Russell Refuge open to cattle displaced by Lodgepole fires

Staff and Wire Reporters

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is opening the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge to grazing for ranchers who lost rangeland in the Lodgepole Complex widlfires in eastern Montana.

Refuge manager Paul Santavy says the fire left some ranchers with no rangeland for cattle to graze. Without the grass, ranchers would be forced to sell their cattle. The refuge consists of 915,814 acres surrounding the Fort Peck Reservoir in northeastern Montana.

Individual agreements will need to be negotiated, but refuge managers plan to allow ranchers to move cows onto the refuge and complete the paperwork later.

In addition, the normal regulations guiding how many cows are allowed in a pasture will be waived.

Four fires near the refuge scorched about 421 square miles of farmland and public land over the past week.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the decision over the weekend to provide emergency grazing relief. Allotments will be available immediately, he said.

“We have a saying that Montana is one small town with really long roads, and as a neighbor in that small town, the Department is dedicated to providing disaster relief and resources where possible,” Zinke said. “When I talk about restoring trust between local communities and the federal government, and being a good neighbor, this is exactly what I mean.”

Zinke said he heard from ranchers, equipment dealers and other concerned citizens, and those concerns led to the decision.

Santavy said his agency is happy to help. “This is a difficult time for many families in Montana and we are eager to get to work as neighbors do and help people impacted by this fire disaster. We stand ready to welcome our neighbors in need,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) said he worked to help make the land available in order “to find immediate help for our hard-working ranching families.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) termed the decision a “common sense solution. The fact is we have grass available and hungry cows. Allowing them to graze on retired grazing allotments within the CMR just makes sense.”

For assistance, ranchers can call the Refuge at 406-538-8706. Grazing has been prohibited on most of the Wildlife Refuge since 2010.