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The New West: Momentous debate over Gallatin wilderness



The Hyalite Buffalo Horn Porcupine Wilderness Study Area, now in contention for conversion to wilderness, lies at the heart of the wildlife-rich Gallatin Range. Researcher Lance Craighead, son of the late Jackson Hole naturalist and bear scientist Frank Craighead, says the roadless Gallatins will be a crucial refuge for wildlife having to deal with climate change. PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE WUERTHNER
CREDIT: David J Swift


It’s considered one of the most important land-protection questions involving the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in a few generations.

Now, some of the biggest and most influential names in American landscape conservation are calling upon the U.S. Forest Service to protect a wide swath of the Gallatin Mountains in southwest Montana—a biological puzzle piece considered central to the health of the most iconic large-mammal ecosystem in the Lower 48 states.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, nearly 100 well-known business people, politicians, scientists and conservation advocates signed on to a full-page advertisement in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle strongly encouraging the Custer Gallatin National Forest to adopt a management alternative that safeguards 230,000 acres as new wilderness.

The ad features a letter sent to Congress which was organized by Reed Noss, a pioneer of conservation biology and a researcher who has studied the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, even delivering a report decades ago to The Nature Conservancy on biological hotspots in the region.

Among those supporting Noss and his letter: Patagonia clothing company founder and Jackson Hole resident Yvon Chouinard; Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a climate change scientist at Montana State University and member of the National Academies of Sciences; former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt; and a list of prominent others, including eminent ecologists and retired federal public land managers.

As one signee said, “Given the importance of the Gallatins to the health of Yellowstone, this ought to be a national issue, just as protection of national monuments and trying to keep oil and gas development out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are issues of national importance to the conservation legacy of our country.”

With Custer Gallatin officials receiving public comments through early June, the signees believe that given a number of converging forces steadily whittling away at the wild fabric of Greater Yellowstone, the decision involving the Gallatins is momentous.

Stretching from the rugged northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park northward to the outskirts of bustling Bozeman, the Gallatins, which have no roads crossing their crest, have long been recognized as essential habitat for a wide range of species. From migrating elk herds to grizzly bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose and someday soon, maybe even wild bison moving out of Yellowstone, they hold an extraordinary roster.

Greater Yellowstone, encompassing more than 22 million acres, is an unparalleled complex of wildlife-rich public wildlands in the West mixed with private property. But not all of its pieces are equal.

The Gallatins, which function as a crossroads, are wilder than most national parks and are vulnerable to being impacted by growing numbers of people moving to the region and others using it as a playground.

Moreover, researchers note that going forward the Gallatins will play a vital role in serving as a refuge for species struggling against the effects of encroaching development and dramatic alternations to habitat brought by climate change. As far back as 1910, Gifford Pinchot, then chief of the Forest Service, wanted to turn the southern Gallatins into a special wildlife refuge.

How much of the Gallatin Range should receive wilderness protection is a source of passionate debate. Motorized recreationists and mountain bikers want less landscape placed under the umbrella of capital W wilderness.

Those who gave their imprimatur to the newspaper advertisement, however, favor a plan far more ambitious than one being advanced by three conservation groups, the Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Montana Wilderness Association which, along with mountain biking clubs, came together to form an entity called “the Gallatin Forest Partnership.”

The partnership proposes setting aside 102,000 acres as wilderness that would be complemented by creation of two new wildlife management areas and a “watershed protection and recreation area.”

Critics call the partnership’s plan “wilderness lite” and say it favors the desires of growing numbers of outdoor recreationists over the needs of wildlife and solitude. Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness want 230,000 acres protected while the Sierra Club is calling for 164,500 acres to become wilderness.

Ground zero in the disagreement is how to protect a breathtaking sweep of the Gallatins known as the 151,000-acre Hyalite Buffalo Horn Porcupine Wilderness Study Area coming under increasing pressure from user groups in the nearby resort town of Big Sky on the west side of the mountains.

During the 1990s, Congressional legislation achieved consolidation of public land ownership and eliminated checkerboarded private holdings being targeted for industrial logging and real estate development. The intention of conservationists who successfully worked toward that end say the primary objective was to get the Hyalite Buffalo Horn Porcupine protected as wilderness.

Not long after, the Forest Service was taken to court for failing to uphold Congressionally-mandated legal requirements obligating it to manage the wilderness study area in a condition that would not jeopardize it becoming a full-fledged wilderness. Despite illegal trespass happening by motorcycle-ATV-snowmobile users and mountain bikers blazing illegal trails—both are not allowed in wilderness—the Forest Service did nothing to halt the incursions until forced to address it.

