When the big-game rifle season opens Saturday, hunters on some northern Montana lands may find themselves caught in a crossfire.
More than 70 landowners have published their names in ads in the Glasgow Courier and Malta's Phillips County News over the past few months announcing that their lands would be closed to hunters until the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks drops its plans for releasing bison onto public lands. One ad also cited fire danger as a reason for closing land to hunting.
The reason behind the move is simple, according to one landowner.
“If the hunters don’t have anyplace to hunt, they won’t buy high-dollar licenses, and maybe some hotshot for fish and game will take a look at that and say, ‘Gol darn, our revenue went down. Maybe we should pay attention,’” said Rich Sudduth, a retired Hinsdale-area rancher whose name was listed in two of the ads.
Sudduth said he is negotiating to sell his property so he won’t be in charge of locking out hunters when the sale is completed.
Kit Fischer of the National Wildlife Federation, which has publicly pushed for the reintroduction of bison to the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, said he respected the landowners’ right to protest.
“There’s a reason people are looking to northeastern Montana and the CMR for bison, it’s because the landowners have done such a good job of taking care of the land,” he said.
The protest has its problems. Two names on the largest ad, Leo and Anna Lou Bergtoll, cannot close all of their land to hunters despite their dismay over the bison initiative. The Bergtolls were ordered by a federal judge in 2009 to enroll their property for five years in the state’s Block Management Program at no cost to the state as part of a settlement of a suit against them for illegal use of hunting tags. As a result, they still have more than 18,460 acres of their land enrolled in the program, which in other cases pays landowners to open their private property to public hunting.
In all, six of about 15 landowners in FWP’s Region 6 who canceled their enrollment in Block Management cited FWP policies and bison as the reason for not renewing their contracts, according to Alan Charles, who oversees the Block Management Program. Statewide, about 50 of 1,300 landowners dropped their enrollment in Block Management.
“I understand, the bison issue is going to be a hot one,” Charles said. “Landowners, I think, feel frustrated as to how they can influence policy.”
Despite the protests, the program still has about 8 million private acres opened to hunters by 1,250 landowners. In conjunction with state and federal lands open to the public, Montana's roughly 147,000 deer hunters and 104,000 elk hunters still have a lot of options for where to go. But in the Hinsdale area at least, hunters may be turned back.
“It definitely tightens down the opportunities for hunters,” said Pat Gunderson, FWP regional manager in Glasgow. “Even some people who dropped out are still allowing hunting, though, just not through our program.”
The bison policy protest comes as FWP is in the process of developing a state bison management plan. Preliminary meetings were held across the state this summer. A final plan is probably years away.
What seems to have angered landowners more than the planning process, which could eventually allow bison to be relocated to public lands, was the transfer in March to the Fort Peck Reservation of 64 disease-free Yellowstone National Park bison that had been held in quarantine.
“I just don’t think the way they went about getting these buffalo in here was right,” Sudduth said. “I know what’s going to happen with the bison thing. They breed. Pretty soon you’ve got way more there than they’ve got pasture for and when they get hungry, a fence doesn’t mean a damn to them.”
The bison transfer heightened the fears of people already suspicious of government intentions. Eastern Montana landowners have long been opposed to state and federal government actions, partly because the agencies hold control over huge swaths of public lands that border them, or are enclosed by their private lands, and which they lease for grazing.
Adding to landowners’ concern is the National Wildlife Federation’s push to restore wild bison to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the American Prairie Reserve’s purchase of ranch lands north of the Missouri River to restore bison to the northeastern Montana prairie landscape.
“I just hope that as the process continues, both sides are willing to come together more and discuss solutions as opposed to not talking at all,” said Fischer of the National Wildlife Federation.
Hunters got caught up in the dispute when the Horse Ranch in Valley County, owned by Ron and Rose Stoneberg and Jason Holt and Sierra Stoneberg Holt, took out a newspaper ad in August saying their property would no longer be enrolled in FWP’s Block Management Program because the families are against “FWP policies that adversely affect hunters and landowners.” The advertisement added that hunters would still be welcome. Ron Stoneberg is a retired FWP biologist.
“Fish, Wildlife and Parks are the ones you have to target to get their attention to say we deserve some basic human rights here,” said Sierra Stoneberg Holt. “This is not an ideal situation, because most of the hunters we deal with support us. The hunters should not suffer for what the fish and game is doing wrong, especially if they don’t support fish and game, which has been our experience.”
Holt said fellow landowners are strongly against the state returning bison to public lands in the area, even if they are already present on the American Prairie Reserve’s land and nearby reservations. However, if the state wants to put bison near Missoula — the state’s liberal political stronghold — Holt said she would support the move.
“There are whole counties of people who feel they are being completely ignored,” she said. “They are very frustrated, angry and confused. I’m sure there are better approaches. The hunters are the innocent victims in the middle here.”
Not the first time
Withdrawing private lands from hunter access as a form of protest over state actions has been done before. In 1993, new regulations on state lands prompted scattered protests where landowners closed their property to all public hunting. The designation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, wolf policy and farm programs have also been cited as reasons for withdrawing private lands from public access, FWP’s Charles said.
“We have attrition in Block Management every year for various reasons, but this year people are making a statement about the bison by not renewing their contracts,” Gunderson said. “Our philosophy is to work closely with landowners, and we’ll continue to focus on that.”
Charles said the move could backfire on the protesting landowners.
“I don’t know if it gains the hunter support or if they feel blackmailed,” Charles said. “I don’t know.”