Monday marked the first day of this season's Mount Jumbo closure. Each winter, dozens of elk make the upper side of the mountain their temporary home. And each winter, usually starting on Dec. 1, Missoula residents and visitors alike are warned to stay out of the closure zones in order to provide some protection to the elk herd.
Unfortunately, each year has only brought a growing number of scofflaws who ignore posted signs and hike, ski or otherwise trespass where they're not supposed to. They seem to be accompanied by a growing number of off-leash dogs.
This year, the city is increasing its public awareness efforts and has posted new signs higher up the mountain informing Mount Jumbo visitors of the closures. But dogs can't read, so it's important for their human owners to make sure their canine companions are obeying the rules as well.
Loose dogs scatter and stress elk, but they also wreak carnage on other wildlife; many Missoulians have encountered the still-kicking evidence and carcasses.
Human trespassers can also set an elk herd to running, unnecessarily stressing the elk when they are already taxed by winter's lean months. If they don't set off running, that means they're becoming habituated to people - and that's a bad thing too.
The worst possible thing happened last winter, when a snowboarder trespassing on Mount Jumbo set off an avalanche that crashed into a neighborhood at the base of the mountain and buried three people. Phoenix Scoles-Coburn, who was 8 years old at the time, and retired University of Montana professor Fred Allendorf survived; Allendorf's wife, Michel Colville, did not.
As uncommon as such events are, it's just all the more reason for every Missoulian to do their part to increase compliance with the closure.
Most of Mount Jumbo is owned by the city of Missoula, which bought the land in 1996. The northernmost area is off-limits from Dec. 1 through May 1, subject to movement by the elk herd. The southernmost zone - the area that's visible from the city side - closes Dec. 1 as well but opens March 15, also depending on the elks' behavior.
Meanwhile, people can continue to use the "L" Trail and the U.S. West Road located in the South Zone, so long as any dogs are leashed at all times.
Alongside the city's efforts to spread the word about the closure, city police have come up with a patrol plan to provide better enforcement. If that doesn't work, the city may have to seriously consider shutting down access to the entire mountain throughout the winter. That would be a shame.
Mount Jumbo is a much-loved by generations of Missoula recreationists. It offers easy access to stunning views of the Missoula Valley, and trails the entire family can use.
But the elk herd that winters each year on Mount Jumbo's summit is also one of the wild and wonderful things that makes Missoula unique. Every time someone trespasses in their winter range, it ruins things for the elk -- and for all the rest of us.
Missoulians can help prevent this from happening by helping city officials to spread the word, by staying out of closure zones ourselves - and by making sure our dogs do, too.