Big Snowy Mountains

The Big Snowy Mountains rise in the distance in this view from the Alaska Bench Road looking back toward Half Moon Pass and Big Baldy mountain. The new FWP access is roughly in the middle of the photo.

Paul N. Queneau

Certainly that’s the case with a mere 10-yard-wide connection of private land with public land that will provide a wealth of access to hunters and hikers in the Big Snowy Mountains starting Oct. 26, the opening of the deer and elk rifle season.

That’s when property acquired by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which is selling the 40-acre parcel to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, will be opened to public use. The land is located about 20 miles south of Lewistown, west off Red Hill Road.

“This is a major, major access point,” said Bruce Auchly, information officer for FWP in Great Falls.

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South of Lewistown

The land is located near the northeast corner of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, which surrounds the Big Snowy Mountains, an island range in central Montana. On its southwest corner the small parcel barely touches the forest land, but it’s a sufficient abutment to allow hikers and hunters into No Name Canyon and the East Fork of Big Spring Creek, as well as the surrounding area – about 18,000 acres.

Hikers who can find their way off-trail to the East Fork of Big Spring Creek drainage will find an old pack trail leading to 8,681-foot Greathouse Peak.

The other nearest public access in the area is the trail up Half Moon Creek, about 1 mile farther south. But as FWP noted in its environmental assessment, Half Moon’s steep canyon makes access between the two areas difficult.

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Model purchase

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, based in Missoula, was able to move swiftly when it found out from a member this summer that the small undeveloped parcel was up for sale.

“We’ve really been looking for those kinds of things so we jumped on it and moved quickly,” said Blake Henning, RMEF’s vice-president of lands and conservation. “Over the last few years we’ve been switching our focus to things like this – improving access to public lands.”

RMEF bought the land for $190,000 from owner Marshall Long but will sell it to FWP for $50,000.

“We’re glad to do it,” Henning said. “This is the model of what we want to continue to do.”

The Lewis Ranch surrounds the property on three sides. To the east across Red Hill Road lives Bruce Weller, a retired teacher who said he has mixed feelings about the new access site. He likes that he will be able to walk across the road and into the national forest; but he’s worried about the additional traffic so close to his home.

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Bank account

FWP will draw from its Access Public Lands fund to pay for the purchase. It was estimated that another $6,000 would be needed to construct a parking area, a 200-yard long nonmotorized trail from the lot to the forest border, erect wildlife-friendly perimeter fencing and post signs. FWP would also continue to pay the land’s property taxes, which in 2012 were $20.80. The property would be managed like a wildlife management area, meaning limited or no camping and no target shooting.

The property is about two-thirds forest and one-third rangeland. The creek crossing the acreage runs only seasonally. According to the environmental assessment prepared by FWP wildlife biologist Sonja Smith, the lot is home to deer, bear, elk, grouse and turkeys. Smith predicted that the area will see lots of use by hunters, helping FWP reach its management objects for wildlife in the locale.

Elk numbers are 400 percent of FWP’s management objective for the Snowy Elk Management Unit, which includes Hunting District 411, where the property is located. That excessive number of elk is blamed in part on a lack of public access to areas where the elk reside – namely large ranches. It’s hoped that the Red Hill Road land acquisition may help ease some of that overpopulation.

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