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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Wildfires Wipe Out Hunting Season For Flathead Outfitter

A crew working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness rebuilds a main line trail that was damaged during a fire this summer.
Corin Cates-Carney
A crew working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness rebuilds a main line trail that was damaged during a fire this summer.

Hunting and fishing licenses generate about $48 million a year in Montana, and 70 percent of that revenue comes from people from out of state. But this year some of those hunters and fishers had to cancel their trips because of the intense fire season. And that makes it tough on the businesses that serve them.

Weeks after fires ripped through the Bob Marshall Wilderness crews began working to restore the landscape.

Men and women with faces smudged with ash wearing hard hats dig into the burnt earth with special tools reshaping the Big Bill, one of many trails that were burned away this year.

John Boudreau has worked on trail crews for a few years now and says it can take a team of five a week to rebuild a mile of trail.

“It’s our job to excavate that soil that has been burned away and then build that tread base back up so that it safe to travel along," Boudreau said.

He says so much land burned crews all around the Bob Marshall Wilderness will be busy digging, cutting and picking up fallen trees like a giant game of pickup-sticks until snow falls.

Then, crews will come back in the spring and keep working.

Shannon Connolly with the U.S. Forest Service says it wasn’t just the trails that burned.

“We did have a few trailheads burn really hot and a few of the outfitters did lose a bit of their gear and equipment and tack and hay and supplies and thing like that, so some did have to cancel their trips for the entire season," Connolly said. "Some of them delayed them and some of them, moved to other outfitters.”

Credit Corin Cates-Carney
It can take a crew up to a week to rebuild a mile of burned trail.

Connolly says many outfitters have been able to get back into the forest now that fires are burning out and some trails are reopening. For an outfitter, it’s all about access to hunting grounds.

“When wildfires come through, which is a natural part of our ecosystem things can change. And they’re well aware of this," she said. "This area has had a lot of fire. We’ve done this numerous times in the past. But, it definitely displaces people.”

In mid August a fire burning in the Bob Marshall swept through a trailhead near the South Fork of the Flathead River, ending Mark Moss’s outfitting season.

The trailhead was the main access point to a camp used by Moss’s Salmon Fork Outfitters.

The fire scorched the earth impassable. It was too dangerous to take horses loaded with gear. They could fall through a weak spot in the soil, Moss says and tumble down the hillside.

“And they can’t get it fixed, probably 'til next spring. So, the only access we have to our camp is another trailhead 100 and some miles away. Plus it’s a 12-hour ride for guests to get into it. And they just can’t do it," Moss said. "Financially it hurt pretty bad.”

Moss canceled the remaining fly fishing trips scheduled for the summer and lost all of the big game hunts he booked for the fall.

His season ended more than $100,000 short of its usual mark. And the fire cost the outfitter more than just revenue.

“There was a trailer that had all of our tack in. And our tack is all of our saddle equipment and everything. There was stuff in there that we’ve been accumulating for years. We totally lost that. That is down to the frame. There is nothing left," Moss said. "We were up there a few weeks ago, the Forest Service shuttled us up there because there was still a lot of fires going on, but we had to get some pictures and some stuff, and I mean I brought back an old coffee pot and a little old wood stove and that was it.”

When Moss told his guests the trips that many had already dropped a couple grand on up front were canceled, he also had to tell them a refund wasn’t possible. The outfitter had already spent the money to cover his season expenses.

Instead, the guests that paid for trips this year will get trips next year instead of reimbursement. And those guests will fill up spaces that could have used by new, paying hunters. That means Moss will see his earnings drop for a few years, all because he was just unlucky this fire season.

“I know a couple of the other outfitters down south they’re going into different trailheads, but they don’t have to go quite as far as we do. So it’s just the way the chips fell. Trail access, that’s what killed us as far as having to cancel the whole season,” Moss said.

Moss says it’s hard to be in such an unpredictable business, but that’s kind of the way of it. You get blown out by a windstorm or shut down with a fire. He’s been in this business for nearly 30 years. In the past he’s had to cancel a week here or there, but canceling a season outright, he’s never had it that bad.

Moss’s wife Janis is a partner in the outfitting business. Although they had rough this year, they know after fire season like the one this year a lot of folks around the state are having a hard time, including the half-dozen people they employ.

“I feel sorry for my employees because they really depend on this and they’re out a job. I mean we’re trying to help them out a bit," Moss said. "I feel sorry for those and I feel sorry for our guests but we’ve had some awesome guests and we’ve had some really nice repeat consumers.”

“And like you said, the State of Montana, when those people come here and they always by lunch and stop at the sports stores and buy extra stuff and buy flies and buy new rifle or whatever," Janis said."They spend a lot of money while they’re here, gas and food and that type of thing.”

“Non-residents basically keeps the state of Montana going,” Moss said.

Now that Moss’s clients had their trips canceled, those hunters can get a refund for up to half the cost of their unused license.

The days are getting shorter and colder, but Forest Service crews like the one on Big Bill Trail will be working as long as they can to rebuild lost trails so that they’ll be ready for hikers and hunters next season.

Outfitting and guiding services are one of the biggest areas of spending by non-resident visitors in Montana. Last year, tourists spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to get out and experience Montana’s wilderness.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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