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021611 elk mount jumbo 1

Elk gathering on Mount Jumbo in winter.

Mount Jumbo could be open to a trail race this year for the first time.

Run Wild Missoula is requesting permits to hold a new race called the Mount Jumbo Elk Ramble in November. Run Wild director Eva Dunn-Froebig said the event isn’t a done deal, but the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department invited Run Wild to help test a pilot permit process with a footrace on Jumbo’s north loop.

“We think it’s a good opportunity to raise awareness about the trails,” Dunn-Froebig said.

Said Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager for Parks and Rec: “Nothing is set in stone, but this is something we know the community really wants.”

The Nov. 8 event isn’t only designed to let runners test their mettle on Jumbo, said Dunn-Froebig. The competition also aims to help raise awareness that Jumbo is home to an elk herd of some 60 to 70 animals – and closed part of the year to protect the ungulates and their habitat. The closure protects the elk’s sparse winter feeding grounds and ensures they don’t get accustomed to the presence of humans.

The proposed course is an eight-mile loop that starts near Pineview Park and crosses land on Jumbo that is managed by the city of Missoula, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the U.S. Forest Service. The city has permitted similar events on other property, such as the riverfront trail, but it hasn’t allowed races on Jumbo and other major open space in the past.

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Since Parks and Rec didn’t have a program in place – including staff and a permit process – to manage large events on open space, the Parks Board had placed a general moratorium on them, Valliant said. Now, a draft permit has been approved, and Parks and Rec asked Run Wild to give it a test run.

The permit puts habitat first, Valliant said: “We wanted to make sure our recreational impacts weren’t going to degrade habitat.”

As drafted, then, footraces are allowed on trails that are at least 60 inches wide. However, Valliant said the permits won’t allow 300 people running on 18-inch single-track because passing will degrade habitat.

He also wants Run Wild to be sure the permitting process isn’t too onerous, and he wants to gauge the resources Parks and Rec will need to devote to putting on the event. Valliant, for instance, will take pictures of trails before and after a race – or a native plant tour or wedding – to ensure open space isn’t damaged.

“We would also be collecting money for the permit, so that would help fund trail maintenance and restoration, which is something that we’re lacking,” Valliant said.

Another requirement is that large events on open space lands have an educational piece on the importance or value of habitat.

“We really tried to take a pretty well-rounded approach,” Valliant said.

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For the Mount Jumbo Elk Ramble to take place as planned, the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks also must grant permission. FWP spokeswoman Vivaca Crowser said the state agency works closely with the city on managing Mount Jumbo and will follow its lead when it comes to the race.

The Lolo National Forest received Run Wild’s proposal Wednesday and likely will review it against agency criteria within a couple of weeks to a couple of months, said Missoula Ranger District recreation specialist Al Hilshey.

Among the considerations: “How is this benefiting the community? How is this benefit the recreating public?”

The Forest Service will look at whether the race is helping to improve the area or a cause, and it also will look at how much it will affect the land. What will the weather be like? What is the race terrain? For instance, putting 300 people on a steep trail in the spring after torrential rain could erode the trail bed.

“It really depends on the trail itself, and then where it’s going to be located,” Hilshey said.

The Forest Service also limits participation, he said. On Blue Mountain, for instance, the cap on a footrace is 100.

Hilshey said the number of proposals his district receives ranges from six to 12 a year, and many are for races or other competitive events.

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When Parks and Rec updated its Conservation Lands Management Plan, some people wanted to be sure habitat was protected on Jumbo. Many people also asked the city to open up the land for trail races.

More than a decade ago, the Pengelly Double Dip was envisioned as an epic trail race that would include a Mount Jumbo climb, said race director Kevin Twidwell. The city couldn’t support it partly because of pressure on the elk, and Twidwell said the race organizers understood the concerns and designed the Double Dip around Mount Sentinel.

He, for one, is pleased to see Jumbo could open up to races, and he said it might even lead to a “Triple Dip.”

“I’m really happy that they’re going to allow a trail race up there because there’s all kinds of great trails up there, and people are running there from the day that it’s open till the day that it’s closed,” Twidwell said.

Trail running has grown in recent years around the country. Along with the growth has come criticism that runners put too much pressure on trails, Twidwell said.

“(But) we’ve made it a real priority around here that we try to have as little impact as possible,” Twidwell said.

For instance, Run Wild and Pengelly organizers put “sweepers” on the course after a race to ensure all the runners are safe and to pick up litter. During a race, monitors remind runners to stay on trails and not cut switchbacks, but in general, Twidwell said runners in Missoula want to take good care of open lands.

“I’m just happy that public lands are open to trail runners because I think trail runners are in tune with the beauty of the trails and the solitude of trails,” Twidwell said.

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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