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Last Trek Of The Human Wolverine

Joe Gutkoski, a legendary American conservationist, has passed away. Is his style of relentless advocacy for wild places the only hope Greater Yellowstone has to keep it from being tamed?

Joseph Gutkoski (1927-2021)  Photo courtesy of Ryan Krueger/Outside Bozeman. Check out Outside Bozeman at outsidebozeman.com
Joseph Gutkoski (1927-2021) Photo courtesy of Ryan Krueger/Outside Bozeman. Check out Outside Bozeman at outsidebozeman.com

by Todd Wilkinson

Pound for surly pound, as a sentient being standing maybe five feet four and weighing 140, Joe Gutkoski had the tough ferocious spirit of a wolverine.  

Meekness was not a trait associated with Gutkoski who just passed from this earth. For a small man he lived large.

Joe turned 94 years old on August 4, the day before he died. With so much of what makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem extraordinary now on the line, in danger of being permanently transformed by deepening human impacts, it is worth at least a moment to reflect on what kind of conservation-minded person Gutkoski was. 

If you take away little from the following words, let it be simply that nothing worth protecting in nature has ever been safeguarded by humans who fall into the category of passive shrinking violets, or by candidates vowing to preserve nature while simultaneously vying to win the title of Miss Congeniality, or by collaborators and consensus builders who enter into contentious negotiations with attitudes of being willing to give away astonishing places, right out of the gate, simply because, as brokers, their own psychology makes them conflict averse.

"I know a lot of people who can't stand controversy when it comes to conservation," Gutkoski said. "But there's no way around it. You can't protect a place unless you're willing to stand up and say 'no' to those who are willing to destroy it. Politics is contentious. Business is contentious. Religion is contentious. Why, every issue involving natural resource extraction is contentious. There's no way around it. Get used to it. People might get their feelings hurt, but I've never known anyone who wasn't grateful to the conservationists. I'm grateful to the folks who inspired me."

Gutkoski said the reason we’re fighting over the last shreds of “wild country” today is because so much already has been willingly given away, that didn’t need to be lost. 

I stopped by his modest abode on the north side of Bozeman in July and while he was frustrated about the slowing of his body, expressing apologetic embarrassment at having to use a walker, his mental faculties remained sharp and focused. It wasn’t that his imminent end had gotten him to speculate about the uncertain status of publics lands beyond his own time; he had actually been doing that for much of his extended adult life. 

I thanked Joe that day, the same as I had to the late Jim Posewitz and Margaret E. “Mardy” Murie (1902-2003)  whom I met in the 1980s in Moose, Wyoming, for being gentle with this greenhorn environmental journalist who, in the beginning, had much to learn. Each of them told me the same thing during their last stretches— that protecting the best remaining pieces of unmarred terrain does not come down to mere presentation of scientific facts; it requires modesty in terms of relinquishing ego, believing there are things in life more important than self-indulgence. Conservation often comes down to drawing lines, holding them with conviction, knowing when to compromise and when not to. 

After all, they said, those aspiring to “take” nature for their own do so without hesitancy or without a fully formed perspective. They don’t cower at controversy. Gutkoski had a fearless heart, undaunted in the face of those who make the (false) claim that wildlife conservation today just isn’t popular enough for the public to rally around and accept limits on their personal behavior.
A hiker gazes into the drainage of the Buffalo Horn, one of the most wildlife-rich parts of the Gallatin Mountains and an area that Joe Gutkoski knew by heart. As a Forest Service landscape architect he waged an insider's fight to successfully stop a proposed road from being built through the Buffalo Horn connecting US Highway 191 near Big Sky with Tom Miner Basin and thus providing a shortcut to Paradise Valley and Yellowstone National Park's main entrance. It would have radically destroyed the roadless wild character that still exists in the Gallatins today. Photo courtesy George Wuerthner
A hiker gazes into the drainage of the Buffalo Horn, one of the most wildlife-rich parts of the Gallatin Mountains and an area that Joe Gutkoski knew by heart. As a Forest Service landscape architect he waged an insider's fight to successfully stop a proposed road from being built through the Buffalo Horn connecting US Highway 191 near Big Sky with Tom Miner Basin and thus providing a shortcut to Paradise Valley and Yellowstone National Park's main entrance. It would have radically destroyed the roadless wild character that still exists in the Gallatins today. Photo courtesy George Wuerthner
After I received word Joe had died, I reflected on a recent autumn rendezvous we had in his kitchen where he spread out maps, and with intricate detail could pinpoint where he camped 10 miles from the nearest road 10 years earlier, describing the shape of a lodgepole pine tree that emerged from the darkness at dawn or glacial erratic next to which he slept under the stars. 

Joe was feeling forlorn because it was the second September in a row—and only the second consecutive autumn in more than a half century—that he would not be venturing into the Gallatin Mountains to hunt elk and put wapiti in the freezer to feed himself and his family for the coming winter. 

A wanderer who had eaten so much elk that it was probably part of his DNA, he was a tree-hugging hunter and angler who spent an inordinate amount of time cutting the tracks of non-human species, storing in his memory how and where they moved, where they were at certain times of the year—and why. “You don’t see things when you’re moving through the forest on a mechanical device at 30 miles an hour,” he said, wearing a flannel shirt and canvas trousers he had purchased 40 years earlier from an Army-Navy surplus store. 

