Elkhorn Wildlife Area MT threatened by thrill bikers

Recently the Helena National Forest released a scoping letter on a proposal to create 39 miles of  mountain biking (aka thrill biker) trails in the Strawberry Butte area of the northern Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area. https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/110309_FSPLT3_4486872.pdf

In its scoping letter, the FS notes that “Since 2001, the Forest has observed an increase in recreational use within the project area. This increase in use has resulted in a proliferation of user created trails, some of which intrude into riparian areas and other important wildlife areas. These resource concerns have lead us to take action to address impacts in this area.”

The Scoping Letter goes on to note “The purpose of the project is to enhance non-motorized trail opportunities in the front country and reduce the potential for development of user-created routes into the backcountry of the Elkhorn Mountains.” In other words, the FS hopes that by legalizing some Thrill biker created trails, it will preclude continued development of more illegal trails.

Indeed, the FS scoping letters admits that some of the illicit trails thrill bikers have commandeered include game trails. If game trails become thrill bike trails, where does the wildlife go? The fact is that the wildlife does not have anyplace else to go. We already use a disproportionate amount of the landscape. The purpose of the Elkhorn “Wildlife Management” designation was to put wildlife first, and other uses second. Unfortunately, this capitulation to thrill bikes makes recreation the priority.

However, thrill bikers also displace hikers. This is not unlike the social displacement that occurs when snowmobiles use the same trails as xc skiers. Heavy use by mechanical users like thrill bikers tend to displace hikers and horse people from trails they have used for decades.

That is why any new or increased use by bikes must be given serious evaluation of the impacts on other public values. That is not to suggest there are not some areas appropriate for biking, but the Elkhorns are not one of them.

The Elkhorns were originally proposed as wilderness but bowing to political pressure to reduce wilderness acreage in several wilderness bills, the Elkhorns were instead given a special designation as a wildlife management area. Wilderness classification preclude bikes, but wildlife management area does not—a lesson that conservation groups have failed to appreciate as they advocate other “alternative designations” to wilderness like wildlife management areas for places like the Gallatin Range.

As with the Elkhorns even if an alternative management scheme is done with the best intentions, one has to rely upon institutional memory and the good graces of managers. Wilderness designation is the gold standard that provides permanent and legal protection that is time tested.

One of the characteristics of many thrill bikers is an outlaw mentality. As noted in its scoping letter, Thrill bikers regularly flout the law creating illegal trails throughout our public lands without any input or oversight of land management agencies. These rogue actors create trails willy nilly without regard to impacts on wildlife, watersheds, spread of weeds, and other conservation values.

With the development of electric thrill bikes, the ability to impact even more of the land will increase since previously remote areas will be accessible to thrill bikers.

In reaction to the proliferation of illegal trails in the Elkhorns, the forest service is now going to make many of these trails “legal”. That is a common agency response which thrill bikers depend upon to legalize their outlaw actions.

While I can understand the desire of the FS to manage some of these uses by formally legalizing the existence of rogue trails, hoping this will preclude more illegal trail construction, the policy of accommodating outlaws, only begets more outlaw activity.

Imagine if the MDFWP in response to rampant poaching of deer, merely increased the areas open to deer hunting and increased the number of deer that one could legally take? That is what the FS is essentially doing by legalizing the criminal trail building.

Mind you this is a situation unique to thrill bikers throughout the country. You don’t find bird watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, hikers or other public lands users going out and creating new trails without permission or oversight, but it is very common among the thrill biker crowd.

Another common ploy is to publish these illegal trails on apps for phones that advertises their location, creating more constituents for the trails.

The FS is proposing to use a categorical exclusion to legalize the 39 miles of trails. That is, they are not going to analyze the cumulative impact of creating miles of new trails and an increase in thrill bike use effects on wildlife. What is the cumulative impact on wildlife from the existing trail system combined with 39 additional miles of trails? The FS isn’t analyzing this.

