Touting a new land management designation aimed at hunters, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled its Lewistown Resource Management Plan last week.
The plan, which is open to comment for 30 days, was released at the same time as an RMP for BLM lands in the Missoula area. Once approved, the documents will guide management for the next 20 years.
“We are proud of the fact that both plans include lands to be managed under the new Backcountry Conservation Area designation,” said William Perry Pendley, the BLM’s deputy director for Policy and Programs, in a press release. “These designated areas underscore our commitment to protecting and enhancing opportunities for public hunting and other wildlife-dependent recreation across these unique landscapes.”
The Lewistown RMP and its Final Environmental Impact Statement deal with lands spread across a vast swath of central Montana: from where the Musselshell River joins the Missouri River west to the Rocky Mountain Front. The landscape contains more than 651,000 acres of BLM-administered land and 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estate.
In the works for six years, the draft of the document drew more than 800 comments, reflecting the keen interest in the BLM’s holdings by a number of conservation, hunting, ag and motorized groups.
The plan proposes to designate two areas as Backcountry Conservation Areas. The largest would be north of Winnett — the 93,400-acre Crooked Creek BCA. The other is the 12,800-acre Arrow Creek BCA located north of Stanford in Chouteau County. Arrow Creek is born in the Highwood Mountains and wanders north into the Missouri River between Fort Benton and Judith Landing.
Backcountry Conservation Areas “promote public access to support wildlife-dependent recreation and hunting opportunities and facilitate the long-term maintenance of big game wildlife populations, while also permitting other activities,” according to the BLM.
“The Arrow Creek Breaks is a working landscape with strong wildlife and backcountry values,” wrote local landowner Hugo Tureck in one of his comments to the BLM draft plan. “We and other stakeholders on this landscape want it to remain exactly that, with specific management that will conserve these lands as they are right now, management that specifically recognizes the importance of these lands to hunters, hikers, wildlife, and grazing. Designation as a Backcountry Conservation Area will provide that management certainty and that recognition.”
Steve Hertel, of the Fergus Conservation District, said in a comment on the BLM’s draft plan that his group was opposed to the designation because it could “drastically impact the local economy and disrupt the rangeland health” unless it was more clearly defined by the BLM.
There are numerous other land designations within the BLM’s plan, including the designation of five Special Recreation Management Areas, most of which are in the Lewistown area. Two of the areas are in the Judith Mountains, northeast of Lewistown, and are designated Recreation Management Zones: 4,790 acres in the Limekiln Canyon and 14,389 acres in the Judith Peak/Red Mountain RMZ.
Northwest of Lewistown the BLM proposed an SRMA for 3,200 acres in the North Moccasin Mountains. South of Lewistown on the east and west sides of the Snowy Mountains the BLM identified another 470 acres for SRMA designation.
Farther away, along the Sun River west of Simms, the BLM proposed 80 acres at Lowry Bridge as an SRMA. The BLM land has five campsites, picnic tables and receives fall hunting use.
SRMAs are “targeted to receive direct recreation funding and personnel” for “special recreation opportunities,” according to the BLM. SRMAs can be subdivided into Recreation Management Zones “to better manage the variety of uses that may occur in different parts of a given SRMA.”
BLM lands along the Blackfoot River corridor are managed as an SRMA, as is the Shepherd Ah Nei Recreation Area north of Billings.
One of the top issues drawing comments from the public and conservation groups concerned Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACECs. Two are proposed by the BLM: the 2,700-acre Acid Shale-Pine Forest ACEC is northeast of Grass Range while the 900-acre Square Butte ACEC is the iconic formation that rises to 5,700 feet above the prairie south of Geraldine.
In the draft plan released in May 2019, the BLM proposed no ACECs. Yet in an internal draft produced in 2016 the BLM had identified 26,000 acres for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, prompting an outcry from conservation groups.
Four Outstanding Natural Areas would be designated along the Rocky Mountain Front for Conservation Management Area status, “a congressional designation that provides for protection under the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.” The areas are: Blind Horse (4,900 acres), Chute Mountain (3,200 acres), Deep Creek/Battle Creek (3,100 acres), and Ear Mountain (1,800 acres).
“The Blind Horse ONA is important winter and summer range for elk, mule deer, big horn sheep, grizzly bears, mountain goats and other wildlife species that are sensitive to disturbance,” Gov. Steve Bullock wrote in a comment to the BLM. “The intent of the RMF Heritage Act and the current Activity Plan should be followed, and motorized travel should be prohibited within the Blind Horse ONA.”
More than 335,000 acres were “identified from the initial and final wilderness inventories for the Lewistown and Butte Districts,” with 202,400 “found to have wilderness characteristics,” according to the BLM. Of that total, none were proposed for wilderness designation or management.