"I'd take a slice of elk backstrap over the finest Filet Mignon any day," Gutkoski said. He was a keen student of observation. He noted that on a few occasions he would sit quietly 50 feet off a trail, concealed, observing both wildlife and recreationists—hikers and mountain bikers— passing by, the latter unaware of his presence, and the fact that their approach caused a moose mother and calf to bound away. He had seen wildlife abandon many parts of the front-country where human recreation pressure had steadily increased; that’s why he needed the physical endurance to keep doing deeper.

In July of this year I had the honor of being invited by the Gallatin Wildlife Association to deliver a few words on the occasion of that local conservation organization turning 45 years old. One of its most devoted founding members was Joe, who was 50 when GWA was created, but he couldn’t make it that night. My short riff was about a derisive word that gets tossed around— “radical”— and who gets to tag others with the label. I added how I’ve seen farsighted courage manifested, set within the context of why the Greater Yellowstone is the last of its kind in the Lower 48. This region, considered the cradle of American conservation, is the product of radical thinking that proved to be ingenious over time.

Those who advocated for establishment of Yellowstone National Park were labeled impractical radicals by members of the Montana Territorial Legislature and local natural resource profiteers who had colonized Paradise Valley and didn’t want park lands put off limits to their unbounded exploitation. Some were willing to keep hunting wildlife inside the park even if it meant killing off every last one.

Had the naysayers prevailed with their argument that protecting land would impair prosperity, liberty, freedom and progress, we would not have Yellowstone today  or, at best, there would be a pale watered down imitation.

And if we are being brutally candid, every momentous conservation accomplishment in America was borne by radicals willing to challenge and stand up to the status quo. Radicals who called out special interests that only treat nature as a commodity to be exploited, scraped out of the ground, bought or sold. Wild country, too, Gutkoski said, that can be “used up” by sheer numbers of people desiring to covet it, or possess it, in some way. 

During my chat before the Gallatin Wildlife Association, I shared that some environmentalists in Bozeman had labeled GWA—and I heard one person make a direct reference to Joe Gutkoski—“radical” and “extremists” for believing that the Gallatin Mountains, which extend roughly from the slopes of Mt. Holmes in Yellowstone all the way northward to the back doorstep of Bozeman, deserve to have the maximum number of acres possible set aside as federal wilderness. Imagine that, I said, someone like Joe Gutkoski being disparaged by members of his own tribe because he wanted more public land to remain as it is.

Strange times, these.
A screen shot of the double page spread featuring Joe Gutkoski that Keith McCafferty wrote for Field & Stream magazine in September 2002. For several years after, even as he moved into his 80s, Gutkoski never slowed down in his study and advocacy of wild places.
A screen shot of the double page spread featuring Joe Gutkoski that Keith McCafferty wrote for Field & Stream magazine in September 2002. For several years after, even as he moved into his 80s, Gutkoski never slowed down in his study and advocacy of wild places.

The Gallatins were a regular topic of discussion in my chats with Gutkoski and the reason is because he understood them likely better than anyone alive. The late Big Sky crooner, conservationist and hyperkinetic hiker “Walkin’ Jim” Stoltz had logged tens of thousands of miles in Greater Yellowstone backcountry and other parts of the Northern Rockies, but he told me he stood in awe of Joe and his intimate knowledge of both the Gallatins and Madisons.

For those who need a bit more geographic description the Gallatins are a bio-geographical extension of Yellowstone, which means they are a vital unbroken appendage, a highway for wildlife moving in and out of the park. Stretching beyond the artificial northern boundary of Yellowstone, these mountains extend into Montana and run between Paradise Valley to the east and the Gallatin River Canyon on the west —the latter today dominated by the bulging bustle of the resort complex of Big Sky that is causing many spillover effects on adjacent public land, including the Gallatin River. 

The Gallatins are not broad-shouldered; they are actually pretty narrow, but they’re truly remarkable in this way: They are one of the few mountain ranges south of Canada still home to all of the major mammal species—from grizzlies and wolves to bison, moose, wolverine, lions, lynx, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn and the famous Gallatin Elk Herd plus hundreds of other species including birds, fish, reptiles and plants— that existed in the Northern Rockies before Europeans arrived in North America. 

Call the terrain “wilderness,” wildness, whatever you choose, even try to demean it as a reference, but one way of thinking about wilderness in the 21st century is it's a place where humans with conscious deliberateness make space for wild creatures that have a hard time thriving in human-dominated landscapes. Wilderness is where the wild things are. Wilderness is where a lot of people, moving fast-paced trying to cover as much ground as possible, are not.  

One way to think about the high caliber of wildness in the Gallatins is that they still hold a full complement of animals that has disappeared from the rest of West because of land fragmentation, human intolerance and large numbers of people overwhelming their habitat. 

Based on that distinction alone, of what can still live there, the Gallatins are wild. The best legal means today of protecting wildness in perpetuity in America today is doing it on private property where the owner can control all factors related to use;  or, on public land, have a place protected as wilderness and, equally as important, have a public land management agency devoted to enforcement of the law. 

Joe and I marveled at the idea that were you to pick up the Gallatins and drop them into California, they would instantly, because of their diversity of original native mammals, be the wildest mountains in the state. The same would be true if you relocated them to Utah, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas—any state outside of Montana and Wyoming. 

