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Montana’s farms and ranches are an essential part of our state’s economy. They also provide important habitat for wildlife and, often, public access for hunting and other recreation. Working lands support big game, upland birds and waterfowl, as well as numerous nongame species. That abundance didn’t happen by chance.

For decades, Montana hunters and landowners have worked together to restore and manage the public’s wildlife on private habitat. Hunters and landowners don’t always agree, but our cooperation has given Montana the longest hunting seasons in the West and some of the richest wildlife watching opportunity in the world.

To support habitat protection for private landowners, Montana’s hunters worked to create the Habitat Montana program more than two decades ago. This program uses a small portion of hunting license dollars to pay for conservation easements, some land acquisition, and fishing access sites. Hunters are glad to pay for Habitat Montana because of the access and habitat it provides. It also helps our friends in the landowner community by securing their financial future and keeping their farms and ranches intact for future generations.

Given how much we all benefit from conserving working farms and ranches, it was disappointing that the state Land Board recently decided to delay approval of the Horse Creek Conservation Easement, a private land protection project that has been in the works for nearly two years. Less than a week after the project received unanimous approval by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, School Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton voted to kick the can down the road and delay the project.

Located in Dawson and Wibaux counties, the Horse Creek project had broad support. It would have permanently protected more than 15,000 acres of the Stenson family ranch, keeping the land in private ownership and in operation as a viable cattle operation.

Hunters would win too. The property offers superb hunting opportunity for mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope and upland birds, and the agreement included up to 600 hunter days per year of access. The ranch also provides habitat for numerous non-game species.

After the unanimous approval by the Wildlife Commission, the Horse Creek Project went before the State Land Board. It earned the support of Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox. But the other three members of the Land Board got cold feet, second guessing the project over mineral development rights. Attorney General Fox, in supporting the project, noted that nothing in the surface rights can restrict someone’s ability to develop their mineral rights, calling the issue a “red herring.”

What message does it send to landowners to work hard with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for nearly two years, only to have the project scuttled at the last minute? And what does it say to Montana’s hunters, who worked hard to get Habitat Montana passed and maintained through the years to protect what we hold so dear? This program works – for farmers and ranchers, for wildlife and for hunters.

Montanans know that our outdoor heritage and traditional farms and ranches go hand-in-hand. Landowners and hunters are natural partners. It’s time for all of the members of the Land Board to get serious about preserving our agricultural industry, our wildlife and our hunting traditions. Projects like the Horse Creek Conservation Easement show us what we can accomplish when Montanans work together. Montana hunters are hoping that State Auditor Rosendale, Superintendent Arntzen and Secretary Stapleton will join Gov. Bullock and Attorney General Fox in supporting this common-sense effort to protect working lands and wildlife habitat.

Nick Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. Chad Klinkenborg is the Montana regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation.