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Montana May Acquire 583 Acre Corridor for Yellowstone Elk, Other Wildlife

The state of Montana may soon acquire nearly 600 acres of land north of Yellowstone, which will benefit Yellowstone elk and other wildlife.

According to the Billings Gazette, Shooting Star Ranch owner William D. Morean is looking to trade 583 acres of land along Slip and Slide Creek for a 590-acre inholding at his ranch in the Upper Cinnabar Basin.

Although the swap would not add any area to the park, it would open an additional corridor for Yellowstone elk to places like the Dome Mountain wildlife management area, which FWP officials are hoping to expand. This trade would also open the Slip and Slide land to public access.

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You can see a map of the proposed land exchange above, courtesy of the Gazette and the Custer Gallatin National Forest Gardiner Ranger District. From the Gazette:

“The big purpose is wildlife habitat and public access,” [Gardiner District ranger Michael] Thom said. “That’s a big migration route for that Northern Yellowstone elk herd. So it’s a pretty important spot to maintain that corridor.”

Elk and other wildlife that are traveling to and from Yellowstone National Park north to the Dome Mountain WMA and the Paradise Valley travel through this mountainous area in the spring and fall.

Acquisition of the land would also mean public access to the locale.

“Currently on the east side of (Highway) 89, north of Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon, only three trailheads exist, making the public use/enjoyment of these areas difficult,” the EA stated.

The EA also states the swap would “conserve important scenic values in the upper Gardiner Basin.”

The deal has been in the works for two years. According to the Gazette, Morean bought the land in 2008 after another proposed swap between the previous owners (the Rigler family) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation fell through.

The Gazette also reports several interesting facets of the deal, pertaining to land value and conservation measures:

Although federal land law requires the properties to be of equal value, Morean has agreed to donate the difference if the appraisal for his land is higher. The Forest Service won’t disclose the appraisals until the final EA and decision notice is issued. Morean has also arranged to grant a permanent conservation easement if he acquires the federal land inholding at his Upper Cinnabar Basin property, although the easement would allow one recreation cabin to be built.

As part of the deal, at closing Morean would also transfer to the Forest Service, without fee, the right of first refusal for about 90 acres of land owned by the Rigler family that adjoins the Slip and Slide property. That transfer does not include other lands owned by the Riglers located between Highway 89 and the Yellowstone River, or lands in the Sphinx Mountain Trailer Park, according to the EA.

The lower portion of the Slip and Slide property is leased to the Montana Department of Livestock and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for use as a bison quarantine facility. The DOL lease affects most of the 90-acre-right-of-first-refusal property that is held by Morean. Morean will not extend the bison lease. Thom said those bison may be moved out by Feb. 28.

The timing of this swap is appropriate, as Yellowstone biologists say more elk are migrating out of Yellowstone National Park during winter. This migration is part of the reason wildlife managers want to expand the Dome Mountain habitat.

Accomodating more elk outside the park would also put less pressure on Yellowstone’s Northern Range, which is susceptible to overgrazing.

Finally, more elk outside the park would aid wildlife manager’s mission when it comes to managing brucellosis in elk. A new report published earlier this year by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine highlighted the need for more proactive elk management, who pose a higher risk for brucellosis transmission to cattle than bison, which are currently the focus of heavy management under the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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