The Gallatin Range south of Bozeman Montana is one of the most critical wildlife areas in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Indeed, protecting the remaining roadless lands (approximately 230,000 acres) as wilderness is vital to maintaining the ecosystem integrity of the GYE.
The wildlife values of the Gallatin Range were recognized as early as 1910 when then chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, recommended that the area be set aside as a wildlife reserve.
Indeed, Pinchot continued to visit the Upper Gallatin drainage almost annually, long after he left his position as chief of the Forest Service. Pinchot wrote of the area, "I hope the day will never come when the sound of the ax, the purr, and punt of a gas vehicle will be heard to destroy the beauty and solitude of this beautiful creation."
Efforts to protect the Gallatin Range continued throughout the last century.
In 1958 Ken Baldwin, one of the founders of the Montana Wilderness Association with others from the Bozeman area, produced a map of areas to protect that included the Hilgard Peaks of the Madison Range (now part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness) and the Buffalohorn-Porcupine area of the Gallatin Range.
Baldwin called together a meeting in Bozeman to create the Montana Wilderness Association. Many luminaries in the conservation community including well known biologists like Bob Cooney, Les Pengelly, John Craighead, and Olaus Murie, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, were involved in the discussions of how to protect the area’s wildlife habitat.
The original motivation for their efforts was not to preserve “recreation” as much as the ecological integrity of the area.
Montana Fish and Game biologist Bob Cooney emphasized the commitment to wildlife habitat protection when he wrote: "The Wilderness program should not be divorced in any way from the overall conservation program."
In 1977, Sen. Lee Metcalf sponsored the Montana Wilderness Study Act legislation (S.393) which created nine wilderness study areas in Montana, including in the Gallatin Range known as the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalohorn WSA.
The legislation says “ 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.
The wording “shall” is essential. It means the Forest Service must preserve the wilderness character and potential for future wilderness designation. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has not abided by the law. It has encouraged uses like mountain biking, snowmobiling, dirt biking, etc. — none which are permitted in the designated wilderness — to occur in the WSA.
In particular, the ecologically critical Buffalohorn and Porcupine drainages are open to these non-conforming uses.
During the 1970s and 1980s efforts to protect the Gallatin Range continued. The original proposals for a Lee Metcalf Wilderness included much of the Gallatin Range as well as the Madison Range. However, Sen. John Melcher stripped the Gallatin Range from the legislation due to his intense dislike of Lee Metcalf. He did not want to honor Metcalf with a large wilderness named in his honor.
Melcher used the excuse that the checkerboard ownership of private timberland of the Gallatin Range precluded wilderness designation.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, public forest land parcels in what is now Big Sky Resort area were traded for private lands in the Gallatin Range. Advocates of the land trades supported this, in part, because it was assumed that the Gallatin Range would then be eligible for wilderness designation which would in part compensate for the losses in wildlife habitat created by resort development.
Wilderness is the "Gold Standard" for conservation. There is no better way to preserve and ensure the ecological integrity of the Gallatin Range, and by extension, the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem than by protecting the area as wilderness.
Currently, the Custer Gallatin National Forest is finalizing its Forest Management Plan. One can hope that the Forest Service will recognize what Gifford Pinchot noted 109 years ago — the Gallatin Range should be given the maximum protection possible —and will recommend wilderness for all the roadless lands, but in particular, for the Buffalohorn Porcupine drainages.
Let us not miss this opportunity to protect what can not be replaced.