With a reputation for being relatively unpopulated, Montana suddenly finds itself packed with people in places that are normally secluded. For locals wanting to get away, it requires a little more planning and a lot more patience.

Shortly after the onset of COVID-19, more Montanans started heading outside to escape the isolation of shelter-in-place. Now, as the state has opened up, tourists have added to the crush of people trying to camp, fish and float on public lands.

Montana is normally a magnet for summer vacationers, but the state became even more popular after it initially trailed other states in the number of COVID-19 cases this spring. Now locals are noticing even more out-of-state license plates than normal in the parking lots around breweries and grocery stores. Realtors report more interest from out-of-state buyers.

But public lands are seeing the biggest effect, at least initially.

Last week, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director Martha Williams told both the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee and the FWP commission that the pandemic has added to FWP’s workload in two ways.

First, people have been streaming in to buy licenses and conduct other business since the FWP headquarters buildings reopened last week. Williams predicted the hunting season will be busy.

Then, as the weather has warmed, more crowds have flocked to state recreational areas. Montana State Parks had already seen a 60% increase in visitation as the pandemic first hit. The higher use itself is challenging to manage, but also, not everyone is cleaning up after themselves. FWP workers have their hands full cleaning toilets, picnic areas and campgrounds.

“We’ve seen a real uptick in recreation and use of all of our sites, whether parks, fishing access sites, wildlife management areas – we’re really seeing a lot of use,” Williams said. “We’ve also seen an uptick in enforcement work. Good news and bad news.”

Fishing access sites continue to be problematic as vehicles fill the parking areas and line the roads leading to the sites. That’s occasionally led to arguments between users, and people continue to complain on social media about vehicles with out-of-state plates.

With the influx of tourists and more Montanans getting out, campgrounds are filling up faster than usual.

Lolo National Forest spokeswoman Katelyn Jerman said campgrounds in the Missoula Ranger District, even those that aren’t as popular, are seeing heavy use throughout the week. Up in the Seeley Ranger District, recreation managers agree that it’s one of the busiest summers they’ve seen.

"We are seeing full occupancy of all of our developed sites and our dispersed sites around Seeley Lake,” said Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver. “Main campgrounds have been full by Friday morning each of the last two weeks. We have been sending folks to our dispersed sites as a result, and those have also been full by the end of the day on each Friday. We are expecting another busy holiday weekend and are asking folks to recreate responsibly.”

Full campgrounds means locals are finding it hard to sneak away for a night or a weekend like they’re used to doing. Even taking off in the middle of the week doesn’t mean success. Several frustrated Missoulians have recently been posting on Facebook asking friends for suggestions on possible places to camp.

The problem worsened once Glacier National Park announced some services like horseback rides would be available in mid-June, backcountry permits would be available on a first-come, first-served basis, and a few campgrounds would open June 26. Hopeful vacationers made plans and hit the road.

Then on Friday, the Blackfeet Nation announced entrances on the east side of the park would remain closed due to the pandemic. Many Glacier Campground is closed for the season while St. Mary is up in the air. So, campers who were unaware tried to squeeze into Fish Creek, the only Glacier campground that remains open.

Some people are camping in random spots on the national forests, but some of the increased use is taking a toll. Jerman said camping opportunities are better in the Plains-Thompson or Superior ranger districts west of Missoula.

Also, more people, camp litter and full trashcans are attracting more bears.

Carver said he’s had multiple reports since the end of May of bears coming into the busy campgrounds at Big Larch and Seeley Lake, because campers haven’t properly stored their food or other attractants. So bears have been seen investigating tents, vehicles and coolers, and a few have come within 10 feet of people and dogs.

“We are working with our partners at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to prevent what we call bear “food-conditioning” which is when a bear gets used to searching for and eating food from coolers, pet food, garbage, or campsites,” Carver said. “Bears that associate people with food can create a major safety issue for campers.”

The trend is not happening only in Montana. Deputy Regional Forester Jacque Buchanan told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee on Wednesday that the Rocky Mountain Region around Wyoming and Colorado is seeing double the visitation that they normally see, so that could mean more conflict with bears.

“I think that folks are going where they can drive – they aren’t flying,” Buchanan said. “So it’s really pushed the public out. If anything, I would suspect we would see some more conflicts this year just because of the increased presence of bodies out there.”

The Lolo National Forest and FWP reminds campers who are able to find campsites to stay bear aware, carry bear spray and always secure food in bear-proof containers.

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.