Gold Standard for the Gallatins

Gallatin Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Gallatin Range is one of the most critical wildlife areas in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Indeed, protecting the remaining roadless lands (approximately 230,000 acres) as Wilderness is vital to maintaining the ecosystem integrity of the GYE.

The Gallatins are home to one of the densest populations of grizzlies outside of Yellowstone National Park; they are a migration corridor for elk moving from Yellowstone to winter range in the Gallatin and Madison valleys; they have one of the few bighorn sheep populations that have never had a transplant; there are streams with genetically pure cutthroat trout; and the range hosts wolves, moose, mountain goat, lynx, wolverine, marten, and a host of other species.

The wildlife values of the Gallatin Range were recognized as early as 1910 when then chief of the US Forest Service Gifford Pinchot recommended that the area be set aside as a wildlife reserve. A year later, the Montana legislature established a wildlife reserve in the area.

Indeed, Pinchot continued to visit the upper Gallatin drainage almost annually, long after he left his position as chief of the Forest Service. Pinchot wrote of the area: “I hope the day will never come when the sound of the ax, the purr and punt of a gas vehicle will be heard to destroy the beauty and solitude of this beautiful creation.”

Efforts to protect the Gallatin Range continued throughout the last century. In 1958, Ken Baldwin, one of the founders of the Montana Wilderness Association, worked with others in the Gallatin Canyon to put together a proposal to protect the headwaters of the Gallatin River. The map they produced included the Hilgard Peaks of the Madison Range (now part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness) and the Buffalohorn-Porcupine area of the Gallatin Range. Baldwin called together a meeting at the Baxter Hotel in Bozeman to create the Montana Wilderness Association. Many luminaries in the conservation community including well-known biologists like Bob Cooney, Les Pengelly, John Craighead, and Olaus Murie, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, were involved in the discussions of how to protect the area’s wildlife habitat. It’s critical to note that the original motivation for their efforts was not to preserve “recreation” as much as the ecological integrity of the area.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Bob Cooney emphasized the commitment to wildlife habitat protection when he wrote that “the Wilderness program should not be divorced in any way from the overall conservation program.”

In 1977, Senator Lee Metcalf sponsored the Montana Wilderness Study Act legislation (S.393) that created nine Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, including one in the Gallatin Range known as the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalohorn WSA. The legislation says that “the Wilderness Study Areas designated by this Act shall, until Congress determines otherwise, be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.” Senator Metcalf learned of the passage of S. 393 while he was on his death bed in Walter Reed Hospital.

The wording “shall” is essential. It means that the Forest Service must preserve the wilderness character and potential for future Wilderness designation. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has not abided by the law. It has encouraged uses like mountain biking, snowmobiling, and dirt biking, all of which are not permitted in designated Wilderness, within the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalohorn WSA. In particular, the ecologically critical Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages are open to these non-conforming uses.

During the 1970s and 1980s, efforts to protect the Gallatin Range continued. The original proposals for a Lee Metcalf Wilderness included much of the Gallatin Range as well as the Madison Range. However, Senator John Melcher stripped the Gallatin Range from the legislation due to his intense dislike of Lee Metcalf. He did not want to honor Metcalf with a large Wilderness named in his honor. Melcher used the excuse that the checkerboard ownership of private timberland of the Gallatin Range precluded Wilderness designation.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s, public forest land parcels in what is now the Big Sky Resort area were traded for private lands in the Gallatin Range. Advocates of the land trades supported this, in part because it was assumed that the Gallatin Range would then be eligible for Wilderness designation, which would compensate for the losses in wildlife habitat created by resort development. No Wilderness was ever established.

In 2002, colleagues and I completed an assessment of biological hot spots in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and identified the Gallatin Range as one of the premier areas for biodiversity. Later, in 2015, Lance Craighead also completed a biological study of the Gallatin Range and highlighted the multiple biological values of the range. Over and over Craighead noted that the low elevation valleys of the Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages were critical for grizzly bear, elk migration, bighorn sheep, wolverine, and other wildlife. In 2019, over 100 well-known scientists, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and other luminaries signed a letter supporting the protection of all the remaining roadless lands in the Gallatin Range as Wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Wilderness is the “Gold Standard” for conservation. There is no better way to preserve and ensure the ecological integrity of the Gallatin Range, and by extension, the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, than by protecting the area as Wilderness. Currently, the Custer Gallatin National Forest is finalizing its Forest Management Plan. One can hope that the FS will recognize what Gifford Pinchot noted 109 years ago—that the Gallatin Range should be given the maximum protection possible—and will recommend Wilderness for all the roadless lands, but in particular, for the Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages.

We have an ethical obligation to protect these ecologically irreplaceable wildlands. The GYE is one of the last intact temperate range ecosystems left in the entire world. Let us not miss this opportunity to protect what can not be replaced.

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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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