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Gating Montana

Imagine a grassy field along a joyful brown trout stream in the West. The Crazy Mountains rise madly to the south. The Castle, Belt and Little Belt ranges hold the western and northern horizons. Every spring hundreds of sandhill cranes clack and chatter among themselves as they feed in the fields along the river before heading far north into Canada. This place is the Selkirk fishing access, along the Musselshell River in central Montana–a place where I’ve taken friends from places like Seattle, Cocoa Beach, Baton Rouge and Boston–and place where I proposed to my wife one gorgeous October day when the cottonwoods were flaming electric gold-orange. This is a place I’ve been coming to over and over since 1972. Two weeks ago my wife, Ginny, and I decided to stop off here for a few days after an extended road trip around the state–decompress in familiar surroundings a bit before heading home to Livingston.

We never got there.

In its imperious wisdom the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) installed a chain-padlocked gate across the narrow two-track access to the grassy plain. There was no need to do this. The land was not abused or overused. Litter was rare and always picked by others who used the place. The two-track was in good shape and its narrow nature prevented land yachts from accessing the area. We were looking forward to some spring fishing for the trout, watching the Great Grey owls that live along this fecund riparian corridor as do countless whitetail deer, black bear and kingfishers to name a few.

Of course there was always the option of going over the slight ridge a half-mile away and camping amidst a herd of motor homes, perhaps even the maintained site alongside the two outhouses the MDFWP has installed perched atop six-foot earthen mounds would be available. High rise outhouses. Great idea, I guess–almost as great as taking out the spigot that used to pour out cold, clear water.

More and more when we travel around Montana we see signs of the MDFWP run riot.

The first one I observed was in 1984 when the Kokanee salmon population crashed in Flathead Lake in the northwest corner of the state. The reason for this turned out to be an inspired decision by those fun-loving boys at that venerable department. Flathead Lake is 28 miles by 15 miles, with 185 miles of shoreline. It is pristine and the largest natural freshwater lake West of the Mississippi River. Up until about 1984 it had annual runs of Kokanee salmon of several hundred thousand fish that would migrate and spawn up the Flathead River which feeds into the lake. The runs of 14 to 20 inch fish would literally blacken the river. The salmon provided a quality fishery and a necessary food source for some people. The salmon runs crashed in a very small way from over-fishing, but mainly due to MDFWP planting mysis shrimp in the ecosystem. Mysis compete for plankton that the salmon feed on. Lake trout numbers and size in the lake has dwindled because the loss of the kokanee feed source. Since the loss of the Kokanee the Lake trout have turned to aggressively feeding on juvenile bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, both endangered species.

Another result of this misguided move is that the annual bald eagle migration that used to number in the hundreds no longer exists. The glorious birds used to feast on the Kokanee diving and swooping along the creek, tagging a salmon with their talons then gliding up to a tree limb to enjoy their prey. We used to watch this spectacle for hours. When the salmon population ceased to exist, the eagles went elsewhere.

Another example occurred last year when we drove down to the Tongue River in southeastern Montana to camp along the river at a very rough and rustic state campground, another place we had stayed at for years. In one year the MDFWP had turned the place into a zoo, replete with manicured lawns and smoothed gravel parking spots that were inhabited by a flock of motor homes–loud generators, TVs, radios and the such tearing up the air. A manicured row of dwarf willows impeded the view of the river.

Needless to say, Ginny and I drove off for more isolated doings.

A side note here. MDFWP claims that they do not stock any rivers in the state with trout, that the populations are self-sustaining. There are hundreds of rainbow trout in this stretch of the river that are cookie cutter replications of each other. This in a system that is well out of trout country and more commonly associated with small mouth bass, carp and channel catfish. Those were clearly hatchery fish and unless the almonds made a break for freedom absconding with a MDFWP tank truck, they were clearly planted.

With few exceptions, telling the truth to the public and media goes against company policy. One biologist in the Deer Lodge area was so well-known for his deviations from the truth, that any of us who interviewed the fellow assumed that the actual situation was 180 degrees counter to what he said.

The list of atrocities to Montana’s natural resources is lengthy. The MDFWP, when it isn’t busy gating off good country, is busy turning state lands into a ghastly Disneyland clone. An agency that is sworn to preserve the state’s wonders and provide access for recreation to the public has become an isolated, self-serving monster–a paradigm for everything that is wrong with government.

My hat’s off to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Keep up the good work, boys.

JOHN HOLT is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: hunted@wispwest.net

 

 

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