LETTER: Montana BHA comments on FWP Habitat Conservation Lease Program

April 27, 2023


Montana FWP Wildlife Division

Attn: Rick Northrup, Habitat Bureau Chief

1420 E Sixth Ave., P.O. Box 200701

Helena, MT 59620


[email protected]


RE: Habitat Conservation Lease Program Supplemental Environmental Assessment


Mr. Northrup:


On behalf of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (MT BHA) and our nearly 3,000 dues-paying in-state members, please see the comments below regarding the Habitat Conservation Lease Program Supplemental Environmental Assessment.

Though it does provide some forms of minimal public recreation access (often including hunting), we recognize that the Department's Habitat Lease Program is primarily a habitat tool, not primarily an access tool. That said, our comments reflect our organization's values in protecting, preserving and enjoying our wild, undeveloped lands. While we commented during the last EA that we believed this new lease program was unnecessary because other state and federal programs exist that compensate temporary habitat conservation, now that it's established, we offer our feedback below specific to the proposed changes.

First, we enthusiastically support the change to make it easier for landowners to get out of temporary Habitat Leasing agreements in favor of permanent conservation easements (while only repaying the remaining prorated contract, without facing the 25% penalty). This change can only seek to encourage permanent protections, while the temporary agreement could provide an on-ramp for landowners to test out the requirements of contractual habitat protections while building relationships with FWP staff and members of the public. We fully support and appreciate this proposed change to the Habitat Leasing program.

Second, while we support meaningful compensation for landowners to encourage conservation, we have mixed reactions to the proposed doubled rate for Habitat Leases for the reasons outlined below.

As the EA states: "For 30‐ and 40‐year conservation leases, the program was structured to pay within a range of 5‐10% of average fee title value with a 5% bonus for the longer‐term lease... FWP is proposing to increase the payment level as follows: 15% of average fee title value for a 30‐year lease and 20% of fee title value plus a 5% bonus for a 40‐year lease."

Of course, this essentially doubled rate could lead to more properties enrolled in Habitat Leasing, something that our wildlife and undeveloped lands will certainly benefit from, all the while keeping the door open for future, longer-term habitat protections to be put in place. This would also help FWP reach their goal of enrolling some 500,000 acres in the program in five years.

However, increased short-term conservation rates could inadvertently out-compete the preferred, perpetual easements. By valuing a contract of 30-40 years at a rate of 20-25% AFTV, compared to a perpetual agreement typically valued at 40-55% of AFTV, it's easy to see how the short-term option could become the defacto preferred alternative for landowners.

Of course, there are landowners who are simply not interested in perpetual easements and would not be swayed one way or another by this reduced advantage to perpetual easements, but there are presumably others that could be on the fence about which option is best for their family and their lands; we want to make sure that perpetual easements remain the most attractive option for landowners, by a long shot. Ideally, we can land on a more reasonable rate that offers the incentives needed to achieve short-term enrollment while still ensuring that perpetual agreements are the more appealing option.

We would encourage a more reasonable rate of compensation (perhaps an increase of 1.5x instead of 2x) coupled with education and encouragement from the Department for landowners to stack enrollment in the public access programs that can also add significant financial incentives. For example, Block Management could compensate landowners up to $50,000 per year; enrolling in PALA could add up to $15,000 per year; or Upland Game Bird Enhancement/Open Fields program can add $5 per acre annually, etc. This, coupled with the existing rate (or a 1.5x increase) of the current short-term lease payment structure could lead to not only significantly more lands enrolled in habitat protections but also in meaningful public access. It's also worth noting that while landowners’ interest in this program is less than FWP had hoped for, the program is very new and this lack of interest may simply be due to lack of education and awareness of the Habitat Leasing program rather than inefficient rates of compensation.

Finally, one added benefit we do see with the proposed increased to the payment options for these - either the proposed 2x or our suggested 1.5x - is that the penalty for breaking these contracts (25% of the purchase price plus the remainder of the pro-rated agreement) would also be increased, making the option to pull out of Habitat Leasing agreements more unattractive. We consider that a benefit to this proposal.

In closing, we still prefer perpetual conservation easements and want to make sure we're offering meaningful advantages to landowners considering those. We fully support removing the penalty for landowners moving from temporary habitat leasing to permanent conservation easements, but we have some reservations about doubling the rate for the 30- and 40- year agreements. We would encourage more education and awareness of the existing program with the existing rates before we look to increase these, and if/when we do increase these, we offer a more reasonable, incremental bump of 1.5x the current rate rather than the proposed 2x. And finally, we ask that the Department be required to educate interested landowners in the other public access programs and incentives available to them as ways to make these temporary agreements even more attractive while at the same time adding more meaningful public access and hunting opportunities for Montanans.


Thank you for the opportunity to comment.


We appreciate your careful consideration,


Jake Schwaller,

Billings, MT


Volunteer Board Member, Eastern Montana Conservation Leader

Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Angler

About Jake Schwaller

Hunter, fisher, lawyer, lover of my home state.

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