The agency also has recently acknowledged that today in Greater Yellowstone it has a poor understanding of what swelling numbers of outdoor recreationists mean for sensitive species such as grizzlies, wolverines, elk in their calving grounds, and other animals with a low tolerance for human disturbance. The Custer Gallatin has recommended setting aside less than 100,000 acres of the Gallatins as wilderness.

Some 61 years ago, in 1958, the renowned Jackson Hole elk biologist Olaus Murie wrote a letter to the Forest Service following a camping trip he took with his wife, Mardy, and others via horseback into the Gallatin Mountains. Murie reminded that the Forest Service had historically been central to safeguarding wilderness for future generations and none ever regretted it.

Murie was struck by the high caliber of terrain in the Gallatins, home to a world-famous elk herd, and he encouraged forest managers to put it off limits to traditional multiple use management.

“I have traveled in many wilderness areas, and while I feel that public wilderness use is a perfectly legitimate use of national forest lands and needs no apology, this Gallatin area impressed me strongly as being preeminently suitable for such designation without encroachment on other interests,” he wrote.

A major advocate for creation of The Wilderness Act, Murie died in October 1963, just months shy of that landmark bill’s passage and signing into law in 1964.

Text of letter to members of Congress and signees below

Dear Member of Congress: 

As biologists, wildlife advocates, and members of the scientific community, we are writing to express our strong support for maintaining the ecological integrity of the Gallatin Range by establishing a 230,000-acre or larger wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wilderness designation is recognized as the “Gold Standard” for preserving wildlands and ecological values.

The scientific community recognizes that large protected areas with connectivity to other large protected patches is the best way to preserve high-quality wildlife habitat and permit the continued influence of ecological processes like wildfire, predation, migration, and other natural influences.

The Gallatin Range is the most significant unprotected wildlands in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In particular, the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine (BHP) drainages that lie immediately north of Yellowstone National Park are critical to the biotic fidelity of the Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Buffalo Horn-Porcupine was recognized early on for its wildlife values. In 1910 Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot advocated protecting the southern Gallatin Range as a wildlife refuge. A year later, the state of Montana created a wildlife refuge in the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine portion of the Gallatin Range. In recognition of the inherent wildlands values of the range, in 1977, some 155,000 acres, including the BHP drainages, were designated the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area by Congress.

The Buffalo Horn-Porcupine area has some of the best grizzly bear habitat outside of Yellowstone National Park. It is also vital elk winter range and a migration corridor. 

These drainages also support bighorn sheep, moose, mountain goat, wolverine, cougar, wolf, and mule deer. Both of these drainages also possess native Westslope cutthroat trout, a species once proposed for listing under the ESA. According to the Montana Heritage Program, 18 birds, eight mammals, three fish, three amphibians, and one reptile is “at risk” or declining in numbers, demonstrating the need to provide the most durable protection possible for this area.

It has long been recognized by the scientific community that protected areas in isolation fail to preserve species and ecosystem processes adequately. Wildlife corridors provide connectivity, sustaining vital natural processes, wildlife populations, and biodiversity while allowing species to move in response to climate change. The Gallatin Range is a recognized wildlife corridor linking YNP to the Northern Continental Ecosystem.


Reed Noss, Ph.D.
Conservation Biologist
Visiting Scholar Duke University
President Florida Institute for Conservation Science

Thomas E. Lovejoy Ph.D.
Univ. Prof. Environmental Science and Policy
George Mason University

Joel Berger, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Wildlife Conservation Society

Dominick Dellasalla, Ph.D.
President, Chief Scientist
Geos Institute | 84 Fourth Street
Ashland, Oregon 97520

David Wilcove Ph.D.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Princeton University
Princeton, NY

Bruce Babbitt
Former Sec. of Interior
Washington DC

Yvon Chouinard
Ventura, California/Moose, Wyoming

Cathy Whitlock, PhD
Department of Earth Science
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Climate change researcher
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT

Mike Finley
Former Yellowstone Superintendent
Former President/CEO of Turner Foundation
Current Chairman of the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission
Medford, OR

Dr. William Ripple
Forest Ecology and Society
Oregon State University

David Delehanty, PhD
Professor in Ornithology, Animal Behavior, Conservation Biology
Idaho State University
Pocatello, ID

Jim Posewitz
Retired Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks
Authority on conservation legacy of Theodore Roosevelt
Author, lifelong hunter and angler
Helena, MT

