Just 16 miles southeast of Pocatello is a treasure of immeasurable value — the Portneuf Wildlife Management Area. It is just one of 32 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) located in seven Idaho Fish and Game regions which have been established to protect wildlife habitat. These WMAs also provide opportunities for hunting, fishing and other public enjoyment of wildlife.
The Portneuf WMA is over 3,100 acres of diverse landscape lying on the western slope of the Portneuf Mountain Range. If you could spend your days exploring the WMA, you would find four creeks with their riparian habitats defined by willows, red osier dogwood, birch and cottonwoods.
Hikes in the upland areas would take you through a mixture of shrubs and grasses, including sagebrush, bitterbrush, serviceberry, mountain mahogany, chokecherry, Idaho fescue, blue-bunch wheatgrass and bottle-brush squirrel tail.
As you venture to elevations as high as 7,500 feet, you would discover timbered ridges and slopes dominated by Douglas fir, lodgepole pine and aspen stands.
And, who knows, while out and about on the WMA you just might find some lost gold — but I will get to that later.
With diverse habitats comes a diversity of wildlife species. From mule deer to marmots, from golden eagles to lazuli buntings, from gopher snakes to native cutthroat trout, the Portneuf WMA has so much to offer to the wildlife enthusiast.
The Portneuf WMA is managed primarily as a big game winter range for mule deer, a small herd of elk and a few moose. Motorized access to the WMA is closed seasonally from Nov. 15 through June 1 to protect wintering wildlife from human disturbance. However, WMA visitors can still access the WMA on foot, horseback or cross-country skis.
Deer and elk hunting are available on the Portneuf WMA as well as upland game bird hunting for turkey, ring-necked pheasant and blue, ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. Even fishing is allowed on the small creeks that run through the WMA. However, specific regulations and access to the WMA may change from year to year, so please consult current regulations for more details. And, as always, please be careful when discharging firearms on WMAs and in other wildland areas during drought conditions like we are experienceing now. Such activities can present a fire hazard.
There are a few dirt roads that you can use to access the WMA. If you prefer hiking or horseback riding or would like to snowshoe through the area during the winter, park your vehicle or horse trailer at one of four perimeter parking areas. One of the parking areas is located on the east side of Highway 91, just to the south of Robber’s Roost Creek and a dirt road that runs alongside it by the same name.
Why a name like Robber’s Roost? It turns out that during the 1860s, a stage coach route passed through Portneuf Canyon linking Salt Lake City to Virginia City, Mont. The stage often carried gold from Montana mines to Salt Lake City banks. But, the narrow canyon and thick brush provided the perfect camouflage for bandits intent on robbing gold-laden stages.
So, the site’s popularity with folks on the wrong side of the law eventually earned it the name of Robber’s Roost.
According to an account told in The Pocatello Tribune in 1865, one stage driver, Frank Williams, betrayed his passengers (and $60,000 in gold) by leading the stage to a gang led by Jim Locket. The article read: “As he rounded a steep hill, Williams turned his horses, and the road agents, concealed in the brush which was so thick that it scratched the sides of the coach, gave the word of halt. Among the passengers were two wealthy businessmen from St. Louis. Apprehensive of being held up, they had armed themselves for the journey. At the cry of ‘Hands up,’ the passengers opened fire, bringing upon themselves a volley that killed both of them and two other men.”
Legend has it that the surviving outlaws buried their loot in the Robber’s Roost area, never to reclaim it. When homesteaders settled the area, they apparently spoke of strangers armed with shovels, tape measures, and crude maps scouring the hillsides of Robber’s Roost. As the story goes, everyone left empty-handed.
To this day, some people believe that the stolen gold remains hidden somewhere in Robber’s Roost on the Portneuf WMA. Personally, I think the real treasure is the WMA itself and the wildlife that calls it “home.”
(Jennifer Jackson is the Regional Conservation Educator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s southeast region.)