Montana Nabs Surplus Snowcat for Backcountry Rescues

Jan 24, 2024 | Partner News

New tracked snowcat

With the temperatures hovering around -20 degrees on Jan. 12, 2024, Lake County officials in Montana snap a photo of their new tracked snowcat, received via donation from the Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Marine Corps, prior to testing it on the state’s rugged mountainous terrain.

Winter has definitely arrived, and while most of the U.S. gets smacked with seasonal extremes, there are few places with temperatures more dramatic than in portions of Montana, where the wind chill is – as this story is being written – 40 degrees below.

It can be rough, unforgiving country, and in 2023, Montana’s Lake County became the proud recipient of a “snowcat” formerly used at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, California, and originally valued at $177,000. The property acquisition – free to the state – was coordinated through the Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services excess property donation program.

“Let’s say a rural fire department needs a skid steer,” said Eugene Shepard, the federal property screener for Montana’s fire suppression efforts, who has relied on DLA to round up countless vehicles and equipment pieces for his state in the past two decades. “The only way you can get something like that is through military surplus.”

Shepard has helped steer millions of dollars in equipment that no longer meets military standards to vital people and property protection missions across 56 Montana counties. He said Lake County, just south of Glacier National Park, receives significant annual snowfall, and the tracked “good condition” tracked vehicle from DLA’s Sierra property disposal site in California will allow disaster and emergency services personnel there to access mountaintop communications towers during heavy snowfall and support backcountry rescue missions. 

At Sierra, two DLA property disposal specialists teamed up to facilitate the donation, with Eric Robie handling the tractor turnover from the Marine Corps and Sean Gates working with Montana to finalize their acquisition. During DLA’s standard property disposition cycle, items are first offered for reutilization to military units, then for transfer to other federal agencies, and finally as donations to states, municipalities, and qualifying non-profits.

When it comes to Montana’s surplus desires, Shepard said he relies on the input of six regional appointees who funnel him regular property requests that help his office determine what to keep an eye out for in the online real-time database DLA maintains.

“This property access is hugely beneficial,” Shepard said. “There’s some places in our state with extremely limited resources and tax base, they can’t even afford a firetruck or an extra pickup. When I talk to these people, fire chiefs and local officials, face to face, they say it’s a game changer.”

The agency’s property disposition field sites accept military turn-ins all over the world, including from “receipt-in-place” customers that transfer accountability for used equipment to DLA but continue to keep physical custody of items until a new recipient is identified. Claiming the property is free, but donation recipients must handle transportation costs and logistics.

“The closer the better,” Shepard said, regarding what DLA sites Montana will request excess military property from. Transportation costs are the state’s main hurdle with military excess, “but we’ve shipped equipment from Florida, Maryland, Alaska – one firetruck I know of shipped from Pearl Harbor. It just depends on the item.”

He said that taking full advantage of military property reuse has challenged him to essentially become a transportation logistician at moments, but the net benefit to Montana is well worth the extra effort involved.

“The fact that we even have an opportunity to acquire these items, it’s quite a gift, really,” Shepard said.

By Jake Joy, DLA Disposition Service Public Affairs

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