“Stick to the Facts”–How Green Groups Fail to Protect the Gallatin Range

The Buffalo Horn drainage is one of the most important wildlife habitats in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and deserves to be designated as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Photo George Wuerthner 

A recent guest commentary by a representative of Wild Montana in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle titled “Sticking to the Facts about Forest Protection” promoted the Gallatin Forest Partnership’s (GFP) proposal for the Gallatin Range south of Bozeman.

In his commentary, the Wild Montana author asserts that there is no “designated” wilderness in the Gallatin Range. That statement is only possible if you believe Congress and its laws don’t apply to the Gallatin Range.

Hiker in Buffalo Horn drainage, Gallatin Range, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

The GFP consists of several NGOs, including Wild Montana, The Wilderness Society (TWS), Winter Wildlands, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), plus representatives supporting mountain bikes, ORVs, tourism, and timber interests, among others. Ironically, the Green groups discount the ongoing Congressional intent to protect the Gallatin Range.

The arguments are somewhat nuanced, so please stick with me. As one-time radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “now for the rest of the story.”

The dramatic peaks of the Gallatin Range in the southern portion of Hyalite Canyon. Photo George Wuerthner

In a narrow sense, the author is correct when he asserts there is no “designated” wilderness in the Gallatin Range. But this is a sleight of hand and disingenuous statement.

Though the Gallatin Range is still awaiting official protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act, that does not mean there is no protection of wildlands in the Gallatin Range.

The crux of the matter is in 1977, Congress passed the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act, known as S. 393 legislation. S. 393 designated ten wilderness study areas in Montana, including the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA (HPBH WSA), which encompasses a good portion of the Gallatin Range, including the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages—two of the most important wildlife areas on the entire CGNF.

The Buffalo Horn Porcupine area is one of the most important wildlife areas on the Custer Gallatin National Forest, including for grizzly bears. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Gallatin Range is the last major roadless area in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that is not within the wilderness system and contains some of the most critical wildlife habitat in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For an overview of the area’s wildlife values see the report on the HPBH WSA by the Craighead Institute.

The area highlited in purple shows the location of the HPBH WSA in the Gallatin Range. 

The GFP, instead of supporting wilderness designation for the entire 155,000-acre HPBH WSA for wilderness, only recommended 102,000 acres in the Gallatin Range protected as wilderness. The GFP recommendation would primarily cover the higher elevation areas of the range, leaving some of the most critical wildlife habitat in the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages under another management option as wildlife management areas.

The upper portion of South Cottonwood Canyon, Gallatin Range. Photo George Wuerthner 

In particular, the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages immediately adjacent to Yellowstone National Park have been identified as some of the best wildlife terrain in the entire ecosystem. Whether to protect this area as wilderness has been an ongoing battle since 1910, when Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, recommended special protection for the area due to its wildlife values. The Montana Wilderness Association (now Wild Montana) was formed in Bozeman in 1956 expressly to protect the Gallatin Range.

The S. 393 legislation that includes the Gallatin Range explicitly says the purpose is “An Act to provide for the study of certain lands to determine their suitability for designation as wilderness in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964, and for other purposes.”

The legislation goes on to say: “Except as otherwise provided by this section, and subject to existing private rights, the wilderness study areas designated by this Act shall, until Congress determines otherwise, be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.”

Congress intended to protect the wilderness characteristics of S. 393 areas, including the Gallatin Range.

The word “SHALL” in S. 393 is essential. It does not give the FS discretion to do anything other than protecting wilderness characteristics in the Gallatin Range. Instead, it directs the agency to manage these areas as wilderness until Congress determines otherwise.

Gallatin Range in winter. Photo George Wuerthner 

The analogy is that the Gallatin Range (HPBH WSA) is like a “candidate species” with regard to the ESA. However, a candidate species is not officially listed under the ESA, just as the Gallatin Range is not “officially designated wilderness” in the Wilderness Area system.