Bart Koehler,
Former Wilderness Specialist
The Wilderness Society
Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Founder, Wyoming Wilderness Association

Howie Wolke,
Wilderness Guide and Outfitter
President of Wilderness Watch
Founder, Wyoming Wilderness Association
Emigrant, MT

Richard Hutto, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Biology and Wildlife Biology
Division of Biological Sciences
University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812

Richard P. Reading, Ph.D.
Director of Research & Conservation,
Butterfly Pavilion Affiliate Faculty
Colorado State University

Dr. Ralph Maughan, professor emeritus,
Dept. of Political Science
Idaho State University
Pocatello, ID

Dr Thomas Pringle
Sperling Foundation
Tucson, AZ 85743

Dr. Jodi Hilty
President and Chief Scientist
Yellowstone to Yukon

Susan Morgan Ph.D.
Rewilding Institute
New Mexico

James Peek Ph.D.
Retired, Fish and Wildlife Resources Department
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

Dennis C. Odion Ph.D.
Earth Research Institute
University of California
Santa Barbara, Ca. 93106

Rick Rickway
Ventura, CA

Natalie Dawson Ph.D.
Former Director Wilderness and Civilization
U of Montana

Nancy Ostlie
Great Old Broads for Wilderness
Hiker, conservationist
Bozeman, MT

Rick Reese
Principal founder and three term president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Former Director of The Yellowstone Institute
Bozeman, MT

Dr. Brian L. Horejsi
Speak Up For Wildlife Foundation
Penticton, BC, Canada

Dr. Donald W. Johnson
Emeritus Fisheries Scientist
Libby Creek Watershed Association

Shelly Silbert ED
Great Old Broads for Wilderness
Durango, CO

Debra L. Donahue, M.S., J.D.,
Professor Emerita
College of Law
University of Wyoming

George Wuerthner
Public Lands Media
Livingston, Montana

Dr. Donald W. Johnson
Emeritus Fisheries Scientist
Libby Creek Watershed Association

John G. Carter, PhD Ecology
Yellowstone to Uintas Connection
PO Box 363
Paris, ID 83261

Norman A. Bishop,
National Park Ranger, 1961-1997
Bozeman, Montana

Dr. Kenneth L Pierce
US Geological Survey
Professor Emeritus, Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana

Douglas H. Chadwick, MS
Wildlife Biologist and Writer
Whitefish, Montana

Brian Miller, Ph.D.
2308 Anderson Dr.
Las Vegas NM 87701

Barrie Gilbert, PhD
Senior Scientist (retired)
Dept. of Wildland Resources
Utah State University
Logan, Utah

Dick Dorworth
Bozeman Montana

Joe Gutkoski
Retired Forest Service Landscape Architect
Smoke Jumper
Lifelong Backcountry Hunter, Angler
Bozeman, MT

Dr. Barry R. Noon, Emeritus Professor
Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology
Graduate Degree Program in Ecology
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523

G. Wayne Minshall Ph.D.
Professor of Ecology Emeritus
Idaho State University

Andrew Hansen, Ph.D.
Dept. of Ecology
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana

Dr. Jesse Logan
Retired Entomologist, Researcher U.S. Forest Service
Backcountry Recreationist, angler
Paradise Valley, MT

Dr. James A. Bailey,
Retired wildlife biologist,
Colorado State University.

Dr Michael Vandeman
San Ramon, CA

Ara Marderosian,
Executive Director
Sequoia ForestKeeper®
Kernville, CA 93238

Dick Ellis
Retired Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks
Billings, MT

Capt. William B Davis
Marsha Carter Davis

Dr. Brian L. Horejsi
Speak Up For Wildlife Foundation
British Columbia

Barry Reiswig, Refuge Manager, retired
National Elk Refuge.
Cody, WY

Ned Hettinger, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy,
College of Charleston

Erik Molvar MS
Wildlife Biologist
Laramie WY 82070

Gary Weiner, MS
Retired National Park Service Landscape Architect
Bozeman, Montana

Lance Craighead Ph.D.
Executive Director
Craighead Institute
Bozeman MT 59715

Diane Debinski, Ph.D.
Department of Ecology
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT 59715

Mike Clark
Former Executive Director
Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Bozeman, MT

Rick Hawley MS
Executive Director
Chaparral Institute

David Delehanty, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology
Idaho State University

