Support Wilderness Protection for Montana’s Gallatin Range

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By George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner

The Gallatin Range is one of the largest unprotected roadless areas and some of the best wildlife habitat left in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  The heavily glaciated range extends south from Bozeman, Montana, into Yellowstone National Park.

It was recognized as superlative wildlife habitat as early as 1910 when then chief of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot recommended that the range be protected as a wildlife refuge. In 1911, the state of Montana set aside a portion of the southern Gallatin Range in the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages as a wildlife refuge.

Backpackers on crest of Gallatin Range, Gallatin National Forest, Montana (c) George Wuerthner

The high quality wildlife habitat of the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages is to the Gallatin Range, what the Lamar Valley is to Yellowstone Park. Here you will find the best grizzly bear habitat outside of Yellowstone Park, a major elk migration corridor, and outstanding territory for wolf, cougar, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, wolverine, and 18 species of wildlife considered at risk by the Montana Heritage Program.  The Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages are also the best place in the Gallatin Range for the restoration of wild bison herds.

In 1977, the Gallatin Range, including the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages, was given further protection by inclusion in Senate Bill 393 which set aside 155,000 acres as the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area (WSA). At that time, private inholdings created by railroad giveaways in the 1800s precluded full wilderness protection for the area.

Big Creek headwaters, Gallatin Range, Montana (c) George Wuerthner

However, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Forest Service was able to consolidate public lands in the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages by trading Forest Service public lands in the Big Sky area for private railroad inholdings in the Gallatin Range. One motivation for these land trades beside enabling the full development of Big Sky Ski Resort was to make it possible to protect the roadless lands in the Gallatin Range as wilderness.

As a result, there are potentially 230,000 to 250,000 acres that qualify for wilderness designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Unfortunately, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society, among other groups, are co-members of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, which supports less than half of the Gallatin Range for wilderness. This is largely a concession to mountain biking organization members of the partnership, which included five different mountain biking groups who are opposed to any new wilderness in areas they are regularly riding.

Mountain biker confronts backpackers on Emerald Creek Trail, Gallatin Range, Gallatin NF, Montana

Mountain biker confronts backpackers on Emerald Creek Trail, Gallatin Range, Gallatin NF, Montana (c) George Wuerthner

Amazingly, these groups are supporting eliminating WSA status for the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages and other portions of the Gallatin Range. What is particularly ironic about their opposition to wilderness for more than half of the Gallatin Range is that these same organizations are vocal (which is good) in their opposition to legislation introduced by Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte that would remove WSA protection for other parts of Montana.

This accommodation to mountain bikers is made even more egregious because the legislation that created the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA mandated that only uses that existed at the time of designation (1977) are permitted. There were no mountain bikes in 1977, and certainly no bicycle use on trails.

Wilderness designation is the Gold Standard for conservation, and anything less than wilderness does not adequately protect “the Lamar Valley” of the Gallatin Range.  I hope that these organizations will reassess their support for the Gallatin Forest Partnership and instead advocate for wilderness designation for a minimum of 230,000 acres in the Gallatin Range, to fully protect some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

om Miner Basin Gallatin Range Montana (c) George Wuerthner

Tom Miner Basin Gallatin Range Montana (c) George Wuerthner

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Please write to:

Ask them to support wilderness designation for 230,000 acres in the range. Specifically mention the Buffalo Horn Porcupine, as well as West Pine Creek, South Cottonwood Creek.

If you have more time, please write a short letter to the editor of the Bozeman Chronicle citydesk@dailychronicle.com and the editor of the Livingston Enterprise jpost@livent.net advocating for protection of the entire Gallatin Range.


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