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BLM Extends Comments On Pryor Mountain Travel After E-Bike Backlash

Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Spoke Shop owner Dean Cromwell stands with e-bike in his store.

A federal order that lumps electric bicycles in with traditional bikes has sparked concern among environmental advocacy groups who say that e-bikes could hurt trail traffic and ecology in the Pryor Mountains.

It’s a winter day in Billings with snow still on the ground and Dean Cromwell shows off a couple of e-bikes in front of his store, the Spoke Shop.

Plus and minus buttons on one handle control the motor. Pressing the plus button gives a boost of power on top of normal foot power.

This mechanism is called "pedal assist."

Cromwell explains: It makes you four times stronger than you would be otherwise.

"Basically there is a sensor built into the electric motor that senses how much you input, so it essentially makes you and I into a pro-rider,” Cromwell says.  

These e-bikes may soon be regulated under an updated travel management plan for southeastern Montana’s Pryor Mountains.

Earlier this year, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order that groups e-bikes that provide pedal assist up to 28 miles per hour together with conventional bikes.

The order has drawn so much local pushback that BLM Montana/Dakotas State Office spokesperson Al Nash says the agency last week extended the public comment period on the environmental assessment for the Pryor Mountains travel management plan.

He says it’s up to individual field offices how to implement the secretarial order.

“It’s extremely clear that any place where motorized vehicles would be allowed that you would be able to take your e-bike," he says. "We don’t have a mechanism in place yet regarding e-bikes on areas where you might otherwise take bicycles, but not clearly-defined motorized vehicles."

Environmental advocacy groups are concerned about what impact e-bikes could have in the Pryors.

The Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Wilderness Association contributed to the large response, which Nash calls unexpected.

Eastern Montana Field Director at Montana Wilderness Association, Aubrey Bertram, says there needs to be more site-specific scientific study into the environmental and wildlife effects of e-bikes. She says they're concerned about riders sneaking up on bears and disturbing sage grouse habitat.

She says, besides the social effect and possible conflict between other trail users, another issue at hand is that the secretarial order broadly affects all field offices across the country.

“And it is particularly concerning because this environmental assessment doesn’t have any site-specific analysis of what impacts could look like on the ground for all of these different forms of recreation in this really sensitive area of Montana,” Bertram said. 

On December 5, five national environmental groups filed a lawsuit to reverse a pro-ebike policy in 25 different national parks, citing concern for park-goers and park wildlife alike.

Some e-bike proponents say that the electric bicycle is about the same as a traditional bike, just with an extra boost of power that can help people with physical limitations.

Billings bike shop owner Dean Cromwell rides e-bikes himself and says e-bikes deserve a different classification than a motor vehicle because they’re still human-powered.

He says he’s seen a growth in technological advancement and popularity over the last few years.

“If I would give you the typical customer, it would be a husband and wife - because we usually sell them in pairs - a lot of them in the baby boomer age, because they’re getting to the age where maybe they've had a hip replacement, they’re a little older, they’re not as strong as they used to be, they have a little discretionary income, they still want to be active, and these things really facilitate them to be able to do that,” Cromwell said. 

LM Montana/Dakotas State Office spokesperson Al Nash says the local office will take public comments into consideration and determine from there if additional analysis is needed about what type of activity is allowed in what area.

He says the current plan does not go into detail about what type of recreational activities are allowed in different trails. It only distinguishes between motorized and non-motorized.

The BLM has extended its Pryor Mountain Travel Management Area environmental assessment comment period by a month. The deadline for public comment is now January 6. 

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.