New State Program Aims to Put 500,000 Acres of Montana Prairie Under Conservation Leases

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has signed off on the first round of conservation agreements proposed under FWP’s new program

By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has received tentative approval to enroll 10 eastern Montana properties in a newly launched state program to conserve prairie habitat. 

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to authorize the Prairie Habitat Conservation Lease Program’s first batch of agreements and signaled its support for the program’s larger objective of putting 500,000 acres of eastern Montana prairie into 40-year conservation lease agreements.

The program aims to protect the habitat for a variety of prairie species, ranging from mule deer and pronghorn to waterfowl, sage grouse and other grassland birds. The leases are also intended to support ongoing agricultural operations, public hunting and other forms of wildlife-related recreation. The program “may also help with avoiding potential federal listings of imperiled native species,” according to an FWP memo to commissioners.

The first round of leases encompasses more than 52,000 acres. The largest lease involves a $1.4 million payment for the landowner’s agreement to place an 11,600-acre property south of Malta under a 40-year conservation agreement. The Montana Land Board must sign off on that lease and seven of the others because the properties are over 500 acres or the lease agreement tops $1 million — criteria that trigger the Land Board’s approval per a law legislators passed in 2021.

All 10 properties will allow some degree of public hunting during commission-approved hunting seasons, generally September through December, according to Ken McDonald with FWP’s wildlife division. The leases will be funded by a variety of sources, including Habitat Montana, the Migratory Bird Wetland Program and the Pittman-Robertson fund, which funnels federal taxes on firearms, archery equipment and ammunition toward state-led wildlife restoration projects. 

Three people spoke in favor of the program during the commission’s remote meeting on Thursday, although one commenter noted that he does have some reservations about the agency’s shift away from perpetual easements.

Montana Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Jeff Lukas said his organization originally opposed the transition to termed leases due to concern that adopting time-limited leases does not provide the “bang for the buck that permanent conservation leases do for a similar cost.”

However, Lukas continued, “Temporary leases are better than no leases at all, [and] we support using Habitat Montana funds for these leases when these funds would otherwise be unused.”

Ben Lamb with the Montana Conservation Society said he appreciated that the program would protect habitat, increase public access and help farmers and ranchers “make sure the home place is kept in the family.”

“That can really be a game changer for a lot of traditional families,” he said, adding that he appreciated that the program allows for faster approval and more certainty on its outcome than the permanent conservation easements that have been the norm in Montana.

“As someone who was really skeptical in the beginning and is now fully on board, I just want to say what a tremendous job the agency has done in something that looks like it could be a really good benefit to everybody — and hopefully lead to more conservation easements in the future,” Lamb said. 

In a process similar to the one commissioners used Thursday, future lease agreements will go before the commission for approval.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.