Taking Action: Montana BHA Works Against ORV Abuse; Encourages Responsible, Accountable ORV Use

ORV ATV Misuse

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) is dedicated to protection and restoration of public lands from irresponsible off road vehicle abuse. Our membership and leaders have worked at national, state and local levels to protect big wild country and its wildlife and fish habitats from pervasive and growing ORV-related abuses. BHA has launched an ambitious, four part project aimed at making ORV users accountable.


Montana has several attributes that makes ORV enforcement difficult on its vast public lands. The state has few enforcement personnel on the ground relative to the amount of public land in MT. About 29%, or 27, 378, 247 acres of Montana is federal public land, which includes USFS 16.9 MM ac (18%), BLM 9%, National Wildlife Refuges 1%. and National Park Service 1%. MT State Trust land totals nearly 6 MM acres. Lesser amounts of county and municipal lands also exist.

At present, ORVs in Montana not licensed for use on public roads need only a small postage stamp sized registration sticker. Such identification is mostly unreadable in field situations and therefore is a major impediment to obtaining positive identification by both citizens and law enforcement personnel. Lack of positive identification is a major impediment to law enforcement actions, and citizen effectiveness. ORV law enforcement on MT public lands is dire. As an example, on the Bitterroot National Forest, in 2005 there were 220 reported incidents but only two violation notices written, while in 2006 there were 124 incidents reported but only 1 warning issued.

Part One of our project is to develop and conduct an intense ORV enforcement information and awareness campaign within Montana. Directed communication will be initiated with policy makers, local and state governments, public land users, adjacent landowners and livestock permit holders, sportsmen, wildlife and fish enthusiasts, public land recreationists and conservation organizations.

Probably there is no greater agreement among public land users than the need to improve ORV law enforcement. Most informed public land users acknowledge that the current ineffective law enforcement encourages irresponsible behavior by ORV enthusiasts, leads to substantial resource impacts and user conflicts. Currently, lack of effective ORV law enforcement is threatening to the future opportunities by legitimate responsible ORV users.

Part two of our project is to encourage action by land management agencies and policy makers by submitting a widely endorsed letter across a broad range of interests and geographic areas. BHA will identify the potential groups, governments and agencies that would be interested in advocating for better and more effective ORV law enforcement, develop and circulate a sign-on letter encouraging governments and agencies to take immediate action to improve ORV law enforcement. Finally, we plan to distribute signed sign-on letter to leaders and offices of land management and law enforcement agencies, policy makers, and others influential in ORV enforcement.

Public input regarding off road vehicle decisions is much more powerful if backed by science findings to support to citizen rationale. Many science-based findings have been published recently that has strong potential to support citizens who for better ORV decisions and stronger law enforcement. However, such science is scattered in a variety of publications and largely unknown and unavailable to concerned sportsmen, other citizens and even resource professionals. Most sportsmen and other citizens are either unaware or unable to obtain this information in a format that equips them to use the information effectively. Better informed and equipped sportsmen can be more effective in public participation processes, such as speaking or writing to agencies or the media.

While there has been some past effort at producing ORV-impact publications, the depth of science is antidotal rather than comprehensive. Some of the science is mixed with testimonials into a popular, attention grabbing format rather than a reference document.

There are many recent science based research findings of substantial ORV impacts on wildlife and fisheries habitat, as well as how sportsmen are directly impacted by inappropriate ORV users. For example, recent findings in eastern Oregon found substantially more displacement from by ORV users compared to foot or stock users. In Montana, science findings included displacement of a large elk herd to a private land sanctuary caused by motorized archery hunters very early in the hunting season.

Part three of our project is to develop a comprehensive white paper of all available science on ORV impacts to public land resources. This document would consolidating science-based findings as a source document for non-scientists to be effective contributors to ORV related legal, enforcement and allocation processes. Previous efforts, such as the Izaac Walton paper, focused principally on user conflicts with a smattering of science references rather than a comprehensive in-depth science summary. We have found participants ability to reference and quote specific peer-reviewed science to back their positions to be very effective in swaying agency participants and decision makers regarding ORV related issues. Rather than focusing on avoiding user conflicts, this project product will focus on protecting habitat and clean water.

In Montana and Colorado, BHA has watchmen programs in which members serve as the eyes and ears for BHA in protecting habitats and non-motorized use opportunities. Each Watchman chooses a geographic area that is their local recreation or favorite habitat area. This may be as large as a National Forest or as small as a single major drainage. To date, individuals have met with local land managers and offered their assistance, others are tracking agency projects that could threaten roadless lands or expand motorized uses, and others have reported ORV illegal activity to authorities. Dedicated organizational effort is needed to expand these ideas and activities to more individuals in States where these programs are already underway and expand the program to other states.

The final aspect of our Montana responsible ORV users project is to expand and improve effectiveness of BHA Watchman program as an important local eyes and ears connection to public land for improved ORV enforcement and non-motorized connections to local land management agencies. BHA would like to offer to encourage and train Watchman participants to be even more effective in their respective areas. Our goal is to inform and educate Montana individuals and interest groups on MT ORV enforcement issues, and seek to find common ground among interests for moving ahead with meaningful solutions.

If you would like to be a Forest Watchman in your state, contact us!

About Caitlin Thompson