acres that are grazed.
Retired Wildlife Biologist