OPINION: Horse Creek easement offers public access where it’s needed most

By Justin Schaaf and Dr. Matt Rinella - April 7, 2018 - Originally published in the Billings Gazette.

On April 16, the Montana State Land Board is expected to vote on providing hunters permanent access to 20,000 acres in a part of eastern Montana where access is needed most: Wibaux County.

If approved by the land board, hunters will be able to hunt the Horse Creek Conservation Easement area through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Block Management Program without ever worrying about losing their new cherished hunting spot.

In 2017, Wibaux County accounted for less than 1 percent of Region 7’s total 2.2 million acres enrolled in Block Management, with just 18,777 private acres open to public hunting. The Horse Creek easement would more than double the acreage accessible to hunters in Wibaux County.

Corey Stapleton, Montana’s secretary of state and one of three land board members who voted to delay the easement decision (even though it has overwhelming public support and unanimous FWP approval), advised the rest of the five-person land board in a March 2018 newsletter to “get focused on macroscopic issues regarding natural resource development in Montana” and to stop focusing on “dinking around buying private working farms.”

Well, doubling public hunting opportunity on private lands in Wibaux County doesn’t seem like a microscopic issue, not to mention the one-time payment to the landowners for perpetual access will be funded primarily by out-of-state hunting licenses. It’s clear that sportsmen support this project and are willing to foot the bill.

Another land board member who voted to delay the decision in an apparent effort to ultimately squash the easement is Matt Rosendale. He is our state auditor and is running for one of Montana’s U.S. Senate seats. On his campaign website, Rosendale claims he will “support greater access to our public lands” and that “during my service on Montana’s land board, I’ve shown that I will work to expand access to public lands for hunters, anglers and others who simply want to enjoy Montana’s great outdoors. I’ll do the same in the Senate.”

Rosendale claims he has and will continue supporting access to public lands but at the same time seems unwilling to approve the Horse Creek easement. Rosendale’s rhetoric is hard to square with his inaction on this opportunity to open 20,000 acres to the public.

It’s time for the State Land Board to stop kicking this can down the road. If you won’t fight for public access in the far reaches of eastern Montana where it’s needed most, then where will you fight for it?

Dr. Matthew Rinella lives in Miles City and is the Region 7 board member for the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Justin Schaaf lives in Fort Peck and is the group's Region 6 board member.

About Justin Schaaf

Eastern Montanan, Hunter, and Conservationist.

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