In addition, what about the aforementioned social conflict of increased use of existing trails by thrill bikers? Will this cause hikers to abandon these trails?

And what about the increased road traffic into what is now a relatively lightly used area of the Elkhorns. How will that affect wildlife?

My organization, Mountain bikers for Wilderness, is the only biking group that puts conservation ahead of recreation and is strongly opposed to the FS plan to expand thrill biking in the Elkhorns.

You can look long and hard at thrill biker web sites to find a mention of the word conservation or preservation of wildlife or wildlands. The common mantra is we “need” more trails. More. More. More. Thrill bikers (aka mountain bikers) are now the greatest threat to many wildlands across the West. As a group, the word self-restraint is not part of their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the creation of new trails and increase in thrill biking on existing trails has many impacts that federal and state agencies ignore.

For instance, any number of studies have shown that elk and other wildlife flee from thrill bikers at far greater distance than hikers. One study found: “Probability of a flight response declined most rapidly during hiking, with little effect when hikers were beyond 550 yards from an elk. By contrast, higher probabilities of elk flight continued beyond 1,640 yards from mountain bike and ATV rider.”  “Higher probabilities of (elk) flight response occurred during ATV and mountain bike activity, in contrast to lower probabilities observed during hiking and horseback riding.”

Given that you can cover many more miles on a thrill bike than walking, the ecological impacts on wildlife from a single thrill biker is far greater than the effect of a hiker.  This is something the Forest Service is ignoring—in a wildlife management area!

The increasing use of “snow bikes” also means this area could see increasing use in winter months, and again because of the distances that can be traveled, thrill bikes may have far greater impacts on wildlife at the time when they are most vulnerable to stress.

These are questions the FS is avoiding by use of the Categorical Exclusion. But it goes beyond this one area, thrill bikers are absconding numerous trails around Helena, and creating new rogue trails so that there are virtually no bike free areas.

Worse by legalizing illicit trail creation, these agencies reward the outlaws. What the FS should do is ban all use of any trails that have not explicitly been evaluated for the impact of thrill biking on wildlife, vegetation, watersheds, and as well as existing users.

And to the degree possible, thrill bike use should be separated from other non-mechanical use like hiking and horseback riding just as snowmobile use is often segregated from xc skiers.

What the Elkhorns need is a comprehensive plan for the entire range. Thrill biking is a growing issue throughout the range.

You can submit comments to comments-northern-helena-helena@fs.fed.us.

The subject line must contain “Strawberry Butte Front Country Trail Management Project.”


  1. Aaron Avatar

    “Mountain bikers bad for wildlife!!” says former hunting guide. Riding a bike near animals is bad but taking Joe Smo out to blast them with a shotgun is ok.

  2. Justin LaFord Avatar
    Justin LaFord

    What if we are simply riding for solitude and reflection with nature? Are we seeking thrill’s to be one with mother nature? Are we condemned to ride with traffic in suburbia?

  3. Brendan Avatar

    There is so much ignorance here, I don’t even know where to start. False information and name calling is all I see. You are so incredibly off base with so many comments. Have you ever stepped foot in the Elkhorns? If so, please tell your readers about current trail usage in any of the scoping map…It is obvious to me that you have not by your commentary.

  4. Joe Montana Avatar
    Joe Montana

    As a hunter and wildlife conservationist,and an avid cyclist, I believe it’s imperative that ALL activities that have the potential to impact wildlife should be scrutinized and regulated. Mountain bikers comprise a very small percentage of recreationists, and currently have scads of trails to ride. KEEP BIKES OUT OF HIGH QUALITY WILDLIFE HABITAT! IMBA has recently endorsed the use of electric mountain bikes on ALL TRAILS … a highly dangerous precedent for wildlife, and an example of what happens when an industry-sponsored organization promotes a selfish, profit-motivated agenda. I have NEVER heard a biker express concerns for wildlife, only more more more trails.

