A decision on a new habitat leasing program proposed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is scheduled for August, with two public comment periods currently open on environmental impacts and the overall program respectively.
FWP proposes to expand the use of the Habitat Montana account, which currently uses license dollars for land purchases and conservation easements, to fund a new habitat rental program. State funding would be leveraged against federal funding or other sources with the goal of signing up to 500,000 acres over the next five years of private land prairie habitat into leases of 30 or 40 years old. The terms of the leases would include limits on development and allowing some public access.
The public can weigh in on the proposed program in two processes, with more information available at fwp.mt.gov.
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The FWP has published an environmental assessment open for comment until July 13. The assessment will specifically address the anticipated environmental impacts of a rental program, and FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon suggests that comments be tailored to environmental benefits or concerns.
The FWP is also gathering feedback ahead of the Aug. 25 meeting of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. The agency will seek approval from the commissioners at this meeting to proceed with the program, and Lemon suggests that more general comments about the program as well as opposition or support be submitted as part of this process. Public comments are open until July 21.
Documents and a public meeting have provided additional details about the structure of the program since the Montana State News Bureau reported on its development in early June. Officials believe a leasing program will be strategically important moving forward.
“Habitat conservation leases are expected to be a primary conservation tool for the foreseeable future for priority wildlife habitats as defined in the State Wildlife Action and Habitat Montana plans,” the documents state.
Conservation groups have expressed some concerns that the new leasing program could replace or diminish land purchases and conservation easements that are popular with hunters and access developers.
FWP officials said the agency will still pursue purchases and easements, but will look more closely at whether the deals have local support. FWP director Hank Worsech said in a previous interview that the easements had created local heartburn and that under the current administration county commissions should back projects in order to gain support from the community. commission and the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners.
The program would rank priority grassland habitats for funding, particularly with the decline of sage-grouse, including sagebrush grasslands, mixed-grass grasslands and wet grasslands in eastern and southwestern Montana, involving habitats overlapping parts of 45 counties.
Payments for leases would be a fixed rate per acre and would be made as an upfront payment to the landowner. Rates would be set at 5-10% of the fee simple value of the land, determined by an average value per acre of habitat types in that part of the state.
A lease could be broken by the landowner, but would result in repayment of the balance and a 25% penalty.
Public access would be required and set as a minimum number of recreational days for hunting, fishing or wildlife viewing depending on the size of the lease. A landowner could also sign up for the block management program, FWP wildlife division administrator Ken McDonald said at a recent town hall meeting.
“The leases are meant to conserve that habitat,” he said. “There is an access requirement as part of the lease, but the landowner and that land covered by the lease can also be registered for block management and…Block management can be used to manage access to the lease in addition to any other access the landowner wants to provide.
FWP will seek commission approval of the program in August, which would allow the agency to begin recruiting landowners without commission approval for each lease.
The commission is not bound by the request and could propose modifications to the program or vote against the procedure.
Tom Kuglin is Deputy State Bureau Editor of Lee Newspapers. Its coverage focuses on the outdoors, recreation and natural resources.