Widespread public and private land closures due to extreme fire danger will prohibit most early September hunting in most of western Montana until Level V fire restrictions are lifted, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials said today.
With today's addition of 19 counties, a total of twenty-seven western Montana counties are now under Level V fire-danger closures. Montana's remaining 29 counties, generally the eastern portion of the state, are under Level III fire-danger restrictions.
FWP Director Pat Graham said the new Level V restrictions prohibit access for recreation on any forested lands or rangelands in the 16 of affected 19 counties and similarly prohibits access for recreation on any forested lands in three northwestern Montana counties. The closures, however, will have a mixed impact on water-based recreations, with some of the area's developed fishing and boating access sites being exempted from closure and generallyl restricted to day-use only.
"This level of land closure is unprecedented ," Graham said. "We are trying to balance the threat of wild fire and the growing impacts on fish and wildlife with providing some safe opportunity for people to recreate."
In the newly closed areas, recreational activities like hiking, picnicking, hunting, and camping will be generally prohibited. The closure encompasses many State Parks, and all FWP Wildlife Management Areas. Some FWP Fishing Access Sites, however, will remain open for day-use river and lake access.
The new Level V zone restrictions go into effect Friday, Aug. 25. Closures on any forested lands and rangelands include: Beaverhead, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Gallatin, Glaicer, Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, Madison, Meagher, Park, Pondera, Teton, Toole, Sweet Grass, and Stillwater counties. Closures on forested lands will affect Flathead, Lake, and Lincoln counties.
On Aug. 11 Level V restrictions on forested land went into effect in Deer Lodge, Granite, Mineral, Missoula, Powell, Ravalli, Sanders and Silver Bow counties, and the portion of Lewis & Clark County that lies west of the Continental Divide.
Weather and climate forecasts suggest the restrictions on outdoor recreation in western Montana will likely extend beyond the scheduled opening day of several Montana's early September hunting season openings.
The eastern portion of the state are at a Level III fire danger and no zone closures are eminent that would threaten hunting seasons in those eastern counties. Graham reminds hunters, however, that they are required to ask for permission to hunt on private land and that fire danger is ever present and anyone responsible for starting a wild fire is liable for all damage.
The upland game bird season is scheduled to open statewide on Sept. 1. Montana's archery season is set to open statewide on Sept. 2. Most moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat seasons are to open Sept. 15.
"There is really no immediate relief in sight," Graham said. "We are experiencing a tragedy the scope of which is nearly beyond our ability to communicate. It is affecting everyone in Montana, our entire FWP staff, all of state government, county officials, businesses, hunters, anglers, entire industries, and thousands of people who are living day-to-day with the specter of unprecedented fire danger in western Montana," Graham said. "We will do our best to inform all hunters and anglers of what they can expect and where they can and can't recreate, and we want them to all realize that their patience and compassion will provide some much needed solace to everyone who is working hard to help get us all through the difficult days ahead."
Graham said state and private land closures are recommended to Montana's governor by the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group, a team of fire experts that evaluate the risk of wild fire. Federal land closures are similarly recommended to federal land managers. Together, state, private and federal land closures may affect large areas of land in Montana that would be closed to most recreation, including hunting, until the fire-related land closures are lifted.
If weather forecasts are accurate, the opening of early September hunting seasons in some areas of extreme fire danger will be prohibited based on land closures due to fire danger. When the land closures are lifted, hunting will resume, Graham said.
Graham said FWP is receiving hundreds of calls a day from resident and out-of-state hunters and anglers on how hunting and fishing opportunities will be affected by fire-danger land closures and the severe drought.
"The Level V fire danger land closure effectively prohibits access to much of Montana's western Montana hunting destinations, thus preventing people from hunting is some areas of the state," Graham said. "Each day we monitor how fire danger closures and restrictions are affecting anglers and hunters seasons and immediately communicate that information to hunters and anglers in Montana and to our out-of-state visitors via our Internet site and our toll-free Fire and Drought Hotline."
FWP did officially delay opening of bighorn sheep hunting in Hunting Districts 300 and 301. That season will not open until Oct. 3 due to the fire-related land closure that affects the Gallatin National Forest. The six-day season, which was to be open from Sept. 5-10, will close Oct. 8. Bighorn sheep hunting in these districts is open to any hunter who applies for the special permit, and is the shortest hunting season in Montana, offering a limited window of opportunity to hunt some of the state's most inaccessible terrain. Hunters typically begin scout the mountainous area a up to a week before the season opens.
"Because weather forecasts predict continued hot temperatures and no precipitation, we thought the fairest thing to do was to push back the season dates in these big horn sheep hunting districts," Graham said. "If fire-danger closures are not lifted by Sept. 29, the hunting season in these districts will be canceled and hunters will receive full refunds." Some 50 nonresidents and 114 residents hold permits to hunt these districts.
For up-to-date drought and fire information hunters can call 1-800- 472-8455, or visit FWP 's website at: fwp.state.mt.us. Look for the "Fire/Drought Update" on the homepage.
Please be aware that conditions remain volatile in many areas. Your assistance in protecting Montana's precious natural resources during this time will be deeply appreciated.