    1. Bryan Avatar

      Don’t you think hunting is more hazardous to wildlife than bicycles?

  5. Brendan Avatar

    For reference, I wanted to include the link to the proposed scoping map for the area being mentioned in this article for your readers: https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/110309_FSPLT3_4479425.pdf
    Please take a look at this map when you have a chance.
    A few items that I would like to point out on this map:
    1) Please notice the amount of public motorized roads that exist within this region. The main access points into this region include McClellan Creek Road which can be accessed from Montana City and travels all the way through to just east of East Helena. This is used by locals to access private property, as a scenic drive, and is actually used for some locals to commute from East Helena to Montana city and vice versa. Another access point is via Warm Springs Rd from Clancy – which eventually leads into Strawberry Lookout Road. Warms Springs Rd. is a populated residential area and is primarily accessed by locals to and from their residences. Crystal Creek Road branches east to where it eventually dead-ends at an established trailhead.
    2) Next, please take a look at the amount of private property within this region. The majority of private land is occupied by residences via the road systems and have driveways, and also have barbed wire fences surrounding their land. As a local resident of Clancy, I regularly access much of the areas outlined within this scoping map. I have observed local property owners engaged in activities such as operating gas powered hand tools, riding dirt bikes and ATVs on their properties and on the road systems, burning slash piles, dogs barking, etc… Which is all within their rights as private property owners.
    So what’s my point? This area is populated and traveled by vehicles, and already has quite a bit of private property within it already – which does not make it suitable for a wilderness designation as the author suggests.
    Another items worth mentioning is the proximity of access to the proposed trailheads. To access the majority of the trailheads from the Helena community takes around a half hour or more. Helena has a world class trail system that can be accessed directly from downtown Helena and is well traveled by hikers and bikers with very minimal conflict. Due to the amount of trails so close to town, this proposed trail system is not going see high usage by the Helena community.
    I believe in finding ways to protect wildlife and build sustainable trails that due not have significant impact to the environment. I believe that these trails are a suitable and reasonable proposal and give recreational opportunities for generations to come.

  6. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I would call it wildlife management by defaulting to a kind of capitalistic ‘take all, free for all’ mind set. I recall that when heavy rains blocked roads to interior portions of public lands in the Bakersfield BLM district that wildlife populations increased. When the roads were cleared a season later wildlife populations went down and vandalism of watering devices, fences, gates etc.went up. The BLM rangers used to have the signs posted on public lands pre-punched with holes in hopes of keeping people from shooting them.

    It has become a mind set with the both the sports hardware manufacturers and public land managers that areas should be created to allow increased access to assist in creating a demand to sell more recreational hardware and to allow people to vent their frustration through fantasies about “breaking” a new frontier.

    So besides all the other extractive uses going on, wildlife refuges have become dog parks, the BLM now has a number of frisbee golf courses out in the sage and rabbit brush and the USFS permits bike riding which of course accelerates erosion and scares the animals and less aggressive land users as George has pointed out. Hunting deer and elk is becoming much more like shooting at a herd of cows confined to smaller and smaller areas. If these new uses reduce wildlife populations, all the better for the bureaucrats who will sit back and not have to worry about enforcing as many regulations to protect animals.

    The corporate/executive branch cabal is making public land into a kind of disney theme park, largely because the republican administration is for old fashioned capitalism and dominance of nature pure and simple.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      “The BLM rangers used to have the signs posted on public lands pre-punched with holes in hopes of keeping people from shooting them.”


      Catering to the entertainment park mindset of our wild lands should be fought, I agree. This is why I am not as overjoyed as many about the ‘getting everyone out into the public lands to save it’ approach.

    2. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      Wreckreation is a bi-partisan, neoliberal, conservation position.

      Jewell (political apex of industrial recreation) was indicative that the incest was within the great American two-party family.

      Let’s call it as it is.

  7. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Wreckreation is no virtue no matter the form. The standard of ‘untrammeled’ is not met, anywhere.

