ELKHORN MOUNTAINS — Standing near the Crystal Creek Trailhead, Kathy Bushnell grimly shakes her head in wonder at the damage done to the Helena National Forest by people shooting guns. The evidence shows that just about every rule covering target practicing was broken here recently.
While people are safely using a hillside as a backdrop, they have to shoot at it from across the road. Up from the trailhead lie bullet casings and sporting clays, revealing how people are shooting up the trail. Cement posts, meant to keep motorized vehicles off the trail, are pock-marked from being shot. Broken sporting clays lie in the creek. Live trees are shot in half or are missing branches.
Less than half a mile down the road, someone hauled a television and microwave to a secluded opening in the forest, then set the two items on a large, downed tree trunk and shot them. Glass shards cover the ground on both sides of the tree, and the microwave and television are now lying in pieces behind the log.
Roy Barkley, the recreational trails and program manager for the Helena National Forest, said he’s amazed not just at what people leave behind, but also with what they drag into the woods and shoot.
“We’ve found multiple TVs, computer monitors and microwaves, all destroyed,” Barkley said. “Yes, we want people to use their national forests, but to do it ethically. They need to clean up after themselves, clean up their targets and don’t displace other forest users.”
People leaving trash on public lands isn’t a new problem. Game warden Dave Loewen notes that they’ve had problems for years in the North Hills of Helena, as well as on state lands at fishing sites and parks. If wardens see someone trashing a place or violating gun safety rules they’ll issue tickets.
“We’re not seeing more — I think the level is about the same — but people’s tolerance for it is going down,” Loewen said. “In our line of work we see a tremendous amount of vandalism.”
He added that people vandalizing property at state parks or at fishing access sites can lose their fishing and hunting licenses for a year.
Barkley and Bushnell said that there are ways to safely target practice on public lands.
“The ideal person would put out a tarp below them to catch the bullet casings,” Bushnell said. “If you hang a target on a tree, have it be a dead one, not a nice green one.”
Barkley recommended that shooters stay away from trailheads, and never shoot up a trail.
“Picture if you’re coming back to your car and someone is shooting right up that trail,” Barkley said, pointing at a bend in the trail about a dozen yards from the trailhead, where someone’s obviously been target practicing. “That’s a bad situation no one wants to find themselves in.”
They note that a suitable backstop for shooters also is necessary, and it’s illegal to shoot across a road or waterway.
“You also can’t be within 150 feet of developed campsites or buildings,” Bushnell added. “We’re just saying that people need to be considerate of others, and there’s room for all sorts of recreational use on the Helena Forest.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076, email@example.com or Twitter@IR_EveByron