Crowded tribal recreation areas and campgrounds cause of concern for tribal members and managers
There has been such an increase in Lake County population that the Treasurer’s Office has set aside three days a week to register new vehicles for issuance of license plates to new residents. The other two days are open for other folk's registration and license plate renewal. At a recent public meeting concerning the housing shortage in Lake County and the Flathead Reservation, Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron said there has been a population increase of approximately 3,100 in Lake County since April. According to 2020 census data there has been a more than 30,000 population increase along the Highway 93 corridor from Polson to Eureka, and the population influx continues to grow.
People are relocating to Montana for various reasons that include retiring Baby Boomers, and Covid and climate change refugees coupled with the ability to work remotely. The population growth epicenter is western Montana in towns — Kalispell, Missoula and Bozeman — located near areas where outdoor recreational opportunities are abundant.
The new Montanans are putting a stress on the local infrastructure from water to schools to outdoor recreation sites.
Among the outdoor recreational opportunity areas is the Flathead Reservation and that is causing concerns among tribal hunting, fishing and recreational managers and tribal game wardens, and the tribal membership who feel they are being crowded out of recreational areas and campsites.
“There are capacity issues with so many new locals utilizing tribal recreational areas, and tribal members are concerned because of the campgrounds being full, and recreational areas being crowded,” said Tom McDonald, director of the Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Division. “As a result, we are looking at ways increase capacity at recreation sites. We will be scoping everything, all ideas.”
The hunting, fishing and recreational regulations are reviewed annually.
Under consideration are increasing recreational, hunting and fishing fees, creating more campgrounds, establishing recreational areas for exclusive use of tribal members and descendents with an option to include non-member guests of tribal members with the requisite permits, transitioning some camping areas to day use only to non-tribal members and increasing law enforcement numbers.
There are presently eight game wardens and Chief Dan McClure that have to cover the 1.2 million acres of the Flathead Reservation. McDonald said the number of game wardens should be doubled.
“We can redo restrictions and reserve more land for tribal member use,” McDonald said, adding that the latter is pretty much going to happen. “We could designate new areas like the South Fork Jocko Primitive Area for tribal members use only.”
McDonald said that another idea for increased recreational capacity would be land owners designating their appropriate property as conservation easement. “Easements are an opportunity to increase public use capacity that will be open forever,” he said.
Once any the outdoor use regulations are revisited and whether or not changes are made, they are put out for public scoping and comment for 30 days. The Tribal Council decides what issues would be scoped.
The influx of people, both new citizens and tourists, has had a statewide effect on use of Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park recreational areas and campsites.
According to the latest FWP statistics released August 20, Montana state parks had 1.5 million visitors in the first half — Jan. 1 to June 30 — of 2021. That is an increase of 11.1 percent from the first six months of 2020, and a 44.1 percent increase — 480,804 more visitors — compared to 2019.
Montana has 55 state parks, this year, 27 of the 45 state parks that were seasonally opened during the first half of the year had more visitors than this time last year. The peak visitor months have been April, May and June.
In Northwest Montana, the Flathead Lake state parks had 147,003 visitors, which is — surprisingly — an 8.4 percent decrease from last year. In west central Montana, Milltown State Park had the highest visitation in the region with 48,361 visits.
“There is a perception out there that the newbies are not buying permits,” McDonald said.
However, according to Natural Resource Department Fish and Game warden statistics in 2,100 random permit checks, only 51 of the new residents didn’t have the required permits. The overwhelming majority of those without permits were local area residents as well as some tribal descendents. There were no out of state violators.
McDonald speculated that the 8.4 percent decrease use of Flathead Lake state parks has to do with many of the recreationalist in 2020 buying property in the area thus creating the usage decrease. However, he said the population increase in will continue to increase.
“We don’t see an end to the climate change refugees,” McDonald said.