If the Gallatins were a standalone national park they’d be wilder than any national park in the Lower 48 save for Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. They are the only significant mountain range next to Yellowstone without a major road bisecting them—a fluke with a tangible link to Gutkoski that I’ll explain later. 
Were you to pick up the Gallatins and drop them into California, they would instantly, because of their diversity of original native mammals, be the wildest mountains in the state. The same would be true if you relocated them to Utah, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas—any state outside of Montana and Wyoming. If the Gallatins were a standalone national park they’d be wilder than any national park in the Lower 48 save for Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. They are the only significant mountain range next to Yellowstone without a major road bisecting them
The western and northwestern border of Yellowstone is the only perimeter area of the park without a major stretch of wilderness insulating it from human development beyond its border. Because the Gallatins outside Yellowstone fall within the boundaries of a national forest, every person reading this has a rightful say in how they ought to be protected or exploited. 

This isn’t a provincial “backyard issue” for denizens of Bozeman, Livingston, Big Sky and West Yellowstone to decide. In fact, it could be asserted, the fate of the Gallatins is a national Yellowstonesque test of our resolve, for our time. In hindsight, no one believes that those who pressed to have a larger national park created with fewer roads is considered “radical.” A huge lament is that an even larger park wasn’t set aside when there was the chance.

“People need to remember that we wouldn’t have Yellowstone if its creation had gone through the same kind of consensus and collaboration process that is currently being used by the Forest Service to decide how much of the Gallatins should be protected,” Joe said in July. I reflected on that after he shared the observation; we all ought to.

The irony, he says, is that some residents treat the Gallatins as an afterthought, a bargaining chip in a conservation poker game, as just another stretch of mountains that came out of Mother Nature’s womb yesterday waiting there to be exploited—not by timber companies or hardrock miners, but outdoor recreationists who argue it’s their right to have more access, or get trails they illegally blazed into a federal Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area grandfathered by the same Forest Service that allowed the trespass to happen. Oh yes, Gutkoski knew something about the Forest Service, insight that might surprise you, which we’ll also get to below.

Besides the warm month incursion of more users very year, winter adventure seekers are also, in increasing numbers, illegally driving into the Gallatin backcountry on snowmobiles to remote mountain bowls to ski or snowboard, high mark on steep slopes and lay down tracks in the virgin powder. At the mountains’ edges, there are real estate agents eagerly promoting development on private land. Lots of people desire to build next to wildness without realizing that by doing so they are killing the very spirit of place.  

Joe could tell you a lot about that, as he was an academically-trained expert in a once- nascent discipline which sprang forth after World War II, that pondered the intersection between human development and nature; it is called “landscape architecture.”

Gutkoski was, until his final breath, among a growing group of citizens who believe the Gallatins deserve more than being viewed as a pie there to be carved up among “stakeholders,” each wanting their own piece of the action to consume. Either that, he said, or they make support for conservation conditional based upon their ability to “use” or profit from the mountains;  otherwise, they are opposed to wilderness protection. 

This MoJo graphic was prepared in 2017 and recent US Census data confirms that growth in many Greater Yellowstone areas is accelerating. Human pressure is only going to increase on wild country, with human numbers putting a tighter squeeze on wildlife.
This MoJo graphic was prepared in 2017 and recent US Census data confirms that growth in many Greater Yellowstone areas is accelerating. Human pressure is only going to increase on wild country, with human numbers putting a tighter squeeze on wildlife.
Joined by conservation biologists and others, backers of more wilderness say that what has been seriously lacking in discussions led by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest are forward-thinking consideration of what’s best long-term, ecologically speaking, for the Gallatin’s ultra-rare assemblance of wildlife that use the mountains as a permanent home and migratory crossroads. 

Given recent headline-making climate change reports delivered by scientists about the future of Greater Yellowstone and the world—as well as the obvious inundation of people that has happened in Greater Yellowstone with the Covid pandemic—Joe and others argue the Forest Service and environmental groups promoting less wilderness protection need to reassess their conclusions because they are outdated. “With all the people here now, wild country isn’t growing, it’s shrinking,” Gutkoski said weeks before he passed.  

If you’ve made it this far, you may reasonably wonder: why listen to Joe Gutkoski? Consider this: After World War II, a war in which he served his country on a Navy Destroyer before graduating from Penn State on the GI Bill, this son of a Polish coal miner from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania fell in love with the West. 

He was hired as the first landscape architect for famous Region One of the Forest Service based in Missoula—a region which had jurisdiction over the most spectacular forests in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, he transferred to what is today the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, headquartered in Bozeman, where he and his wife, Milly, raised their three kids, Mike, Marie and Helen.  It wasn’t always easy being married to a crusader or having one as a parent.

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Not only was Gutkoski, until his very last years, a passionate outdoor recreationist, who loved exploring public lands as much as anyone else and even hunting game meat for the freezer, but he knew far more about the Forest Service, its internal culture, its reputation as a non-risk-taking go along to get along agency, than many observers of the conservationist realize. 

Gutkoski was, after all, an insider. He spent 32 years working for the Forest Service retiring in 1982 and, at one point, he served as vice president and secretary of the Montana/Idaho Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

In the decade before the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed, Gutkoski says the Forest Service was dominated by graduates of timber management programs at state land grant universities in the West. They knew that the old ways of doing business, of seeing national forests largely as public tree farms, would come to an end.  “We had an accelerated program for roading and logging and people knew that if roads were constructed, areas could become disqualified from wilderness designation consideration. As a landscape architect, I was part of the timber program and we were very powerful. This is why it’s a miracle there was never a road built across the Gallatins.”

While that may be construed as a seemingly insignificant comment, it actually leads to reflecting on how the fate of one part of the Gallatin Range’s current wild character turned on the defiant instincts of a person, tough as a wolverine, who refused to look the other way when he saw impropriety.

