Crazy Mountains

The Crazy Mountains east of Livingston.

Public access in the Crazy Mountains is more endangered than anywhere else in the state, according to a report released Thursday by conservation groups.

The Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Mountain Mamas and Artemis Sportswomen released a digital report called “Losing Ground,” which lists five spots in Montana where the groups say public access to public lands has either been lost or is “endangered.”

The Crazies, an island mountain range northeast of Livingston, topped the list because of conflicts over blocked trails and its complex mix of public and private lands. The other four areas in the report are in other corners of the state where the groups say road blocks and ownership changes have locked the public out of public lands.

The report calls for better funding for land management agencies and programs for land acquisition, harsher fines for blocking public roads and for Montana’s attorney general to get involved in conflicts over public road access.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the report is meant to highlight the importance of public access and point out that it remains an issue in parts of the state.

“There are many instances where one small parcel of private land can block off thousands of acres,” he said.

Conflicts over access usually pit hunters and hikers against private landowners, and Jay Bodner, natural resources director for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said reports like the one released Thursday may “encourage more conflicts than solutions.”

“They’re making an effort to really highlight the controversy and the conflict rather than looking for ways to resolve that,” Bodner said.

The other four areas named in the report are the Upper Missouri River Breaks in north-central Montana, the Bearpaw Mountains south of Havre, the Flint Creek Mountains west of Butte and McGregor Lake west of Kalispell. It highlights blocked roads and ownership changes in those areas that the groups say have locked hunters out.

The Crazies top the list because they have hosted the most high-profile access conflicts in recent years.

There are few access points that lead into the range, and the report says that four of the existing ones have been blocked in the last few years. Aside from fewer people being able to wander into the mountains, the report says the diminished access has had consequences for the state’s management of the elk population.

Because fewer hunters can chase elk, population numbers balloon. The population is nearly five times the size state wildlife officials aim to have there, according to the report.

Access conflicts there have boiled over in the last two years. In 2016, a hunter was cited for trespass while using a trail on the east side of the range that he believed to be public. Earlier this year, the Forest Service district ranger who oversees the range was removed from his post while the agency looked into his work on access issues there. He was reinstated this fall.

The report notes that landowners and recreationists are looking for ways to improve access in the range, both through establishing public access routes and potential land trades.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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