“These are the areas that make central Montana one of the most productive places in North America for big game,” said Melissa Petrich, Montana Wildlife Federation’s eastern Montana field representative, in a press release. “Deer, elk, and other wildlife across the region depend on the secure cover, native range, and healthy watersheds these roadless areas provide. The BLM is now proposing opening these areas to oil and gas development and jeopardizing this place that hunters from around the country revere.”
A new wilderness area hasn’t been designated in Eastern Montana since 1976 when the 20,800-acre UL Bend and 11,300-acre Medicine Lake wildernesses were set aside. They are the only wilderness areas east of the Rocky Mountains in Montana.
There are three Wilderness Study Areas in the planning area, including Beaver Meadows (200 acres), North Fork Sun River (600 acres), and Square Butte (1,900 acres). “Until Congress acts on the recommendations and either designates them as wilderness or releases them for other uses, WSAs are managed so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness,” the BLM stated.
Also identified in the proposal are eight reservoirs, totaling 781 acres, as Extensive Recreation Management Areas. ERMAs “are managed to sustain principal recreation activities and associated qualities and conditions,” according to the BLM. The reservoirs are all located north of Winnett and include Payola, Dry Blood, South Fork Dry Blood, Drag Creek, Whisker, Holland and Fritzner.
Much of the planning area — more than 1.08 million acres — would be open to oil and gas leasing under the BLM’s proposed alternative, which angered representatives of the Montana Wilderness Association.
“This RMP makes a mockery of the BLM’s multiple-use mandate and serves no one’s interest except that of the oil and gas industry,” said Mike Penfold, a former Montana state director of the BLM, in a press release.
Development would be restricted on 629,000 acres with no development allowed on 421,700 acres, under the proposed management alternative.
Those restrictions mean there’s still a lot of land closed to mineral development, said Alan Olson of the Montana Petroleum Association. He predicted that the region wouldn’t see a big influx of development in the near future, partly because there aren’t a lot of resources available.
The BLM is also proposing to continue to “allocate 126,042 AUMs to livestock grazing across the planning area.” An AUM is an animal unit month, or how much forage one adult animal needs for one month. The agency is willing to increase that number by more than 63,000 AUMs if forage improves.
As part of that grazing plan, the BLM would not allow domestic sheep or goats within nine miles of wild bighorn sheep populations. “Between 9 and 20 miles, domestic sheep and goats may be considered if mechanisms are in place to achieve effective separation from wild sheep,” the BLM said.
The proposal prompted an endorsement from a bighorn conservation group, which consider the Missouri Breaks one of the best places for trophy rams in the lower 48 states.
“The BLM is making important commitments in the Lewistown plan that the Wild Sheep Foundation values greatly,” said Gray Thornton, president and CEO of the Wild Sheep Foundation, in a press release.
Hertel, of the Fergus Conservation District, sees the issue differently, saying such a requirement would limit landowners’ “ability to perform diverse grazing with several livestock species.”
Grazing of bison on BLM lands was also addressed, with the agency noting that the animals are considered livestock and subject to the same rules as cattle. The American Prairie Reserve is seeking to expand its bison herd onto BLM leases, which has provoked controversy as well as put pressure on the BLM by some surrounding landowners to deny the request. Most of the APR’s land is north of the Missouri River and outside of the Lewistown RMP.
“The grazing regulations define qualified applicants and apply equally to all qualified applicants, regardless of the class of livestock,” the BLM stated. “Privately owned bison may be authorized to graze under the regulations, provided it is consistent with multiple-use objectives.”
As to the possibility of the state being asked by a conservation group to allow wild bison on BLM lands, the agency said it would “work closely” with the state of Montana if such a proposal were initiated. “Any consideration of placing wild bison on BLM-administered lands would also include full involvement by tribal and local governments and the public.”
“During scoping, commenters requested that the BLM provide open or play areas for OHV recreation opportunity and trail bikes, where acceptable in selected areas,” according to the BLM. “This designation is within the scope of the RMP revision. However, no specific areas were recommended, and the BLM was unable to identify any portion of the decision area suitable for this use. Therefore, an alternative considered but not analyzed would be to designate a portion of the planning area as open to cross-country OHV travel.”
Hinted at but not spelled out are possible fees on the horizon for recreationists on BLM lands. The final EIS noted in part that it would “prioritize construction for developed and undeveloped recreation sites that can be realized through enacting a fee-based program at developed recreation sites, partnerships with other government entities, local service organizations, etc.”
The suggestion comes just after the Trump Administration proposed a $144 million budget cut for the Bureau of Land Management.