Elk NetworkCharles M Russell National Wildlife Refuges opens up to save ranchers from raging wildfires

General | August 11, 2017

Below is a letter from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to fellow staffers and partner groups regarding quick efforts to assist ranchers devastated by raging wildfires that charred more than 270,000 acres of ranch and grasslands in eastern Montana.

Good morning. I want to take a few minutes to highlight the amazing work of a few members of the Department of the Interior family.

Last week, the team at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) in northeast Montana went above and beyond the call of duty when they, led by Refuge manager Paul Santavy, took quick action to open up CMR for emergency grazing for ranchers who lost land in the 270,000-acre Lodgepole Complex Fire.

While our Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire crews were working with volunteers to battle the blaze, the team at CMR was hard at work with local ranchers, elected officials, and concerned citizens to come up with a solution to the massive loss of grazing land.

Families were facing a litany of bad options: calves going to market early and underweight, selling heifers from generations of working bloodlines, raising fewer calves next year, and the very real fear of knowing that some cattle still would not make it through the winter. Donations of hay were coming in from all over the State, but it was not enough to sustain thousands of cattle for several months.

One small bright spot that remained was CMR. The land, which was previously a ranch, had been grazed several years before and was now sitting there, a lush green oasis with a stable water supply in the midst of a charred desert.

A local farm equipment dealer wrote to me and the Service’s Acting Director Greg Sheehan about opening up CMR. The equipment dealer did not have cattle, but many of her neighbors and customers did; she heard about their situation because every morning folks gather at her store at dawn for coffee.

The CMR management did not have to open the land to ranchers, but they did. The team at CMR felt strongly that they are as much a part of the community as those ranchers, and the CMR team was dedicated to proving that the Service and Department are good neighbors.

That is what is at the heart of this. We have a saying that “Montana is one small town with really long roads.” The Department is a neighbor in that small town.

I have been able to visit many of you in Nevada, California, Utah, Colorado, Alaska, Virginia, Montana, and elsewhere. You have heard me talk about restoring trust between the Federal Government and local communities by being a good neighbor. The events at CMR are exactly what I mean.

I am so incredibly proud of the team at CMR and the Service’s leadership. From the Refuge manager hosting public meetings and working with families on an individual basis, to the rangers and public affairs officers assisting the efforts and getting the word out, everyone stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park. The team in Washington, D.C. also played a key role in keeping open the lines of communication.

The Sunday paper had a story about CMR; a statement by a local rancher and farmer stuck with me: “They’re our heroes today. We’re just thankful the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to our aid. And everyone else, too. Everyone across the nation and the support from across the state.  It’s overwhelming. Garfield County just wants to give a big thank you to everyone who is supporting us.”

That is the reaction I want us to earn every day.

I applaud the quick work and flexibility of the team at CMR for getting this done for the community in a compliant manner. Their example is an example to all of us.

Every day we hear of a rancher, or a mom-and-pop guide shop, or a local official who is looking for our help with an allotment, access to land, or a permit. I know you are all working hard on your normal day-to-day duties, and many times there is nothing we can do. Once in a while, though, we can help and we can change the outcome for one community. That is a win.

Thank you for all you do.

Ryan K. Zinke
Secretary of the Interior