As the clock struck noon, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte opened the gate to the state’s newest swath of public elk country, welcoming a surge of antler hunters to the Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area.
Monday’s grand opening of Montana’s first new wildlife management area in years was marked by a celebration of partnerships between the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Shodair Children’s Hospital, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, tribes and others. The significance of the event, coming on the 39th anniversary of RMEF’s founding, was not lost on Mike Mueller, RMEF senior lands program manager.
“Thirty-nine years ago today, four Montanans got together and they decided they wanted to make sure there was a place for wild elk forever,” he said, standing near the newly unveiled sign. “Thanks to their vision, we’re here today.”
The project is all about legacy, Mueller continued, pointing to the property’s remarkable story and extraordinary work that brought it into public hands.
Located about 20 miles south of Lewistown, the 5,677-acre property was gifted to Shodair by the Forrest Allen Estate. Allen, whose family ranched on the property, wanted to see the land benefit the hospital and important work with children.
“He left this land, his family ranch, to Shodair Children’s Hospital, and working together since, we’ve achieved an extraordinary outcome for the people of Montana,” Gianforte said. “We created a brand new WMA for the people of Montana, and these 5,600 acres are important, but as and more important is the 100,000 acres of public land behind here that we now have access through Mr. Allen’s generosity.”
While Shodair was grateful for the donation, the hospital quickly realized it was not going into the ranching business. It would divest of the ranch with proceeds funding hospital projects and programs, said CEO Craig Aasved. But having grown up on the northern edge of the Big Snowies, he saw a potential and a need for public access.
“I just can’t say thank you enough for all the partners involved in this project,” he said.
The wildlife management area will offer public access from May 15-Dec. 1, and will then close to protect crucial winter range for big game including the area’s sizeable elk herd.
Aaron Brien, Crow tribal historic preservation officer, said his tribe called the Big Snowies “Lone Mountain,” likely in reference to the range jutting upward from the prairie.
“Crows we believe in wish making, the power of making wishes and we ask for good things” he said. “So I’ll make a wish that people who pass through here will fare well and good things will happen to them for being in this good country.”
With landownership changes in Montana and across the West, those who came to the Big Snowies recognized that its path to public ownership could represent a new model for future projects. All along the way, Gianforte and other supporters highlighted that the property would continue to be good neighbors to area livestock producers by ensuring grazing into the future.
“The state has a vested interest in seeing land conserved for wildlife habitat while keeping ranchers on the landscape,” Gianforte said. “This project accomplishes both and it’s something we can all be proud of. This will be a model for future wins in habitat conservation, public access and working partnerships between FWP and our agricultural community.
It takes a special landowner like Shodair, Mueller says, to share the same vision of public access and a willingness to go through the public process, in this case that spanned two governor administrations, to bring it to completion.
“That’s what we’ve seen the last few years is lots of pressures on land, lots of changes of ownerships, and so these projects can be few and far between,” he said. “So you’ve got to really stop and celebrate them when you can.”
(Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)