Reportedly, the Forest Service is in talks with a ranch owner to acquire land for Custer Gallatin National Forest, just north of Yellowstone National Park.
The specific proposal entails the owner exchanging wildlife habitat in exchange for an inholding on his ranch. If the proposal succeeds, the service would acquire lands they’ve pursued for 30 years—most notably, the Slip and Slide Ranch.
The land in question belongs to billionaire businessman William D. Morean, former board chairman of Jabil Circuit. Morean was listed as the 346th-richest person in America in 2015 by Forbes magazine. Besides Shooting Star Ranch (located in the Cinnabar Basin) he also owns a 7,000-acre ranch property next to the Red Lodge Mountain ski area, Palisade Livestock LLC. Morean has already put around 2,000 acres of the ranch in a conservation easement, according to the Helena Independent Record. As mentioned, one of the real appeals of the deal is the acquisition of Slip and Slide, a longstanding property in the region. From the HIR:
The attraction of the Slip and Slide Ranch, owned since 1908 by the Rigler family, is its closeness to Yellowstone and that it adjoins an isolated 360-acre portion of the 4,700-acre Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area, owned by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In a letter announcing the exchange proposal, the Forest Service said the 583 acres of ranch land contain “outstanding, nationally significant wildlife and fisheries habitats, including recovery habitat for the grizzly bear, valuable migratory and winter range habitat for bison, elk and mule deer, and spawning and rearing habitat for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. …”
“Of all of the land exchanges I’ve seen over the years, this one on the balance strikes me as pretty good,” [Gardiner District ranger Walt] Allen said.
“This is actually a really good deal, the (Forest Service) lands they are trading are mostly landlocked, and are high elevation areas that are difficult to get to even if there was access,” Karen Loveless, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Livingston, wrote in an email. “The lands they will receive are a private holding surrounded by public land (USFS and state), accessible from the road, and include some very nice habitat for wildlife, hunting and recreation.”
Morean bought Slip and Slide in 2008, after the Forest Service approached the Rigler family. The Riglers decided to go with Morean rather than wait for funds from the Land and Water Conservation fund, a decision that circumvented resale and development of the ranch. From the HIR:
Under the new proposal, Morean would remove buildings on the Slip and Slide Ranch, grant a road easement across his Shooting Star Ranch for administrative purposes only and transfer to the Forest Service a “right of first refusal” on another 90 acres adjoining the Slip and Slide Ranch where Franklin Rigler lives. Morean would also terminate a residential lease and a lease to the Montana Department of Livestock for a bison quarantine facility prior to closing the exchange.
“If the land exchange is completed, very good new public access would become available for dispersed recreation, including hunting and viewing wildlife, on the acquired lands,” the Forest Service stated.
No legal access exists to the 590 acres of federal land, which is contained in two parcels inside Morean’s Shooting Star Ranch. Allen said he expects the Forest Service to get some complaints that the agency didn’t acquire access through the Shooting Star Ranch to federal lands, although officials tried.
The Riglers have a long association with Yellowstone since starting Slip and Slide in 1908. Former owner Franklin Rigler was an outspoken opponent of wolf reintroduction and a critic of bison management in Yellowstone—he believed they overgrazed the Park. And this isn’t the first time land around the ranch has been sold. Rigler sold 3.3 acres between Highway 89 and the Yellowstone River in 2003, a site that now provides public access to the river and a corridor for wildlife. With the proposed addition of Morean’s land, the public and wildlife will be getting a lot more access.