MISSOULA — The Bitterroot National Forest is taking the first steps to develop a Climbing Management Plan to protect raptors while allowing climbers to take some advantage of the Bitterroot’s rocky canyons.
This week, Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown held the first of what is intended to be several monthly collaborative meetings with climbers and bird lovers to develop a forest-wide climbing management plan that everyone can support.
“Whatever we recommend, we need it to be adequate to meet our needs. I don’t want it to be unnecessarily restrictive,” Brown said. “Everybody has to understand the why’s behind whatever we recommend because if they don’t, they’re not going to be behind it. It’s not going to be successful and it will turn from a management issue into an enforcement issue. We just can’t afford to go there.”
The Bitterroot Valley has a number of raptor species that nest in the cliffs, including golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
Bitterroot biologist Dave Lockman said peregrine falcons are thriving in the Bitterroot, with peregrines observed in at least 17 canyons. But it wasn’t always so. Prior to 1970, peregrines were absent in many places, including the Bitterroot, having been killed off by the use of DDT.
“Most of the territories that we know of have been continuously occupied (since the late 1990s),” Lockman said. “I don’t have a good handle on how much disturbance occurs because of climbers. All I know is that based upon the time and effort we put into it, peregrines seem to be doing very well in the Bitterroot and across Montana. There’s no guarantee that that will continue to be the case.”
Micki Long of Bitterroot Audubon presented some research showing that climbers can disturb nesting raptors even when they stay a short distance away. The parents can be startled off the nest and then not return in time to keep the eggs or chicks warm enough to thrive.
Long said birds can be affected by both visual and audible disturbances so she and other raptor advocates support a half-mile buffer around nesting raptors. She also said better monitoring of nests was needed to know where and when raptors nest.
“These raptors have only one chance to reproduce each year,” Long said. “For these reasons, most public lands that provide opportunities for climbers also have closures on cliffs with active raptor nests. There doesn’t seem to be much controversy about using closures to protect nests. The controversy can arise over the size of spatial buffers.”
Eric Murdoch, Access Fund policy director, highlighted an Access Fund report that will be released next week that summarizes some of the more recent science on raptors and climbing. He argued that “viewshed” was a more important measure than a set buffer distance.
Some research at New River Gorge and Devil’s Tower showed climbers could get closer than a half-mile to birds without disturbing them as long as the birds couldn’t see them. The Access Fund is a rock climbing advocacy group.
A few canyons in the Bitterroot already have had closures.
In Mill Creek Canyon, climbers developed some sport routes with climbing bolts that brought in more climbers, visitors and associated impacts. That concerned some because the area is a recommended wilderness, and the degradation could affect the wilderness designation, Brown said. People said the Bitterroot National Forest should address the evolving situation and allow public comment.
The BNF supervisor decided the situation would be addressed as part of the new Forest Management Plan that was to be taken up in 2016, Brown said. However, the forest plan rewrite was postponed and now won’t begin until after 2023.
In the meantime, however, climbers agreed to a moratorium on installing bolts and a seasonal closure for raptors, Brown said. At the same time, new owners took over the Kootenai Creek climbing area and noticed it was developing a “loved to death” feel.
Bitterroot National Forest managers decided now was the time to develop a climbing management plan for all areas of the forest, not only to protect raptors but also to establish sustainable climbing practices before the canyons start to resemble other overpopulated sites across the nation. The past year of COVID tourism demonstrates that it won’t be long before more people leave their marks on the cliff and canyons.
“The Bitterroot National Forest is not the same as other places around the country in terms of the amount of use that we see. Yet. But in a lot of those other areas I see, they’re being loved to death. People love to go there, and it starts to have impacts. So we want to get ahead of those impacts,” Brown said. “We want to protect those things that make climbing unique, those attributes of the Bitterroot that people want to experience. We want those same things to be available into the future.”
The meeting was held virtually on the Microsoft Teams platform, which allows many people to attend but they can converse using only the “chat” box. By the end of the meeting, it was decided a different platform in the future because Teams didn’t allow the participants to have a good discussion. However, the back-and-forth in the chatbox was lively at times, with the 22 participants mainly arguing about the size of buffers around nests.
For more information or to learn the timing of the next meeting, go to the Bitterroot National Forest story map.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.