Laura Lundquist
(Missoula Current) A man has applied for permission to trap on state land along the Bitterroot River, causing concern for some Lolo residents.

When Sterling Miller recently opened a letter from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, he was immediately worried.

First, the Oct. 10 letter said a man had applied for a permit to trap on state land immediately adjacent to the Dunrovin Ranch, which Miller owns with Suzanne, his wife, on the east side of Lolo. Second, he had only 10 days to respond with comments or concerns.

“We got the letter on Saturday and that’s 11 days from (Oct.) 25th. So I called (Amy Helena) on Monday to ask if they were really serious about this,” Miller said. “I asked if they had let other people know, and she said ‘this is the kind of issue that we don’t do general scoping on.’ That means that they don’t distribute it widely.”

Calls to Amy Helena of the DNRC Missoula Trust Lands Management Division weren’t returned by the end of the week.

Eight Lolo landowners, in addition to the Millers, surround the state-land section on the west side of the river while many others own parcels between the river and Highway 93. But the DNRC letter was sent only to people with recreational use permits for the state land in question.

“There may be one or two (with special-use permits). We may be the only one. Nobody I know in this area got this letter,” Miller said.

The Millers have a recreational-use permit from the DNRC to use the state land as part of their riding program. Not knowing what kind of trapping would occur makes Miller concerned for the safety of his horses and clients.

However, the DNRC letter said the trapper, if issued a recreational-use permit, would have to notify the Millers of proposed trap/snare locations, duration of trapping and his schedule for checking his traps. If within a half-mile of an inhabited dwelling, the trapper would need to check his traps/snares at least every 48 hours. The trapper would also have to post signs “at customary access points.”

But Miller is still worried, not only for his business but also for the many residents of Lolo and the surrounding area who don’t necessarily use customary access points.

“Our riding across that state land is absolutely critical to our business. We ride these clients back and forth across the river, except when the water’s high, and clients just love it. They think they’re ‘Lonesome Dove,’” Miller said.

(Dunrovin Ranch photo)

(Dunrovin Ranch photo)
In addition, Sterling – who has a Ph.D. in wildlife management – said he supports hunting and fishing, so the Millers regularly provide sportsmen with access across their property to the 480 acres of state land that straddles the Bitterroot River.

“I think a lot of landowners also provide access, and there’s lots of people that access it via the river. I think that’s the most common use. A lot just float by, but some land and fish from the bank. And people also walk or ski up the riverbanks below the high water mark, and they usually have dogs with them,” Miller said.After his dog was caught in a trap illegally set fairly near the family home, Miller admits he’s become anti-trapping but he’s “not an activist.”

However, Miller has alerted a number of neighbors, friends and the Lolo Community Council, asking them to send comments to the DNRC before Wednesday. The Lolo Community Council was disappointed with the limited notification and safety issues.

Hank Fisher, who wrote the guidebook “Paddling Montana,” wrote the DNRC in opposition to trapping in such a busy location.

“This section of river is a well-used recreational corridor, utilized by fishermen, hunters and general recreationists who often float in tubes. This section also has healthy populations of beaver, mink and muskrat. Trapping of these species generally involves steel jaw traps that are submerged in the water near the shore. These are precisely the spots where recreationists frequently walk. Additionally, sightings of these animals are a primary reason why people like to float this popular stretch of the Bitterroot,” Fisher wrote. “I have noticed a significant increase in the number of recreationists floating this section over the last decade. There’s no reason to believe this use will not continue to rise. It doesn’t make sense to create hazards in such a prime recreation area.”

Miller also contacted his state legislators, Sen. Willis Curdy and Rep. Lyn Hellegaard. He received no response from Hellegaard, but Curdy visited the location last week. After assessing the situation, Curdy wrote a letter to the DNRC opposing the permit application in the name of human safety.

“The Lolo community is one of the largest non-incorporated communities in Montana and abuts the property. As a result, the area is heavily used by Lolo residents who hike the area also with their children and dogs. Dogs and children do not mix well with traps,” Curdy wrote in his letter. “The Lolo School District just opened a new elementary school within a five to ten minute walk from the school. Due to its proximity and the outstanding opportunity for Lolo school children to have hands-on learning experience about Montana’s natural world, the thought of having children being in the area with traps is a significant cause for concern.”

Because the DNRC sent the letter to a limited number of people, the department may only consider comments from those people. Miller said he’s had previous disagreements with the DNRC, so he’s wondering how the DNRC will decide.

“One of the things that really worries me is that they’ll get so irritated with me for stirring the pot on this that they’re going to pull our special recreation license if we rock the boat. And we’re rocking the boat pretty hard,” Miller said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at

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