The headwaters of Big Creek seen from the Gallatin Range Crest and part of the 155,000-acre HPBH WSA protected by S. 393. Photo George Wuerthner 

However, like candidate species under the ESA, one must manage them in a way that doesn’t disqualify them for listing and protects them until an official decision to list them or deny listing is concluded.

In a sense, the Gallatin Range and other S. 393 areas are “candidate” wilderness.

The Bitterroot National Forest terminated mountain bike and ORV access to the Blue Joint WSA (seen here) and Sapphire Range WSA–both areas included in the 1977  S. 393 the Montana Wilderness Study Act. Photo George Wuerthner 

The idea that the Forest Service is obligated to manage the Gallatin Range as wilderness is not just theory. The Bitterroot National Forest has two S. 393 WSAs–Blue Joint and Sapphire.

Mountain biker rides through a meadow of the Buffalo Horn drainage. Because mechanical means permits far greater mileage of travel in a day, bike riders can displace sensitive wildlife over more terrain than a hiker. Photo George Wuerthner 

Mountain bikes, ORVs, Snowmobiles, etc., were utilizing these S. 393 WSAs. Under pressure from the Friends of the Bitterroot, the Bitterroot National Forest terminated all mechanical access in these S. 393 areas arguing that Congress directed them to maintain the “wilderness characteristics” and suitability for wilderness designation. Therefore the agency had to exclude mechanical access to these areas.

The Bitterroot National Forest also closed the Sapphire Mountains WSA to motorized and mechanical access. Photo George Wuerthner 

The motorized crowd and mt. bikes took the Bitterroot NF to court, arguing these areas were not “official wilderness’ and thus should be open to mechanical access.

However, the Forest Service won in court. As a result, all mechanical use was terminated.

Perhaps when the GFP was first organized, garnering some support for any amount of wilderness in the Gallatin Range through a collaborative effort was reasonable. However, why the big Greens aren’t using this court decision to argue that the CGNF should be managing the Gallatin Range as wilderness is baffling to me.

The headwaters of the Porcupine drainage within the HPBH WSA designated by S. 393. Photo George Wuerthner

New circumstances change the equation, and the Greens could use their political and legal power to challenge the CGNF’s failure to protect the entire HPBH WSA as required by law.

For one thing, recent polls show that most Montanans support more wilderness in the state.

Second, if a court upheld the argument that Congressionally designated S. 393 WSA should be protected as wilderness on the Bitterroot National Forest, the same legal standard should apply to other areas like the Gallatin Range covered by the same S. 393 legislation.

The CGNF recommendations for wilderness are primarily along the Gallatin Crest which is scenically spectacular, but leaves too much lower elevation wildlife habitat without wilderness protections. Photo George Wuerthner 

At one time the Montana Wilderness Association (now Wild Montana), Greater Yellowstone Coalition and The Wilderness Society (TWS) were leaders in protecting the Gallatin Range. In 2006 they successfully sued the CGNF over its 2006 Travel Plan for the WSA.

A 2006 lawsuit on the CGNF Travel Plan, successfully eliminated mechanical access to much of the Gallatin Range, but left some areas like the Buffalo Horn drainage seen here open to continued mechanical access. Photo George Wuerthner 

To their credit, the final settlement significantly shrank the footprint of motorized access in the Gallatin Range, but allowed for continued motorized and mechanical access to the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages, as well as the West Pine areas of the HPBH WSA.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest finalized Forest Plan has designated the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainage as “backcountry,” a new designation that allows for continued mechanical access, clearly in violation of the S. 393 mandate to manage these areas to protect the “wilderness character.”

This a “vegetation management” thinning project at Kirk Hill in the Gallatin Range. The CGNF typically logs using “vegetation management” as the excuse. The Backcountry Designation in the new Forest Plan allows for “vegetation management”. Photo George Wuerthner

Though the CGNF forest plan direction for the Buffalo Horn Backcountry Area states that, “new permanent or temporary roads shall not be allowed, new recreation events shall not be authorized, and new motorized trails shall not be constructed or designated”, it does not terminate existing uses in this area.

Green members of the GFP celebrated the CGNF limited recommendated wilderness for the HPBH WSA portion of the Gallatin which in effect, would reduce the Congresssionally designated wilderness study acreage by more than half.

