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Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range

The spectacularly glaciated Gallatin Range stretches south from Bozeman into Yellowstone National Park. The 250,000-acre roadless area is the largest unprotected wildlands left in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

WILDLIFE VALUES

The Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages (BHP) that drain into the Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana are a miniature ecological equivalent of the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone.

These lower elevation drainages contain a mix of meadows, aspen groves, and conifer forest and support some of the most important wildlife habitat in the Gallatin Range as well as the entire northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The densest grizzly bear populations in the entire northern Yellowstone area occur here. The BHP is also a major elk migration corridor, and also important in its own right as a winter range for elk as well as moose. The Gallatin Range is also home to one of the few bighorn sheep populations that have never been extirpated. Mountain goat, wolves, cougar, wolverine, lynx, and many other wildlife species also call the BHP home. And it is the best place in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem outside of Yellowstone Park for the restoration of wild bison.

Besides charismatic megafauna, the Montana Heritage Program lists 18 bird species, two amphibians, one reptile, three fish, and eight mammal species considered to be at risk due to declining populations that may reside in the Gallatin Range.

PROTECTION EFFORTS

Protecting this landscape has been recognized of critical importance for decades. Beginning in 1909, Gifford Pinchot, head of the newly created US Forest Service, petitioned to have the southern Gallatin Range in the BHP area set aside as a game range. In 1911, the state of Montana established a wildlife reserve there.

In 1977 a 155,000-acre core area was Congressionally designated under S. 393 as the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalohorn Wilderness Study Area (HPBH), including the Buffalohorn-Porcupine area, in part to protect these critical wildlife values.

During the initial legislative efforts in the early 1980s to create a Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the Gallatin Range was part of the proposal, but dropped primarily due to checkerboard ownership of private lands that were mixed in among the public Forest Service sections, as well as recognition that the 1977 designation of the HPBH WSA status provided some interim protection.

Staring in the 1980s through the 2000s the private checkerboard lands in much of the Gallatin Range were traded out or purchased for lands around what is now Big Sky Resort.

This loss of public lands in the Big Sky area was justified in part due to the wildlife values of the BHP which the MDFWP testified contained “… some of the most important wildlife/biological corridors in the West.”

The acquisition of these private checkerboard parcels by the Forest Service was always assumed to be a step in the eventual designation of these lands as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

For instance, in 1993 testimony before Congress on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Wilderness Society, Wilderness Society Northern Rockies Regional Director, Michael Scott, proclaimed “The consolidation of the checkerboard in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area within the Gallatin Range sets the stage for future consideration of the WSA and surrounding lands for wilderness.”

GALLATIN FOREST PARTNERSHIP

That is why it is particularly ironic given this past support and recognition of the high wildlife and wilderness values of the Buffalohorn Porcupine drainages in what is essentially the ecological equivalent of the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range that today these organizations, along with the Montana Wilderness Association and others have signed on the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) that promotes eliminating WSA status for the Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages.

While the GFP supports 102,000 acres of the high elevation “rocks and ice” portion of the Gallatin Range for wilderness designation, the GFP proposes eliminating Wilderness Study Area status for the low elevation lands in the BHP drainages. Instead, GFP espouses designation of a 31,290-acre Buffalohorn Porcupine “Wildlife Management Area” to facilitate recreational use, particularly mountain biking.  (The GFP also proposes a similar WMA designation for 25,000 acre West Pine area, a critical wildlife corridor, on the northeast corner of the Gallatin Range.)

This is particularly ironic given that all these groups have been criticizing Montana US Senator Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte for their efforts to remove WSA status for other WSAs. Yet GYC, MWA, TWS, and other groups are willing to eliminate wilderness study status for the BHP portion of the Gallatin Range.

While I am pleased with the outstanding effort of these organizations to counter Daines and Gianforte’s attempts to reduce protection for these wildlands, it should not come at the expense of the wilderness designation of the BHP.

The GFP proposal does advocate for restrictions on mountain biking and ORV use to protect wildlife, however, whether these restrictions would be implemented or enforced is unknown. Plus the proposal would allow non-commercial logging (all recent FS timber sales are justified for other reasons like forest health or wildfire prevention, so this prohibition does not necessarily protect the area).

Promoting something other than wilderness designation for the Buffalohorn Porcupine area denigrates the true wildlands values of this area.  It puts recreational use ahead of wildlands and wildlife values in an area that for decades has been recognized as some of the most exceptional wildlife habitat in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Imagine what wildlands advocates would say today if there were a similar debate over the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. If conservation groups conceded to remove the Lamar Valley from park protection to permit recreational use by mountain bikers, snowmobilers, and others, it would be viewed scandalous.

Members of the GFP argue that proposing wilderness designation for these areas is politically difficult given the opposition from mountain bikers and other recreationalists.

However, I would remind all wilderness advocates that a similar situation existed at the time when the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness was created in 1978.

At that time, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and even jeeps traveled between the Boulder River and Cooke City in what was known as the Slough Creek Corridor.

During the debate about the boundaries of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, some wilderness advocates made exactly the same argument against support for a more expansive wilderness (what we actually got) in favor of a diminutive proposal that would only protect the high-country area east of the Boulder River as wilderness, suggesting that a more expansive wilderness was “politically impractical.”

But politics isn’t a straight line, and there is much serendipity to all conservation efforts. One cannot know what may be politically feasible until you try. Fortunately, the advocates for a more comprehensive Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness won out and today we have a nearly million-acre wilderness that is one of the gems of the national wilderness system.

ADVOCATE FOR WILDERNESS

Until conservationists advocate for wilderness designation for the entire Gallatin Range, one cannot know what may be politically possible.

There are other issues with the GFP that needs remedy including greater wilderness advocacy for areas in the Hyalite Canyon region such as South Cottonwood Canyon and Chestnut Mountain, but suffice to say that it is my hope that wilderness advocates including organizations like the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and Greater Yellowstone Coalition reassess their promotion for the halfway measures of the GFP and instead seek full wilderness protection for all roadless lands in the range, especially for the Buffalohorn Porcupine drainages or what could be called the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range.

If you are a member of any of these organizations, I urge you to contact them and compliment them for making protection of the Gallatin Range a priority but ask them to advocate for wilderness designation for all of the roadless lands in the Gallatin Range.

Keep in mind these are lands owned by all Americans, as well as internationally significant. The Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages lie just north of Yellowstone National Park which was designated International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and a World Heritage Site in 1978.

Therefore, the Gallatin wildlands deserve the best protection possible and wilderness is the Gold Bar for conservation status. Conservationists should be advocating nothing less.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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