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December 10, 2005

Last modified December 10, 2005 - 1:39 am

Guest opinion: 'Clinton's monument' threatens nearby ranchers

Can ranchers who own private property continue to operate their ranches within the Missouri River Monument? That is a fundamental question.

The only example of the potential relationship is demonstrated by those ranchers bordering the Charlie Russell Wildlife Refuge. Dave Collins operates the 73 Ranch on the lower Musselshell River. When he purchased the ranch, it had historic grazing units in the CMR which the CMR refused to transfer from the previous owner to Mr. Collins. This is the likely indication of how the federal government will honor "traditional usages" in their future relationship with the monument ranchers.

Confrontation on CMR

However, even more disturbing incidents occurred this fall between the CMR administrators and Mr. Collins. This past summer, Mr. Collins was notified that he had a dozen head of cattle that had crawled into and were trespassing on the CMR. He drove them back on his private land and during the summer some cattle crawled into the federal project on several occasions which he retrieved when notified.

He was subsequently fined $600 by the federal government for his animals' trespass. This is what ranchers bordering the Missouri River Monument can anticipate. What rancher can financially afford to challenge a federal government decision?

The second confrontation with CMR occurred when a "federal ranger" challenged Dave Collins and his crew moving cattle down a county road (established by order of the county commissioners and is continually maintained by them) from one of Mr. Collins' pastures to another pasture which happens to cross a section of the CMR. Mr. Collins maintained that "we never left the road right of way."

He subsequently received a letter from the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administrator (they manage the CMR) stating that he would be required to obtain prior written permission each time he trailed cattle down that road.

We are talking about a maintained county road which has a steady stream of cars and trucks usage on a regular basis. (The federal government certainly has the option to fence the right-of-way.)

States, not the federal government, regulate public road usage and this example of federal government abuse of fundamental states' rights is very disturbing.

Road restrictions

Clinton's monument poses a real threat to more than 120 ranchers who actually have private property within the monument boundaries since the policies of the CMR foreshadow general federal government management policies. Just as the CMR has refused to transfer traditional grazing rights with the sale of a ranch, can we expect the future monument policies to be similar? If a cow crawls into the monument from a neighboring rancher who does not have grazing rights, will he be faced with hefty fines?

What definition will be used for "public roads" which cross government land connecting private land within the monument or cross monument boundaries from private property outside of the monument? (The Winifred to Big Sandy road could be restricted or closed by the federal government since it crosses monument boundaries.)

We have to consider that several hundred miles of public roads within the monument have already been arbitrarily closed - even though monument managers promise "traditional usage will be maintained."

The entire concept of "multiple use" has given way to the radical environmental "lock public users out of public lands" philosophy in deference to the "we do not want to disturb the wild animals" crowd and it will only worsen over time. The only conclusion is that ranchers and other traditional users of the Missouri River Breaks and their neighbors can anticipate harassment and fines in their future relationship with the federal monument administrators.

Now is the time to be heard. Attend the upcoming public meetings.

Ed Butcher of Winifred represents House District 29.

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