by Brett French, Billings Gazette
“Hunters are being warned that reclamation work along the border of what has been a hotly contested slab of public lands in central Montana is underway, right during the height of the archery elk season.
‘For safety, we are asking public land users in the Durfee Hills to avoid areas where crews are at work,’ said Pete McFadden, Bureau of Land Management Lewistown Field Manager, in a press release. ‘Crews will be working with machinery, chain saws and other equipment. Workers may not be able to see or hear people approaching.’
The work is being done when elk are in the middle of their mating season, known as the rut. That’s a time prized by archery hunters because it makes the bulls somewhat easier to lure into bow and arrow range.
The work is being conducted along the border of a 2,700-acre parcel of BLM property, known as the Durfee Hills, that is surrounded by ranchland owned by billionaire Texas brothers Dan and Farris Wilks.
The reclamation work is being performed after a contractor hired by the Wilkses ‘inadvertently’ strayed on to BLM land in 2014, cut down trees and tore up the ground while erecting nine miles of new fence. It took complaints by conservationists to convince BLM officials that the fence crossed on to federal lands and damaged federal property.
After the BLM’s law enforcement arm conducted an investigation, McFadden and Farris Wilks signed a settlement for the encroachment and damage in July. Wilks Ranch Montana Ltd. agreed to conduct stabilization work valued at $150,000. Under the agreement the Wilkses will also pay the BLM $71,000 for loss of timber and the expenses the BLM paid its staff to conduct a survey along the property’s border. The survey was undertaken to find out where the fence strayed on to public land.
Part of the settlement is a stipulation that the work be done by Oct. 15.
‘We feel it’s important to get the resource fixed because we know it does impact the hunters,’ said Adam Carr, a Bureau of Land Management supervisory natural resource specialist overseeing the reclamation work.
‘I’m happy the restoration work is happening,’ said Lewistown hunter Mark Schwomeyer. ‘I’m unhappy the restoration is starting in September. It just feels like another shenanigan.’
Some hunters were adamantly opposed to the proposal that BLM trade the Durfee Hills for a portion of another ranch owned by the Wilkses north of the Missouri River Breaks. The Wilks brothers had proposed the trade to consolidate their N-Bar Ranch holdings along Flatwillow Creek in Fergus County.
The only way for the public to reach the Durfee Hills is by airplane or helicopter. With such exclusive access, some conservation groups supported the trade. But the BLM decided not to even consider the trade, leaving the Wilkses upset that their proposal never got a public hearing.
After the BLM decided not to consider the trade, the Wilkses began building the new fence around the Durfee Hills, citing concerns about trespassers. According to Bozeman conservationist Kathryn QannaYahu — who was the main force in pushing the BLM to examine the new fence — the enclosure initially blocked a road used to land planes on BLM land. Hunters have also accused employees of the Wilkses of hazing elk away from the fringes of their property to ensure they stay on the N-Bar Ranch. QannaYahu sees the timing of the rehab work as one more way for the Wilkses to get back at the hunters who opposed their land trade.