John Davis
Executive Director
The Rewilding Institute
Albuquerque NM

David Parsons, MS
Carnivore Conservation Biologist
The Rewilding Institute

Glenn Hockett
Gallatin Wildlife Association
Bozeman, MT 59717

Christopher A. Frissell, Ph.D.
Principal Scientist, Flathead Lake Biological Station
Frissell & Raven Hydrobiological and Landscape Sciences, LLC
Polson, MT

Blaine Mooers, Ph.D.
Associate Professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
U of Oklahoma
Oklahoma City, OK

Dennis Glick MS
Executive Director Future West
Bozeman, MT

Bruce Smith, Ph.D.
Retired Senior Biologist and Author
National Elk Refuge
305 Old Forest Creek Trail
Bozeman, MT

Dr. Bruce Maxwell
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana

Lou Bruno
Founder Glacier Two Medicine Alliance
East Glacier, MT

Dr. Harvey Locke
Wild Foundation
Alberta, Canada

Marilyn Olsen
Wilderness Guide and Outfitter
Big Wild Adventures
Emigrant, MT

Debra Patla MS
Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative
Moran, Wyoming

Phil Knight
Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness
Bozeman, MT

Derek Lee, Ph.D.
Principal Scientist
Wild Nature Institute &
Associate Research Professor
Penn State University

Robert L. Beschta, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor
Forest Ecosystems and Society
Oregon State University

Glenn Monahan
Former science teacher and National Park Service ranger
Member Geological Society
Bozeman, MT

Dr. Roger Rosentreter
Retired BLM State Botanist
Boise, Idaho

Shelley Silbert
Executive Director
Great Old Broads for Wilderness
Durango, CO

Franz Camenzind, Ph.D.
Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance
Executive Director (Retired)

Gene Sentz
Longtime Wilderness Advocate for Rocky Mountain Front
Lifetime member of Montana Wilderness Association
Choteau, MT

Steve Hoffman Ph.D.
Founder Hawkwatch International
Bozeman, Montana

Nancy Schultz, M.E.
Retired elementary school teacher for 30 years
Former ranger, Mount Ranier National Park
Bozeman, MT

George Nickas
Executive Director
Wilderness Watch
Missoula, Montana

Ann Debolt MS
Sagebrush Restoration Specialist
Boise, Idaho

Dick Walton, Ph.D.
The Pryors Coalition
Billings, Montana

Jerry Freilich, Ph.D.
Retired NPS
Olympic and
Grand Teton NP

Kevin Proescholdt
Conservation Director
Wilderness Watch
2833 43rd Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Mary Fay MS
Wilderness activist
Bend, OR

Al Espinosa, MS
US Forest Service Fisheries Scientist (retired)
Moscow, Idaho

Randy Hayes
Executive Director Foundation Earth
Rainforest Action Network founder
Washington, DC

Vance G. Martin
WILD Foundation

Louisa Wilcox MS
Founder Grizzly Times
Former wildlife program specialist
with Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club
and Natural Resources Defense Council
Founding member, Wyoming Wilderness Association
Livingston, Montana

David Mattson Ph.D.
Leader Colorado Plateau Research Station and Research Wildlife Biologist,
USGS; Lecturer and Senior Visiting Scientist, Yale University; Retired.
Livingston, Montana

Patty A
Conservation Elder
809 Simons Dr.,
Missoula, Mt. 59803

Thomas Michael Power Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Economics
The University of Montana

Ann Harvey,
Research Associate,
Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative
Jackson, WY

Carena J. Van Riper, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1102 S. Goodwin Avenue
W-503 Turner Hall, MC 047
Urbana, IL 61801

Arnold D. “Smoke” Elser,
Conservation Elder
Retired, Wilderness Outfitter
Bob Marshall Wilderness Area

Teddy Roe
Conservation Elder
Legislative assistant to
Senator Lee Metcalf
Billings, Montana

Dale Burk
Third-Generation Montanan
Lifelong Hunter, Angler
Outdoor Writer, founder Stoneydale Press
Wilderness Advocate
Stevensville, MT

Douglas Peacock
Author, Naturalist
Former Green Beret Medic
Wilderness and Grizzly Bear Advocate
Founder, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly
Paradise Valley, MT

Bill Cunningham
Conservation Elder
Former Outfitter
Retired field representative for Wilderness Society
and Montana Wilderness Association
Choteau, Montana

Scott Creel, Ph.D.
Department of Ecology
Montana State University

Susan Clark Ph.D.
Northern Rockies Conservation
Adjunct Professor, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences
New Haven, CT

Linda Stoll
Conservation Elder
Helena, Montana

Jonathan Behrens
Denise Boggs
Conservation Congress
Billings, MT

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