Award-winning Bozeman-based novelist Keith McCafferty, who writes mystery potboilers and for years penned an outdoor column for Field & Stream credits Gutkoski for teaching him how to hunt big game in Montana. The two spent many hunting seasons together in the Gallatins and McCafferty once published a tribute to Gutkoski in that popular outdoor magazine titled “The Great Gutkoski,” a kind of take-off on the Jeff Bridges character, nicknamed the all-knowing “Dude” in the Coen Brothers film “The Great Lebowski.” 

“When I met Joe he was just past 50, a spare, wiry man with iron-gray hair and the beaked profile of a predatory bird. During the season he'd be gone for days at a stretch, leaving toothed indentations from his army-surplus ice creepers across the vast snowscapes of southwestern Montana. He lived out of a backpack, darned his tatty long underwear by firelight, ate his dreadful slumgullion stew,” McCafferty wrote in his profile, noting how Gutkoski shot his first elk in 1953 in northern Montana. 
A large crowd turned out to help Gutkoski celebrate his 90th birthday, including his pal, Keith McCafferty, at right. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
A large crowd turned out to help Gutkoski celebrate his 90th birthday, including his pal, Keith McCafferty, at right. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
“His elk rifle was an ancient Springfield '06. It had a charred stock from the day he held it over a fire to unstick the action, which had frozen shut after he fell through the ice into a stream named, aptly enough, Burnt Creek. While walnut blackened to cinder, elk had grazed unconcernedly up the mountainside.”

Gutkoski, as a young man, once set out to track and kill a male grizzly in the North Fork of the Flathead River drainage as a trophy but it was one hunt he was happy to say failed. He became a committed advocate of grizzly recovery since the specie was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species and hunting was curtailed.

Along the way of Gutkoski’s early career with the Forest Service, he was a smoke jumper for 13 years starting in Idaho, and a field guy who accompanied timber cruisers in identifying which stands of old growth forests were  to be toppled with little regard given to environmental impact.  He chronicled ecological devastation and pointed out that’s why environmental laws were put on the books in the 1960s and early 1970s to force the Forest Service and logging companies to be accountable for harm done to fish and wildlife.

“…as Joe flew on fire-fighting missions across the West… he took notice of the accelerating devastation of the forests wrought by clear-cutting,” McCafferty wrote. “His vow to fight for wilderness designation for some of the last unroaded land would eventually bring him recognition among environmentalists. It also earned him more than a few enemies during his career as a landscape architect with the U.S. Forest Service, whose bosses were adamant advocates of development. Were it not for his unflagging efforts to keep the land intact, many acres of Montana's best elk hunting country would have long ago been rendered into slash piles and mining sluices.”

McCafferty thinks of Gutkoski as a retro character so full of quirky substance that a fiction writer couldn’t possibly invent him. Joe would walk miles into the backcountry to help McCafferty carry out heavy loads of elk meat—and vice versa—and he could be gentle, knowing, wickedly funny, self-deprecating and compassionate, but he was also, McCafferty says, headstrong and ornery. 

Last year, McCafferty told me, Gutkoski cut against the grain of the truism that old men grow mellower with age. Joe didn’t get cranky, McCafferty said, just more impassioned, driven by a sense of urgency to hold on to what still remains untrammeled.

 “He’s concerned about protecting wildlife migration routes, and safeguarding habitat for grizzlies, getting more room for bison from Yellowstone to roam and protecting rivers from being abused by different kinds of development. I think he’s right about all of it,” McCafferty explained. “He doesn’t take no for an answer and among some people he’s got so many enemies that he couldn’t be elected dog catcher. Sometimes he’s been a lone voice in the wilderness out there but more people understand where he’s coming from. He doesn’t know how to stop. He still gets in his car or hitches a ride to go to legislative sessions in Helena so they can’t sneak a bad bill past. Joe always shows up.”
“He’s concerned about protecting wildlife migration routes, and safeguarding habitat for grizzlies, getting more room for bison from Yellowstone to roam and protecting rivers from being abused by different kinds of development. I think he’s right about all of it. He doesn’t take no for an answer and among some people he’s got so many enemies that he couldn’t be elected dog catcher. Sometimes he’s been a lone voice in the wilderness out there but more people understand where he’s coming from." —Keith McCafferty on Gutkoski
It is fashionable in these times, as it has been in the past, for young people to look upon an “old dude” like Gutkoski and claim he is out of touch with reality. To fun hogs, obsessed with maximizing their leisure time and who are inclined to dismiss anyone who says no to their unbridled recreational desires, a few have been tempted to (erroneously) portray Gutkoski that way. What many do not realize is that in the cannisters on the tops of many hard-to-reach mountains in Greater Yellowstone, Gutkoski signed his name into those logs decades ago. Tom Turiano, author of the classic book, Peaks of Greater Yellowstone, once told me how impressed he was to see all the summits Gutkoski had reached. He was like the Kilroy fun-hog of peak-bagging.

