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Officials with the Bureau of Land Management decided last week to remove the Durfee Hills from consideration as part of a controversial land exchange proposed by Montana’s largest private landowners, Dan and Farris Wilks.

The agency is waiting to hear back from the billionaire Texas brothers on a counterproposal before deciding whether to pursue its own motorized route to the Missouri River Breaks in north-central Montana. The Wilks brothers had proposed providing land containing Bullwhacker Road into the Breaks as part of the exchange.

“We’ll be issuing a press release when we have something more significant to report,” said Melody Lloyd, chief of communications for BLM’s Montana/Dakotas office.

Opponents of the measure were pleased but not surprised by the BLM’s decision.

“The gist I want to convey is that’s great, but part two is we need to open up the Bullwhacker … before hunting season,” said Doug Krings, a Lewistown opponent to the exchange.

A representative of the Wilks brothers could not be reached for comment.

The proposal

The brothers had offered to provide improved access to more than 60,000 acres of public land in the Missouri River Breaks via Bullwhacker Road with a trade of 2,200 acres in Blaine County. Their proposal also offered 1,200 acres along Red Hill Road in Fergus County that would provide additional access to 10,000 acres of national forest land in the Big Snowy Mountains. Other scattered parcels they offered bumped the total acreage to more than 5,250.

In return, the Wilkses wanted the Durfee Hills and other scattered BLM parcels — a total of 4,800 acres of public land surrounded by their steadily growing N Bar Ranch in Fergus County. As of last year the brothers owned more than 91,450 acres in Fergus County alone.

The decision by the BLM is the second high-profile rejection of a land exchange by a government agency this year. In March the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation killed consideration of a land exchange with Texas landowner David Killam who sought to trade an entire ranch near Winifred for state lands within his Dana Ranch in the Belt Mountains — prime elk country. The DNRC said the lands would not be of equal value or productivity.

Pros and cons

Even before the Wilkses’ proposal was released to the public it had drawn criticism from Lewistown-area hunters who mounted a petition drive opposing the exchange. They argued it was not a fair trade. Even though the Durfee Hills are only accessible by helicopter or airplane, the elk hunting is some of the best in the state because the N Bar provides habitat for a herd of more than 3,000 elk, they said. Foes also noted that the BLM could build its own access to the Missouri River Breaks and still keep the Durfee Hills and that the Breaks could be reached from the Missouri River.

“The lands up for barter do not come close to the habitat, population and quality of the Durfees,” Krings wrote in an email.

The sportsmen opposing the measure got a boost when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation publically opposed the exchange, saying it would make it even more difficult for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to manage a growing elk herd on the N Bar Ranch.

“We heard from a lot more folks than just that petition drive,” Lloyd said. “We got feedback from across the country.”

Supporting the exchange was the Friends of the Missouri River Breaks, who saw the trade as an efficient way to provide greater public access to the Breaks and Big Snowy Mountains. Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, also publically advocated for the exchange saying it was a net gain in acreage for the public, and that the trade would benefit other recreationists, so hunters’ opinions should not be the only ones considered.

Access to the Breaks

The BLM has been frank in its desire to acquire better public access to its lands in the Missouri River Breaks, saying it was a top priority of the state director.

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“That is the goal,” Lloyd said, although how that occurs is still up in the air.

The main route, via Bullwhacker Road, has been at the center of access disputes and litigation for more than eight years. The road crosses the private Anchor Ranch, which the Wilkses purchased in 2013. The Public Land/Water Access Association had successfully argued that the road was a public route dating back to the 1800s, and the Blaine County attorney ordered the road opened to the public in 2007. When the landowners challenged the order, a judge reversed the county attorney’s ruling and access was once again restricted.

Lloyd said the BLM is waiting to hear back from the Wilkses to see if they propose a land exchange in a different form that would still provide access to the Missouri River Breaks. Although the agency didn’t give the landowners a deadline, Lloyd said “time is of the essence.” Construction of a new BLM route would have to undergo a public process, which takes time.

“It will take awhile to get comment from all of the public,” Lloyd said, although she added that there are three or four different ideas under consideration.

“We are in the phase of developing a preparatory plan to go out to the public,” she said, but there is no timetable for that process.

Even if a new BLM route is identified, finding federal funding could be hard.

“At this point, I think it would be a challenge for any of the options given sequestration and the fact that our budgets are determined a couple of years ahead of time,” Lloyd added.

Krings said he has already sought contributions of equipment and funds to build a new BLM road into the Breaks. Lloyd said the BLM has partnered with nongovernmental organizations in the past and would entertain financial help on a new route.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.