BLM uses LWCF to purchase Mont. big-game habitat

The Bureau of Land Management announced today that it has used Land and Water Conservation Fund money to purchase nearly 1,000 acres in southwest Montana in an effort to protect wildlife and improve access to public lands for big-game hunters.

The purchase of the 960 acres, which are bordered on three sides by BLM-managed lands and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, comes after Congress allowed the LWCF to expire Sept. 30, though there is still money in the fund derived primarily by royalties collected from offshore oil and gas drilling operations.

The LWCF program provides grants to states and localities, and the federal government uses some of the overall money to acquire land and water to promote conservation and recreation.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement released today that the acquisition in Montana supports two of his top priorities: improving access to public lands for hunting and fishing, and protecting migration corridors and other habitat for big-game species such as elk.

"Elk and mule deer are some of the most iconic species of the American West, and in order to maintain healthy herds, we are putting a focus on healthy habitat through targeted acquisitions and funding research on migration corridors," Zinke said. "These nearly 1,000 acres join millions of other acres of land we have opened up for greater hunting and fishing access."

The Missoula, Mont.-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation last summer bought the private lands from Jerry and Linda Grow, with the understanding that BLM would later purchase the land from the foundation once it had completed the process necessary to use LWCF money, a BLM spokeswoman said.

The foundation, established more than 30 years ago, works to conserve elk and other wildlife habitat in Montana and other states, with the aim of improving public access for hunters and anglers to protect what it calls "America's hunting heritage."

"It wouldn't have been possible without the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation," Zinke said of the purchase.

The expiration of the LWCF on Sept. 30 has been a source of much debate in Congress and fierce criticism from conservation groups that have argued it needs to be permanently reauthorized.

But GOP leaders, most notably House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have said the deadline to renew the popular program was not a real deadline because it still contains plenty of money for purchases such as the lands in the Little Sheep Creek watershed.

"Nothing dies in September," Bishop said at the time, regarding failed efforts to prevent the LWCF from expiring (E&E Daily, Sept. 19).

Congress appears ready to move on LWCF legislation, with Bishop saying this week a final public lands package that includes permanent reauthorization of the program will be "ready to go" soon (E&E Daily, Dec. 11).

The 960-acre purchase in Montana's Beaverhead Valley is a prime example of why that needs to happen, supporters of the program say.

The property features "high-quality winter range habitat" for as many as 700 elk and 450 mule deer, according to information provided by the Interior Department.

The land at issue is also home to moose, antelope, black bear, wolverine and the greater sage grouse. Both West Fork Little Sheep Creek and Straight Creek cross the property, "providing vital riparian habitat for fish and other aquatic species," Interior said.

The property also contains two cabins, which BLM may turn into year-round rental opportunities for the public.

The 960-acre purchase is the "latest example of how the Land and Water Conservation Fund benefits the American people," Blake Henning, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's chief conservation officer, said in a statement.

"We appreciate the private landowners, and the BLM for recognizing the exceptional elk and mule deer winter range that this property hosts, and the value of opening and improving access to public lands for future generations," Henning added.

By:  Scott Streater, E&E News reporter