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On public lands in Beaverhead County, vandalism has a cost, but toll on volunteers also a concern

DILLON, Mont. – Asked how many times he has dealt with the destruction of road signs, informational kiosks and other infrastructure aimed at managing travel and recreation on state Trust Land in Beaverhead County, DNRC Dillon Unit Manager Tim Egan could only shake his head.

“It’s basically a never-ending process,” he said.

The latest incident, discovered Nov. 6 by Egan’s staff, involved a new 6x6 post with an informational sign. It was installed in July to deter motorized vehicles from accessing a two-track road. Like others in the area, the unauthorized road just happened over time, as enough vehicles followed a previous vehicle’s tire tracks. Egan can’t say when the process started, but he does know it was never a designated route for travel. The post with its sign – which explained the need for the road closure – was cut off at the base by someone using a chainsaw.

As much as the vandalism bothers him, Egan is more concerned about the impact on the Beaverhead Recreation Working Group, a collaborative of hunting, fishing and other recreation stakeholders, area landowners, Trust Land lessees, and natural resource agencies.  The group was formed to increase access opportunities and collaborate on solutions to ongoing land management problems, including noxious weeds, soil erosion from illegal roads, and habitat security for wildlife. Group members volunteer their time. They attend evening meetings, show up on weekends to spray weeds and put up signs. “It’s a pretty big commitment and setbacks like this can discourage participation,” Egan said. “The groups that donated funds for the work – they can put their dollars into other projects with a better return on investment.”

Egan says DNRC spent $1,400 on the treated posts, while Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and other rec groups contributed $1,700. Between 2015 and 2019, he estimates DNRC has spent $7,000 or more on signage in the area, with more than 50 percent of that total going to replace what’s been lost to vandalism.

And each year he uses more budget and staff hours spraying noxious weeds, “and there’s a direct connection between weeds and illegal road use.”

The Basin Creek watershed, where the latest incident took place, supports westslope cutthroat trout. Sage-grouse inhabit state and federal lands. Elk and deer numbers are robust. Once established, Egan says noxious weeds outcompete native grasses and forbs, reducing forage for big game and livestock, and nesting cover for bird species. Erosion from unauthorized roads degrades water quality and aquatic habitats. And the network of two-track roads eats away at habitat security for big game species.

The Beaverhead Recreation Working Group will hold its next meeting January 8, 2020, at 7 p.m. at the DNRC unit office in Dillon. Despite the latest bout of vandalism, Egan said group members remain committed. “Everyone is all in at this point and we’re going to move forward. This whole effort is about taking care of what we’ve got.”