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The New West: Craighead report on Gallatin Range helps jumpstart wilderness push



Public invited to attend meeting March 31 in Bozeman that lays out plan for protecting wild heart of the Gallatin

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

For most southwest Montanans, it’s possible but highly unlikely that they’ve never heard of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn east of Big Sky. Certainly big game hunters are familiar with the 5,000- to 6,000-member-strong Gallatin elk herd that resides inside it.

Many readers here also know of the work of Bozeman scientist Lance Craighead, the legacy of his family in the Yellowstone region – his father and uncle were pioneering Moose, Wyoming-based grizzly bear researchers – and the ongoing involvement of the Craighead descendants in the field of American landscape ecology.

Just a few months ago, Lance Craighead authored a 155-page analysis of the ecological importance of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. It’s a document that should be of interest to any person who values the wild heart of the Gallatin Mountains.

Craighead’s report is topical because the Custer Gallatin National Forest is writing a new forest management plan. And it’s especially timely because next Thursday night, March 31, his findings will figure prominently into a panel discussion about a new grassroots movement taking hold to protect the Gallatin Range as federal wilderness.

Craighead will be joined by noted bear biologist David Mattson and wilderness advocates Phil Knight, Howie Wolke, Sara Jane Johnson and Kiersten Iwai in an event titled, “Your Wild Backyard: A Conservation Strategy for the Gallatin Range.” The provocative discussion, sponsored by Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness, is free and open to the public. It begins at 7 p.m. at the Bozeman Public Library.

Craighead’s insights are instructive as land managers and citizens ponder the vital role that undisturbed wildlands play as refugia – i.e., secure zones – for sensitive species confronting climate change and record numbers of people coming to the region.

The Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area represents a corridor that fits into the life histories of more than 400 species. At 150,000 acres, it is saddled along the crest of the Gallatin Mountains, a line of rugged, roadless high country that runs from the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park clear to the foothills south of Bozeman.

Craighead selected seven sensitive species – grizzlies, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolverines, cutthroat trout and pikas – to calculate how they are likely to fare in a warmer future and amid human disturbance.

Other animals in his analysis included Columbia spotted frogs, boreal toads, bison, wolves, lynx, fishers, moose and beaver. Many were chosen because they have high “umbrella scores,” meaning the habitat they need to survive supports lots of other species. For example, a grizzly has an umbrella score of 300, meaning the same habitat for a bear also benefits 300 other animals. Boreal toads, notably, had an umbrella score of 401.

In general, the most reliable assessments for climate change conclude that the greater Yellowstone will experience continued warming temperatures, decreasing springtime snowpack and decreasing late-season soil moisture, bringing earlier snowmelt and longer fire seasons.

That will have dramatic effects on species whose best prospects for holding on will be retreating to islands of habitat that are not carved up by roads, development and hordes of people.

Under every climate change scenario Craighead examined, his research showed that the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn would maintain its value as wildlife habitat while adjacent lower-elevation areas become less hospitable.

“Disturbance due to human activities reduces the amount of habitat available for use by wildlife, increases stress and depletes energy reserves, thus reducing the carrying capacity of the habitat,” Craighead wrote. “The best habitat for wildlife is found in areas with the least human disturbance.”

Today wilderness study areas across the West are in limbo. Although most qualify for federal wilderness status, many are being eyed for incursion not only by the usual suspects – timber, mining and motorized vehicle interests – but also by a new category of aggressive outdoor recreationist. Some even want to invade federally designated wilderness.

These are challenging times for the U.S. Forest Service. Critics say the agency isn’t doing its job in protecting wildlife or adequately assessing the impacts of outdoor recreation.

Craighead, an independent scientist who received a grant from the Lee and Donna Metcalf Foundation, has delivered what the Forest Service should have done but didn’t.

“To ensure that wildlife have sufficient habitat for population persistence into the future, and to confer resilience in the face of climate change and land use change, there must be an adequate amount of protected habitat available among the spectrum of lands that are accessible to those wildlife,” he writes.

Fragmenting uncommon refugia like the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn jeopardizes wildlife with the highest umbrella scores.

Craighead said there are many places people can go for fun, but in terms of high-quality habitat persisting for wildlife in an age of climate change there will only be few – and they’re already getting smaller.

“Your Wild Backyard: A Conservation Strategy for the Gallatin Range” offers an excellent opportunity for wildland-loving citizens to become better acquainted with the new Gallatin wilderness proposal rapidly taking shape.

For more information, contact wilderness advocate Nancy Ostlie at (406) 556-8118 or via email:

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.

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