Protecting the Northern Yellowstone Ecosystem

The Buffalo Horn drainage in the Gallatin Range. The Gallatin Range is the largest unprotected landscape in the northern Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance (GYWA) has produced draft legislation to protect the wildlands of the Northern Yellowstone Ecosystem that we intend to get introduced into Congress.

Our goal is to ensure that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains functional in the future.  We support designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act, the Gold Standard for land protection to preserve the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s critical wildlife habitat and significant wildlands (CGNF).  We also identify more than 50 stream and river segments that should be designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

There are more than 700,000 roadless acres that qualify as wilderness on the CGNF. Among the largest roadless parcels are found in the Gallatin Range, which is the largest unprotected wildlands in the northern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Taylor Fork in the Madison Range. Photo by George Wuerthner.

 It is important to note that the CGNF is simply not the Nation’s wood box, feedlot, or an essential recreational thrillcraft area. There are other parts of the country which are better landscapes to practice these activities.

What the CGNF  offers is the opportunity to protect an intact, functioning ecosystem. As home to some of the Nation’s best wildlife habitat, safeguarding these wildlands values should be the highest priority for federal management. That is the goal of our proposed legislation.

Among the areas that GYWA has identified for wilderness are between 230,000-271,000 acres of the Gallatin Range. Wilderness designation would protect the entire Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. In particular, the Porcupine-Buffalo Horn drainages lie just north of Yellowstone National Park and contain some of the best wildlife habitat in the whole ecosystem. The Porcupine-Buffalo Horn area is critical habitat for grizzly bears in the ecosystem. It is also an elk winter range and migration route. The area also supports bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, wolves, black bear, wolves, and cougar.

Upper Cottonwood Drainage in the northern Gallatin Range. Photo by George Wuerthner.

 Other areas proposed for wilderness designation include 43,000 acres of the Lionhead area of the southern Madison Range by West Yellowstone.

Lionhead Peak in the Madison Range. Photo by George Wuerthner.

 A portion of the Madison Range is already designated as the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The Madison Range contains some of the highest peaks in Montana outside of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

Many additional acres could and should be added to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Proposed additions include approximately 18,000 acres in Cowboy Heaven, which provides a corridor between the Spanish Peaks and Beartrap Canyon. GYWA also identified another 11,000 roadless acres along the northern edge of the existing Spanish Peaks Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness for protection. South of Big Sky is the 43,000-acre Buck Ridge Roadless proposed addition to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. In the Taylor Fork are approximately 4500 acres which should be protected as wilderness. The largest proposed expansion is about 111,000 acres in the Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Meadow  in Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area Photo by George Wuerthner.

The existing Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness is surrounded by numerous roadless acres, which GYWA propose for wilderness designation. The most significant proposed additions include the 56,000 acre Dome Mountain to Emigrant area by Chico Hot Springs. This is an important wildlife migration corridor for animals moving out of Yellowstone to the state’s Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

The Dome Mountain Wildlife Area is a critical migration corridor between Dome Mountain and Emigrant Peak. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Another sizable potential addition to the AB Wilderness lies in the Deer Creek drainages near Big Timber, Montana. With some minor road and ATV trail closures, approximately 129,000 acres could be added to the wilderness. The Deer Creek area is lower elevation terrain with many meadows. Much of the area burned, and there is a tremendous amount of aspen and other shrubs like chokecherry regrowth providing excellent wildlife habitat.

The Deer Creek area has numerous open meadows and substantial lower elevation wildlife habitat. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The various branches of Rock Creek by Red Lodge also contain significant roadless lands and the Line Creek Plateau, all of which could be added to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

Rock Creek drainage by Red Lodge, Montana Photo by George Wuerthner.

The Crazy Mountains are a heavily glaciated mountain range near Livingston, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The heavily glaciated peaks of the Crazy Mountains northeast of Livingston climb more than 7,000 feet above the surrounding valley. This elevational rise is as much as the Tetons tower above Jackson Hole. Approximately 90,000 acres of the Crazy Mountains are recommended for wilderness status.

The spectacular Bridger Range forms the backdrop for Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley. Although a significant amount of the range is already developed, including the Bridger Bowl Ski Area, there are still 41,000 acres that qualify as wilderness. Another 12,000 acres in the northern Bridger Range are also proposed as wilderness.

The spectacular Bridger Range near Bozeman, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

South of Billings lies the Pryor Mountains. These mountains contain some of the most extraordinary diversity of plant species in Montana. The Pryors are home to over 40% of all plant species known to exist in Montana. Rising to nearly 9,000 feet elevation, with subalpine meadows that drop down to some of Montana’s most arid lands, the Pryors provides habitat for species reaching their northern limits here, including Utah juniper, white-tailed prairie dog, and Pallid bat. There are four Forest Service roadless areas of more than 45,000 acres plus additional adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands which could be designated as wilderness.

The Pryor Mountains are an isolated but spectacular mountain range south of Billings, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Finally, on the Ashland Ranger District, there are several small roadless areas–Tongue River Breaks, Cook Mountain and King Mountain– dominated by ponderosa pine and northern plains grasslands that should be designated as wilderness.

Ponderosa pine savanna typical of the Ashland Ranger District here in the Tongue River Breaks proposed wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.

With your help, we can achieve the long-term goal of preserving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s ecological integrity. Please join us.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy