Montana Farm Bureau comments on Charles M. Russell National Refuge plans | TSLN.com

Montana Farm Bureau comments on Charles M. Russell National Refuge plans

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) has submitted comments on the Charles M. Russell (CMR) National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Planning Alternatives. The use of the CMR National Wildlife Refuge, and all the lands in Montana, is of utmost importance to their members. Many ranchers have been utilizing grazing access on the Refuge for many generations and paying a great deal to do so. In many cases, the use of grazing lands in the Refuge has become an integral part of the ranching operations.

“The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge got its start when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his Executive Order 7509 in 1936,” explained MFBF Regional Manager Nicole Rolf, who was instrumental in developing the comments. “He designated what was then called the ‘game range’ for the ‘conservation, protection and development of natural wildlife resources and the improvement of public grazing.’ Over the years, management of the CMR has changed and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will again review their Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) as they are required to do by law. Montana Farm Bureau has many concerns with the proposed changes, and that’s why we felt we needed to submit strong comments.”

“The first concern has to do with public grazing,” noted MFBF’s Executive Vice President Jake Cummins in the comments. “Even in the ‘No Action Plan,’ the intent is ambiguous and creates unpredictability for ranchers who currently graze on the Refuge. MFBF would prefer that grazing leases continue to be offered on a predictable, annual basis.”

Grazing lands in the Refuge have become an integral part of the ranching operation. “If grazing leases are taken away, become unpredictable, or are gradually phased out, ranchers will be forced to find private grazing lands for their livestock, which may not be feasible,” noted Cummins. “This puts ranches, communities and even the schools in jeopardy, all of which rely on the ranching income and taxes to remain sustainable.”

Another concern is proposed fence removal. “Removing fences will make it increasingly more difficult for lease holders to manage cattle in already large allotments,” said Cummins in the comments. “If the Refuge intends to use prescriptive grazing to meet habitat goals, removing fences will have the opposite effect. If fences are not available to keep cattle in, the leaseholder will be forced to stay with the cattle and herd them on specific areas, which is nearly impossible.”

Cummins said implementing prescribed grazing upon the sale of a ranch creates a huge financial uncertainty. “Generally, when a ranch is sold, current grazing leases are ‘sold’ along with the private property. The value of the grazing lease is capitalized into the value of the ranch. By taking away the grazing lease on the Refuge if the ranch changes hands, it would take value away from the ranch being sold,” noted Cummins.

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The most disturbing aspect included in several of the proposals is the mention of developing management plans for gray wolves and grizzly bears in the Refuge. “We are extremely troubled and steadfastly opposed to the reintroduction or ‘immigration’ of any large predators to any part of the Refuge in any number,” Cummins stated. “Not only do these predators pose an enormous threat to any livestock that may be allowed to graze on the Refuge, but also to livestock on surrounding private lands, public lands, ranches, and farms.”

Other issues addressed in the comments included opposition to planting prairie dogs on public and private lands; the federal government purchasing water rights; increased use of prescribed burns in the Refuge; permanent closure of established roads; and withdrawing mineral rights.

“We are opposed to the expansion of the wilderness system until concerns over water rights, grandfathered irrigation maintenance and other issues are resolved to the satisfaction of agricultural interests. Any increase in the wilderness system should be minimal and must not infringe on the rights of private property owners in the affected areas,” Cummins said.

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