It’s not often to see a property serve the needs of two such noble purposes. Twenty miles south of Lewistown, where Montana’s central plains rise to meet the trailing edge of the Big Snowy Mountains, the causes of providing mental health care to vulnerable children and preserving the century-old legacy of Montana elk hunting intersect.
On Tuesday, representatives from Shodair Children’s Hospital, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks came together to promote and encourage public support for a proposed land sale that would dramatically expand public access to Big Snowy Mountains while securing Shodair’s ability to complete a new children’s hospital in Helena.
If approved by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission and Montana State Land Board, the sale would create a new 5,677-acre Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area at the southeast corner of the mountain range. of the island. The “Big Snowy Mountain acquisition,” as it is now known, would preserve critical elk habitat forever while adding access to more than 100,000 acres of public land that is largely blocked off by property. private.
Mike Mueller, Lands program manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, described the potential deal as “a historic story for Montana.”
“We are proud and honored to work with this great entity here; Shodair Children’s Hospital, to complete this project,” Mueller said. “The founders of the Elk Foundation – which was established right here in Montana in 1984 – is what they envisioned. To work with amazing, generous, visionary landowners like Shodair Children’s Hospital. I can’t can’t think of a better place to put those funds in. It’s a historical story for Montana.
The story begins with Forrest Allen, a farmer/rancher from Montana who grew up working on his family’s sheep and cattle ranch at the southern end of the Big Snowy Mountains. Born in Big Timber in 1921, Allen was a World War II veteran who moved to a farm near Cody, Wyoming in the 1950s. But Allen never forgot his ties to central Montana. Upon his death in 2019, Allen bequeathed his share of the family ranch in Golden Valley County to Shodair Children’s Hospital.
Shodair Children’s Hospital was founded from a similar donation 126 years ago. In 1896, pioneer grocer Louis W. Shodair offered Helena a home for the establishment of an orphanage. A subsequent contribution of $200,000 from Shodair in the 1930s enabled the completion of Montana’s first children’s orthopedic hospital. Today, Shodair Children’s Hospital has become the primary source of specialized psychiatric care and medical genetics services for children and adolescents in Montana.
According to hospital CEO Craig Aasved, Shodair’s board knew from the start that it would eventually sell Allen’s property, but it was agreed that it wanted the property to go into the public domain. .
“We are not a real estate company,” Aasved explained. “We knew from the start that this would not be land that we were going to take and keep.”
Aasved said he responded to several inquiries from potential out-of-state buyers interested in the Allen property, but Shodair held back in hopes of ensuring public access.
“We’re a Montana company,” he says simply. “We wanted him to stay in Montana, and we wanted access for Montana citizens.”
Securing access to public lands has become a growing concern in the United States. A recent study by Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership found that 16.43 million acres of public lands in the United States are now partially or fully “landlocked” by private land holdings through which no legal public roads or trails pass. Forty years ago in Montana, most of the land surrounding the Big Snowy Mountains was owned by small family farms and ranches. Property consolidation has been the theme ever since, with several large and wealthy out-of-state buyers purchasing large tracts of land and blocking off public access. Today, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has listed more than three million acres of public land in Montana that is nearly inaccessible, including the eastern portion of the Big Snowy Mountains.
This is a problem the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is well aware of.
“It’s just not fair,” Mueller said of so many millions of acres cut from public use. “The Elk Foundation has made it a priority to try to gain public access to these public lands so that we can all enjoy them, and to allow for better elk management and hunting opportunities.”
In 2020, Shodair approached the Elk Foundation to see if some sort of land sale could be arranged to secure public access. At the same time, Children’s Hospital was preparing for a major expansion of its facilities in Helena. The $66 million project, which has already begun, will eventually include 82 new patient beds and a medical office building that will house Shodair’s medical genetics program and Helena’s outpatient services. Shodair has already secured $52 million in bonds for the project and raised another $10 million in donations. The $8.3 million the sale of the Allen property is expected to generate will push the hospital beyond the estimated construction costs of the new facility.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation serves as a liaison between private and public interests to close the deal. The Foundation hopes to purchase the property and then simultaneously pass it on to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the creation of the Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area. Funding of $8.3 million for the project is expected to come largely from the Pittman Roberson Fund, which comes from an 11% federal excise tax on sporting guns, ammunition and shooting equipment. bow, as well as a 10% tax on handguns.
“We don’t own long-term land,” Mueller said of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s financial investment in the project. “We are a catalyst. We come in the middle of the deal to try to push it forward and help wherever we can – fundraise, advocate, gain support, spread the word.
“At this time, this property is still privately owned,” Mueller clarified. “He belongs to Shodair Children’s Hospital. There is no public access to it yet. We expect it to be completed by the end of 2022, possibly 2023. There is still a lot of work to be done. Once completed and passed on, the Elk Foundation would purchase it from Shodair and we would simultaneously pass it on to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Whether this arrangement goes ahead remains to be determined. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission gave initial approval for the land acquisition in 2020, but the commission has yet to give final approval for the project. This pending decision is scheduled for the August Commission meeting. After that, the purchase must be approved by the Montana State Land Board, which likely won’t make that decision until October.
Mueller emphasized how important acquiring the Allen property would be for elk habitat and public access to the Big Snowy Mountains.
“Elk needs a big landscape,” he said, “a big private/public landscape, and it takes a lot of cooperation to take care of that. Shodair currently owns 5,700 acres. south of the Twin Coulee Wildlife Management Area. It’s about 7,000 acres that the BLM manages. Then there’s the Big Snowy Mountain Wilderness Study Area that the Forest Service manages. You you have over 90,000 acres of public land right there. When this is completed, this landscape will turn into a landscape of over 101,000 acres and people will be able to enjoy and use it much more.
The management of elk herds in the Big Snowies is a major concern, which is continually exacerbated by the reluctance of a few large landowners to allow public access. Montana’s current elk management plan calls for a target population of 800 elk in the Snowies. Current estimates are that over 8,000 Roosevelt elk currently inhabit the area; a number exponentially greater than the herd that was recorded in the 1990s when fewer than 400 elk roamed this country.
“Public access is a big part of it,” FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor said of the challenges of managing elk herds in the Big Snowies. “We manage a lot of our elk numbers with public hunting. Getting these public hunters to where the elk are has been a challenge in the Snowies…just trying to stabilize the population has been a challenge just to get that number harvested each year.
FWP’s management plan for the Allen property includes limited motor vehicle traffic in the upper elevations of the property, continued leased grazing on the property, and property tax payments into state coffers equal to what has been evaluated over the years. Whether or not that happens is at the discretion of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission and the State Land Board.
“It’s about bringing people into the landscape and accessing some of these great public lands that are so often locked away,” Mueller said. “For all Montanans to enjoy a brand new – hopefully – Big Snowy Mountain Wildlife Management Area – boy, is a dream come true.”