First, we would like to tell you how pleased we are to be a part of the Montana community. We’ve long heard it described as a small town with very long streets, and we’ve quickly come to see how true that is. We appreciate your interest in our proposed land exchange and welcome your thoughts and ideas on how to ensure that we wind up with a win-win solution.
Our interest in Montana goes back to the 1950’s when our uncle moved here. We grew up listening to his stories of the Montana countryside and dreamt of owning land here. Through years of hard work and good fortune in our various business endeavors, we have recently had the opportunity to purchase land here and see parts of those dreams come to life.
We grew up on a 160-acre homestead in north Texas where our father taught us the value of hard work and commitment to faith, family and community. Throughout our own business endeavors, we have abided by some basic rules of successful capitalism – be honest, be fair, be a good citizen and neighbor, and give back to the community. We have been following these simple rules as we strive to restore and enhance the historic Black Angus cattle operations at the NBar ranch, and explore options for a land exchange with the BLM.
We have made substantial investments in the NBar to improve the cattle operation. In the last year alone, we’ve spent over $1 million with Montana cattle raisers to improve the herd. But our improvements in alfalfa fields and water systems also benefit resident wildlife and relieve stress on neighboring U.S. Forest Service lands.
During a time when multi-generational ranches are being sold and sub-divided, we have the opportunity to do the opposite. Our land acquisitions are protecting and even increasing areas for agricultural operations, which in turn provide greater habitat connectivity and sanctuary for wildlife.
Proposed Land Exchange
Land exchanges can provide an excellent opportunity not only to improve access, but to consolidate land holdings and make state and federal management far more efficient and cost-effective. In the interest of protecting our investment and making our cattle operations more efficient, we approached the BLM to discuss options to exchange the current inholdings on the NBar for lands that might be more beneficial to the public. In very early discussions, the notion of exchanging land to improve access to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was introduced as a possible consideration.
Through additional purchases, we are now able to offer what we feel is a mutually beneficial exchange proposal. Recent land exchanges have been challenged due to a disparity in the acreage or value of the subject properties, but we are confident that our proposal is nothing but a win for the public, the state and federal land management agencies, and a private ranching operation.
The BLM currently has segmented inholdings of nearly 4,900 acres of property inside the NBar Ranch. The BLM parcels are landlocked and have no roadway access. There has been limited public usage of these BLM parcels, mostly by trophy elk hunters who ferry in by helicopter. The Wilks family does not object to hunting on these parcels, and in fact hosted over 40 area youths on elk hunts last year, and many more in years past. They have also donated hunts to Wounded Warriors, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ducks Unlimited, and will continue to do so with these and similar groups.
Aside from the basic valuation of land, it is equally important to understand the nature and use of the land being contemplated in the exchange.
The NBar hosts an outstanding resident elk herd, which often traverses the BLM inholdings. A very small number of trophy elk hunters currently gain access to this herd by chartering private aircraft into the BLM lands. The current use of the BLM inholdings certainly appears to be enjoyed by a privileged few, rather than being truly “public.”
The loss of access to what currently amounts to an exclusive hunting refuge for 40 or 50 hunts per year on the BLM inholding would be outweighed by true public access that would be orders of magnitude greater – arguably amounting to serving thousands of additional hunter days each year. Nonetheless, detractors are attempting to cast this land exchange as a sacrifice of public access.
Elk Hunting – the big picture
The small number of highly vocal opponents of the land exchange cite loss of access to the Snowy Mountain elk herd as their main concern. We’d like to provide a little perspective on this. The current BLM inholdings (only about 2,000 acres of which are accessible even by air) represent a very small window of access into the middle of a vast elk range. Increased hunting pressure that will no doubt come from the increased awareness of the Durfee Hills by non-residents will push the elk herd off the public lands. The proposal provides roadway access to the herd over a much larger land area.
Aside from being an equitable trade just in Fergus County, the Bullwhacker area also provides outstanding elk hunting opportunities, but also plays host to one of the highest quality bighorn sheep populations in North America.
We understand the desire of Montanans to maintain hunting access, and we’re doing our part to improve access for a broad range of users. In complete support of the BLM’s multi-use directives, we believe that inclusion of the Bullwhacker area in this land exchange provides legal access to a much broader range of exceptional recreational opportunities, such as hiking, camping, birdwatching, photography, fishing, horseback riding, and so on.
When considering the value of this land exchange, the land management agencies and the public should dismiss the histrionics of a special interest group focused exclusively on the pursuit of trophy elk on an isolated tract of land, and recognize that this is an outstanding and rare opportunity to enhance hunting opportunities for the average Montana sportsman, and multi-use recreational access for all Montanans.