The BLM is proposing to create and open a Left Coulee Access Road, a 0.6-mile primitive route that would provide legal motorized access to a network of 51 miles of motorized roads through the 90,000-acre Bullwacker area, at the heart of some of the wildest, undeveloped chunks of land in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Our members care deeply about this area as it touts exceptional habitat for - and opportunities to hunt - a multitude of wild game, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn, sage grouse and upland birds. It’s an area that’s both important to protect, and for our members to be able to get to. It’s also why this is such a tricky issue.
Two of our organization’s three main pillars (large landscape conservation and public access) appear to be in direct conflict with this proposal, putting our Montana BHA board in a tough spot to act on behalf of our membership.
We are a habitat conservation organization first and foremost. We have 'backcountry' in our name. We were founded to protect the wild, undeveloped places and stand up for quiet recreation opportunities. We’ve utilized the slogans ‘Use The Quads God Gave Ya’ and ‘The Adventure Begins Where The Road Ends.’ In other words, we unapologetically prioritize non-motorized access and opportunities and the conservation of wild lands and waters, though we recognize the need for reasonable motorized public access.
To that end, we care deeply about public access - both motorized and non- regularly defending it and improving it. Last session we were the driving force of a bill in Montana that increased the fine 10x for illegally blocking a public road - ie motorized public access. We’re currently engaged in litigation with the US Forest Service on behalf of non-motorized public access into the Crazy Mountains, and we regularly pressure decision-making bodies, landowners, and land management agencies to reopen illegally closed motorized routes. So we are unapologetically pro-access as well, and we certainly can and do sympathize with the contingency who want to see this motorized access restored.
We also recognize that public access into this landscape already exists - though it’s limited to foot and horse traffic unless private lands permission is granted. And we acknowledge that public access doesn’t necessarily mean a road through somewhere; it can also simply mean a road to the edge of public lands or to a trailhead.
If it weren’t for the history of this access road, it’d be an easier one for our organization to land on. But how we got here is important.
As noted in the EA, “in 2009 the only existing access road to this network was closed through a court decision which determined that road is private.” The controversial decision left a bad taste in many Montana hunters’ mouths, including many of our own members. But what happened in the past is in the past, and we can only make a decision on the proposal before us today.
Taking all of this into consideration, we formally requested that the Proposed Action be refined, though we are not weighing in with support of any of the current options at this time. We asked that the Proposed Action maintain its seasonal (Dec. 1st - June 15th) closure element but is further refined in a way that better protects the wild lands of the area. Specifically, we asked the BLM to include considerations that would protect the integrity of the Ervin Ridge Wilderness Study Area and the ecological values of the Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
Additionally, we asked that the Proposed Action both require and define better signage and enforcement rather than just broadly allowing for these. Without increased enforcement, maps, physical barriers and signage clearly stating where motorized use is and isn’t allowed - our fear is that legal motorized access into this landscape will quickly turn into widespread illegal motorized use, damaging the habitat, displacing wildlife, devaluing quiet recreation opportunities, and putting at risk the wilderness characteristics found within the region’s WSA. Opening the door to additional illegal motorized use is one of our biggest concerns with the Proposed Action. Further analysis and commitments from the BLM are needed to ensure that illegal motorized use is kept in check if this motorized road network were to be reopened.
Finally, we can’t help but notice we have a unique situation on our hands, where we don’t have to completely theorize what motorized access to this area would look like and what it would do to habitat and wildlife. Pre 2009 - though motorized and mechanized use and machinery are now more common, more easily attained, and more advanced than they were 15 years ago - this motorized access existed. And after 2009, that motorized use didn’t exist, at least not for the public. Included in this analysis should be monitoring and wildlife population and distribution data from pre- 2009 versus the same data collected post-2009, ideally current day. This information will help the public better understand the likely impacts of opening this route, and will at the very least force the BLM to take base studies today, before any route is opened, to have to compare with terrestrial and water quality or wildlife population or distribution changes down the road if motorized access and public use is in fact altered. We asked the BLM to provide this information.
In closing, we asked that Proposed Action is refined, and we refrained from taking a stance on any of the current options at this point in the EA scoping process. You can see our letter here.
Here’s how you can make your own voice heard. The comment deadline is February 1st, 2024.
Remember, however, that at this point, the BLM isn't asking if the road should be opened or not, per se; instead...
BLM is seeking comments that:
- Refine the proposed action or alternatives
- Identify new alternatives
- Identify issues to be analyzed and that may lead to additional design features or mitigation
- Provide new information to inform the analysis
- Identify cumulative effects from other past, present, or reasonably foreseeable future actions