Over the years Gutkoski had hunted in the Madison mountains, remembering what the flanks of Lone Mountain were like when they, and the nearby Yellow Mule area below Flattop Mountain, were grazed by cattle in summer and before industrial logging felled the old growth Douglas-fir and spruce. He met Chet Huntley when the Cardwell-Montana-native-turned-famed national news reader for NBC News began discussing his vision for creating Big Sky. Huntley wanted to build a destination for downhill skiing that echoed of Montana values and would be quaint compared to the industrial approaches of resorts in Colorado. 
The dirt road passing over the Gallatin River south of Big Sky and gateway into the Porcupine Creek drainage, one of the most biologically-diverse corridors of the Gallatin Range. During the 1990s, developer Tim Blixseth parked a bulldozer in front of the Porcupine as a bold warning to conservation-minded citizens and the public—get him the land swap and cash he wanted for parcels he owned in the Porcupine or earthmoving equipment might roll. Gutkoski called out Blixseth's hardball maneuvering as crass and being out of step with Montana values. And he said conservationists need to be equally as vigilant in trying to protect areas like the Porcupine as those who want to exploit them for their own self-interests. "Wildlife can't advocate for itself. We need to give the animals a stronger voice," he said. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
The dirt road passing over the Gallatin River south of Big Sky and gateway into the Porcupine Creek drainage, one of the most biologically-diverse corridors of the Gallatin Range. During the 1990s, developer Tim Blixseth parked a bulldozer in front of the Porcupine as a bold warning to conservation-minded citizens and the public—get him the land swap and cash he wanted for parcels he owned in the Porcupine or earthmoving equipment might roll. Gutkoski called out Blixseth's hardball maneuvering as crass and being out of step with Montana values. And he said conservationists need to be equally as vigilant in trying to protect areas like the Porcupine as those who want to exploit them for their own self-interests. "Wildlife can't advocate for itself. We need to give the animals a stronger voice," he said. Photo by Todd Wilkinson

Even in these last weeks, Gutkoski said he believed Huntley would have viewed the size of the human footprint that has overwhelmed the former feel of that valley as an abomination. And it’s why he was doubly concerned about what he considered a devil-may-care attitude some have about monetizing nature and seeing opportunity in the Gallatins across busy Highway 191. He remembers well when timber baron-turned-landowner and Yellowstone Club founder Tim Blixseth parked a bulldozer along US Highway 191 in front of the Porcupine Creek drainage and threatened to let heavy machinery start blazing roads for a new subdivision if the Forest Service didn’t make a land trade happen. 

Blixseth had acquired private checkboard sections of land in the Gallatins that a century earlier had been given to railroad companies. Had they been developed the wild character of the mountains would have been destroyed. Instead, they were consolidated into public land, as a part of Congressionally-legislated land swaps that resulted in Blixseth getting cash and public tracts elsewhere, some of which—in the Bangtails and North Bridgers— he sold to timber companies that clearcut huge swaths of forests. The Bangtails today bear severe scars of the logging and roadbuilding.

"The Bangtails and North Bridgers paid a high price for us getting private checkerboard lands in the Gallatins consolidated into public ownership," Gutkoski said. "People forget that. While none of us liked having those areas become sacrifice zones, we went along because we were told that it would result in more of the Gallatins becoming permanently protected as wilderness."

You can read about the Gallatin Land Exchanges in reporting by Scott McMillion by clicking here and peruse a multi-part Mountain Journal series on the Gallatins, wilderness and development by clicking here.
Gutkoski at home in his kitchen on the north side of Bozeman where he offered a cartographic overview of his wanderings in the Gallatin Range and the amount of acreage that he believed qualified for federal wilderness protection.  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Gutkoski at home in his kitchen on the north side of Bozeman where he offered a cartographic overview of his wanderings in the Gallatin Range and the amount of acreage that he believed qualified for federal wilderness protection. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
On his kitchen table, Gutkoski unfurled a couple of topo maps and had, marked in pencil, the perimeter of land sections that met the land condition standards for inclusion in potential Gallatin Range wilderness designation in part of the land consolidation that happened in the 1990s. He identified other parts of the mountains where historic mining had occurred and where land could be healed and restored to high value for wildlife. Gutkoski believed at least 230,000 acres qualifies, including the biologically-rich Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages, both of which are  part of a wilderness study area.

Worth noting is that a series of Custer-Gallatin forest supervisors allowed illegal recreation trails to be blazed into the wilderness study area which dates back to the 1970s and it took a lawsuit led by EarthJustice and joined by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society and Montana Wilderness Association to force the Forest Service to close some of  those trails. 

In fact, it was a staffer for one of those three groups who told me Gutkoski was a radical and it was not intended to be a compliment.  (Ironically, Gutkoski was once awarded the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Conservationist of the Year Award). 

Yes, Gutkoski did a couple of things that might indeed be considered radical, if not gutsy. One of them was that, as a man in his 70s and 80s, he personally hiked the entire circumference and crisscrossed the interior of the 230,000 acres of the Custer-Gallatin to ground truth their ecological condition and to make sure his conclusion was accurate. To the best of anyone's recollection, no other person went to such lengths and likely no one else better understood the Gallatin's high wildlife values. What he and others believe qualifies for wilderness is nearly two and half times what the Forest Service does.

Gutkoski sharing a series of maps pertaining to a proposed road considered by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest decades ago that would have connected Gallatin Canyon to Paradise Valley via Tom Miner Basin. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Gutkoski sharing a series of maps pertaining to a proposed road considered by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest decades ago that would have connected Gallatin Canyon to Paradise Valley via Tom Miner Basin. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
“It may sound strange, but I don't trust the Forest Service. My whole career with the Forest Service involved trying to hold the agency to account,” Joe told me, noting that he believed in its mission as a conservation agency but he ran headlong into superiors who were rewarded and received promotions for carrying out political mandates tied to resource extraction because it created jobs, won votes and political contributions. “Modern environmental laws forced the Forest Service to listen to science and not always tilt the scale in favor of extraction. I was a good soldier in that I didn’t take my battles public until after I retired. I fought them inside [the agency] but some of the issues did reach the newspaper,” he said.

