New Rules on Flathead Lake Islands Help FWP Keep Pace with Recreation Demands

Consequences of increased visitor use on wildlife habitat include garbage, unattended campfires, human waste and vandalism

By Tristan Scott
Smoke rises from a fire on Bird Island on Flathead Lake on August 4, 2020. Photo by David Spear

As visitation to Flathead Lake’s state-managed islands continues to increase, so do the negative consequences on wildlife habitat, including an uptick in instances involving human waste, garbage, vandalism, and unattended campfires.

To that end, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) announced on Jan. 7 it is moving forward with a suite of rule changes the agency proposed last year to conserve wildlife habitat and improve the visitor experience on several of its Flathead Lake island properties.

FWP manages five islands on Flathead Lake, including Wild Horse Island State Park, but the new habitat conservation plan would be confined to just four — Bird Island north of Finley Point, Cedar Island off the west shore of the lake near Rollins, Douglas Islands off Miller Point, and Goose Island near West Shore State Park. The state agency manages the islands as Wildlife Habitat Protection Areas (WHPA).

The new management plan by FWP, which agency officials say improves upon the 2009 Flathead Lake Island Management Plan developed by a committee of stakeholders, seeks to address the impacts of growing recreational use of the islands, including deposits of human waste and garbage, as well as vandalism, which the environmental assessment calls “extreme,” especially at the Cedar Island homestead site.

Problems with campfires have also been well documented by FWP staff, who have responded to and cleaned up numerous fire rings and burn-pile debris. While no definitive cause was determined, a 2020 wildfire on Bird Island prompted officials to speculate it may have been sparked by an improperly extinguished campfire.

“FWP believes these proposals would positively impact the wildlife, vegetation, and water quality of the islands,” according to an agency press release announcing the proposed rule changes last October. “The proposed actions would also enhance the recreational experience of visitors to the islands now and for years to come.”

The 2009 Flathead Lake Island Management Plan was developed with extensive public engagement, as well as through input from tribal members, residents, a county commissioner, business leaders, and a nonprofit organization, the release states.

FWP sought public input last fall “on a variety of proposals to balance recreational opportunities and habitat conservation on the four islands through a draft environmental assessment process,” the agency states. After reviewing input and revising certain proposals, FWP issued a decision notice on Jan. 5 that outlines specific plans that will go into effect involving the islands.

The new policy includes plans to:

  • Establish and enforce designated campsites for overnight stays on Bird and Cedar islands. These campsites would be located in traditional use areas to limit proliferation of additional sites and reduce overall impacts to the island’s wildlife habitat.
  • Offer campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. There would be a fee for camping, with revenues contributing toward island operations and maintenance. Mainland state park campgrounds on Flathead Lake utilize a reservation system, and the WHPA campsites could be added to the reservation system at a future date. 
  • Prohibit camping on the smaller Douglas and Goose islands to conserve wildlife habitat, and to conform with existing WHPA management. 
  • Install and maintain centrally located composting toilets on both Bird and Cedar Islands to address human waste concerns and visitor health and safety issues.
  • Construct a minimal trail system to connect up to seven campsites and the composting toilet on Cedar Island.
  • Install appropriate signage and informational kiosks on all four islands to inform recreationists of the islands’ history and regulations.
  • Prohibit use of islands during waterfowl-nesting season (March 1-July 15) on Goose, Douglas and Bird Islands.

Additional details on the new management policies are available online.

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