With the long holiday weekend comes another annual event in Hill County, cattle moving onto Beaver Creek Park, and county officials are urging people to be aware and use caution.
“People need to really be aware that there will be livestock on the park, and, potentially, there will be livestock on the road that people need to just be aware of and slow down, ” Hill County Commission Chair Mike Wendland said Thursday.
Efforts to remind people of the danger is again going into effect, including speed-limit changes and signs to remind people to use caution.
Car-cow crashes tend to be an annual event while the livestock is in the park, although the county and state have taken several steps to raise awareness and prevent crashes in the last decade.
Wendland said that the number of crashes last year was down from historical levels.
The Montana Department of Transportation reported that last year, five car-cow crashes occurred on the park. The highest number in recent years was 2004, when seven car-cow crashes happened.
According to the MDT, only one car-cow crash occurred in 2009.
Under the grazing program, the single largest stream of revenue for the park’s operation, ranchers contract to have their animals graze on the park each year the day following Labor Day, and generally are allowed to keep their cattle on the park through the end of the year.
The grazing committee of the Hill County Park Board monitors the conditions on the park including levels of snow and how much grass is available. If conditions warrant, the committee will tell the producers they have to remove their cattle earlier than the standard Dec. 31 end date.
This year, because of the wet spring and high levels of grass on the park, the contract-holders were given a 15 percent increase over the normal numbers allowed on the park. With that increase, the number of cows on the park will jump from last year’s 3,000 head to about 3,500 head.
The issue was a hot topic in the area a decade ago, when the state was planning to take over maintenance of the highway. Under state law, state maintained highways must be fenced off to keep animals off.
After a long series of information-gathering and planning meetings, the state Legislature approved a bill giving a special exemption to Beaver Creek Highway, the local name for Montana Highway 234 that runs through Beaver Creek Park.
Part of the planning to reduce car-cow crashes included developing or improving springs in coulees and valleys away from the highway, to reduce the number of cattle on the road.
Several other actions have been taken in recent years that will again be used this year.
One is a seasonal reduced speed limit on the park. From Sept. 5 through the end of the grazing season, a night-time speed limit of 35 mph takes effect. Daytime speeds are the same as usual, 55 mph on the state-maintained portion and 45 mph on the county maintained part, south of Taylor Road.
Speed-limit signs with the different rates will be put up, as well as signs reminding people about the animals being on the park.
MDT again will be placing a large reader board just south of town reminding people headed toward the park that cows are grazing there, and to use caution.
The Hill County commissioners agreed that the educational component seems to be helping reduce the number of crashes.
“They’re sure warned enough, ” Commissioner Jeff LaVoi said, adding, “It’s like any other traffic sign. There’s some that won’t abide by it, same as on the main highway, for the most part, I think it does (help). ”