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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Sep 30 2019

Stuck in the Mud on the Middle Fork of the Judith River

While the Forest Service drags its feet, a former blue-ribbon fishery continues to deteriorate

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It has now been 10 years since the travel management plan for the Little Belt Mountains worked its way through the courts and was finalized. Since then, the travel management plan has largely been implemented – with one glaring exception: the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area, where a once healthy fishery continues to deteriorate because the Forest Service hasn’t yet begun to create a route that would keep vehicles out of Middle Fork of the Judith River.

The Middle Fork Road winds through the scenic Middle Fork Canyon, leading to private inholdings located in the middle of the WSA. By law, the Forest Service must provide “reasonable access” for inholders on federal lands. But what was once more of a two-track has become a rutted road that crisscrosses the Middle Fork of the Judith 17 times over a 2.5-mile segment of the stream. 

After decades of vehicle use, the once-thriving fishery of the Middle Fork has been severely degraded. Stream banks look like they’ve been gouged out by a front-end loader, leaving a fine layer of sediment spread across the streambed. Biologists from both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Forest Service have determined that the streambed damage has significantly impacted the fishery, reducing both the number and type of fish that inhabit this stream.

Take action now to protect the Middle Fork of the Judith

The solution proposed by the Forest Service and approved in its travel management plan from 10 years ago, which MWA supports, is to reroute vehicles out of this portion of the canyon and up onto the Woodchopper Ridge Trail, an existing trail open to dirt bikes. Heavy equipment would be needed to widen the trail to allow for larger vehicles.

It isn’t a perfect solution, since the Woodchoper Ridge Trail does cross the upper segment of the Middle Fork a few times. But the Forest Service staff believe that once vehicles are rerouted out of the lower section and restoration work is completed, the condition of the entire stream would improve quickly and dramatically. As a Forest Service engineer tech said to me,  “The Middle Fork of the Judith will change from a degraded fishery into a blue-ribbon trout stream.”

Inholders wanting to access their private land should not be faulted for using the existing route because there are no other vehicle routes there. But over time, as the private land has been subdivided, use of the road has increased. 

Adding to the problem, the Middle Fork Judith now attracts motorists who like the challenge of driving through a stream. It is the only place in the Little Belts where the agency still allows vehicles to do so. Sadly, the difficult terrain and stream crossings have led to several deadly accidents over the last several years. 

While the stage is set for the Middle Fork Judith being a great conservation success story, the wheels of progress seem stuck in the mud. Almost no progress has been made since the travel management plan was finalized, and vehicles continue to drive through and across the Middle Fork Judith in as large a number as ever while the fishery continues to degrade.

The need for rerouting traffic out of the Middle Fork and for restoring its streambed is obvious and well documented. Support for both exists among local Forest Service staff, most private inholders, FWP biologists, and conservation groups. Restoration will require substantial funding but work could be completed in phases. 

With a reduction in Forest Service staffing, it is understandable that some projects will take longer to complete, but it has been 10 years since a decision was made to finally address this longstanding problem, and nothing on the horizon leads one to believe that it will become a priority anytime soon – unless we take action.

Join our effort to coax the Forest Service into finally completing this part of the 2007 forest travel plan and turning the Middle Fork Judith back into the blue ribbon fishery it once was. 

- Mark Good, senior conservation advisor