    Quit being conservationists. Go preservationist. Strive for moral consistency, George, et al.

  8. Joe Montana Avatar
    Joe Montana

    To continue the conversation about wildlife …

    We are presently experiencing what some are calling the “SIXTH EXTINCTION”, where our planet is losing species at an alarming rate, and it’s all caused by human dominance of the entire planet. Extinctions of this magnitude have only happened 5 times previous over the past 550 million years, the most famous being the dinosaurs being wiped out by an asteroid 65 million years ago.

    Montana’s wildlife populations CANNOT be assumed to be safe and stable, and any and all activities that may affect them must be scrutinized; this may include closing areas to ALL human activities, including hiking. Another 2-3 degrees of warming could drastically affect our wildlife populations, especially combined with population increases and more human encroachment. We must err on the side of caution.

    Again, we must look at the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) the industry sponsored, profit driven group that has become the pit bull for the industry. They pose as advocates for more trails, while at the same time vehemently opposing ANY new wilderness that excludes bikes; AND advocating redrawing existing wilderness boundaries for still more trails. They will help local MTB groups build websites, train locals to negotiate with land managers, and pour resources into efforts for more trails. They do a great job of firing up local bikers that they are being discriminated against by land managers, wildlife advocates, and wilderness proponents. ALL SO THEY CAN SELL MORE BIKES!

    Taken to the extreme, we now have thrill bikers in Montana’s Bitteroot Valley who have teamed up with motorized advocates (ATV, etc) to pressure USFS to open up more country. This should be a wake up call!

    I ride a couple of thousand miles per year, but Wildlife and habitat MUST ALWAYS COME FIRST in deciding land uses.

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      This is true for the entire wreckreation industry, the same proving substantial, directed, funding to most enviro.orgs, dilluting their opposition to just mountain bikes.

      See Conservation Alliance, etc.

  9. MAD Avatar

    A little geography to put things into perspective (as a Montana resident and landowner):
    – total acreage of Montana – 94.1 million acres
    – land managed by Fed agencies – 27.3 million acres
    – land designated as wilderness – 3.4 million acres

    So, 29% of the total State is managed by the Feds. Of that 29% or 27 million acres, only 12.6% of that is designated as wilderness. So, 87.4% is not designated as wilderness and can be used by recreationalists on bikes, over 23 million acres.

    How big is 23 million acres, you ask? It’s equal to the combined areas of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

    So tell me again why there needs to be more access to protected areas in Montana?

    1. Brendan Avatar

      There are already trails that exist in this region and they are shared by horseback riders, hikers and bikers without conflict. This proposal mainly seeks to establish those trails in FS inventory. As stated above, much of this land is filled with private property and roads. It is actually an ideal area for recreational use and will help keep human traffic out of areas deeper in the Elkhorns which will benefit wildlife. Take a few minutes and read the proposal.

      1. MAD Avatar

        Looking at the detailed map, and the small overview section of the Helena NF, it seems as if there are extensive FS System Trails non-motorized (yellow lines) throughout the NF. Yet, you’re advocating for even more trails, which have already been illegally trampled 28 out the proposed 39 miles. And this is to keep people away from areas that they’re not supposed to be and to give them places to go? I’m sorry, I’m not buying into the idea of capitulating to people who refuse to follow rules and then demand things based on their historic behavior of flouting rules on public land.

