Elk NetworkRoad to Remain Open for Montana Hunters, Others to Access

Gear 101 | March 22, 2019

Sometimes, just paying attention can go a long, long way. Several years ago, a staffer with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation noticed a popular road in southwest Montana was closed. He raised the issue, another RMEF staffer sat in on public discussions and took part in a stakeholder’s tour, and all involved worked out what was a somewhat issue.

Today, the road is open for hunters, hikers and others to access public land.

Below is a news release distributed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that sheds more light on the situation and the eventual solution.

Agencies, County and Recreation Groups Sign Off on Plan to Keep Popular Access Road Open   

DILLON, Mont. – Shed-horn and big game hunters, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy continued road access to a vast swath of public lands in Beaverhead County, after county commissioners, citizens and conservation groups, and state and federal agencies agreed to a plan that will ensure the East Fork Blacktail Road remains available for public use. Agencies hope to complete the final stages of an easement transfer in time for the road to open on May 15, 2019, as it has for many years.

Historic use of the public road, which accesses lands managed by the Montana DNRC, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and ends in the Beaverhead – Deerlodge National Forest, was in jeopardy after the US Forest Service determined two bridge crossings no longer met federal safety standards. USFS officials recognized the road would remain closed under their jurisdiction and worked with local, state and federal agencies to find a solution to keep the road open for public use.

“All the stakeholders agreed closing the road was not an option,” said Tim Egan, a DNRC land manager based in Dillon. “Recreation is a big economic driver in Beaverhead County and the road sees a lot of use by outdoor enthusiasts.”

Each year on May 15, the gated portion of the road accessing the Blacktail Wildlife Management Area is opened to public use. Egan said the area is so popular with shed-horn hunters that people towing campers and horse trailers are lined up days in advance, hoping to get a prime campsite at the East Fork Campground, located on BLM land at the end of the road.

State and federal agencies, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Beaverhead County commissioners, and the Beaverhead Recreational Users Group started discussing the issue in 2016. The Forest Service indicated a willingness to relinquish its interest in the road and easement, and much of the subsequent work involved legal review and discussion of whether the county or one of the other agencies was best-suited to take it over.

In January of 2019, the Forest Service offered to assign the easement to DNRC. Montana FWP had completed an engineer’s assessment of the two bridges and determined they met all state standards, which differ from some of the federal standards the Forest Service was obligated to meet.

“There were definitely a lot of things to work through,” Egan said. “Each agency uses the road for different management activities at different times of the year. The Wildlife Management Area is closed to public use from December 1 to May 15 to protect elk on winter range. If the road ownership changed, the BLM would have to acquire easements across DNRC’s State Trust Lands. There was also the issue of road repair and maintenance and paying for that.”

The stakeholders reached final consensus on March 8, 2019, with DNRC ultimately agreeing to assume ownership of the road. Egan said the bridges will need some minor upgrades but will be ready for the road’s annual opening on May 15.

“Everyone involved feels really good we could get this resolved,” Egan said.

(Photo source: USDA)