A large herd of elk that has been moving into hayfields west of Lima has prompted Beaverhead County commissioners to close several roads to avoid a shootout on the opening weekend of hunting season.
Commissioners on Thursday held a special meeting and issued a closure on four roads and a parking ban on Little Sheep Creek Road to prevent hunters from encircling the herd. Garth Haugland, a commis-sioner, said the plain is a place that can become dangerous because there are several ranch homes in the area.
“It’s really not a safe place to be shooting,” he said. “One of the ladies that lives up there went out to feed her horses in the dark one year and by the time it was getting light, bullets were snapping by her head.”
The commission voted to close Reeder, West, Chute Canyon roads and Munday lane to all traffic, except for local residents. Little Sheep Creek Road will remain open, but no one can stop and park on the road.
That’s meant to allow access to the public land west of town. The roads included in the closures all run on the flat just west of Lima and would allow hunters to drive around the elk. In some cases, the animals could be encircled.
Craig Fager, Dillon biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the herd of hundreds of elk has been coming out of the Lima Peaks and moving into the irrigated fields west of town. The elk are mostly moving at night but some are lingering around and could be out in the open at daybreak.
“It’s a bad place to have all these lanes open, because it creates a crossfire situation,” Fager said. “There’s no topography.”
The plain is private property and hunters must have permission to hunt it.
A similar situation developed several times in recent years, including in 2008. The county closed some roads then and a major shootout on elk was averted, although some were legally killed as landowners allowed limited access in small groups of hunters.
This year the elk migration was not pushed by early snow, as it was in 2008, but rather by dry conditions in the mountains.
“It’s a forage event this year,” Haugland said. “There’s just no growth up there on those hillsides.”
Haugland said the county will reevaluate the situation as the elk move and may reopen the roads if the herd moves into the hills for good. He said a county sheriff deputy in Lima has estimated the herd has about 500 elk.
— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org