The Durfee Hills are public lands under the Bureau of Land Management; situated in southern Fergus County, near the USFS Snowy Mountains. 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), home to one of the largest elk herds in Montana.
The 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.
After hearing there would be no land exchange with the BLM, the Wilks proceeded, without a survey, to bulldoze around the Durfee Hills, blading the ground, destroying hundreds of trees and additional vegetation, erecting a tight 5 wire fence which prohibited wildlife movement, some of which encroached on the public’s BLM managed land.
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.”
On Oct. 1st, as a result of a number of the public raising questions, the Billings Gazette ran an article, based on the Sept. 30th BLM Public Notice, that the Durfee Hills fence built by the Wilks was okay – no encroachment/trespass – it was not. Oct. 7th, PLWA member Kathryn QannaYahu contacted the Fergus County Clerk & Recorder, followed by the Assessors office, finding there was no professional survey on record. As a result of the Lewistown BLM’s responses QannaYahu flew into the Durfees, several times, to investigate and document the destruction; fence construction and encroachments; illegal signs on public lands; as well as file a number of FOIAs. All documentation was made public on the Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat site.
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. The majority of the public continued to object to an exchange involving the Durfee Hills, as well as demanding an accountability for the fencing encroachments, damage to resources, removal of Federal boundary markers and the fence construction which did not comply with BLM fencing standards.
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.
Delayed FOIAs on the damage, restitution and restoration are still pending.
At this time, the public’s land in the Durfee Hills remains in public ownership. Should the Wilks decide to submit another land exchange, the process would begin again.