New manager wants to upgrade Council Grove State Park; site of 1855 Hellgate Treaty

The 187-acre Council Grove State Park is the site of the signing of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty that took land away from the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Orielle tribes in exchange for a pittance of what it was worth. (Wikapedia photo)

A neglected state park may see some changes, especially if the new manager can remove some limitations on development.

On Monday, State Parks manager Michael Kustudia told the Missoula County commissioners that he wants to make some changes now that he is responsible for Council Grove State Park.

Kustudia, who also manages Milltown, Frenchtown Pond and Fish Creek state parks, took over from Ben Dickinson a few months ago.

“It’s under new management,” Kustudia said with a smile. “It’s never had the attention it really merits as a historical site.”

It does have the attention of dog owners. Comments on various travel websites tout its dog-friendly atmosphere, but that’s becoming more of a problem. Owners are supposed to keep their dogs on a leash but don’t, leading other commenters to complain about uncontrolled dogs.

Five months ago, one Google reviewer called out inconsiderate dog owners.

“The problem with this park is the people who visit it. Our dogs were the only dogs on a leash today, there are 3 signs in the park that state dogs must be on leash. I counted 27 off leash dogs today,” wrote ECo1SG.

Kustudia said that’s caused the grassy area near the parking lot, which should boast native bunch grass, to be trampled among other things.

“It’s become a de facto dog park, but that’s not what it’s intended to be,” Kustudia said. “One thing we could do is fence off an area for native grassland and maybe have an off-leash area off to one side.”

Hardly a dog park, the 187-acre Council Grove State Park is the site of the signing of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty that took land away from the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Orielle tribes in exchange for a pittance of what it was worth.

Nestled up to the Clark Fork River west of the Missoula Airport, the park has been left mostly natural with large old-growth Ponderosa pines and cottonwood stands, harkening back to how it was more than 150 years ago.

For that reason, Fish, Wildlife & Parks gave it a “primitive” designation, created by the 1993 Legislature, which limits the amount of development and improvements FWP can make. Parks like Wild Horse Island and Sluice Boxes are also primitive.

“I’ve been out there and didn’t realize it was a primitive park,” said commissioner Juanita Vero. “I’ve always thought this was such an important place but it’s kind of ghost-town-y and sad. I thought ‘Is this representative of treaties in general?’”

However, standing out from the Ponderosas, a large three-paneled interpretive monument built about 20 years ago tells the story of the Hellgate Treaty. Kustudia said he was considering redoing it since some of the information is dated, so he was checking with tribal historians. But the big signs don’t fit with the primitive idea.

They could be moved somewhere else, but Kustudia said it could be easier to remove Council Grove’s primitive park designation.

“We want to figure out how to get the park a level of management it hasn’t seen in a long time,” Kustudia said. “Some little changes might be coming in a year or so.”

With that in mind, Kustudia wanted to check with the commission and other partners first. Partners include the Montana Natural History Center, the Audubon Society and other groups that regularly use the area for naturalist training and birding.

Tribal partners understandably have mixed views about the site, Kustudia said.

The Missouri Headwaters and Painted Rocks state parks have recently been taken off the primitive list, after managers assured legislators and the public that the parks would not be over-developed.

The commissioners were supportive of removing the primitive designation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com