In 2007 the Bull Whacker Road, southeast of Havre, was opened after several years of closure and controversy. The road serves as the only reasonable access to over 50,000 acres of BLM and state land – much of it in the Missouri River Breaks. The Bull Whacker had been closed, or open only by landowner permission, for several years. Prior to that it had been used by land managers, ranchers, and recreationists for half a century. Thousands of dollars of public money had been spent on maintenance. PLWA’s (formerly “PLAAI”) expert volunteers researched road history and developed voluminous documentation proving it to be a “public highway”. This was presented to the Blaine County Attorney who agreed and issued an opinion to that effect which opened the road.
However, in 2009, the owners filed suit in the 17th Judicial District court (Malta, MT) to overturn the ruling. On 3-25-2011 Judge John C. McKeon found the evidence necessary to establish a public prescriptive easement “inconclusive” and ruled that the road was a private road. PLWA believed the decision was incorrect, but did not have the funds to appeal.
In 2012, the Wilks Brothers, from Texas, were buying land in Montana. They wanted to buy the Durfee Hills, in Fergus County, from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM explained to the Wilks that they could not purchase it, but could possibly trade for it. According to the Wilks Brothers, the Lewistown BLM Field office suggested the Wilks buy the Anchor Ranch, an inholding in the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, so the BLM could consolidate some land there. The Wilks then purchased the Anchor Ranch. When word got out about a possible land exchange of the Durfee Hills in 2014, petitions were created, opposing an exchange of the Durfees. The petitions were delivered to BLM State Director Jamie Connell on April 16, 2014 by the Central Montana Outdoors sportsmens organization.
Sept. 26, 2014, BLM published a press release concerning the BLM starting the process to restore access to the Bullwhacker, with contact information, purpose and 3 scoping meetings at the beginning of Dec. It also stated, “A proposed land exchange to restore access was considered, but was determined to be not in the best interest of the American people who have entrusted the BLM to manage their public lands for them.”
The Lewistown BLM office continued to advocate a possible Wilks Brothers land exchange involving the Bull Whacker Road. By the end of May 2015 the proposal deadline came and went with no formal land exchange proposal being delivered to BLM from the Wilks.
Concerning the restoration of public access at the Bull Whacker, the BLM’s stated, “The 60-day scoping period will begin with public scoping meetings tentatively scheduled for Great Falls Dec. 2, Chinook Dec. 3, and Lewistown Dec. 4. An environmental assessment is expected to be available by May. The goal is to complete the decision process in summer 2015.” Yet, the Lewistown BLM abandoned the public scoping process for the Bull Whacker Road restoration, dismissing the majority of public comments supporting an east side road being improved, instead of a Wilks Brothers land exchange.
In July 2015, the Wilks produced a draft land exchange proposal, stating they would open the Bull Whacker Road to public access during the process.
On January 26, 2016, BLM’s Shane Hershman, Central Montana’s Field Manager, confirmed through Jonathan Moor, BLM’s Central Montana District Public Affairs Specialist, that District Manager Mark Albers announced, at the Resource Advisory Committee meeting, that there will be no BLM Wilks Brothers Durfee Hills Land Exchange. Also, there will be no road built to restore lost public access at Bull Whacker, in the Missouri Breaks National Monument.
At this time, the BLM has not revisited the public process of restoring the Bull Whacker Road public access.