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

KILLDEER − The Bureau of Land Management is seeking public input on what action to take after a Dunn County rancher built a bridge across the Little Missouri River that the agency says trespasses on public land.

The east end of the single-lane bridge northwest of Killdeer is on land owned by rancher Wylie Bice. But the west end of the bridge is on an isolated 76-acre tract of land managed by the BLM, according to the BLM North Dakota Field Office.

In addition, the BLM says an unpaved access road, a water settling pond and portions of two alfalfa fields are on public lands without permission. In all, nearly 13 acres of public land are affected.

The BLM is planning to conduct an environmental assessment to analyze the effects of alternatives for resolving the issue. The options being considered include removing the bridge, selling the BLM land or authorizing the bridge with a right-of-way agreement.

“It’s a difficult situation due to the fact that it’s a high-quality bridge and one end of it is on public land,” said Loren Wickstrom, manager of the BLM North Dakota Field Office. “We’ll just have to wait and see after we do the environmental assessment which is the preferred alternative.”

Bridge goes unnoticed

Bice said he constructed the bridge to connect his ranching operation after acquiring a ranch on the opposite side of the Little Missouri River. Driving from one side of the river to the other through the rugged Badlands was taking about 90 minutes.

Bice said he believed he owned the property and he chose the location to avoid removing a lot of trees.

“It was the best place to put it without doing a bunch of damage,” he said.

Bice, who is semi-retired from the oil industry, said much of the planning for the bridge happened at the same time he was selling Wylie Bice Trucking, a business that had about 500 drivers in 2012.

Bice’s contractor, Travis Caldwell, led the construction of the 300-foot-long, three-span, prefabricated steel bridge.

“I told him, ‘I want it overdone. I want it way better than it needs to be.’ And that’s what he got me,” said Bice, who declined to disclose the cost of the bridge.

Bice obtained a permit for the bridge from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We thought we did the due diligence that we needed to do,” Caldwell said.

The bridge was constructed in 2013 and damaged in 2014 when the river was high, according to Bice, adding the bridge was rebuilt higher later that year.

The BLM first learned about the bridge in July 2017 from Jim Fuglie, who has been writing about the bridge on The Prairie Blog.

“We would have never found out about it if not for Mr. Fuglie,” Wickstrom said.

The BLM, which manages 58,970 acres of land in North Dakota, periodically assesses the health of the rangeland, Wickstrom said. A BLM range specialist visited Bice’s grazing allotment in 2016 and 2013, as well as about every two to three years prior to that, Wickstrom said.

The assessments did not mention a bridge or anything that was out of line, Wickstrom said.

Fuglie questions why the BLM didn’t know about the bridge on public land.

“They haven't done a good job of managing public land in western North Dakota,” said Fuglie, of Bismarck.

Wickstrom said staff focused on the larger allotment of BLM land and did not visit the isolated tract on the opposite side of the river.

“With the budget that we have, we manage the lands to the best of our ability,” Wickstrom said.

Next steps

Since learning about the bridge, the BLM has sent a team to evaluate it. In addition to preparing for an environmental assessment, the BLM has an ongoing trespass case that could lead to penalties for Bice.

Wickstrom said Bice is going to pay for the environmental assessment and will be required to pay back rent.

“He’s been very cooperative,” Wickstrom said.

The options being studied in the environmental assessment include removing a pond and alfalfa fields that are on BLM-managed land. The pond is used for irrigation and to store water from the Little Missouri River that is sold to the oil industry for hydraulic fracturing, according to Bice.

Bice said he wants to work with the BLM to get the matter resolved and does not plan to contest fines the agency may issue. He hopes to either do a land trade or purchase the land from the BLM.

However, Bice said he believes the BLM has changed the boundary of the land it owns and he is investigating.

“In the last 50 years, it’s changed somehow,” Bice said. “We just want to understand it. We’re just checking into it.”

Public comments will be accepted through Aug. 13 at https://go.usa.gov/xQF89. Once a draft environmental assessment is complete, which could be this fall, the public will be able to comment on that document.

“I would like to hope that we could settle this amicably where it’s to the benefit of everybody,” Wickstrom said. “But it’s complicated and has the potential to be a big deal. It’s a bridge across the Little Missouri River.”

The Little Missouri Scenic River Commission is scheduled to discuss the bridge at a meeting Monday that starts at 2 p.m. Mountain time at the Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge in Dickinson.

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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