Survey of Durfee Hills boundaries published in BLM trespass case

The surveyors have finished their work, but it will be another month before it’s known to what extent the Wilks brothers trespassed on federal property in eastern Montana.

On Tuesday, a Federal Register notice announced that survey plats delineating Bureau of Land Management property in the Durfee Hills were finally available.

The BLM accepted the plats on July 21, but Tuesday’s Federal Register announcement starts a 30-day clock during which the public and the Wilkses can protest the findings.

BLM Central Montana District Manager Stan Benes said he could not take any action until the appeal period expires on Sept.  3. If no one protests the boundaries, the plats will be officially filed on Sept. 4.

“At the end of the 30 days, we’ll get the quantification that everybody wants to know. Did they trespass, how many feet, what stretch of fence, what are you going to do about it, and all that should be available then,” Benes said.

The survey plats are the final step in a law enforcement investigation and damage assessment conducted after it was discovered that the Wilkses built fences around the BLM sections of the Durfee Hills.

Wilks spokesman Darryl James said in July that the Wilkses were willing to remove the fence as soon as the BLM notified them of possible trespassing.

But the BLM filed a cease-and-desist order against the Wilkses to prevent them from either removing the fences or installing more until the investigation was complete.

The trespass issue must be dealt with before the BLM would allow the Wilkses to move forward with their newest attempt to trade land, including the Durfee Hills.

James said the Wilkses were willing to do what was needed to resolve the problem. So they might not want to delay land-swap negotiations trying to appeal the survey.

On July 15, the Central Montana BLM Resource Advisory Council was given copies of the Wilkses most recent land-swap proposal. The RAC ultimately recommended that the BLM consider some land swap, although not necessarily the Wilks' proposal.

The same document had been presented to a group of sportsmen, landowners and agricultural producers on July 9.

The proposal is similar to an earlier effort that the Wilkses put forth in March 2014, where they would turn over portions of two ranches that are near or within BLM property in exchange for BLM inholdings on their NBar Ranch.

The Wilkses hold one other crucial game piece: they refuse to allow the public to access the Bullwacker area of the Upper Missouri Breaks Monument using a road that crosses their Anchor Ranch property.

As a result, the BLM has proposed building a new road elsewhere, but it’s not optimal and would be costly. So, monument supporters favor the land trade in order to restore access to the Bullwacker area.

But those people don’t have a stake in the Durfee Hills like many Montana hunters and pilots. The BLM property contains four backcountry airstrips.

The Durfee Hills hunters assert there would be no justification for the land swap if the Wilkses allowed access on the Bullwacker road.  That’s why hunters mounted so much opposition last year that the BLM decided against considering the Wilks’ first attempt.

(Clarification added Aug. 5: As part of the new proposal, the Wilkses would open the Bullwacker road to the public.)

Last month, James asked the representatives of sportsmen, landowners and agricultural producers to submit comments to him on the proposal by July 31.

The Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance decided against taking a stand on the new proposal. The leadership group wanted to see the final details before weighing in. They also want to avoid squelching public process.

In a July 29 letter to the Wilks family, the MSA acknowledged that “the Wilks Family has the legal right to advance a land-exchange proposal, providing it meets the legal public-process requirements of the BLM. That is a BLM decision.”

“We would urge a continuing dialog on access, Block Management, and herd health issues. The proposal was only one of the issues, and the ability to visit about other problems of access and herd management were particularly important. Our desire would be guarantees on the public access, Block Management and hunting, including the Durfee Hills. The public will demand the bar be set high.”