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Billionaire Texas brothers selling 4 Montana ranches

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N Bar Ranch

The Wilks brothers' N Bar Ranch is headquartered along Flatwillow Creek in Fergus County. The Big Snowy Mountains, the water source for Flatwillow Creek, can be seen in the background.

Four Montana ranches acquired by billionaire Texas brothers Dan and Farris Wilks are being sold by their own real estate company.

Wilks Ranch Brokers, based in Cisco, Texas, is advertising two ranches in Fergus County as well as one in Musselshell and Rosebud counties. Added together the lands total more than 38,700 acres with an asking price north of $43.8 million. The ranches were all purchased within the past four to six years.

The real estate website identifies the company as specializing “in the offering of quality ranches, mountain timberland, agricultural, hunting, and recreational lands across the United States. With a combined 20-plus years of experience in real estate and land management, Wilks Ranch Brokers LLC is dedicated to offering properties of the highest standards.” Jimmy Williams is listed as the broker for the company. He could not be reached for comment on this story.

With almost 346,000 acres, the Wilkses rank second in landownership in Montana. Only the logging company Weyerhaeuser/Plum Creek Timber owns more land in the state.

Farris Wilks

Farris Wilks, along with his brother Dan, are the second largest landowners in Montana.

Land buy

The Wilkses began buying land in Montana around 2012 after selling their oil fracking business a year earlier for a reported $3.2 billion. One of their first purchases in the state was the N Bar, a historic ranch in central Montana that has passed through the hands of a few wealthy owners.

In the first two years of their land buying spree in Montana, the Wilks brothers acquired about 177,000 acres. Then they expanded out from the core area around the N Bar, picking up lands across the state and the West.

The 2017 Land Report estimated the Wilkses’ holdings at 672,000 acres in five states, large enough to rank them No. 11 on its list of largest landowners in the United States. That number was up by 172,000 acres from the year before, based on purchases of Idaho timberland from Southern Pine Plantations.

Within a year the brothers were advertising 54,000 acres of the Idaho land for sale in six different parcels, according to an Idaho Statesman article. Now the Wilkses are splitting off other acquisitions for sale.

The Montana ranches on the market are:

  • A 5,710-acre parcel in the Little Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown for $12,250,000.
  • A 10,206-acre ranch along Sage Creek near Denton for $8,998,000.
  • 13,107 acres south of Musselshell in the Bull Mountains for $14,750,000.
  • 9,680 acres south of Colstrip for $7,854,000. 
N Bar elk

The elk population near the Little and Big Snowy mountains has grown to more than 900 percent above state Fish, Wildlife & Parks' objectives for the herd.

Private elk

The Wilkses have gained notoriety in Montana not only for being one of the largest private landowners in the state, but also for having the largest elk herd on their land — property that includes the combined acreage of the N Bar and Pronghorn ranches southeast of Lewistown along the Little Snowy and Big Snowy mountains.

The elk herd is estimated at around 2,600 animals in Hunting District 411, north of the Little Snowies, and 4,800 in HD 530 south of the mountains.

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A 2,700-acre Bureau of Land Management inholding on the N Bar property, known as the Durfee Hills, was at the center of a brouhaha with Lewistown-area hunters four years ago.

The Wilkses attempted to purchase the land from the BLM through a land exchange that was shot down following public protests. Even though the Durfee Hills is only accessible by airplane or helicopter, many hunters denounced any attempt by the BLM to swap the acreage because of its access to the large and growing elk herd.

After the land swap fell apart the Wilkses were fined and had to rebuild a portion of a fence they had built around the Durfee Hills that intruded onto BLM property and resulted in the illegal removal of some timber. Public access advocates denounced the fencing as a deliberate attempt to keep elk on the N Bar Ranch while also frustrating hunters attempting to fly into the property.

N-Bar Ranch

Deer graze on the N Bar Ranch, owned by Dan and Farris Wilks. 

Wildlife values

Strong elk populations are a selling point for the Wilkses’ land in the Bull Mountains. The real estate website boasts the ranch is home to more than 700 elk.

“With no public access and the lack of hunting in recent years, Bull Mountain Ranch is easily one of the better elk hunting ranches on the market in Montana,” the website claims. “In the past, there have been many trophy quality elk harvested including one year (there were) three bulls with approximate scores of 350, 364, and 375. Additionally, the ranch boasts other wildlife including mule deer, whitetail deer, turkey, antelope and much more. The largest mule deer taken scored 194 while taking a few 180 class mule deer and a 152 whitetail.”

Such captive elk herds on private lands have been a thorn in the side of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is required by legislators to maintain populations of big game at socially acceptable levels.

The problem is that the main way FWP has to control those wildlife numbers is through public hunting. Without access to the land where animals seek refuge from public hunters, however, the agency has been frustrated in bringing big game populations within its own objectives in several areas — including the Wilkses’ large holdings in Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley and counties.

N Bar elk

Elk trot across a pasture on the N Bar Ranch with the Big Snowy Mountains rising in the distance.

Not all for sale

Although the Wilkses may be selling some of the extraneous purchases they've made during the past four years, they're still holding onto the N Bar.

Under the the brothers’ ownership that property now boasts a 6,000-foot-long airport-quality landing strip overlooked by two lodges. Adjoining land acquisition has expanded the N Bar to about 200,000 contiguous acres.

On the ranch the Wilkses are raising registered and commercial black Angus cattle, one of six such ranching operations the brothers own that include outfits in Idaho, Oregon and Texas. The brothers also raise captive whitetail deer in Texas at their Wilks Whitetail ranch in Cisco. The ranch also sells deer hunts as well as hunts for such exotic African wildlife such as gemsbok, kudu and wildebeest.

Montana does not allow captive wildlife breeding, which has been linked to the spread of chronic wasting disease — a fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk, moose and caribou.

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