Support Local Journalism


Search and rescue calls are up this year in Gallatin County, with most missions responding to snowmobile accidents.

So far in 2021, Gallatin County Sheriff SAR volunteers have gone on 17 missions responding to snowmobile accidents, according to Secor. There were 18 snowmobile accident-related SAR missions in total in 2020, he said.

“I think what everyone predicted before is coming true,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue Captain Scott Secor. “People are buying snowmobiles. More people are renting snowmobiles.”

Secor said the increase likely stems from Montanans and out-of-staters looking to “be free and enjoy the fresh air” in Montana’s backcountry. People confined in towns with COVID-19 restrictions still see the state’s outdoors as romantic, he said.

This year’s snowpack, which improved significantly amid February storms, could also be drawing more riders outside, Secor said.

It’s difficult to gauge a rider’s experience-level during a rescue, but Secor has noticed that less experienced riders tend to be crashing more. This is likely because the machines aren’t beginner friendly.

Snowmobiles are powerful sleds that don’t react to movements in an instinctive way, Secor said. People who aren’t used to riding them on a regular basis often don’t realize they have to countersteer, shift their weight and modulate the throttle differently from a car or four wheeler. It’s easy for snowmobiles to go off trail and hit a tree, hit another rider or overturn.

“Apparently every tree in West Yellowstone has a magnet planted in it,” Secor said.

This February, Gallatin County Sheriff SAR responded to at least 11 calls, according to data from the department. The most common activity requiring a response was snowmobiling. Five of the search or rescue missions occurred near West Yellowstone.

This January, Gallatin County Sheriff SAR volunteers responded to at least 15 calls. The most common activity requiring a SAR response was snowmobiling. Six of the search or rescue missions occurred near West Yellowstone.

Secor confirmed that some missions this year were attempted at night, which added an extra layer of danger for rescuers. He urged backcountry users to pack as if they’ll have to spend the night outdoors.

Tools like fire starting materials, shelter, extra clothes, food and water and are all important for surviving this worst case scenario, Secor said. If a person in need of rescue has packed well, SAR will take more time to come up with a robust plan that is safer for all.

“I’m not going to throw my rescuers to the wolves and completely risk their lives if there’s no benefit to actually being able to complete the mission successfully,” he said.

So far, none of the department’s SAR rescue missions have been in response to an avalanche triggered by a snowmobiler, Secor said. He hopes that won’t happen this winter or spring.

Avalanches in Montana have already killed two people this year. On Feb. 6, five snowmobilers were caught in an avalanche in the Swan range southeast of Kalispell. A 59-year-old rider — Dave Cano of Kalispell — was buried and died, the Flathead Beacon reported.

On Feb. 14, two split borders were caught in an avalanche in Beehive Basin north of Big Sky. One was partially buried and died. The victim was identified as 45-year-old Craig Kitto — the principal of Whittier Elementary School.

This winter’s avalanche season is shaping out to be one of the nation’s deadliest, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. With several more months left of snow, 33 people have already been killed in avalanches in the U.S. since early December. Most were skiers.

The winter of 2009-2010 —one of the nation’s deadliest avalanche seasons — saw 36 avalanche fatalities.

This winter’s snowpack has largely been unstable. An early season snow storm in October, which was followed by extremely low temperatures, created a weak, sugary base layer of snow. This set up the mountains for avalanches.

The weak snowpack was accompanied by a boom in interest in backcountry recreation.

In early January, GNFAC issued a backcountry warning for several local mountain ranges, rating the avalanche danger as high. More backcountry warnings were issued in early February.

Warm temperatures this March have improved the snowpack’s stability around Gallatin County, according to Secor. On Saturday morning, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center rated the avalanche danger as low in the Bridger, Madison and Gallatin ranges.

Secor said the spring season presents new dangers. Those who are recreating outside are often caught off guard by rapidly-changing temperatures.

Weather can be pleasant in the morning, but drop 15 to 20 degrees by nightfall. Unprepared people can become hypothermic, Secor said. He urged people venturing outside to dress properly for changing weather conditions.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Helena Dore can be reached at or at 582-2628.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.