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The Horse Creek conservation easement negotiated by a Montana ranch family and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has everything going for it:

  • Walk-in access for public hunters on habitat for mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope and sharp-tailed grouse.
  • Expanded public recreation opportunities, including the potential for camping, in Eastern Montana.
  • Keeping this 15,000-acre tract along the Dawson-Wibaux county line in agricultural use with a wildlife-friendly grazing plan.
  • Preserving private property ownership with an easement that serves the public — a model that has been encouraged by the recent state law revision.
  • Full funding from a federal agricultural easement program and Habitat Montana.

After nearly two years of work by FWP and the property owners, the Stenson family, the proposed easement has been out for scoping comments, opened again for public comments, the subject of a public hearing in Wibaux and a public hearing before the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which unanimously approved it last month.

Less than a week later, three members of the State Land Board put this excellent proposal in limbo. Acting on a motion from Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, State Auditor Matt Rosendale and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen joined Stapleton in voting to indefinitely delay action on the Horse Creek easement. Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox opposed the delay.

Stapleton said he is against conservation easements lasting in perpetuity and thought there should be an end date. Permanent protection for the land — for agricultural use and public hunting/recreation — is the entire reason for the easement that would cost about $6 million. Is Stapleton against all conservation easements?

The only public objection came from owners of mineral rights under the ranch. As Fox and Bullock, the two attorneys on the land board, obviously understand, the easement doesn’t affect mineral rights. The Stenson family has the right to establish an easement on their property — a right they would exercise with this conservation easement.

The Horse Creek conservation easement is a good deal that shouldn’t be politicized by the state’s top elected officials.

Other easements are being considered in Eastern Montana because other landowners want their property to stay agricultural and also support public access. The land board’s delay sends the message that such public-private agreements might also run into a political headwind.

Nothing in the easement impinges on rights for the underground mineral owners. The ranchers would be able to assure that their land stayed agricultural (not subdivided) and Montanans would have more precious space to hunt and enjoy our great outdoors.

This easement is a win-win for Montanans. The FWP did its job, the FW Commission did its job. It’s time for all five members of the State Land Board to follow the law and act in the best interests of their constituents who value agriculture and public access: Approve the easement on March 22.

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