The proposed future site of the Big Snowy Mountain Wildlife Management Area — a project that has the potential to improve public access to 10,000 acres of scenic wildlands for hunting and recreation — is located about 20 miles south of Lewistown.
The property covers about 5,700 acres, and is currently owned by Shodair Children’s Hospital, after a surprise donation. A man named Forest Allen died in 2019 and left the property to the hospital, because his mother had a soft spot for children's health and causes.
“I’ll never forget the day I received a phone call from an attorney in Cody, Wyoming, telling me he was representing an estate that was donating land to Shodair Children’s Hospital. I’m a native of Lewistown, so I knew exactly where the land was," Shodair Children's Hospital CEO Craig Aasved recalled.
Shodair wants the land to benefit Montana — so Aasved made a call to Mike Mueller at the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) about a sale.
“To come up with an outcome to conserve that 5,700 acres and make it public lands, so all Montanans can enjoy it, they can recreate it on it," Mueller said.
RMEF plans to convey the land to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP). The property is bordered on the north by the Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area, owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Acquisition would open up previously hard to access areas for improved public use.
“When this project is finished, there’s public access to over 90,000 acres of public land. So this is huge," Mueller said.
“The property is proposed to be managed for winter range, so it would be closed to the public from December 1st until May 15th. Like a lot of our other wildlife management areas, to give those elk a place to rest for the winter and to just be able to survive a little easier," noted FWP biologist Ashley Taylor. "And more public access in the summer and in the fall and hopefully that would improve some of the public hunting that's in that area.”
FWP released an environmental assessment decision notice in May, paving the way for a vote from the Fish & Wildlife Commission to green-light the project before going in front of the State Land Board in the fall.
The deal currently enjoys great public support, according to Mueller.
“This is huge, people all across Montana, and maybe even some children that have been helped and at the hospital, will be able to enjoy this property forever. So we hope to get this project completed by the end of the year. It's really exciting to be here working with all these partners.”