In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds. This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.
A big game hunter’s bucket list might include a trip to the slopes of Alaska’s Brooks Range for Dall sheep or an excursion deep into the southwestern desert for beautiful little Coues deer. But, one thing is certain: That list will hold a hunt for big bull elk, and there is no better place to do that than on high-country public lands in Colorado.
In Part Six of our series, we head to the north-central part of Montana.
Thousands of years ago, the Missouri River in Montana ran north of where it is today. As the ice ages ended, the river took a new course below the Bears Paw Mountains, near the present-day town of Havre, cutting a wide channel through the fine clay soils of the plains. Rain and snow have since carved the earth into a vast and twisted maze of coulees and canyons, some of them hundreds of feet deep, marked by cliffs of yellow sandstone and weathered buttes, steep slopes of scree and gumbo soil.
The Breaks were one of the last places to be settled in the West. Much of the land went unclaimed while the region was homesteaded. A lot more of the land was abandoned later, when fierce winters and seemingly endless droughts forced even the toughest families to leave.
Today, most of the Missouri Breaks is public land in the care of the Bureau of Land Management. American hunters know it as perhaps the most unique and legendary elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep country in the world. If you’ve never seen it, ponder this: Mountain hunters are accustomed to going up into the hills to seek their quarry. In the Breaks, you hike down, eventually reaching the big river itself. This is the home of the second-largest elk herd in Montana and some of the West’s biggest trophy bulls.
Nothing comes easy here. There’s galling heat, clouds of mosquitoes, and big rattlers during bugling season. Sometimes in September there’s snow or gumbo mud that will defeat the most determined off-roader. By November, there’s howling blizzards and subzero temperatures. Here, you pack meat uphill and risk missing that one coulee that leads back to the truck. It’s a tough place, and that’s the way Missouri Breaks hunters like it.
So, imagine their dismay at hearing the Breaks are in the crosshairs of the movement to transfer public lands into state—and possible private—ownership. On June 24, 2014, the Montana GOP announced that it had taken a position of “shifting public land management away from Washington, D.C., control,” and interest in private ownership of Missouri Breaks land remains at a record high.
A Texas family recently purchased more than 300,000 acres in the area for hunting purposes. The once-abandoned and unclaimed lands, now rich with big game, solitude, and adventure, are the on-the-ground equivalent of diamonds and gold. If transferred to the state of Montana, these lands could be sold and closed forever to the average American sportsman.
Five individual bills were introduced into the Montana legislature in 2015, and all sought to eliminate or undermine America’s public lands legacy. Rank-and-file sportsmen reacted strongly to these proposals and several hundred of them rallied at the Montana Capitol in opposition to the seizure of public lands. In the end, the voice of sportsmen carried the day, and lawmakers put a stop to every land seizure bill under consideration.
We won this round, but those who want to seize your outdoor riches and opportunities for great adventure will be back with new proposals aimed at eliminating America’s public lands legacy. Sportsmen must be prepared to fight another day.
Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.