The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission's approval of the North Wildcat Coulee Wildlife Management Area represents milestone to improve public access and economy in Eastern Montana
On Friday, October 19 the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved the purchase of the 328-acre Wildcat property on the Lower Yellowstone River, which is an important step for improving public access and economic opportunities in Eastern Montana.
This is huge news! Today’s vote represents a milestone achievement for a multi-year effort to bring attention to the absence of public access and recreation infrastructure along the Lower Yellowstone River, between Hysham and the North Dakota border.
The Lower Yellowstone River Coalition's very own Christine Whitlatch has this to say about today's vote:
“The Wildcat Wildlife Management Area is the first project the State is advancing resulting from the hard work of the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition and its many supporters from Hysham to Glendive. We want to thank the Fish and Wildlife Commission and look forward to getting more river access and infrastructure investments in the pipeline for the benefit of communities in eastern Montana."
The Wildcat property is located seven miles east of Forsyth, in Rosebud County. The acquisition will create Montana’s newest Wildlife Management Area, protect valuable wildlife and riparian habitat and open 2.2 miles of riverfront for boat-in and walk-in access.
Robert Lee, a Rosebud County Commissioner, Dennis Kopitzke, mayor of Forsyth, and Brenda Mass, Marketing Director of Visit Southeast Montana, all served on that 12-member citizen’s committee and say the Wildcat Wildlife Management Area will be good for the local economy.
“I’m a supporter of Wildcat because it was driven by local input and it can only benefit our local businesses in Rosebud County,” says Commissioner Lee. “In addition to improving local recreation these kinds of projects can increase visitation and bring in more tourism dollars for our communities,”
“Better access is just going to bring more people into our community and help our local businesses,” agrees Mayor Kopitzke. “They’ll come here and they’ll say ‘What a great place to bring my family, what a great place to run or start my small business. The river can be a great resource for the community, and having people come into town to use our facilities – motels, restaurants, gas stations, those sorts of things – can be a great economic benefit.”
“Visit Southeast Montana tourism strives to increase visitation to the region in a balanced way, and providing access to thread that connects communities – the Yellowstone River – is an elemental piece of that. The Board supports this project for both its conservationism and public access approaches, which honor private property and one of our most treasured resources,” says Maas. “Collaborative work like this is essential for healthy community and economic growth across Eastern Montana.”
Earlier this year, an economic analysis projected that the Wildcat WMA and other future investments have the potential to generate an additional $5.3 million in local spending and create more than 50 new jobs in the region.
The $1,185,000 purchase price for the Wildcat property will be shared by state and private funding.
Pheasants Forever has raised nearly $500,000 for the acquisition as part of their Build A Wildlife Area® (BAWA) program, which included contributions from Ducks Unlimited, MeatEater, National Wild Turkey Federation, OnX, SITKA Gear, and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.
The remaining amount will be paid for by the State’s Yellowstone River Account. The 2021 Montana legislature created the new account in 2021 at the urging of the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition to prioritize investments where river access was most limited. The account currently holds $4 million which is available until spent within the Lower Yellowstone River corridor downstream of the Bighorn River confluence to the North Dakota border.
The project must still receive final authorization through a vote of the five members who make up the Montana Land Board. Governor Greg Gianforte, who chairs the Montana Land Board, helped secure the $4 million in state funding that would help pay for the Wildcat WMA.
Wildcat isn’t the only project that will utilize this funding source, says Angie Grove, who chaired the citizens advisory committee. That committee made several additional recommendations to improve public access, conserve habitat, and support economic development along the Lower Yellowstone River corridor.
“We have more investments that are currently being explored which should help strengthen Eastern Montana’s communities, support local businesses, and enhance the outdoor way of life that makes Eastern Montana so special,” says Grove.