One such internal run-in that didn't held enormous consequences for the fate of Gallatin Range as we know it today. The forerunning American ecologist Aldo Leopold who himself was a veteran of the Forest Service and who became a diehard believer in the value of wilderness, once remarked: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” 

Gutkoski pulled out another weathered and cracking map that detailed a proposed road, supported by the forest supervisor, that would’ve been blazed along Buffalo Horn Creek from the present location of the 320 Ranch along US Highway 191 and stretch all the way over the Gallatin Crest, It would have connected with the current dead-end road rising from Paradise Valley into Tom Miner Basin. Had it been built, it would have given Greater Big Sky a quick back-door short cut route to reach the front door of Yellowstone at Gardiner.

“Can you imagine?” Joe mused in July, the same as he had done in other conversations we had. “If the road had been engineered, it would have been constantly improved over the years—all that money in Big Sky would have helped make it happen. And it would have cut the Gallatins in two."

Gutkoski learned that a powerful triumvirate had formed and the plan was to get the road approved in a way that significant public scrutiny would be avoided. Montana Power (today Northwestern Energy) approached the then Gallatin Forest requesting that an access road be approved to allow construction of a power line extending over the mountains. Burlington Northern Railroad, which owned checkerboard sections of land in the Gallatins astride of the proposed road and eventually became Plum Creek Timber, expressed interest is carrying out some significant logging and using the road to get the timber out. At the time, Congress was generous in giving the Forest Service ample money for building roads.

“I got wind of the plan and then I saw the rough map that laid out the proposed route and I was shocked and horrified,” Gutkoski says. “I was, after all, the landscape architect on staff and I went to the forest supervisor and asked, ‘How come I never heard about this?’ I was told that I should just mind my own business, so I reminded him that this is my business. I am a public servant and the public will want to know about this."
“I got wind of the plan and then I saw the rough map that laid out the proposed route and I was shocked and horrified. I was, after all, the landscape architect on staff and I went to the forest supervisor and asked, ‘How come I never heard about this?’ I was told that I should just mind my own business, so I reminded him that this is my business. I am a public servant and the public will want to know about this." —Joe Gutkoski
After a series of tense internal meetings, the road was shelved. In a case of “what might have been,” Gutkoski says, the consequences would have been game-changing for the Gallatins and Tom Miner Basin. Had the plan moved forward, the road would have likely become a through-way for Big Sky tourism promoters advertising it as a short-cut to Mammoth Hot Springs and back again.

“The part that scared me just as much is that Burlington Northern would have clearcut its holdings and then might have sold them to developers,” Gutkoski said. “Those sections would have had trophy homes and guest lodges and  subdivisions and who knows what else. If a road corridor had been opened up, the Gallatin Land Exchanges would never have happened. Instead of having the opportunity to save the Gallatins as we do today they would have been cut over and turned into a suburb of Big Sky.”

That was hardly the only time Gutkoski challenged his bosses or was a burr in their side. Gutkoski remembered being called into the supervisor's office of the Custer-Gallatin and asked the question, “Who’s side do you think you’re on?”

Gutkoski was told that being insubordinate, if he wasn't careful, might result in him being re-assigned to the most remote national forest office in Alaska. He looked back at his superior, calling his bluff, and said, "Alaska's probably a fine place to hunt to fish. When should I start packing?"

° ° ° °

Another proud but little recognized moment in Gutkoski’s career came when he discovered senior managers in the Custer-Gallatinhad granted verbal approval for a hardrock mine to be built in one of the drainages in the Crazy Mountains. Hearing about it, having not been consulted as the landscape architect, he visited Big Timber Canyon and took note of earthmoving bulldozers and a crew ready to go to work.  He raised hell, it stretched all the way to Washington DC and resulted in a superior leaving his post.  (He mentions it in a lengthy interview with the Montana University Library's Special Collections as part of its oral history project with people of note in Montana and the Northern Rockies. You can listen to it by clicking here.)

It wasn’t that Gutkoski had no allies inside the agency. Over the years, after he retired, he would get phone calls from colleagues who tipped him off. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gutkoski and the late Dan Heinz, a biologist who had worked as a district ranger on the Custer-Gallatin, helped local conservationist scrutinize decisions that forest supervisors were making via categorical exclusions and environmental assessments on timber sales rather than conducting more intensive Environmental Impact Statements.

“To me Joe and Dan Heinz were exemplars of guys who did not kow-tow to the bullies promoting development and motorized interests,” says Gretchen Rupp, who was among the coterie of conservation advocates.  “Joe and Dan persisted and persisted refusing to be intimidated. I always admired that about them.”

As the influx of newcomers moving to Bozeman began, Gutkoski organized walks for the Montana Wilderness Association up into many drainages, toting topo maps and showing them places at risk to timber harvest. “He initiated newcomers who moved here unaware that things aren’t nice [spared of roads and clearcuts] by default,” Rupp explains. “Joe taught them they were nice [the drainages in a natural unmarred condition] because people just like them stepped forward to protect the forest.”

° ° ° °

McCafferty said Gutkoski had uncanny instincts and woods sense. “We’d be out and Joe would say, ‘I can smell something’ and you know what, the man’s nose never lied. One time, we had split apart on our hunt. He smelled a moose and finally caught a track and was able to trail it so close he got a good shot. So we are up there field dressing the animal to get ready for the long haul out. Joe lifts his pack up to his back and I can’t believe how much weight he has. He’s testing the load and then he takes it off his back and says, ‘Put more meat in the pack, that’s not a man’s load.” 

