posted on October 01, 2004 00:00
Hunting access: 30,000 acres open in southeast Montana
By BRETT FRENCH
Gazette Outdoor Writer
In an effort unlike any other in Montana history, 30,000-plus acres of federal and state land is now more accessible to the recreating public.
Thanks to an easement across five miles of state land, hunters this fall will be able to drive to an extensive block of Bureau of Land Management acreage in southeastern Montana's Carter County.
"Goodness sakes, it opens up a tremendous area," said John Gibson, a member of the Public Lands/Water Access Association, Inc. The association, along with several sportsmen's groups, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and BLM worked in concert to orchestrate the access.
Gibson said the effort is unique because Montanans have never had access to public lands created just for the sake of recreationists.
"Nobody ever did anything for recreation," Gibson said, "it was always a byproduct of everything else," such as mining or logging.
Also unique is the extent to which the BLM went to mark the boundary of federal lands accessed by the Hay Draw easement. Line-of-sight posts delineate the BLM's boundary with three posts noting where the boundary shifts direction. In all, about 55 miles of perimeter posts have been erected.
"This is the only project I'm aware of that the BLM has done like this," said David Squires, resource adviser for the BLM's Miles City office and the main man behind the push to open the region.
An opportunity to roam
Prior to the easement, the public could still access the land but had to cross the five miles of state ground on foot. With the easement, the public can now drive on 17 miles of primitive, two-track road to reach deeper into the federal lands. Camping is allowed within 300 feet of open roads. Roads that are not signed open are closed to the public, although they are open to livestock permittees or the BLM and state for administrative use.
"This is an opportunity for people who like to walk to get off and hike the hills," Squires said.
Because of the rugged nature of the country, requiring a high-clearance vehicle and four-wheel drive, Squires predicted interest in the area may drop off after the first year.
"I anticipate that once people come in, a lot won't come back," he said. "This is not a road-hunting experience."
Gibson called the area "great country. It's a good place to go and roam."
Rough, rolling country
Scattered across the 30,000-plus acres of public land is a variety of vegetation and wildlife. On a trip to the area last week, mule deer, antelope, a badger, hawks and even a small frog were spotted.
"The mule deer population is good and stable and the antelope are about the same," said Dwayne Andrews, of the FWP's Miles City office. "But I don't think there's a very large population of upland game birds down there.
"The BLM has found it to be critical winter range for antelope and mule deer. That's why the road is restricted to seasonal use," he said. The roads are open from July 1 to Dec. 15.
Squires compared the area to the rugged Missouri Breaks - rolling hills with steep draws. The soil ranges from sandy to clay, which turns to impassable, greasy gumbo when wet.
"You have to learn to watch the weather," Squires advised. "We don't want people in here when it's wet."
Some of the draws are shaded by juniper and green ash. Greasewood and sagebrush are sprinkled across the hills, as well as spiky yucca, a variety of cactus and stands of reddish-tinted little bluestem grass.
Although water seems scarce, some of the draws are wet with seepage. On top, where the view seems to extend for miles to North Dakota in the east and Wyoming to the south, stock ponds glisten with the runoff they've captured. The area was surprisingly green last week, following timely fall rains.
Policing the public
Now that the area is open, signed and gated - an effort that took all summer and into the fall - agencies will be cooperating to police public use of the federal and state lands. Maps will be available at the entrance to help keep people from driving onto closed roads.
"Outside of the hunting season, I don't anticipate a lot of guys out here," Squires said.
But for this first year, the federal and state agencies will try to increase patrols to educate those who do visit the Hay Draw easement.
"I'm hoping this will all work out," Andrews said, "that hunters will recognize the boundaries and park and hike."
Gibson said the cooperative effort should serve as an example that other public lands can be made more accessible through similar labor.
"A lot of these agencies have the potential of a Hay Draw," he said. "These guys did a commendable job. But they really needed help from sportsmen. There has to be a demand for it or it doesn't get done.
"But if we had cooperation between agencies in the rest of the state like we do down there, we'd get a lot done."
Brett French can be reached at email@example.com or at 657-1387.
How to get there
There are two ways to access the Hay Draw easement. The route BLM's David Squires advised taking covers 35 miles of dirt county roads.
To drive to the Hay Draw easement, go south out of Broadus on Highway 212. Just after crossing the Powder River, turn left (northeast) onto the Powderville Road.
In nine miles, go straight onto Pilgrim Creek Road. (Powderville Road continues on northeast.)
Seven miles down Pilgrim Creek Road, turn left onto Moore Road, heading due north.
Two miles down Moore Road, at the top of the hill, turn right. Stay on Moore Road for the next 13 miles.
Then turn right onto Crow Creek Road, heading due south.
Two miles farther take a right at the mail box when the road vees.
After topping a hill and crossing a cattle guard two miles farther down the road, turn left onto the state land. A large, brown sign is posted near the gate that clearly marks it as the Hay Draw easement. Maps of the roads accessible on the easement will be available at the gate.
The other, longer route, to the easement is to take Highway 212 about 30 miles southeast out of Broadus to Hammond. From Hammond, take Crow Creek Road 19 miles north to the easement. Squires said this section of Crow Creek Road tends to be sloppier in wet conditions.
The GPS coordinates for the gate are North 45 degrees, 26.976 minutes; West 104 degrees, 57.533 minutes. The elevation is 3,283 feet. From Billings, the distance is about 270 miles.
For more information, contact Squires at the BLM at 233-2810.