DRUMMOND – A decades-old problem of elk on Interstate 90 between Drummond and Gold Creek might be nearing a solution.
Unfortunately, it took the death of a Bozeman motorcyclist to grease the wheels.
Director Mike Tooley said the Montana Department of Transportation is exploring a $1.5 million fencing project that will funnel roaming elk under the interstate through four existing underpasses in the eight-mile stretch between Drummond and the Jens exit.
The Missoula district of MDT and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have been working on the issue for several years.
“It’s not so much an engineering issue as it is getting landowners and Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the same page,” Tooley said.
Duane Carlton of Bozeman died just before 5 a.m. on June 6 when his motorcycle collided with an elk three miles east of Drummond.
A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Carlton was eastbound on a Harley Davidson at the time.
“Highway speeds, elk and a Harley are never a good mix,” said Granite County Sheriff Scott Dunkerson, whose job as county coroner was to notify next of kin.
Carlton is survived by his wife, two children and two granddaughters. He received full military honors at his service in Bozeman on June 11.
“It just sounded like he was a really great guy,” Dunkerson said.
MDT’s fencing project has two aims.
“It’s part safety and part interstate maintenance, so it’s two different pots of funding,” Tooley said.
Safety funds require a cost-benefit analysis. This one rises to the top, said Tooley, “because of the unfortunate incident we’ve had.”
The speed limit on this and most other stretches of Montana interstate highways was raised in October from 75 to 80 mph. While fatalities on Montana primary and rural routes have dipped in 2016, interstate crash deaths have risen 125 percent – to 18 from eight at this time a year ago.
Tooley said it’s too early to connect the increase in fatalities to the higher speed limit. Capt. Gary Becker said in Carlton’s case, it probably didn’t matter.
Animals are especially active in the early morning and late evening hours, when visibility is limited, said Becker, commander of Montana Highway Patrol’s Butte district.
MHP in-car patrol cameras have shown just how suddenly a deer or elk can appear in front of a vehicle.
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“You don’t have time to do anything. And on a motorcycle you’ve got nowhere to go, short of just laying the bike down,” Becker said. “Even then, if you’re traveling 70 mph and your reaction time is a second and a half, you’re traveling 100-some feet before you can do anything. Imagine being on a bike and doing that, how much more exposure you have.”
The elk issue in the Drummond area has been bubbling for years.
“It’s not just isolated to that area, but I think there’s a higher concentration in that corridor area,” Becker said.
The transportation department periodically posts electronic warning signs for eastbound and westbound travelers.
“That does affect some people, but others frankly don’t pay attention and go on through there without slowing down,” Tooley said. “Even the ones who pay attention might hit an elk.”
“You’ve struck an issue near and dear to my heart,” said Dunkerson, who’s also a Drummond Ambulance volunteer. “There are too many of these (elk incidents) and at the last meeting the Fish and Game had, I went mainly as a hunter and a citizen and told them that and the ambulance crew told them that.
“I understand it’s Montana and there’s going to be animals on the roadway. But I think something could be done to prevent this sort of thing.”
“It’s a longstanding problem and it’s something we want to try to correct,” agreed Mike Thompson, Region 2 wildlife manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “There have been a lot of discussions, and I think everybody wants to get to the point where we get something on the ground.”
The most recent elk count from spring of 2016 was just over 1,200 in the northwest quarter of Hunting District 212 south of Drummond. That’s more than the management objective of 800 to 1,200 for the whole hunting district, according to FWP’s Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly report from last October.
Elk numbers climbed in the 20th century as the former Wallace Ranch at Jens historically prohibited hunting of any kind. By the early 1980s the herd had grown to more than 500 and was damaging crops and haystacks in the area. Thompson said FWP trapped and transplanted 420 elk in the winter of 1984-'85, leaving roughly 100 on the Wallace Ranch.
Starting in 1993, after Billy Wallace’s death, his widow Margaret allowed block management hunting for antlerless elk. It didn’t put a dent in the elk population as much as it distributed the elk, as desired, onto public lands. With more restricted access in recent years, elk counts have climbed again, to as many as 1,400.
“Ultimately the responsibility for the (fencing) project falls to MDT, but we can help a lot,” Thompson said. “We’ve got some relationships with key folks along the interstate, but we’re certainly not going to convince them to do what they don’t want to do.”
Dunkerson said he’s encouraged to hear that at least a partial solution is in the works.
So too is Carlton’s wife, Cindy, who passed on this message through Dunkerson: “If we can do something to prevent this from happening to another family, I feel like we should be doing it.”
Tooley agreed the fencing project won’t end all vehicle-versus-elk collisions in the area, but it’s a start that’s long overdue.
“It’s moving, but I can’t tell you exactly when it’ll happen,” he said. “It’s just an internal realization that we know we have to do something.”