Gutkoski was then maybe 80 years old. Another time, Gutkoski on a solo trip broke his leg in the wilderness, snapping his fibula in half. “He was heading up Bozeman Creek, across to Lick Creek, planning on going for five days of bow hunting,” McCafferty said.  Gutkoski was up in the mountains scrambling, turned around to admire the scenery, then tripped and the bone broke. “He said it sounded like a rifle shot. So what does he do? He crawls out of the mountains. It took him all day. He started before daylight and came out well after dark. Then he drives his ass home and calls me at 10 pm. He asked me if I’d go back in and retrieve his backpack. So, the next morning he drives me in his pickup to the back side of Lick Creek off Hyalite Canyon Road. He gives me a map. I tell him it’s gonna be like finding a needle in a haystack. But you know what, he remembered exactly where he stashed it and based on his description I found it right at a place right off the trail where he said a log would be.”

But that wasn’t all. When McCafferty hoisted the backpack to his shoulders he couldn’t believe the heft of the load. “I thought, by God, what’s in it? I took everything out to take a photograph of its contents. He had a jar of pickled beets in there, three headlamps, containers of black mashed bananas, a $5 sleeping bag, a sheet of tarp to pull over him if it rained, and a container of Folger’s freeze dried. He had so much shit. None of it high-tech, only what he needed based on what worked for him over many years.”

For as tough as he was physically, Gutkoski was more determined in being a responsible citizen. He was old school.  Eschewing the technology age, he didn’t spend time on a computer or text on an iPhone or sign online petitions. He wrote letters in longhand or on a typewriter, he called people up, he met folks for coffee and when he wasn’t supporting conservation groups, he was founding them like the Montana River Action. 

Despite Montana’s water laws dating to the 1860s being treated as sacrosanct, Gutkoski says that allocation of the state’s most precious natural resource is outdated and lacks ecological mindfulness necessary in modern times. He readily condemned the fact that thousands of miles of stream in the state are dewatered in Montana, often to grow one crop—alfalfa—to feed one non-native animal, cattle. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the habitat ranchers provide for wildlife, but streams are corridors of life—the richest ecological parts of the landscape and they deserve better. He persuaded several legislators to introduce bills mandating that minimum in-stream flows be maintained to safeguard aquatic life. Every time the bills went down in defeat, sometimes not even attracting serious discussion.

Presciently, Gutkoski predicted there would be winnowing snowpacks, summers like these when the effects of climate change deepened and low water levels would bring severe impacts on natural systems, the fly-fishing economy, agriculture and result in water restrictions and algae blooms on rivers. He was outspoken in condemning the sewage spills in Big Sky that polluted the Gallatin River and the problem of faulty septic systems. 

Gutkoski before heading to a rally on behalf of free-ranging Yellowstone bison
Gutkoski before heading to a rally on behalf of free-ranging Yellowstone bison
Gutkoski was relentless, like a Lorax. He would be out there holding up signs in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse or Bozeman’s downtown post office advocating for establishment of a state bison herd in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. As founder of the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, he joined citizens in protesting the ongoing slaughter of Yellowstone bison. The toll, since 1989, has surpassed 12,000 animals and he challenged the state of Montana’s claim that bison represented a major threat of transmitting brucellosis to cattle. His conclusion was validated by science, including a special report from the National Academies of Sciences that noted elk represent a far greater threat and there’s never been a documented case of brucellosis-carrying bison giving the disease to beef cows. 

On countless times over the years, he drove to testify before legislative hearings on environmental bills in Helena. And a couple of occasions he flew back to Washington DC but he felt out of place donning a suit and tie, though he was not averse to puffing up his thick hair into a stylish pompadour.  Most members of Montana’s Congressional Delegation and several governors, on both sides of the aisle, knew him by his first name. He could be disagreeable but he was respectful and his sincerity was never in doubt. 

I remember once writing a story about activists trying to resurrect a Montana wilderness bill in 1989 after President Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill that had passed through both houses of Congress. I was there when Joe put in a call to then US Rep. Pat Williams’ office in DC. A young staffer answered.

“Hello, would you please tell Congressman Williams that this is Joe Gutkoski from Bozeman calling. I know Pat and you please be sure and let him know I’m strongly in favor of new wilderness legislation.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gutkoski, I’ll let him know.”

“Maam, since you’re likely to be hearing more from me, why, you can call me Joe. I like speaking to people on a first name basis,” Gutkoski told her.

Afterwards, he said to me, “You really need to be polite and gentle to the young staffers. They’re getting their first taste of politics and you want them to have a positive impression hearing from citizens. I try to be gracious because you never know, someday one of these good young kids might become our next governor or senator.”

The wilderness bill then never got traction but consolidation of checkerboard tracts in the Gallatin Range has enabled more acreage to be protected than was included in the 1988 bill. That's the irony. Further, development pressure has only tightened around three sides of the Gallatins and today mountain bikes, more powerful ATVs, including ebike, and snowmobiles are bringing more people into country that formerly was considered remote. "I have a lot of faith in young people but I don't know if they care about wildlife as much as older generations," Gutkoski said.

° ° ° °

On the day of Gutkoski’s 90th birthday party at the Bozeman Senior Center in 2017, a wide array of people turned to fete him. The group represented a who’s who of prominent conservationists in Montana going back to the 1960s. 

One of the younger admirers was Matt Skoglund, then head of the Northern Rockies office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Skoglund brought his wife and their two young children because he wanted them to meet “a living legend.” Skoglund, an ardent hunter, today operates North Bridger Bison and he says Gutkoski’s reverence for native iconic bison infected him. He reflects on Joe’s “encyclopedic knowledge of the ecosystem and his wisdom.”

