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Fort Keogh hunting opportunity pulled due to fires, fewer deer

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Tongue and Yellowstone confluence

The Tongue River, left, flows into the Yellowstone River at Miles City in this 2007 aerial view. Fort Keogh is located in the upper right corner of the photo.

Citing recent fires and low deer populations, one of the largest Block Management Areas in southeastern Montana shut down its hunter access program in August after decades of enrollment.

In the past, Fort Keogh has opened up more than 55,400 acres attracting about 1,300 hunter days. The land is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a livestock and range research laboratory just outside Miles City, making it a popular and convenient hunting area for locals.

Since 1992, the USDA had enrolled the fort’s land in Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management Program to reduce the deer population on the property. This year the fort was scheduled to be open from Sept. 1 through Dec. 1. That changed in August.

“USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is currently restricting hunter access on Fort Keogh to maintain the safety of the facility and its visitors (hunters), as the current drought conditions have produced two wildfires on the facility,” Maribel Alonso, a public affairs specialist for USDA based in Fort Collins, Colorado, wrote in an email. “In addition, a reduction in the number of deer this season on Fort Keogh doesn’t support the laboratory’s research objectives.”

The program was initiated to reduce deer populations to help decrease depredation on adjacent lands, according to a 2012 Billings Gazette article.

“Some nearby landowners harvest a lot of corn and have haystacks that attract a lot of deer,” the 2012 article quoted then-range manager Brad Eik. “There are a lot of people who are satisfied that we’re keeping the deer population at a manageable level. This is especially important during times when there’s little else for deer to eat.”

Miles City hunter Taylor Poitras was disappointed to find out the property he’s hunted the last five years is closed this season.

“It’s nice because it’s so close and they have such a huge area,” he said.

Many of the closer ranchers are now outfitted, so public access isn’t allowed, Poitras said, and other BMAs are a half hour to 45 minute drive, which makes it more difficult for him to reach since he’s returned to college. Poitras and his brother-in-law had also made it an annual hunt during the Thanksgiving weekend.

“It was a little bit of a tradition going out there,” he said.

Alonso said FWP “will complete a deer population assessment in the upcoming weeks” at Fort Keogh. “Once ARS receives their data and assesses the drought condition on the property, we will reevaluate hunter access to the grounds,” she added.

FWP’s Block Management website still lists the property as enrolled for deer, antelope and upland bird hunting. Only by checking the website’s closures or restrictions on a separate page does the fort show up as shut down for the season with no reason listed.

Three other BMAs in Region 7 were listed as closed due to high fire danger and two were closed citing recent wildfires on the property. Another 22 were listed open but urged visitors to be “fire aware” in a region of the state that’s suffering through a severe drought. Stage 1 fire restrictions prohibiting campfires outside of developed recreation sites are still in effect in several counties across the state, but not Custer County where Fort Keogh is located.

“We anticipate there will be questions from a lot of people about that,” said Marla Prell, FWP spokeswoman in Miles City, but so far she hadn’t heard of many inquiries. Neither had an employee at the local sporting goods store.

Montana’s general big game season opens on Saturday and runs for five weeks, attracting thousands of hunters to Eastern Montana and its many Block Management Areas, which pay private landowners to allow public access. Fort Keogh was reportedly not compensated through the program.

In the past, two main areas of the ranch were designated for hunting. One is located between the Yellowstone River and Interstate 94 and allows archery hunting only. It had been open to hunting seven days a week during the hunting season.

The second area is a general hunting zone that includes land north of the Yellowstone River and south of Interstate 94 that was open three days a week, Friday through Sunday during hunting season. The four-day rest period each week allowed wildlife to move back into the general hunting area. Areas that contain cattle on Fort Keogh were closed to hunting.

Written permission from USDA was required to access the lands in Hunting Districts 701 and 702.

This is not the first time Fort Keogh has been in the news regarding public access. In 2019, Montana’s congressional delegation and members of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers were lobbying the USDA to reopen a fishing access site located on Fort Keogh property.

USDA had closed the site on the Yellowstone River in 2013 citing vandalism. In September 2020, it appeared that a deal between FWP and the USDA was going to be signed to reopen the property. BHA’s Miles City group said a bargain had been outlined to install a keycode-activated gate to control access, but the agreement was never finalized.

“Whenever it sounds like we’re close to a resolution, we hit a bump,” said Kevin Farron, BHA’s Montana Chapter coordinator, in an email. “Add to that the latest need to work with the railroad for an approved vehicle crossing, and it’s still unclear to us if and when this access site will be opened again.”

Farron said his group had helped raised money to install the electronic gate, which may not be necessary depending on the type of agreement worked out. Montana’s congressional delegation, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, have been involved in trying to find a solution.

Fort Keogh was established in 1876 by U.S. Army Gen. Nelson Miles. He chose the land next to where the Yellowstone and Tongue rives meet as a strategic point from which to conduct a military campaign against Native American Tribes. In 1924 the fort was turned over to the USDA as a laboratory to improve beef production and quality.

At its peak, the fort contained more than 120 buildings and housed 800 Army personnel and another 500 civilians, according to USDA’s website.

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