Longtime conservationist victim of Montana dust storm crash

July 20, 2022 GMT
First responders work the scene on Interstate 90 after a fatal pileup where at least 20 vehicles crashed near Hardin, Mont., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Amy Lynn Nelson/The Billings Gazette via AP)
First responders work the scene on Interstate 90 after a fatal pileup where at least 20 vehicles crashed near Hardin, Mont., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Amy Lynn Nelson/The Billings Gazette via AP)
First responders work the scene on Interstate 90 after a fatal pileup where at least 20 vehicles crashed near Hardin, Mont., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Amy Lynn Nelson/The Billings Gazette via AP)
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First responders work the scene on Interstate 90 after a fatal pileup where at least 20 vehicles crashed near Hardin, Mont., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Amy Lynn Nelson/The Billings Gazette via AP)
1 of 2
First responders work the scene on Interstate 90 after a fatal pileup where at least 20 vehicles crashed near Hardin, Mont., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Amy Lynn Nelson/The Billings Gazette via AP)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A longtime conservationist and the founder of an organization dedicated to creating a community of people who participate in outdoor recreation was among six victims in a Montana interstate pileup caused by a dust storm last Friday. The crash also killed two children, ages 3 and 11, authorities said Wednesday.

The vehicles carrying the victims — all from Montana — crashed at highway speeds into the backs of other vehicles that had slowed down on Interstate 90 just west of Hardin due to the dust storm, the Montana Highway Patrol said in its crash report.

Eric Love, 60, of Bozeman, who had worked for the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy, was the founder of a nonprofit organization that offers outdoor sports lessons, training and competition in the Bridger Mountains north of Bozeman, said Laurie Stahle, spokesperson for Crosscut Mountain Sports Center.

Love’s paid conservation work included efforts in Indonesia, Belize, and Tanzania protecting habitat for wildlife including jaguars and orangutans, said Jen Beaston, CEO of Crosscut.

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In 2014, he founded the Bridger Biathlon Club to provide a place for his children and their friends to participate in biathlon. Two years later, the organization raised $8 million to buy a former Nordic skiing area and a ranch property, which became the Crosscut Mountain Sports Center, Beaston said.

It hosts Olympians, Paralympians and other high level competitors as well as offers camps for children and provides affordable outdoor recreation opportunities for the community, including free access to mountain biking trails.

Love’s wife, Jacquie, 61, was in the van with him when it crashed. She remained hospitalized in Billings on Wednesday, Beaston said, but was exceeding expectations in her recovery.

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching Eric pour his heart and passion into Crosscut and our community. His love for both shone brightly through the signature twinkle in his eyes,” Jacquie Love said in a statement. “Eric founded Crosscut as an opportunity for his children to participate in biathlon, and grew it into the thriving, inclusive mountain sports center that connects thousands of people with nature.”

“As we grieve the giant hole he leaves in our lives, I can hear him whispering in my ear to rally together and fulfill his vision for Crosscut today and long into the future — for the benefit of our entire community,” Jacquie Love said in a statement.

The couple had celebrated their third wedding anniversary four days before the crash.

Eric Love is also survived by his children, Sabine, 20, and Alex, 18.

“Because of his love and passion, Crosscut has grown into a home for our entire community,” Sabine and Alex Love said in a statement. “He found so much pride and enjoyment out of connecting people with the outdoors through his love for this magical place.”

Last Friday’s crash also claimed five other lives.

Four of them — including the two children — were in one vehicle, the patrol report said. Bullis Mortuary identified them as Georgia Walks, 72, of Hardin; Shaylee Walks, 22; Vichelle Walks, 11; and Merrick Champ, 3, of Garryowen.

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Highway Patrol had previously said incorrectly that three of the victims were children.

A 47-year-old man from St. Xavier, who was a passenger in a pickup truck, also died in the approximately 20-vehicle pileup, the patrol said. Bullis Mortuary confirmed his name is Chad Fox.

The crash happened about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Montana’s largest city, Billings, during a peak summer traffic hour for people commuting home from work or traveling for outdoor recreation.

The patrol said Monday that 11 people were injured, including three who were hospitalized in critical condition.