A Bozeman man cited for trespass on a contested Forest Service trail along the eastern base of the Crazy Mountains has pleaded not guilty in order to challenge the landowner’s claim in court.
Rob Gregoire used the route, marked as Trail 115/136 on Forest Service maps, to access public land while hunting elk on Nov. 23. After the day of hunting he hiked out on the same trail and found a Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s deputy waiting for him.
“He was very polite and gave me a ticket,” said Gregoire, a Montana native who has been hunting since 1981.
The $585 criminal trespass citation was issued to Gregoire for crossing the Hailstone Ranch, owned by Lee and Barbara Langhus. Gregoire pleaded not guilty in December and an omnibus hearing is scheduled for February in Sweet Grass municipal court.
“We need to stand up for what’s ours,” Gregoire said.
Challenging the citation has earned him moral support from some individuals as well as a few public access and hunting groups, he said. Although a different issue, in October a federal judge in Butte ruled in the Forest Service’s favor in its access lawsuit along the Indian Creek Trail where it crosses a private ranch in the Madison Mountains, south of Ennis.
The Crazy Mountains are an anomaly in Montana. Most mountain ranges in the state are federally owned, but the Crazies are a patchwork of private and Custer Gallatin National Forest lands intermixed. More than 8,000 acres of forest land in the Crazy Mountains is only accessible by crossing at the corners of where the parcels meet, the legality of which has yet to be tested in court.
The private inholdings are remnants of the 50,000 acres in the Crazies given to the Northern Pacific Railroad by the U.S. government in the 1860s as payment for building the transcontinental rail line. In the 1890s the railroad began selling the lands to individuals, among them were the Langhuses’ ancestors.
Because of the lack of public access on the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains, as of 2015 the elk herd in Hunting District 580 was more than 2,000 elk over the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ recommended levels, one of the worst areas in the state.
Gregoire said he attempted to gain access to the hunting district by requesting permission in another area, but was told he’d have to pay an access fee. So he talked to the Forest Service about using Trail 115/136 to make sure he didn’t trespass.
Blocking and posting no trespassing signs at the head of Trail 115/136 prompted Yellowstone District ranger Alex Sienkiewicz to organize a trail clearing and marking trip this past summer. Prior to that the agency traded letters with the Langhuses’ Livingston attorney, Joe Swindlehurst, who has denied there is an old forest trail at that location.
In one letter Swindlehurst countered Sienkiewicz’s claim that a prescriptive easement exists saying it “must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. It is not up to my clients to prove that no prescriptive easement exists across their land. If the Forest Service or the public thinks there is a prescriptive easement across the land, then it is up to them to prove it.”
“I guess I’m the test case,” Gregoire said.