State opens wildlife area to drilling 

Leasing out habit

Gene Sentz, a Choteau teacher, is spearheading a somewhat ironic battle. He is opposing the funding of public schools through a share of federal and state taxes on timber and mining. In particular, Sentz has recently traded a series of contentious exchanges with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) over plans to approve oil and gas exploration in an area of the Beartooth Mountains set aside for wildlife.

As a member of Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front, Sentz says his fight with the DNRC over leasing land for such exploration is a familiar one. “They tried a similar thing over on the Sun River wildlife management area, actually the country I was hunting today,” Sentz recollects. “Now they want to do the same thing in the Beartooths, under the pretense that it might generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for schools.”

Sentz has engaged in heated debate with DNRC Minerals Management chief Monte Mason. “I wrote a brief letter a few weeks back, as I usually do in matters like this, stating my opposition to exploration in the Beartooths, and he wrote back, lecturing me on the legalities and virtues of exploring this area.”

For the record, the DNRC is opening state-owned land to oil and gas exploration in the Beartooth Mountains, adjacent to land the federal government bought from The Nature Conservancy back in 1970 in a deal designed to protect sensitive habitat. The land is a designated Wildlife Management Area, which means the state has determined the land has premium value as habitat. In the Sun River case, the DNRC is charging the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks grazing fees, during which time the two state agencies are working out the conditions by which an oil and gas lease could be granted to a third, private party.

For his part, Mason recognizes the redundancy of one state agency paying another, as is the case at Sun River, but he says he must stick to an 1889 law that requires the state to develop lands for support of the state school trust. “Our obligation is to get the school trust its share of revenues from state lands,” Mason says. There are currently no mineral, oil or gas leases in Wildlife Management Areas that produce revenue for the school trust, Mason adds. The DNRC has issued 33,000 leases on state lands since its inception, some 500 of which have produced revenue for schools.

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