By Michael Howell
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, along with members of the Como Trails Club and the Montana Trappers Association, met last week up at Lake Como to post a sign welcoming people and their canine companions to the Lake Como Cross-Country Ski Trails. The groups and agencies are working together to keep the area dog-friendly.
The welcome sign carries a special message from the Montana Trappers Association recommending that trappers completely avoid setting ground set traps in the Lake Como recreation or cross-country ski area.
Special Forest Service regulations currently require that all traps be set 150 feet back from ski trails and 1,000 feet back from campgrounds and trailheads in the area. Although trapping is not prohibited, the groups and agencies are working together to discourage trapping in the high use area.
This is the fifth year that the dog-friendly cross-country ski trails have been groomed for skate and classic skiing. In February 2011, a Special Order went into effect closing the 550 Road at the base of the ski trails to motorized traffic due to public safety concerns. Then in 2012, a wolf trapping season went into effect that set up a potential conflict between the two basically incompatible uses. As a result the Forest Service signed an Emergency Order to impose trapping setbacks of 150 feet from the ski trails. This setback rule will still be in effect during the current 2013-2014 season.
Last year, however, a claim was made that 25 traps had been set all along the trails and throughout the area. The claims turned out to be false but set off a strong public reaction. As a result the two agencies involved met with members of the ski club and the trappers association to see if they could come up with a viable solution.
Toby Walrath, District 2 Director of the Montana Trappers Association, said that his organization wants to see the trapping heritage continue and is not keen on any new trapping prohibitions. But at the same time they are very interested in addressing and resolving both real and perceived conflicts between trappers and other users of the forest. The organization did agree to support a ‘no trapping’ zone at the Bass Creek Recreation Area but they would prefer not to resort to complete prohibition as an answer. They would prefer to see trappers and skiers learning to co-exist.
“Our goal is to have multiple use of forest lands, but that requires communication and mutual respect between all the users,” said Walrath. This is what led them to join in conversations over the problems at Lake Como.
Tony Neaves, President of the Como Trails Club, called the result of those conversations, “a nice meeting in the middle.”
Darby District Ranger Chuck Oliver said the result of the conversations was a good compromise and the plan calls for getting the word out to the public, and raising the awareness of both recreationists and sportsmen.
Walrath said with increased awareness both skiers and trappers can coexist on public lands. He said finding common ground was the best approach on all sides. He said his organization tries to discourage trapping in high use recreation areas and in this case, the Como Ski Trails was a “no brainer.”
Registration box data at the trailhead shows that from January to February of 2013, 453 signed in at the trailhead with 294 dogs. It is estimated that only about a third of the people who use trails sign in at the registration box. That would mean close to 1,359 people may have actually used the trails. A majority of the people skied for two hours and 64% were classic skiers. 75% of the skiers were from the Bitterroot with 12% coming from Missoula.
According to Walrath, only one trapper used the area last season and stayed well beyond the 150 foot limit.
According to Neaves, the trails are being used in all seasons by skiers, hikers, horseback riders and mountain bike enthusiasts. He said hunters are also using them.
Oliver said that the recreational use at Lake Como was growing steadily and last year over 200,000 people visited the recreation area.