    2. Nancy Avatar

      + 1 MAD

  10. Brendan Avatar

    Can you take a wild guess how those existing trails marked in yellow are accessed? If you guessed via road systems, you would be correct! Roads that allow vehicles, motorcycles, ATVs, etc. cross right through this wilderness study area. But that’s no problem, right? It’s the mountain bikers that are the threat to this land… Okay, gotcha! I think it is ridiculous that a person can drive their gas guzzling truck or ATV, go walk through the woods and shoot at these animals and that is completely fine, but riding my bike at an average of around 3-4 miles per hour in the woods is what is going to impact these animals lives. What is the rationale there? Is it the sound of my rubber tires slowly crinkling leaves and sticks that is going to have such a profound effect on these animals lives that they are going to need counseling? But shooting at them is perfectly fine.
    If you want to point fingers, point them at the FS for allowing the existence of these trails. Who put them there? I honestly don’t know. But there are fully constructed trailheads and parking areas (big enough to park horse trailers) along the roads within this area. If you’ve never been in this region, go ahead and zoom in on google images to see what I’m talking about. Specifically, look just south of Strawberry Butte where the proposed trailhead is on the scoping map. It is already there! It’s huge, has really nice fencing and a clear opening to a well established trail… Almost all of the “proposed” parking areas are already there as well. While they may not be maintaining these trails, they have done nothing to block access to these existing trails. In fact, by allowing (or constructing) these trailheads and parking areas, I would argue that they have encouraged trail use in this area.
    At some point, the FS also allowed the sale of multiple private properties in this region, allowed road and driveway access, and erection of barbed wire fences in this region. But no issue there in regard to wildlife, right?!?
    Another point worth mentioning is that these trails are very lightly used, mainly by residents of Montana City and Clancy (combined population of less that 3500). This is Clancy, not Colorado… nor is it Bozeman or Missoula. It is rare to see another person on any of these trails. In fact, you are more likely to see an elk or moose than another human. The majority of terrain is undulating and would not be conducive to to downhill “thrill” riding, as the author suggests. The experience is slow, quiet and peaceful in this area.

    1. MAD Avatar

      Once again, you’re missing the point due to reading comprehension issues. Of course the yellow, non-motorized trails are accessible by established roads that allow mechanized vehicles. That’s how it is in every NF. The fact that there are parking lots is irrelevant and I’m sorry you can’t understand that.

      The sole issue is not idiots driving their ATVs or other vehicles to the parking lots and utilizing the yellow, non-motorized trails. The issue is people who decide that they want to go off the established yellow trails to make “new” trails for their own personal satisfaction, regardless of the fact that it is prohibited. I guess those miles and miles of authorized trails are not enough for some people.

      The real root of the problem is folks who live near major cities, within 15-25 miles, who expect that they should be allowed to do whatever type of recreation they want on public land, regardless of regs or rules, and within a relative short distance from their homes. Because of course, if you live near the public land, you have a greater vested interest and say in how things are utilized than other taxpaying citizens.

      And this applies to jerks on ATVs or snowmobiles or any other mechanized form of travel that wants to go speeding through the woods for their own gratification.

      This whole situation reminds me of the Cliven Bundy situation. Folks who utilize and abuse public land, flout the rules, and then expect everyone else to give in to their demands because “we’ve been doing it for years”.

      And if someone is traipsing through the woods on foot hunting and they are properly licensed and obeying all the rules, then yes, I’d rather have them there than someone riding their mountain bike in off-limit areas and blazing new trails where they’re not supposed to. I have no issues with hunting per se, because I hunt & fish. I have issues with certain individuals who hunt and are unethical or downright sadistic.

      1. Brendan Avatar

        There’s no need for insults. I do not have any issues with my reading comprehension. I don’t agree with you on everything that you are saying. We can agree to disagree. I can spend hours trying to explain my views, but I am not sure it would do any good.
        I am a local resident of this area that cares about protecting wildlife and preserving this land for future generations. I believe that the proposal is rational and has solid merits and has benefits to our community. I don’t care if you agree with that or not. I believe that the author of this article’s comments about mountain biking are ignorant, insulting and completely off base – which is why I have made comments on this thread.
        There is nothing that you can try to tell me that will convince me that slowly riding my mountain bike through this land has any more impact than any other user group. Don’t bother trying, I have seen and heard it all. I am not a threat, nor are the small handful of other riders in this area. I don’t want to harm my environment or the wildlife, in fact, I want to advocate to protect and preserve it.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner