Tuesday, August 18, 2015

USDA to Invest $700,000 to Increase Recreational Public Access on Private Lands in Montana

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will partner with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to improve and increase wildlife habitat and public access for recreational opportunities on privately-owned and operated ranch lands.

"Montana will receive more than $700,000 for the purchase of conservation leases on private ranch lands enrolled in the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI) Program," said Rick Northrup, wildlife habitat bureau chief for FWP. "This generous grant will benefit landowners, wildlife, and recreationists in areas that provide high quality sage-grouse habitat."

The project is funded under the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentives Program (VPA-HIP) and is administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The funding will be available for lease payments as an incentive for landowners to continue to manage their ranching operations consistent with SGI contract terms for a period of 30 years.

Lease agreements will also provide expanded opportunities for recreation, such as hunting or wildlife viewing, that's consistent with the landowner's operation and the property's wildlife habitat values.

Northrup explained that enrollment will be voluntary and based on a competitive ranking. FWP will work with NRCS to contact landowners during this fall's enrollment period.

"We're aiming to enroll about 45,000 acres of land," Northrup said.

Last year's nearly $500,000 VPA-HIP grant to Montana is being matched with state Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program funds for purchasing Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters leases.

The leases offer an add-on rental payment for Montana private lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Open Fields provides game bird hunters permission for walk-in hunting during the fall hunting season. Since 2012, nearly 100 landowners have enrolled about 33,000 acres into Open Fields projects.

Under VPA-HIP, state and tribal governments apply for grants to encourage owners and operators of privately held farm, ranch or forest land to voluntarily open that land for public wildlife-dependent recreation activities such as fishing, hunting and birding.

State and tribal governments may use VPA-HIP funds to create new public access programs, to expand existing public access programs, and to improve wildlife habitat on enrolled public access program lands. Projects can span up to three years.

Landowners interested in participating are urged to contact Catherine Wightman, FWP's coordinator of this opportunity, by phone at 406-444-3377, or via email at cwightman@mt.gov.

For more information, visit the NRCS VPA-HIP website.