Protect the Wildlands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

The Buffalo Horn drainage in the Gallatin Range is one of the most important wildlife areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the last major relatively intact temperate-zone ecosystem in the world. It is a global heritage.

There are organizations like the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), The Wilderness Society (TWS), Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYC), and others as members of the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) who support degrading the wildlands of the ecosystem with weak or no protection for some of the most ecologically significant areas of the northern portion of the ecosystem.

These groups continuously emphasize how they are good compromisers, providing “everyone” a piece of the pie (ecosystem).

This would be analogous to taking the Mona Lisa and cutting it into pieces so “everybody” can have a part of this work of art. In the end, you do not have the painting.

The same thing is true for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is under assault from many, many threats, including growing recreational impacts, new logging proposals, livestock grazing, housing, and other development. Most importantly, today, climate change, as well. The only thing these groups are doing is “compromising” is the ecosystem’s resilience and integrity.

Upper Cottonwood Creek in the northern portion of the Gallatin Range. Photo George Wuerthner

In the 1980s, I was on the board of the MWA, and in the 1990s, I worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Back then, both organizations aggressively challenged compromising activities that threaten our wildlands based on the idea of “cumulative impacts.” The basic idea was that you destroy the land, not in one big event but a thousand cuts over time. Cumulative impact is a term you don’t hear from any of these groups anymore.

In the early 2000s, several colleagues and I completed a biological assessment of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We spent two years developing our final report, which identified the most critical biological hot spots in the entire ecosystem (Noss et al. 2002). The Upper Gallatin River and its tributaries, including the Porcupine and Buffala Horn drainages on the Custer Gallatin National Forest, were among the top hot spots in the entire ecosystem.

Among other critical attributes, these drainages possess the best grizzly habitat outside of the park. They are home to an elk migration route and elk winter range. Bighorn sheep, moose, deer, wolverine, wolves, and other wildlife also call it home.

But you won’t hear these groups refer to our report or others by Lance Craighead, Steve Gehman, and even Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, all of which identified the upper Gallatin as one of the most important wildlife areas in the entire ecosystem.

Instead, you will hear over and over how good these so-called conservation groups are at compromising with different interests they are including mountain bikers, snowmobilers, dirt bikers, loggers, and so forth. Somehow they have deluded themselves into thinking that recreation and other uses are “conservation.”

Mountain bikers, dirt bikers, and other mechancial recreationalists have created numerous “user” trails, expanding the footprint of human influence in the Buffalo Horn drainage seen here. Photo George Wuerthner

Currently, the Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages are part of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. The Congressional designation as WSA provides greater protection for these drainages than the “wildlife management area” designation that the Gallatin Forest Partnership advocates for this area. Not to mention the GFP also agrees to more logging in the Hyalite drainage, and less protection for the West Pine area—all part of the Congressional WSA.

We who live near it or visit it have a responsibility to provide maximum protection for its ecological function and integrity. Wilderness designation is the gold standard for conservation. We don’t need more “compromise” of our wildlands; what we need is more champions of wilderness designation for all the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s undeveloped lands.

The time for compromise passed a long time ago. It is time to defend what is left, or we will not have anything worth defending.

If you are more interested in protecting wildlands than recreational access, you should support organizations advocating for the Greater Yellowstone wildlands, including the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, Alliance for Wild Rockies, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Pryor Mountain Coalition, among others.

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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