Time to Preserve the Gallatin Range in Montana

View of the Gallatin Range looking south towards Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner

The Gallatin Range, which stretches from Bozeman’s backyard south into Yellowstone National Park, is the most significant piece of wildland of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that lacks permanent protection.

Protecting this area as wilderness has been an ongoing battle since 1910, when Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, recommended special protection due to its wildlife values.

The Buffalohorn drainage is one of the most biologically important areas of the entire Gallatin Range. It contains some of the best grizzly habitat, and is a critical elk migration corridor. Photo George Wuerthner

The Gallatin Range is the last major roadless area in the Montana portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that is not within the wilderness system. It contains some of the most critical wildlife habitat in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

It is some of the best grizzly habitat outside of Yellowstone National Park, and important for elk, moose, wolves and hopefully someday bison.

In 1977, recognizing the Gallatin Range’s outstanding wildlife and wildlife attributes, Congress passed the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act, known as S. 393 legislation providing interim protection for the range.

Tom Miner Basin at the southern end of the Forest Service wilderness study area. The Gallatin Range continues suoth into Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner

S. 393 created 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 adjacent to Yellowstone National Park — two of the most important wildlife areas on the entire CGNF.

Hikers Mollie and Stratton Matteson at Emerald Lake in northern Gallatin Range. Photo George Wuerthner

The S. 393 legislation says: “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 to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.”

Mountain Biker in the Buffalohorn drainage. According to S.393 such mechanical uses are illegal, but the Forest Service has thus far refused to enforce its legal obligation to manage this area as wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner

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

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

Meadow on Bare Cone looking to Blue Joint drainage, Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. The Blue Joint area is one of several S.393 wilderness study areas. Photo George Wuerthner

Mountain bikes, ORVs, Snowmobiles, etc., utilized 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.

Looking down Porcupine Creek from Ramshorn Peak, Gallatin Range. Photo George Wuerthner

The Court upheld the argument that Congressionally designated S. 393 WSA should be protected as wilderness on the Bitterroot National Forest; it is reasonable to assume the same legal standard should apply to other areas like the Gallatin Range covered by the same S. 393 legislation.

Motorcycles in Buffalohorn drainage. Such mechanical uses compromise wilderness characteristics which the Forest Service is required to maintain. Photo George Wuerthner

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.”

Numerous streams drain the Gallatin Range, many containing native cutthroat trout. Sourdough Creek, Gallatin Range, Montana 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.

Big Creek headwaters, Gallatin Range, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

Only Congress can establish “designated” wilderness, and protecting the entire acreage of the original S. 393 wilderness study area would be a good start. However, more is needed. The 1964 Wilderness Act could designate and protect over 230,000-250,000 acres of roadless lands in the Gallatin Range as wilderness.

Paintbrush, Windy Pass, Gallatin Range, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

Wilderness designation is the “gold standard” for land protection. By permanently removing designated wilderness from commercial development like logging, mining, and oil and gas, as well as mechanical access, the federal Wilderness Act is the best strategy for long-term protection of any landscape. 

Hiker, Mollie Matteson, Windy Pass, Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness Gallatin NF, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

“Noted biologist Lance Craighead in his 2015 report on the Gallatins pointed out:  “Disturbance due to human activities reduce the amount of habitat available for use by wildlife, increases stress, and depletes energy reserves, thus reducing the carrying capacity of the habitat: the best habitat for wildlife is found in areas with the least human disturbance.”

Grizzly Bear. Photo George Wuerthner

“One point a lot of people don’t appreciate is that wildlife doesn’t just move somewhere else, because there is nowhere else to go,” Craighead said. “These roadless areas are the last place for many of these animals to go. You don’t just push them out; you reduce their populations.”

Logging at Kirk Hill in the Gallatin Range. Logging operations remove biomass, reduce carbon storage, result in sedimentation in streams, spread weeds along logging roads, and increse disturbance of wildlife. Photo Geoge Wuerthner

You can read Craighead’s detailed research paper here:  and much of what follows is drawn from his report.

More than a hundred prominant scientists and conservationists signed a letter supporting wilderness for the Gallatin Range.

Winter in Hyalite Drainage, Gallatin Range. Photo George Wuerthner

The Gallatin Range is one of the most ecologically important unprotected wildlands in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

Given the increasing human pressures on the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, It is time for Congress to protect all the suitable wilderness-quality lands in the Gallatin Range. Anything less is a dereliction of duty. The wildlands of the Gallatin Range need to be preserved as wilderness now.


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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