The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains

Recently the Helena National Forest released a scoping letter on a proposal to create 39 miles of  mountain biking (aka thrill biker) trails in the Strawberry Butte area of the northern Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area.

In its scoping letter, the FS notes that “Since 2001, the Forest has observed an increase in recreational use within the project area. This increase in use has resulted in a proliferation of user created trails, some of which intrude into riparian areas and other important wildlife areas. These resource concerns have lead us to take action to address impacts in this area.”

The Scoping Letter goes on to note “The purpose of the project is to enhance non-motorized trail opportunities in the front country and reduce the potential for development of user-created routes into the backcountry of the Elkhorn Mountains.” In other words, the FS hopes that by legalizing some Thrill biker created trails, it will preclude continued development of more illegal trails.

Indeed, the FS scoping letters admits that some of the illicit trails thrill bikers have commandeered include game trails. If game trails become thrill bike trails, where does the wildlife go? The fact is that the wildlife does not have anyplace else to go. We already use a disproportionate amount of the landscape. The purpose of the Elkhorn “Wildlife Management” designation was to put wildlife first, and other uses second. Unfortunately, this capitulation to thrill bikes makes recreation the priority.

However, thrill bikers also displace hikers. This is not unlike the social displacement that occurs when snowmobiles use the same trails as xc skiers. Heavy use by mechanical users like thrill bikers tend to displace hikers and horse people from trails they have used for decades.

That is why any new or increased use by bikes must be given serious evaluation of the impacts on other public values. That is not to suggest there are not some areas appropriate for biking, but the Elkhorns are not one of them.

The Elkhorns were originally proposed as wilderness but bowing to political pressure to reduce wilderness acreage in several wilderness bills, the Elkhorns were instead given a special designation as a wildlife management area. Wilderness classification preclude bikes, but wildlife management area does not—a lesson that conservation groups have failed to appreciate as they advocate other “alternative designations” to wilderness like wildlife management areas for places like the Gallatin Range.

As with the Elkhorns even if an alternative management scheme is done with the best intentions, one has to rely upon institutional memory and the good graces of managers. Wilderness designation is the gold standard that provides permanent and legal protection that is time tested.

One of the characteristics of many thrill bikers is an outlaw mentality. As noted in its scoping letter, Thrill bikers regularly flout the law creating illegal trails throughout our public lands without any input or oversight of land management agencies. These rogue actors create trails willy nilly without regard to impacts on wildlife, watersheds, spread of weeds, and other conservation values.

With the development of electric thrill bikes, the ability to impact even more of the land will increase since previously remote areas will be accessible to thrill bikers.

In reaction to the proliferation of illegal trails in the Elkhorns, the forest service is now going to make many of these trails “legal”. That is a common agency response which thrill bikers depend upon to legalize their outlaw actions.

While I can understand the desire of the FS to manage some of these uses by formally legalizing the existence of rogue trails, hoping this will preclude more illegal trail construction, the policy of accommodating outlaws, only begets more outlaw activity.

Imagine if the MDFWP in response to rampant poaching of deer, merely increased the areas open to deer hunting and increased the number of deer that one could legally take? That is what the FS is essentially doing by legalizing the criminal trail building.

Mind you this is a situation unique to thrill bikers throughout the country. You don’t find bird watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, hikers or other public lands users going out and creating new trails without permission or oversight, but it is very common among the thrill biker crowd.

Another common ploy is to publish these illegal trails on apps for phones that advertises their location, creating more constituents for the trails.

The FS is proposing to use a categorical exclusion to legalize the 39 miles of trails. That is, they are not going to analyze the cumulative impact of creating miles of new trails and an increase in thrill bike use effects on wildlife. What is the cumulative impact on wildlife from the existing trail system combined with 39 additional miles of trails? The FS isn’t analyzing this.

In addition, what about the aforementioned social conflict of increased use of existing trails by thrill bikers? Will this cause hikers to abandon these trails?

And what about the increased road traffic into what is now a relatively lightly used area of the Elkhorns. How will that affect wildlife?

My organization, Mountain bikers for Wilderness, is the only biking group that puts conservation ahead of recreation and is strongly opposed to the FS plan to expand thrill biking in the Elkhorns.

You can look long and hard at thrill biker web sites to find a mention of the word conservation or preservation of wildlife or wildlands. The common mantra is we “need” more trails. More. More. More. Thrill bikers (aka mountain bikers) are now the greatest threat to many wildlands across the West. As a group, the word self-restraint is not part of their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the creation of new trails and increase in thrill biking on existing trails has many impacts that federal and state agencies ignore.

For instance, any number of studies have shown that elk and other wildlife flee from thrill bikers at far greater distance than hikers. One study found: “Probability of a flight response declined most rapidly during hiking, with little effect when hikers were beyond 550 yards from an elk. By contrast, higher probabilities of elk flight continued beyond 1,640 yards from mountain bike and ATV rider.”  “Higher probabilities of (elk) flight response occurred during ATV and mountain bike activity, in contrast to lower probabilities observed during hiking and horseback riding.”

Given that you can cover many more miles on a thrill bike than walking, the ecological impacts on wildlife from a single thrill biker is far greater than the effect of a hiker.  This is something the Forest Service is ignoring—in a wildlife management area!

The increasing use of “snow bikes” also means this area could see increasing use in winter months, and again because of the distances that can be traveled, thrill bikes may have far greater impacts on wildlife at the time when they are most vulnerable to stress.

These are questions the FS is avoiding by use of the Categorical Exclusion. But it goes beyond this one area, thrill bikers are absconding numerous trails around Helena, and creating new rogue trails so that there are virtually no bike free areas.

Worse by legalizing illicit trail creation, these agencies reward the outlaws. What the FS should do is ban all use of any trails that have not explicitly been evaluated for the impact of thrill biking on wildlife, vegetation, watersheds, and as well as existing users.

And to the degree possible, thrill bike use should be separated from other non-mechanical use like hiking and horseback riding just as snowmobile use is often segregated from xc skiers.

What the Elkhorns need is a comprehensive plan for the entire range. Thrill biking is a growing issue throughout the range.

You can submit comments to comments-northern-helena-helena@fs.fed.us.

The subject line must contain “Strawberry Butte Front Country Trail Management Project.”


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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.


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