Winter in the Gallatin Range Crest. Photo George Wuerthner 

I am certain that the proponents of the Gallatin Forest Partnership believe they have achieved the best alternative for the Gallatin Range, however, new circumstances demand another review of current tactics.

The Bitterroot National Forest decision changes the situation regarding the legal protections the Forest Service is obligated to maintain. In essence, the interpretation that S. 393 mandates that the agencies to essentially manage S. 393 areas as if they were designated wilderness is now confirmed in court.

It appears that the big Greens could challenge the Custer Gallatin National Forest in a lawsuit for permitting the erosion of wilderness characteristics by ongoing mechanical access, but this would require relinquishing continued advocacy for the GFP.

The Gallatin Crest within the 155,000 acre HPBH WSA. Photo George Wuerthner 

I can acknowledge that the GFP may have seemed like the best strategy to some wilderness advocates at the time of its inception, however, that was then, and here is now. No matter what the CGNF has recommended for wilderness, it can be overrridden by Congress.

Only Congress can establish “designated” wilderness, and protecting the full acreage of the original S. 393 wilderness study area would be a good start. However, even that is not sufficient. There are over 230,000-250,000 acres of roadless lands in the Gallatin Range that could be designated and protected as wilderness by the 1964 Wilderness Act.

The Slough Creek Corridor, seen here in the Upper Boulder River drainage, was an existing road that connected the Boulder River with Cooke City, Montana which was regularly traveled by snowmobiles and jeeps.  However, the corridor  was closed to motorized use by the designation of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 

The fact that some areas are currently utilized by mechnical means does not mean that they must be permitted into the future. The “Slough Creek Corridor”, a road that once cut what is now the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in half, was closed by wilderness designation.

Similiarly, an existing road up Rattlesnake Creek in the Rattlesnake Creek Wilderness was also closed to motorized use. There are many other examples across the West where former roads and mechnical access were eliminated by wilderness designation to protect other values.

The Gallatin Range seen from Ramshorn Peak is one of the most important unprotected landscapes in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is time to designate all the suitable roadless lands as wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 

It is time to move forward and protect all the suitable wilderness quality lands in the Gallatin Range. I hope the Big Greens can see a pathway to support such a proposal.




  1. Nancy Ostlie Avatar
    Nancy Ostlie

    Thank you George for “the rest of the story.”

  2. David Patenaude Avatar
    David Patenaude

    Hello George,
    Thank you for clarifying some of the relevant history of the HPBH WSA. Very disappointing that the Big Green groups here gave away wilderness acreage not once but twice. Once in 2006 when they agreed to accept any continued motorized access in the HPBH WSA and again last year when they stopped demanding the entire HPBH WSA be designated as legislated Wilderness. You have laid out a legitimate legal argument for a lawsuit against the USFS to demand the entire HPBH WSA requires immediate Congressional wilderness designation or if that is too much to accept under current political realities, then at least require the USFS manage the HPBH WSA as de facto wilderness under the original intent of S. 393.

  3. Linda Healow Avatar
    Linda Healow

    Thanks George. Green groups accusing grassroots Wilderness advocates of spreading misinformation undermines the very places these green groups have apparently sacrificed.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Am I right in understanding that areas adjacent to Yellowstone have been awaiting a wilderness designation since 1910? 112 years? That’s a long time to wait on the back burner!

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It’s infuriating.


    And yet these people have the gall to continually push for a grizzly hunting season despite their being put down regularly. How were they food conditioned, I wonder?

  6. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Heres something worth reading – finally the disgusting slaughter of wolves encouraged by livestock producers and agencies of our government – becoming public!!!


    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Actually, WWP has it below!

  7. Doug scott Avatar
    Doug scott

    The recommended wilderness designations expired. The term mechanical is another way of saying motorized. The term “motor vehicle” means every description of carriage or other contrivance propelled or drawn by mechanical power and used for commercial purposes on the highways in the transportation of passengers, passengers and property, or property or cargo.


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