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What is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?

By Derek Lennon EBS Contributor

688_gya_map_hillshade_darkThe Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest nearly intact temperate zone ecosystems on Earth, according to the National Park Service. It measures roughly 34,375 square miles, or 22 million acres, but it depends on whom you ask.

With Yellowstone National Park at its center, the definition of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is beautifully vague—there is no exact boundary to this incredible and inspirational natural zone. What we do know is that Big Sky, Montana, is a part of this magical and wild place.

Diverse wildlife, impressive hydrothermal features, thick vegetation, stunning lakes, and geologic wonders are all a part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is a sanctuary for the largest concentration of wildlife in the Lower 48 states. Bison, grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx, elk, moose, and other animals live in natural harmony in this vast region. There is no place else like this on Earth.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is home to jagged peaks, vast tundra, lush forests, raging rivers, wild valleys, spewing geysers, and stunning natural landscapes. It’s the definition of what nature looks like. It’s wild.

This area includes more than 11 mountain ranges such as the Tetons, Wyoming Range, Salt River Range, Wind Rivers, Absarokas, Beartooths, Gallatins, Madison, Tobacco Roots, Gravellys and Centennials. It’s a massive area with very few people, which makes it distinctly unique and it’s the ideal outdoor playground.

Local, state, federal, and tribal governments along with private individuals manage and conserve this vast and wild region of the Lower 48. Spread throughout Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the loose boundaries of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem include state lands, national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national forests, BLM lands, private property, and tribal lands such as:

Looking south toward Imp Peak (center) into the Taylor-Hilgard complex from the summit of Koch Peak on Sept. 11, 2015.

Looking south toward Imp Peak (center) into the Taylor-Hilgard complex from the summit of Koch Peak on Sept. 11, 2015.

• Yellowstone National Park
• Grand Teton National Park
• John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway
• Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
• Custer Gallatin National Forest
• Shoshone National Forest
• Caribou-Targhee National Forest
• Bridger-Teton National Forest
• Camas National Wildlife Refuge
• Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge
• National Elk Refuge

Naturally, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has become a focal point for both tourism and conservation. There’s a lifetime of adventures to be had in the GYE: hiking, backpacking, hunting, camping, climbing, rafting, kayaking, snowmobiling, skiing, wildlife spotting, and more.

This wild land is Big Sky’s backyard, so please explore it responsibly. When you come for a visit, you are a guest here too. Treat this world with the respect that it deserves. Let’s work together to protect one of the last great places.

This is wild America and in Big Sky, Montana, we’re proud to be a part of it.

Derek Lennon is a skier and writer who lives, works, and plays in the mountains of the world. He is based in Big Sky, Montana, where he lives with his wife Mia and two dogs.

A version of this story was originally published on the Visit Big Sky blog at Read more interesting content about the area on Visit Big Sky’s blog at

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