Saving the Lionhead Wilderness

Unnamed lake in Lionhead proposed wilderness looking north to peaks in Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.

One of the most outstanding wildlands on the Custer Gallatin National Forest is the 43,759-acre proposed Lionhead Wilderness. The Lionhead lies along the Continental Divide and rises up above  Hebgen Lake near West Yellowstone. The Madison River and Quake Lake on the north, while Targhee Pass on the south and Raynold Pass on the west all delineate the boundaries of this area. It is the southernmost extension of the Madison Range which are sometimes referred to as the Henry’s Lake Mountains.  Part of this roadless area exists on the Targhee National Forest and Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forests.

There is some history associated with the area. Targhee was a Bannock Indian chief. The Bannock tribe along with others like the Nez Perce used his namesake pass as one of the routes traveled to and from the bison killing plains east of the mountains in Montana and Wyoming. Raynold’s Pass is named for Captain William F. Raynolds. Raynolds who was a leader of an Army expedition of the Topographical Engineers across South Dakota, and portions of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana in 1859-60 that was led by famed mountain man Jim Bridger. Henry’s Lake is named for Andrew Henry who co-owned the Rocky Mountain Fur Company which employed Jim Bridger, Jedidiah Smith, the four oldest Sublette brothers, including William and Milton, Jim Beckwourth, Hugh Glass, Thomas Fitzpatrick, David Edward Jackson, Joseph Meek, among other famous mountain men whose names now litter topographical features throughout the West.

Coffin Lake in Lionhead proposed wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The Lionhead area rises from around 6,000 feet along the Madison River to over 10,611 on Lionhead Peak. The mountains are composed of sedimentary rocks that have been uplifted along several faults. Glaciers have created several lakes and tarns, as well as spectacular cirques. The sedimentary layers are unstable and an entire mountainside gave way during the 1959 earthquake which shook loose tons of rock into the Madison River to create Earthquake Lake.

The Lionhead is characterized primarily by Douglas fir forests at lower elevations with Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and lodgepole pine at higher elevations. There are extensive aspen groves as well. Numerous meadows break up the forest stands and have spectacular flower blooms in summer.

The vegetation diversity supports all the larger mammals known to exist in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem including grizzly bear, wolves, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, mule deer, and wolverine. Westslope Cutthroat Trout known to occur within 9 miles of stream. The area could also support wild bison if they were ever permitted to roam freely by the Montana Dept of Livestock.

There are 18 miles of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) within the Lionhead proposal and several other trails including Targhee Creek (Idaho side) Sheep Creek and Coffin Lake.

Looking towards Madison Range (Lee Metcalf Wilderness) from Lionhead Proposed Wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The area has long been proposed for wilderness to protect the critical linkage as a migration corridor for wildlife. Grizzly bear, wolverine, wolves, moose, elk, among other species are known to use the Lionhead as a movement area. It is an important corridor connecting to the Centennial Range and the Continental Divide other large wild areas further west in Central Idaho.

Demonstrating its significance as wildlands, the 1987 Gallatin Forest Plan recommended 22,800 acres as wilderness. This proposed wilderness lies adjacent to additional roadless lands on the Deerlodge Beaverhead NF and Targhee NF that are also proposed for wilderness, making the final size of this area much larger.

One really has to see this as part of the greater whole. With the adjacent lands in the southern Gallatin Range (Porcupine Buffalohorn) and adjacent parts of the Madison Range including the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, but also the Cabin Creek area, the entire area is one of the most critical and important wildlife corridors and habitat in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wilderness is the gold standard for protection, and the Lionhead, along with these other areas should be designated as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Threats to this area include proposed logging and new roads along the base of the mountains, as well as increasing mountain biking use of trails (mountain bikes and other mechanical access is not allowed in wilderness areas). Hopefully, the Custer Gallatin National Forest will once again recommend wilderness for this area in its soon to be released forest plan.

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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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