By Laura Lundquist - April 22, 2019 - Originally published in the Missoula Current
Controversy continues to hound Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ management of the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, only this time hunters are the ones who feel slighted.
At the end of February, FWP Region 2 in Missoula published a draft environmental assessment of a plan to allow limited livestock grazing on the Spotted Dog WMA. Sportsmen’s groups were surprised by the announcement and scurried to submit comments, most of which opposed the plan, mainly because of the rushed process.
Then on April 10, Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold made a decision to move ahead with allowing 120 cow-calf pairs to graze 2 percent of the WMA for two months a year for the next six years. The FWP Commission will consider the proposal on April 25.
Hunters aren’t happy, but landowners are satisfied and encourage FWP to make similar arrangements in the future. The situation reflects an increasing number of struggles between landowners and hunters statewide.
About a decade ago, cattle regularly grazed Spotted Dog’s 27,616 acres when it was a private ranch between Avon and Deer Lodge. FWP bought the property in 2010, but that public process was also rushed because the window to secure funding from the Natural Resources Damage Program was small.
Area landowners were angry, partly because they lost grazing land that they had leased from the property owner. They felt left out of the process. It took years for advisory group members to stop bringing up the land purchase, said Region 2 wildlife chief Mike Thompson.
Meanwhile, the grassland and riparian areas are recovering after five years of not being grazed, and hunters have enjoyed hunting for elk on the new public land. Hunter’s license fees pay for WMAs, so many feel the land should be reserved for wildlife.
The Montana Chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ comments listed eight “serious concerns” about the proposal, including the fact that the livestock producer, Dan McQueary, gets to graze the WMA without allowing public hunting on his property, which is next to the WMA.
The 20 members of the Region 2 Citizens Advisory Council read the EA comments, and four landowners on the council expressed outrage over hunters’ attitudes, which led to an impromptu CAC meeting last Wednesday night in Missoula.
“This comment in part says, ‘The most important thing to me is access to the Spotted Dog area through the McQueary Ranch.’ To me, that is the most self-serving, asinine position you could take. When you ask ‘what happened (to cooperation),’ that kind of attitude happened,” said Avon rancher Matt Gravely.
The discussion then turned to ranchers’ problems with elk on their property eating hay and cattle feed, cutting into their bottom line.
Elk populations have grown over the past two decades in several areas of the state, including the district containing the Spotted Dog. Hunters like it, but livestock owners get frustrated with FWP.
Avon rancher Dan Conn acknowledged that out-of-state landowners who don’t ranch and don’t allow hunting but lock up public land add to the problem because they harbor elk. But he could see the attraction of selling the right to hunt elk on his property to offset his losses.
Conn and Gravely called out Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation, citing their opposition to legislation to control elk that stockgrowers associations wanted.
“Draw a bill out of the hat, and I can tell you who will be for it and who will be against it,” Gravely said. “It’s hard not to get that crust on you that it’s an ‘us vs. them’ deal, when it’s always us vs. them at the Legislature.”
CAC member Thomas Puchlerz said MWF has worked with landowners for 80 years, building fences and protecting hay fields, so maybe the place to find common ground was not at the Legislature. Allowing groups more buy-in from the start of any project would help reduce tensions, Puchlerz said.
Thompson said the grazing proposal is a response to the elk problem to counter the ‘us vs. them’ attitude. McQueary appealed to Thompson after 500 head of elk moved down among his cattle last winter to feed just before calving season.
“It’s him and his wife running the place. He’s got a real problem, and so do we. Because through his eyes, we delivered that problem to his doorstep,” Thompson said. “He says to me, ‘We have got to do something,’ and I did not say ‘Let’s wait until we can get a quorum of people to go out and look at it.’”
Hunters said they were sympathetic to landowners but felt like their comments were ignored. A few said they would ask the commission to delay a decision until their comments were better addressed.
“It’s not a question of whether grazing can happen out there. But we felt like we were not looped into the process. We got notified before the EA went out, but it was already signed into the book as to how this was going to look. If this was flipped the other way, and we made a deal with FWP and then landowners were brought in, landowners might feel left out,” said Hellgate Hunters and Anglers spokesman Kit Fisher.
Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold said the process could have been handled better. But the commission must decide on April 25 to give McQueary time to rent other pasture if the answer is no.
“At this point, I wonder what could we have done, where could we have brought folks in,” Arnold said.