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CODY — Shoshone National Forest managers are backing the purchase of 118 acres of private land near Dead Indian Pass above Sunlight Basin, calling the tract crucial winter range for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep.

President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget proposal includes $2.5 million for the acquisition, but Congress must approve the appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund as part of a larger budget bill.

“The Forest Service has a limited list of projects nationwide that is put into its administrative budget that goes to Congress as a recommendation,” said Maddy Pope, head of the Bozeman office of the Trust for Public Land.

“The fact that it is included shows that it’s considered a national priority for the Forest Service,” she said.

The nonprofit conservation group is working with similar groups in Wyoming to facilitate the land purchase, and to obtain an option on the property from an undisclosed owner whose preference is to sell the land to the Forest Service, Pope said.

Referred to in the proposal as the Russell Creek Winter Range land, the tract is surrounded by Forest Service land. It straddles Russell Creek near where Highway 296 descends along a series of steep switchbacks into Sunlight Basin.

The parcel is used by gray wolves and is believed to be used by grizzly bears, lying within the Yellowstone Recovery Zone for grizzlies. It also is used by elk during calving.

It includes small sections of wetlands and riparian habitat, as well as a historic homesteader cabin that would be preserved following the sale.

The Russell Creek parcel was one of about 30 land acquisition projects — and the only one from Wyoming — included on a final Forest Service list for 2011. Various federal land management agencies submit proposals that compete for funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded through fees from offshore drilling permits.

The Shoshone Forest would require a fair-market appraisal of the property before purchasing it, but work on the project is on hold until Congress approves funding, said Susan Douglas, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

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“The House could begin work on that as early as June, or the whole thing can be delayed, as it is some years,” Pope said.

Though Congress typically passes a budget bill by October, there is talk on Capitol Hill this year that any final budget approval could be delayed until after the November elections.

Neither Sen. John Barrasso nor Sen. Mike Enzi have requested an appropriation for the Russell Creek purchase. They have both asked for $3 million for a Land and Water Conservation Fund acquisition project through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. That money would pay for 380 acres on the Gray Reef section of the North Platte River, where public access is scarce and recreational use is growing rapidly.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis did not request funding for either land purchase.

Douglas said the Wapiti Ranger District will announce details soon on a public field trip to the Russell Creek site, planned for sometime in June.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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