Protect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Wildlands

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 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 151,000-acre 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. The GFP supports wilderness designation for only 102,000 acres of the Gallatin Range.

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, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly among others.


  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    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.

    Hear, hear!!!!

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    It seems “compromise” is only mentioned when it pertains to wildlife habitat or wilderness – Certainly not from grazing allotment leasors, nor logging proponents and absolutely not from mining or fossil fuel operation – these PROFIT motivated entities see no “profit” in Wilderness or wildlife and its habitat. In their eyes, there is no “purpose” in safeguarding our little remaining wild places and its inhabitants. I disagree – without wild places and nature there would be no saving grace in this world. Do we really want this entire country covered with “profitable” enterprises – no other species than human? Not much of a life!

  3. Beeline Avatar

    “With increased stress and isolation due to COVID-19, natural areas and the psychological benefits they provide are needed now more than ever researchers say” from

    This should be reason enough.

  4. Paul Griffin Avatar
    Paul Griffin

    There is a long standing rivalry between the Park Service and Forest Service. The Forest Service opposed the creation of the Park Service in 1916 believing more new parks would be carved from its domain. Two notable inter agency battles involved the establishment /enlargement, at Forest Service expense , of Grand Canyon and Crater Lake national parks. Olympic National Park was created in 1938 from national forest land over bitter opposition from the Forest Service and timber interests. In 1940 Congress created Kings Canyon National Park from Forest Service land. The upper Gallatin range adjacent to YNP should be transferred to the park to provide real protection from the USFS.

  5. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    I totally agree with Paul Griffin… Thank you. There are over 7 million acres of wild Public Lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park now under the lax control of the US Forest Service and the BLM. I suggest that all these National Forest and BLM lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park be brought into Yellowstone NP by Congress – and the sooner the better!

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      A dream come true!

    2. Hiker Avatar

      Yes! 100%! Every agency has flaws, including the NPS. But I think their mission is the strongest for overall protection.


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