HAMILTON — As Pete Lindbergh steps out of his car at the entrance to the Teller Wildlife Refuge, he watches a woman throwing a stick for her dog to retrieve. It doesn’t bother him one bit that the dog isn’t on a leash, since it’s in the parking lot of the Woodside Fishing Access Site, and Lindbergh pats it on the head as he walks past.
What does bother Lindbergh, the refuge’s land manager, is when people cross through the nearby gate and allow their pets to run wild and chase animals on the privately-owned wildlife refuge.
An additional concern of the Teller Wildlife Refuge management team is people who are trespassing — often using grid patterns to hunt for shed antlers in the winter and spring — which disturbs nesting birds and resting animals.
“I’m seeing a lot fewer moose and a lot more people,” Lindbergh said Tuesday. “Every year I think there are more people coming onto Teller during that critical time in winter and spring, pressuring everything back in there.
“There’s even been poaching. I found a buck shot through the spine and the horns were cut off.”
While the 1,200-acre Teller Wildlife Refuge is privately owned, the managers enjoy and encourage public use along a 1.5-mile path that parallels the Bitterroot River. They don’t fence off the rest of the property, but signs warn people where Teller managers want to restrict public access.
But since allowing the public to use the trail in 2008, more and more often people are disregarding the “no trespassing” signs or even damaging and destroying them, leaving trash behind and campfires. That’s causing the wildlife managers to have second thoughts about being so open.
“Last year, someone cut 20-plus small pine trees, and built some kind of a fort,” Lindbergh said. “I’m sure it’s just 1 percent of the people who are doing it, and it’s a shame to think of closing public access.
“In a perfect world, everyone would enjoy this and follow a few rules. But if trespassing increases this year as much as it has in the past, it really will impact the wildlife. Coyote, moose, bear, mountain lions, elk — people are pushing out a lot of them.”
Anne and Otto “Mose” Teller created the nonprofit Teller Wildlife Refuge in 1988 after becoming concerned about the fragmentation of habitat in the Bitterroot Valley. They placed conservation easements on the property to ensure it will remain undeveloped, and today, with the help of a cadre of volunteers and a handful of paid staff, the property remains vital habitat.
They allow limited deer hunting through Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management program, and also offer special youth hunting and angling programs.
Justin Singleterry, a game warden with FWP, said he’s stepping up oversight, and will investigate and issue citations for trespassing on the refuge.
“When we have a landowner in Block Management, we try to help out,” Singleterry said. “A lot of people come in to Teller from our Woodside Fishing Access Site, with only a small portion from other areas. I’ll walk down the trail to show our presence, and check anglers’ licenses.”
Both he and Sam Lawry, the refuge manager, say that instead of issuing tickets or even shutting down access, they hope to first educate the public about rules and why they’re important to protect the wildlife.
“We don’t want to, but when we closed before there was a reason — vandalism, abuse and failure to comply with the few regulations we have,” Lawry said. “In 2008, the decision was made that we want to be a community-based organization and provide benefits to the public.”
With about 5,000 visitors annually, Lawry and Lindbergh hope the public will help keep the refuge open by being their eyes and ears, although they ask that people not confront a violator but to contact them as soon as possible.
“In the summertime, it’s packed down here, with a lot of people putting in at Woodside to go fishing, and people walking the trail,” Lindbergh said. “People really enjoy it here, and most follow the rules. They stay on the trail and keep their dogs on a leash.
Added Lawry, “We’re trying to connect people with Teller. We’re a unique model of trying to take a piece of private property and blend that with public recreation. I can’t think of another private landowner that opens a one-and-a-half-mile loop along the Bitterroot River that’s on private land. We don’t want to close it. We just hope users will become self-policing.”
Chuck Burrier, who is in his 14th season as a volunteer at the refuge, and Karen Zumwalt, the program assistant, said people who want to work on areas within the refuge that are off-limits to the public can always offer to volunteer. Projects range from stuffing straw into bird nesting sites to taking out old fencing.
“There’s always something happening,” Burrier said.