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Durfee Hills

BRETT FRENCH, Gazette Staff

The Durfee Hills, located in Fergus County, is a group of 2,700 acres of BLM land surrounded by the NBar Ranch, owned by Dan and Farris Wilks.

^pA landowner’s fence that illegally encroached on public land in Fergus and Musselshell counties resulting in a lengthy federal investigation has been moved and altered, and remediation has been paid, according to a ranch representative.

Under the terms of the settlement agreements, Wilks Ranch Montana Ltd. will perform rehabilitation and stabilization work valued at about $150,000 and will reimburse the Bureau of Land Management a little more than $71,000 to cover costs associated with the inquiry and survey, according to a BLM news release.

The nine miles of new fence built in 2014 by a local contractor was meant to separate 2,700 acres of landlocked Bureau of Land Management and state property, known locally as the Durfee Hills, from the surrounding NBar and Pronghorn ranches, which are owned by billionaire brothers Farris and Dan Wilks.

^pThe Durfee Hills have become a popular spot for some elk hunters who can reach the property only by plane or helicopter. The land, located southeast of Lewistown, was also at the center of a controversial land exchange proposed by the Wilkses, who wanted the Durfee Hills in trade for portions of a ranch they own north of the Missouri River Breaks that would provide road access to 50,000 acres of BLM land. The BLM declined to consider the land exchange after initially indicating an interest.

^pWhen told by conservation watchdogs that the new fence around the Durfee Hills encroached on public land, the BLM initially denied the claim in October 2014, but by April 2015 the agency bowed to pressure and sent its survey team to investigate.

According to an email from Darryl James, a spokesman for the Wilks brothers, the survey revealed that the Wilkses’ fence “encroachments varied from a few feet to around 20 feet at most, and resulted in ground disturbance and loss of timber on just under 5.3 acres of BLM land.”

Kathryn Qanna Yahu, a Bozeman conservation advocate who had pressed the trespass issue, said the fence initially encroached on more BLM property near a road used by pilots to land their planes, but that section was moved before the BLM finished its survey. She claims the fence was first put in across the road to intentionally halt plane traffic and cut off hunting access.

“We are fighting for keeping public lands in public hands and an accountability of what was done,” she said. “If we had done this on the Wilkses’ land, there would be hell to pay.”

Qanna Yahu said she is not satisfied since she has yet to receive documents she requested from the BLM on how the trespass was handled.

James wrote that to address the trespass the Wilkses have agreed to: modify the fence in accordance with wildlife-friendly fencing standards; reseed the disturbed area; pay for additional mitigation to control erosion and pre-existing weed infestations, and will pay for a three- to five-year reclamation plan in areas that were bulldozed by the fencing contractor.

James said the Wilkses “also agreed to pay the market value for the lost timber, and for the cost of the cadastral survey conducted by BLM. Additional mitigation costs will also be born by Wilks Ranch.”

The market value of the lost timber was $1,288, James wrote, and the survey cost $65,325. To restore the bulldozed area James said the BLM estimated $200,000 in labor and materials.

“However, much of that cost will be internalized on the ranch as Wilks Ranch personnel will be utilized to conduct the work,” James wrote. “All work on public land will meet BLM specifications regardless of who conducts the work.”

James’ email called the fencing trespass inadvertent and said the enclosure was built “in response to repeated trespass by public land hunters crossing onto private property ... “

Doug Krings, of Central Montana Outdoors, said his group could find no evidence of anyone being cited for trespass on the ranch in the Durfee Hills area.

“We hunters are responsible to know the boundaries, and the same should apply for landowners,” Krings said.

He added that he’s glad the Wilkses modified the fence on the BLM land and would like to see them make the fence wildlife-friendly on the state parcel, as well.

James wrote, “From the outset, Wilks Ranch has worked cooperatively with the BLM to identify any encroachments and respond as quickly as possible to mitigate any unintentional ground disturbance.”

“Good fences make good neighbors, and where we’ve made an error in building our fence, we’ve been more than willing to make appropriate adjustments and address the unintentional disturbance that our crews caused,” said Farris Wilks in the email that James released. “We regret our error in the location of the fence and all the fuss it’s caused over an otherwise common ranch management tool, but we’re pleased to have come to a point where we can agree with BLM on how to move forward cooperatively, and put this unfortunate incident behind us.”

James said the fencing contractor “has worked out a private agreement with the Wilkses to rectify the situation.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.