Wylie Bice is shown with the bridge that spans the Little Missouri River on his Dunn County ranch.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has decided that a bridge built in 2013 across the Little Missouri River in the Badlands of Dunn County can stay in place, despite the fact that the owner built it onto public land without all necessary permits.

The bureau will fine the owner, Wylie Bice, and require him to remove a water pond and alfalfa planted on federal land near the bridge next to ranchland that he owns.

“I’m happy,” Bice said Monday after the bureau issued its decision late last week.

BLM has granted him a right of way to maintain the bridge and an access road across federal land between his property and the river. He owns the land along the river’s east bank, but the land directly along the west bank is part of a 76-acre tract managed by BLM.

Blogger Jim Fuglie, a frequent visitor to the Badlands, first alerted BLM to the bridge in 2017 after a friend spotted it on a Google Earth map, prompting the agency to investigate, commission an environmental assessment and open up the matter for public comment.

The bureau considered alternatives to its decision allowing the bridge to stay, according to Loren Wickstrom, field manager of BLM’s North Dakota Field Office. If BLM were to force Bice to remove the structure, Bice could have rebuilt it in a spot where he owns land directly on both sides of the river, Wickstrom said.

“The impacts have already occurred,” Wickstrom said. “To rip out the old bridge and then install the new bridge would be additional impacts to the river and to the landscape. It was just decided that we would resolve this trespass case amicably.”

Fuglie questions BLM’s decision.

“They should make him tear it down and build a new bridge, then,” he said. “There’s really no reason anyone should be allowed to get away with breaking the law that flagrantly and not pay the price for it.”

Wickstrom said BLM’s case against Bice is ongoing, though it will not pursue any criminal penalties against him because he has cooperated with the bureau. BLM plans to issue a fine within the next 30 days, Wickstrom said.

The amount isn't yet known. The fine will include back rent and cost recovery, Wickstrom said. When BLM issues a right of way, it charges annual rent. Because the case involves trespass, Bice will have to pay three times the normal rent, retroactively. He also will be required to pay the bureau for the time staff spent reviewing and preparing documents related to the case. He already covered the cost of the environmental assessment.

Bice did secure one federal permit -- from the Army Corps of Engineers -- for the bridge to cross the river, but that did not authorize construction on public land.

He said he built it for better access to his property.

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“I bought a ranch on the other side of the river and instead of going 40 miles around, I just cross the river,” he said.

He said the location where he chose to build the bridge was ideal. The riverbanks were higher than in other spots, and there weren’t many trees. He hasn't said what it cost to build.

Wickstrom said the bridge’s impact on the environment is minimal, and Bice has placed riprap along the structure to help prevent erosion.

In addition to the bridge and road, BLM determined that Bice’s alfalfa fields and a pond connected to a water depot were on public land, affecting 13 total acres.

Bice said he has already removed the pond and placed a new one on his property. The water is used for irrigation, and it also serves the county for dust control, as well as the oil industry.

He plans to kill the alfalfa and reseed it this fall with native grasses.

Wickstrom said the department and Bice could enter into a land swap down the road, in which BLM would acquire some of Bice’s property in exchange for the land where his bridge and road are located.

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(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)