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Amid Drought Conditions FWP Considers Short-Term Haying, Grazing on Wildlife Areas

Amid drought conditions, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is considering emergency haying and grazing on wildlife management areas across the state.

FWP’s proposal would allow one-time grazing leases on parts of 14 wildlife management areas spanning around 8,500 acres. The largest site is the Blacktail Wildlife Management Area, an area with hay fields and native range. About 4% of acreage at other proposed sites are in wetlands or riparian areas.

Gilles Stockton, President of the Montana Cattlemen's Association, says the proposal will not solve the hay shortage. But, he says, for ranchers worried about forage supply in the coming months, every bit helps.

“It’s a very small, kind of a drop in the bucket kind of deal. It would be very beneficial for the ranchers that are able to use it,” Stockton says.

Marcus Strange, Program and Partnerships Director at Montana Wildlife Federation, is concerned that cattle eating up forage will leave less food sources for elk in the winter months, but ultimately decided to support the proposal.

“We would be willing to compromise and support the emergency grazing for one year, but we’re going to hold the line and say that this will not become a regular practice,” Strange says.

Jocelyn Leroux with the Western Watersheds Project opposes the grazing and haying proposal. She says that the drought has already resulted in less forage and cover available for wildlife populations this year.

“One of the things that is so concerning about this it’s clear that the state is prioritizing profits of private industry over wildlife in the state,” Leroux says.

Earlier this summer, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte requested that the USDA allow emergency grazing on up 800,000 acres of conservation reserve program acreage. There are currently 40 grazing, haying and farming leases on wildlife management areas in Montana.

If approved, leases are scheduled to be awarded early September and operations would conclude Oct. 31. Public comment is being accepted on the Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ website until 5 p.m. Friday.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.