By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Montana wildlife commissioners approved the final piece of a $7.8 million ranch purchase along the Milk River near the Canadian border on Monday, despite objections from neighboring landowners and some lawmakers.
On a 4-to-1 vote, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners agreed to pay $4.7 million for 2,992 acres of river bottom and other land on the Milk River Ranch in order to expand recreational opportunities.
The state Land Board last month agreed to pay $1.1 million for an additional 1,513 acres of the ranch. The state also is paying $2 million for rights to archaeological and paleontological artifacts through the Montana Board of Regents.
Critics including neighboring landowners said the ranch's hunting and fishing opportunities had been overstated, and that a second appraisal was needed to ensure the state was getting a fair deal. They urged commissioners to delay their Monday vote.
But chairman Bob Ream said the purchase would protect an important wildlife corridor, and needed to happen before someone else bought the property.
"There's no doubt in my mind if we turn this down, that this ranch will be bought up by other folks," Ream said. "This is an opportunity we can't pass up."
State officials said the land will provide habitat for a variety of game animals, from pheasant to elk. They said it would help ensure a wildlife habitat corridor between animals north and south of the U.S.-Canada border, while also preserving archaeological and paleontological history found on the ranch owned by Aageson Grain and Cattle.
Commissioner Ron Moody, whose district includes the ranch, cast the only vote in opposition. He said the substantial price being paid would prevent the commission for now from buying other properties for preservation, by draining the amount of money available for such purchases.
Dozens of neighboring landowners, state lawmakers and ranchers and farmers from across north-central Montana spoke in opposition prior to Monday's vote.
They raised multiple objections, including over the loss of land used for agriculture, alleged shortcomings in the appraisal process and the need for further study to justify the purchase.
Several landowners who spoke Monday threatened to cut off public hunting access on their properties if the deal went through.
Kris Hansen, a Republican state lawmaker from the Havre area, said earlier hearings were inadequate. She said the details of the deal had changed since it was first proposed.
"At the very least, re-open this for an actual hearing on the facts now present," Hansen said.
Most of the land will be managed by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for hunting and fishing, while the rest will be managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to generate money for schools.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.