Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Under a consolidated rule, hunting and trapping is allowed on all Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks lands unless otherwise posted and camping stays are limited to seven days. But all the rules come with the caveat that FWP can always make exceptions.

On Tuesday, the State Parks and Recreation Board approved a FWP-proposed rule that consolidates all the rules that used to apply to lands managed for different purposes, such as state parks, wildlife management areas, fishing access sites and others. The FWP commission had already approved the consolidated rule during its meeting on Thursday.

Prior to 2021, biologists managed wildlife management areas and fishing access sites fell under the fisheries division, while the parks division managed state parks. FWP under the Gianforte administration created a parks and recreation division and put all land maintenance under the division. This rules consolidation effort furthers the effort to reduce the distinction among land types.

Among the several rules that were repealed or adopted to make everything consistent was a rule that says all wildlife management areas and fishing access sites are open to hunting and trapping unless posted. It is up to the department to issue specific restrictions, although some wildlife management areas that have big game winter range are still closed to public access from Dec. 1 through May 15.

Conversely, the rule says trapping is prohibited in state parks unless authorized by the state park board. On Tuesday, the state park board voted to allow all trapping in Fish Creek State Park and limited trap sets for muskrat and beaver in the Missouri Headwaters and Thompson Chain of Lakes state parks. Trapping is currently allowed in these parks under the previous rules.

Trappers still must get written authorization from FWP prior to trapping on FWP lands.

Fish Creek State Park was carved out of the middle of the Fish Creek Wildlife Management Area, making it difficult to manage the two areas for different purposes. FWP is currently trying a second time to develop a management plan for the entire area after getting a lot of opposition the first time around for allowing increased development of the wildlife management area.

The proposal to allow all trapping in Fish Creek State Park and the fishing access site is likely due to trying to keep it consistent with the surrounding wildlife management area.

Only one member of the public commented on the proposal. KC York of Trap Free Montana Public Lands spoke in opposition at both the FWP commission and state parks board meetings, saying a rule to allow trapping on FWP lands, particularly Fish Creek, raised questions of public safety. It could affect anglers wade fishing at the fishing access site or hunters or other recreationists with dogs, York said. She said closed roads, of which there are several in Fish Creek, have no required setback distance for traps, so people out hiking or skiing with their dogs could potentially encounter a trap.

“Fish Creek Park is a very popular park. The website promotes hiking and outdoor activities of all sorts but says nothing about trapping,” York said. “How many of us go camping with our dogs? The majority of Montanans are non-consumptive users. Visitors come to enjoy our outdoors, but they’re not going to know.”

That didn’t sway the parks and recreation board.

The things that did catch the board's interest was one rule that limits stays at all campsites on FWP land to seven days and another that limits people engaging in dispersed camping from driving a motor vehicle more than 50 yards off a road. They can camp farther off the road; they just can’t drive farther, because it destroys the vegetation.

Western District board member Jody Loomis said the campsite stay should be increased to 14 days as it’s been in the past.

Charlie Sperry, Parks and Recreation assistant administrator, said the length of stay was part of an internal discussion with people overseeing fishing access sites and wildlife management areas. They all agreed on seven days with the caveat that managers can designate longer periods for individual areas, particularly during hunting season.

“We have heard a lot of discussion publicly about the difficulty at times of being able to secure a campsite. This is a means of trying to create some turnover in terms of campsite availability,” Sperry said.

FWP interim director Dustin Temple said no one complained about the seven-day stay at the FWP commission meeting. In addition, the Legislature passed a bill in 2023 that leaves a few campsites open to walk-in campers - they cannot be reserved online. Temple said that has just gone into effect so that may also help more locals to access campsites.

Then Loomis, who sits on the board of the Capital Trail Vehicle Association, proposed an amendment to increase the distance that people can drive off a road to 100 yards.

“Fifty yards is very small,” Loomis said. “That’s about three road-widths, and that’s more like parallel parking.”

Again, Temple said that FWP can make exceptions for any individual site. But if Loomis’ amendment passed, it would apply only to state parks, because the FWP commission already approved the rule change.

“That 50-yards is an existing rule. It’s consistent with the WMA rules,” Temple said. “Not all site types are created equal. Wildlife management areas are purchased for a specific purpose and the primary purpose is not for camping - they are typically for big game winter range or habitat protection. Our first responsibility in those sites has to maintain fidelity to that purpose.”

The board’s vote on the amendment was 2-2 so it did not move forward.

It was announced Tuesday that State Parks and Recreation administrator Hope Stockwell resigned as of Dec. 15. Temple said Special Projects manager Deb O'Neill would be a "long-term temporary" replacement.

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