Gallatin Range Wilderness Needs Defenders

The Gallatin Range runs from Bozeman into Yellowstone National Park. The Custer Gallatin National Forest (CGNF) segment contains a 230,000-acre roadless area. Currently, the CGNF is considering which parts of the forest to recommend for wilderness in its Forest Plan.

The FS recommends about 85,000 acres in two segments as wilderness. The Gallatin Forest Partnership recommends slightly more acreage at 102,000 acres, but less than half of what could be protected. Their proposal and that of the Forest Service are basically a high elevation rock and ice wilderness proposal.

The Gallatin Forest Partnership is a collection of recreation interests including mountain bikers, ORVers, hunting guides, and includes the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society and Montana Wilderness Association. These recreational promoters have divvied up Montana’s Gallatin Range into different management zones based on recreational use allotments.

The problem is that the Gallatin Range is the last major unprotected wildlands in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One can easily argue that the Gallatin Range has international significance. The entire roadless component of the range should be protected as designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wilderness is the “Gold Standard” and any other designation does not do justice to the wildlands and wildlife in the range.

See Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness for more information.

Even more importantly, the Gallatin Forest Partnership assigns other less protective status to areas like the Buffalo Horn-Porcupine drainage and West Pine area as well as much of the northern portion of the range in the Hyalite Basin. All of these lands contain the best wildlife habitat in the entire Gallatin Range.


Back in the 1980s much of the Gallatin Range had checkerboard railroad lands (something like 50,000 acres was private) . Some of these were traded over time for other lands in the Big Sky area to facilitate the development of that ski resort. One of the justifications for these land trades was to “compensate” and mitigate for the increased development and loss of wildlife habitat in the Big Sky area by blocking up the land in the Porcupine Buffalo Horn area to provide less disturbance to wildlife.

These private railroads land in the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages were chosen for trade because they were the most important wildlife habitat in the entire Gallatin Range.

The area is an important and critical elk migration area with elk moving from northern Yellowstone through the PBH drainage up the Taylor Fork and over to the Madison Valley. It is also the best place for bison recolonization. It is deemed one of the best places in the Gallatin Range for grizzlies.  It has wolves, cougar, wolverine, bighorn sheep, and of course mule deer. Not to mention both streams have genetically pure cutthroat trout in them. In other words, you could not find a more important wildlife area to protect in the entire northern GYE.

According to Lance Craighead’s report on the Gallatin Range, the Buffalo Horn is a key drainage. He says “One exception to this pattern, however, is the importance of the southern end of the HPBH WSA as a migration corridor for elk from Yellowstone Park moving to and from the Madison Valley and areas in Gallatin Canyon.   The Buffalo Horn drainage is very important for regional connectivity for elk.”

Craighead goes on to note that there are differences in the impact from recreational users. With ORVS and mountain bikers causing more flight distances than a response to horseback and hikers.


“Elk flight response was greatest for ORV use, followed by mountain biking, and finally human hikers and horseback riders. “Higher probabilities of flight response occurred during ATV and mountain bike activity, in contrast to lower probabilities observed during hiking and horseback riding.”

Craighead goes on to say: “Probability of a flight response declined most rapidly during hiking, with little effect when hikers were beyond 550 yards from an elk. By contrast, higher probabilities of elk flight continued beyond 820 yards from horseback riders and 1,640 yards from mountain bike and ATV rider.”

Significantly, an increase in movement rates at sunrise and sunset following daytime ORV and mountain-biking use was observed, suggesting the elk are displaced from preferred security and foraging activities following human use.

The real important fact is that elk avoid trails even when users are not present. “Elk displayed avoidance of the trail even when no ATV’s or other users were present (Wisdom et al. 2004” In other increased recreational use will eliminate important habitat.


Many of the areas available to mountain biking etc. are now occupied grizzly habitat, including Porcupine and Buffalo Horn as well as east side drainages like Big Creek, Fridley and even West Pine Creek which the Partnership even proposes more mountain biking trails.

From 1980-1989 the population expanded to include the Porcupine Creek and Rock Creek drainages and the headwaters of Big Creek. From 1990-2000 the population expanded primarily on the eastern half of the HPBH WSA to include the Big Creek, Dry Creek, and Fridley Creek drainages. By 2014, grizzly bears had been documented as using almost all the HPBH WSA except for a small block of land at the headwaters of Fox Creek (Figure 15). The distribution of the grizzly bear population has continued to expand since 2014.

According to MDFWLP the southern end of the HPBH WSA (Buffalo Horn) is within the Primary Conservation Area. The rest of the HPBH WSA falls within the Bozeman Bear Analysis Unit (BAU).


The Gallatin Forest Partnership seems to only be about divvying up recreational use. That is not the best basis for land use decisions, especially with roadless lands. Let’s keep in mind that we have very little roadless land left in the country that could potentially qualify for wilderness. And if the Porcupine Buffalo Horn isn’t one of them, I don’t know of anything better.

The Gallatin Forest Partnership will increase recreational use in this area through increased mountain biking. The fact is that there should have never been bikes allowed in this area in the first place as some recent decisions on the Bitterroot NF Blue Joint and Sapphire WSAs demonstrate. However, the FS failed to protect the roadless lands from mountain biking. And instead of standing up for the wildlands values of this area, the Partnership (which BHA also signed) will legalize what is essentially illegal use.

Worse, it degrades the original purpose for the land trades which was to block up the most important wildlife habitat in the Gallatin Range, so it could be protected as wilderness.

I could go on with other species that will be negatively impacted by the Gallatin Partnership agreement, but the point is that the entire 230,000 Gallatin Range roadless area is critical to maintaining the ecological integrity of the GYE.

Indeed, it is truly ironic that the status as a Wilderness Study Area is better than the proposal endorsed by GYC, TWS, and MWA which would reduce wildlands protection from 155,000 in the WSA (including the Buffalo Horn Porcupine) to only 102,000 acres dominated by high elevation lands.







  1. Forrester Avatar

    Sad to hear this news. It is like common-sense is being beaten down by idiots.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Disgusting. It’s sad that most everytime people can make a choice to do better, they make the selfish choice and go for themselves (as if people haven’t frittered away enough land already). What can we do to help?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner