Wilderness Protects Biological Diversity

Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Photo: Phil Knight.

In the current election cycle, three things are clear. First, it is apparent that for the next four years, the President will, like me, be an old white guy (hopefully not named Trump). Second, the global biodiversity crisis, unfortunately, is not a campaign issue. And third, neither is human overpopulation – 7.8 billion and counting – the root cause of most environmental problems.

Without even considering the climate crisis, we are in the midst of the 6th great extinction event in the 3.8 billion-year history of life on Earth. Unlike previous extinctions, this one is entirely caused by one species: humans. The previous mass extinction, about 60 million years ago, was caused by a meteorite crashing into what is now the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists estimate that there are at least 10 million species of living organisms on the planet, and that up to half could be lost by the end of this century. The primary culprits are habitat destruction and fragmentation, invasive species, pollution, and unregulated killing. According to renowned ecologist Edward O. Wilson, human activities are creating extinctions (loss of biodiversity) at nearly 1,000 times the “background rate” of natural extinctions that occurred before humanity overwhelmed the planet.

Here in Montana, efforts to expand the National Wilderness Preservation System are frequently part of the political discourse. Too often, though, the wilderness/roadless area debate is framed only in terms of recreation. The issue is frequently debased to the lowest common denominator of pitting back-country skiers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, backpackers, horse-packers, dirt-bikers etc. against one another, as though our remaining wildlands were merely an outdoor gymnasium to be divvied up for self-interest groups.

But of course, our public wildlands are much more than that. Our national parks and forests plus National Wildlife Refuges and BLM lands represent our best opportunity to protect biodiversity, the natural assemblage of species and subspecies that constitute life on Earth. Conservation biologists tell us that to maintain viable populations of native species, we need big chunks of interconnected wilderness habitats in close proximity to one another, with minimal fragmentation.

These scientists explain that roads, off-road vehicle routes, fences, reservoirs, clear-cuts, power lines, subdivisions and other works of humanity all damage and fragment habitat, thus causing species to disappear for various reasons. Specifically, inbreeding depression (particularly in small isolated populations); disturbance from intensive human activity; loss of breeding or calving grounds plus loss of migratory routes and winter range, water pollution, noise pollution and weed infestations are some of the immediate causes of local, regional and global extinctions.

It is no wonder that the only remaining areas that still support most of their native wild species are regions dominated by big chunks of interconnected wilderness. In the temperate latitudes, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is arguably the best and most ecologically complete wilderness-dominated ecosystem on Earth. Here, there is still enough wildland habitat to support grizzlies, wolves, bison, healthy elk herds, lots of mule deer, plus wolverine, lynx, native cutthroat trout and more. In the GYE, every vertebrate species known to have been here before European colonization still survives, though some species persist in greatly reduced numbers.

Yet, despite our reputation for vast open spaces under the “Big Sky”, just 4% of Montana is designated wilderness, and a measly 2.8% of the lower 48 states is so protected. Renowned ecologist E.O. Wilson has calculated that in order to save 80-90% of the Earth’s remaining biological diversity, about 50% of the planet should be protected as inviolate nature reserves. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

Around my home in Montana, the good news is that the Custer-Gallatin National Forest (CGNF) still has roughly 800,000 acres of unprotected roadless area lands that qualify for wilderness designation. This includes about 250,000 roadless acres in the Gallatin Range, our best-known local potential wilderness. Fortunately, the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance and other grassroots groups are promoting wilderness designation under the Wilderness Act of 1964 for about 700,000 of those roadless acres. Also, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act — originally authored by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies – is a bill in Congress that would protect nearly all of the roadless wildlands of the Northern Rockies bioregion. It would indeed be a shame if these lands were lost to development and fragmentation.

By contrast, a coalition of weak “conservation” groups – mainly The Wilderness Society, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wilderness Association – are promoting fewer and smaller wildernesses in highly fragmented parcels for the CGNF, mainly to appease organized mountain bike and snowmobile groups that generally oppose wilderness.

The Custer-Gallatin National Forest will soon release its “new” forest plan for public comment. Almost certainly, the Forest Service wilderness proposal will also be tiny and truncated. Please contact the CGNF and tell the Forest Supervisor to recommend all qualifying roadless wildlands for wilderness designation. Because once we lose it, with few exceptions, wilderness and many of its dependent life forms are simply gone forever. And the Earth’s biodiversity simply cannot afford the continued loss and degradation of its priceless wilderness habitats.

Howie Wolke is a retired wilderness guide/outfitter and a past President of Wilderness Watch, a national conservation group based in Missoula, Montana. He lives in the foothills of the Gallatin Range in southern Montana. The views expressed in this essay are his own.