A Montana conservation organization is planning to buy three parcels of land in the southern Elkhorns for wildlife preservation, as well as public hunting and recreational use. 

Mike Mueller, senior lands program manager with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, has asked the Jefferson County Commissioners for a letter of support for the Foundation’s project that begins with purchasing 1,418 acres now privately owned by A.H. Kimpton & Sons and located 16 miles west of Townsend.

The RMEF has secured a purchase option for the property with the goal of putting it into the U.S. Forest Service system, according to a project summary provided by the Foundation. 

“When something is for sale in the Elkhorns — whoa,” said Mueller, expressing his enthusiasm for the project at the Sept. 1 Commission meeting.

The property is an elk wintering range, and is also home to deer, bear, moose, mountain lion and birds. It includes foothill habitat with timber, large park areas and three creeks, according to the project summary. Specifically, it’s located in sections 21 and 27 of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks block management program. 

“It is one of those beautiful Elkhorn vista areas,” said Mueller. 

The property is considered a high priority because there is concern over habitat loss due to subdivision, development, fragmentation and habitat conversion, according to the project summary. 

Those threats include residential development, noxious weeds and changing the land from one use to another, said Mueller in a phone interview.

The RMEF is not opposed to residential development, but in some places it makes more sense to conserve a property, particularly one that is surrounded, or nearly surrounded, by public lands, he said. 

If the project comes to fruition, the property would become part of the Forest Service grazing management system, as well as be available for public use, said Mueller. 

Funding the purchase and getting the property into the public access pipeline is a multi-step process. 

The RMEF is working with Montana’s Outdoor Legacy Foundation and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Trust to put together the initial funding necessary for the purchase, said Mueller. 

The Forest Service plans to nominate the project for Land and Water Conservation funding to purchase the property from the RMEF, according to the project summary. The recently enacted Great Outdoors Act has provided permanent funding to support these types of projects, said Mueller. 

This will still have to compete nationally with other projects, but this will fare well given that the property is in the Elkhorns, said Mueller. 

Once the Forest Service receives funding, it can reimburse those agencies, said Mueller. 

If all goes to plan, the property will be available for public use next year, he said, declining to state the purchase price as the RMEF is still in negotiations with the land owner.

The property is listed at $3.5 million on U-Bars.net.

Mueller said the project has the support of the Helena-Lewis and Clark and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests, and he expects that the public will also be supportive. 

Having the support of the county would also help with the project, said Mueller. 

The Commission was concerned with the loss of tax revenue from the property. 

According to information provided in the project summary, the county received $610.20 in taxes in 2019 — or 43 cents an acre. In contrast, the PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) value per acre is $2.35. 

The county will receive more in PILT funding from the property than it would in property taxes, said Jeanne Holmgren, real estate specialist with the Helena National Forest, who was also at the Sept. 1 Commission meeting. 

PILT, or Payments in Lieu of Taxes, are federal funds that help counties offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal lands.

The RMEF plans to close on the purchase by Nov. 14, according to the project summary. 

The RMEF has in the past preserved property near these parcels  — 6,000 acres within the Elkhorns Cooperative Management Area and the 317 acre Jenkins Gulch in the Elkhorns in 2014.

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