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The Bureau of Land Management has launched an investigation into the installation of a fence around its 2,700-acre inholding that has become popular with some elk hunters, known as the Durfee Hills.

“The initial indication is there may be some encroachment,” said Darryl James, a spokesman for landowners Dan and Farris Wilks, whose N Bar Ranch surrounds the Durfee Hills. “The Wilks are more than willing to work with them to resolve it.”

To settle the matter, the Bureau of Land Management is surveying the fence boundary, which crews may complete by the end of the month.

Never has a property boundary survey by the BLM’s Montana crew been raised to such a high level of media, public and political scrutiny, said Josh Alexander, BLM’s lead land surveyor, who is based in Billings.

“It’s always been some minor thing, like I bought a home and found out it’s on BLM property,” he said.

High profile

What has elevated the Durfee Hills issue is that the private property is owned by the largest landowners in Montana — the billionaire Wilks brothers who have accumulated property across the state. According to a recent accounting, they own more than 360,000 acres in 11 Montana counties and last year ranked 22nd in the nation for land holdings, according to The Land Report.

Insisting that there were fencing violations is a loosely organized coalition of Montana hunters who prize the Durfee Hills for its transient population of elk, which spends much of its time grazing on the Wilkses’ surrounding N Bar Ranch. The hunters can only gain access to the Durfee Hills by airplane or helicopter, no road easement exists. The unusual situation has spawned tension between the ranch managers and hunters.

It was the hunters who persistently, and finally successfully, challenged the BLM’s initial defense of the Wilkses’ fence as OK. Leading that charge was Bozeman resident Kathryn QannaYahu. She was flown in to the Durfee Hills to take photographs of the fence to back up her allegations. The group sees the taut five-strand fence as a way for the Wilkses to block elk from moving on to the adjoining public land, but James said that’s not the case.

He said a similar fence was built along the N Bar Ranch’s Forest Service boundary by the same fencing contractor, and he noted that the style of fence is “pretty standard” to that part of the state.

“They’re perplexed about why it’s OK on one federal boundary and not another,” James said. “The Wilkses are open to modifications that might be reasonable.”

Hunter concerns

Simmering on the back burner are issues beyond the fence.

The Wilkses’ new fence around the BLM land was built after some hunters rallied public opposition to the brothers proposed land exchange with the BLM, successfully killing the bid. Among other inholdings, the Wilkses had sought the Durfee Hills in the swap. In exchange, the brothers were in part offering a ranch they had bought in Blaine County that would provide road access to 50,000 acres of BLM land north of the Missouri River.

Some members of the public saw the proposed exchange as a good deal, but the Lewistown-area hunters and their supporters opposed the proposal as long as losing the Durfee Hills was part of the arrangement.

The Wilkses haven’t given up on the land exchange idea, James said. He’s been talking to hunting and conservation groups and plans larger public meetings in the future. James said he’s also been speaking with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials about creating some type of limited public hunting access to the N Bar Ranch.

“I think we’re pointing in the right direction,” he said.

Bowing to pressure

Although now investigating the Durfee Hills fencing, the BLM initially defended the structure. Last September, the agency issued a press release saying, in part, that after its staff “conducted a fly-over and ground visits using a survey-grade GPS, no encroachment was found.” But the din of QannaYahu’s complaints, backed up by her charges that the fence was a violation according to BLM’s own rules, finally prompted the agency to agree to a more thorough survey.

QannaYahu has claimed that the fence trespasses on to public land and that workers damaged public resources in the process of cutting down trees and carving a bulldozer trail while building the fence. She also said the new fence doesn’t meet BLM’s own fencing requirements, and she said “no hunting” and “no trespassing signs” were illegally placed on BLM lands

Last November, the BLM’s crew surveyed three sections of the Durfee Hills property line. This month, they’ll finish examining the rest of the new fence with GPS equipment capable of accuracy to less than a centimeter.

Under scrutiny

Alan Wolf, BLM assistant special agent in charge, confirmed that the BLM’s enforcement arm is conducting an investigation into the Durfee Hills fencing.

“We do have an active investigation, it started last fall,” he said.

In similar cases, Wolf said the BLM has had to call in a civil engineer to assess reclamation costs, an archaeologist to determine if cultural resources were harmed and even a biologist to examine the fence to see if it is wildlife friendly.

“It’s just a matter of getting everything done and seeing what we have,” Wolf said. “We’re just the fact finders.”

Once his investigation is complete, Wolf will turn it over to either the BLM state director or the U.S. Attorney’s office for civil, criminal or administrative charges.

If there are charges filed, the BLM’s publication of its survey findings in the Federal Register may be delayed. Alexander said that notice is required so the property owner has a 30-day opportunity to appeal the BLM’s survey and say the agency erred and how it erred.

“It is a fairly slow process,” he added.

If the Wilkses choose to fight the survey findings, the matter would go to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, a notoriously slow-moving appellate review body.

State inquiry

Prompted by the BLM’s survey, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Lewistown field manager, Clive Rooney, plans to visit the Durfee Hills this month, as well.

“We are aware there are allegations they may have disturbed state lands in the process of refencing it,” said John Grassy, DNRC public information officer.

“We are not going to do a cadastral survey,” Rooney said, adding that preliminary indications are that the Wilkses’ fence is not on state land.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.