Near where the borders of Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley counties meet south of the Little Snowy Mountains, two billionaire Texas brothers have quietly collected more than 177,000 acres of ranch land in the last two years.
But that’s only a portion of the property that Farris, 60, and Dan Wilks, 56, have accumulated in Montana. In all, they own more than 276,000 acres in seven counties in the eastern half of the state. That's 431 square miles, more than half the size of Silver Bow County.
Owning such large amounts of land puts them in the big league of Montana landowners. Turner Enterprises, owned by former media mogul Ted Turner, has 149,000 acres in Montana holdings. It was announced last week that Stanley Kroenke, a billionaire who is married to a Wal-Mart heir, bought the 124,000-acre Broken O Ranch near Augusta that had been listed for $132 million. According to Forbes magazine, Kroenke also owns the Cedar Creek Ranch near Ennis and the PV Ranch near Hysham.
On the radar
The Wilkses’ presence hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially in Fergus County where they’ve purchased 79,000 acres from 10 landowners in the last two years. The brothers’ biggest acquisition was the fabled 62,000-acre N Bar Ranch, for $45 million. That deal made national news in 2011, partly because the property was then owned by software billionaire Tom Siebel.
Another landowner the Wilks brothers have bought out is Theodore Roosevelt IV, who had a log lodge, timber and grazing land between the south and north forks of Flatwillow Creek. They also bought property from the Sunlight Ranch Co., owned by Earl Holding of Sinclair Oil.
Forbes magazine quoted Staci Wilks, of Wilks Brothers LLC, as saying the brothers like to spend their spare time hunting and fly fishing with friends, family and corporate guests, and that their ranch properties are used for farming, ranching and wildlife management.
This summer, the brothers hosted a barbecue at the N Bar Ranch headquarters, inviting the locals to eat, drink and chat.
“They seem to be really nice folks to me, down-home and friendly,” said Tom Lowry, who owns ranch land at the east and west edges of the N Bar on Flatwillow Creek.
He went to the barbecue and talked to the brothers.
“Both of them were very cordial,” he said.
Dan and Farris Wilks did not respond to a request for an interview with The Gazette.
Dan and Farris Wilks were raised in a working-class family. They started out in a masonry business that their father founded and where they still sit on the board of directors.
In 2002 they branched out into the oil business, starting a company called Frac Tech. Their fortune came from selling their interest in Frac Tech in 2011, a deal that was reportedly worth $3.2 billion. That sale landed them on the Forbes magazine list of little-known billionaires, ranking 312 out of 400 on the list.
Their background in fracking – a way to recover oil by injecting fluids underground under high pressure – has made some Montanans suspicious that the brothers are looking for their next oil play in central Montana. Another possibility is that they — like other wealthy individuals — are parking their money in a safe investment during a volatile time in the stock market.
If their acquisitions were simply for ranching and outdoor recreation, the Wilks brothers have a wide choice of where to go. They also are reported to have purchased land in Wyoming, Kansas, Texas and Idaho. In Colorado, Farris Wilks is said to have paid $16 million in June for the most expensive ski-accessible home in Snowmass Village — a seven-bedroom home on five acres in the ski town.
Getting to their properties scattered across the United States is no problem. When the brothers visit Montana, their 18-passenger Bombardier Global Express corporate jet lands at the Lewistown airport, where they hop into a helicopter to fly to the N Bar.
Pretty soon, though, the stop in Lewistown won’t be necessary. The brothers this summer began building a 6,000-foot asphalt airstrip on a bluff across Flatwillow Creek from the N Bar Ranch headquarters.
Besides a possible energy play, another rumor floating around Fergus County is that the Wilks brothers are looking to get rid of isolated Bureau of Land Management inholdings through land exchanges.
Stan Benes, field manager for the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office, said the agency is open to any proposals, but is quick to add that any propositions would have to go through public scrutiny.
“We have to make absolutely certain it’s in the public’s best interest,” Benes said.
The BLM owns about 2,500 acres in the Durfee Hills that are landlocked within the N Bar with no road access.
“If we could trade that for another place we could gain some access,” Benes said. “That would be worth consideration.”
Benes said some pilots fly to the inholding to hunt. When one pilot wrecked his plane, he had to hire a helicopter to remove the damaged aircraft because there was no road access.
Adding up the land
Here’s how the Wilks brothers land purchases stack up, according to the state Natural Resource Information System.
The majority of their land buys have been in Fergus County, some of them adjacent to the N Bar. In Fergus County they have bought 79,000 acres.
To the south in Musselshell County, they bought the Pronghorn Ranch from Holding’s Sunlight Ranch Co., which added another 64,000 acres. In Golden Valley County, to the west of Musselshell County, 34,800 acres of property has been purchased by the Wilks.
Most of the land deals in those three counties were located fairly close together, but the Wilkses have also purchased land farther away. In Meagher County, they bought 15,200 acres between the Big Belt and Little Belt mountain ranges near the popular Smith River and adjoining the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests on two sides. Up north, they bought 22,800 acres near the Bears Paw Mountains in Blaine County. Southeast of Jordan, they bought 48,300 acres in Garfield County, and in Bighorn County east of Hardin they purchased 12,000 acres near the Bighorn River. All of the land deals have been recorded within the last two years.
Big ranch for sale
Dan Tiegen, whose 44,500-acre family ranch north of Grass Range is for sale for $21.6 million, said his family has talked to the Wilks brothers about their property. But the family had initially sought a conservation easement from the state that would have preserved public hunting access and prevented development of the ranch. That deal fell through recently as the state moved to purchase land along the Milk River.
The ranch was founded by Dan Tiegen’s great-grandparents in 1884.
“The family is officially wanting to start a new chapter,” Tiegen said. “Beyond that, how that chapter comes about remains to be seen.”
Tiegen said he has some fears about the acquisition of smaller family farms by a large conglomerate, “especially when your lifestyle is based on so much history and tradition.”
But Lowry, the Wilkses’ neighbor at the N Bar, has no problem with the many land acquisitions by his new neighbors and sees the brothers as more friendly and open than the previous owner.
“I figured that was their business,” he said of the land buys and rumors of fracking plans. “If they’re buying up land, they can do what they want with it.”