“Whenever I’ve described Joe to anyone I always used the word ‘hero.’ He truly was a hero of mine, someone I’ve looked up to since the day I met him,” Skoglund say. “The things that stick out were his endless energy and passion for conservation in Montana. When somebody in their 80s and 90s could be paying attention to other things, there was Joe at every meeting, constantly writing letters, op eds, providing leadership by his actions but not seeking attention. As a passionate hunter and outdoorsman myself, seeing that vigorous outdoor life he lived, I always think, my god, if I could be doing half that stuff when I’m his age, I’d be thrilled. And then there was a that wonderful way about him. His personality. His sense of humor. My wife, Sarah, and I always talked about certain people you have the good fortune of meeting who always have that twinkle in their eye. Whenever there was a meeting and a crowded room, the first thing I’d do is make a beeline for Joe.”

° ° ° °

Hundreds of people have their own Gutkoski stories.

"Joe Gutkoski was a real piece of work—and I mean it in the most endearing way," says Dennis Glick, hunter, wildlife advocate, hiker who has done many multi-day trips into Greater Yellowstone, and professional community conservationist for 40 years. "People look around and they ask, 'Where have the great defenders of wild country in America gone?' Joe was an original. I'd encourage those who care about wild country, especially young people, to take a look at Joe and glean some insight from his convictions. He loved to recreate, to use public lands, but he also accepted limits in deference to wildlife. He's not going to be remembered for how many elk he shot or mountains he climbed. He's respected for his courage in speaking up. He stood for something good that benefits us all."

Gutkoski and I shared another kind of connection that still makes me laugh. It was because of him that I was brusquely disinvited from continuing to write for a major outdoor hook and bullet magazine. The editor assigned me to interview a seasoned Montana elk hunter of my own choosing about the excitement of opening day of rifle season. I contacted Joe and he shared tales of how he, for years, hiked many miles into the Gallatins to get away from other people. Prior to his annual pilgrimage, he would spend weeks in the backcountry studying elk and scouting locations where he could, on opening morning, scan ridgelines and put himself into positions for clean shots. 

He gave me great colorful material. Yet tinging the interview was a sigh of how, in recent years, his favorite haunts had been transformed.  “I hope you’ll mention it in your article so it’s not a bunch of fluff,” he said. The Custer-Gallatin National Forest had allowed user-created motorized trail routes to expand in many drainages, including right on top of established game trails he knew,  and the Forest Service hadn’t done a good job of enforcing regulations. On opening day a year earlier, Joe had walked many miles in but said he could see the headlights and hear the sound of ATVs rumbling up the draw before dawn. As riders approached, an elk herd he hoped to hunt scattered. 

I quoted him talking about how he pined for the old days when elk hunting required effort and woods savvy, when it delivered solitude, when a person had to exert a lot of effort and couldn’t simply throttle in. He complained how he had witnessed hunters in pick-up trucks in some areas of southwest Montana shoot elk from old logging roads, sometimes taking aim from inside the cabs of their vehicles. He added that rising ATV use had altered the feel of the Gallatins in places “where the experience of hunting used to be really special. It's unbelievable how fast it's changing.”

After I turned my story in, believing that championing traditional hunting would resonate with the editor in New York City, I got a call back. He asked me if I would delete Joe’s complaints. When I expressed hesitancy, he asked if I was “anti-ATV,” to which I said I wasn’t. Then, he added, “This Gutkoski guy sounds like a radical.”  I explained that Gutkoski represented the kind of values I had been raised to revere and many of my friends shared the same assessment of him. The editor, incredulous at that explanation, said that ATVs serve a valuable purpose in modern hunting. “They allow a lot of paraplegics to get out and enjoy pursuing elk.” 

I had heard that argument used by proponents of motorized recreation before. I asked Joe if he had ever seen a paraplegic driving an ATV in pursuit of a Gallatin elk and he said he hadn’t. “I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to a paraplegic, especially a military veteran, using an ATV to get an elk but that’s not why I’m opposed to ATVs. I think ATVs appeal to a lot of out-of-shape slob hunters who aren’t willing to work to get their elk and I think that’s pretty damned sad. There are a lot of roaded places on the forest that slob hunters can go to shoot an elk. There aren’t a lot of wilderness-caliber lands left.”

Gutkoski told me this when he was in his late 70s. 

When I relayed Joe’s reply to the magazine editor and that I wanted to leave his comments in, my story got killed. Afterwards, as I flipped through the pages of the latest edition of the magazine, I understood why. It was filled with full-page advertisements for ATVs. Joe apologized to me for what happened and said, “I think you picked the wrong guy to profile for your story.”

“Not at all,” I said. “I picked exactly the right guy because you forced me to think.”

That’s the way it always was with Gutkoski. His irrepressible enthusiasm for the wildlife-filled outdoors forced us to consider the backcountry experience from an animal’s point of view. He had walked the length of the Gallatins from Yellowstone north to Trail Creek, Bear Canyon, Hyalite,  Sourdough Creek, South Cottonwood, West Pine, Tom Miner, Portal, Porcupine, and Buffalo Horn  many times over. He had crossed those mountains from east to west. He knew every corner. “I love the Gallatins,” he said. “If parts of the Gallatins became wilderness and I was told that I might not be able to go there ever again, I would reluctantly accept it because I want what’s best for the mountains and the wildlife.”

This is Joe Gutkoski’s epitaph. What will ours be?

NOTE TO READERS: If you knew Joe Gutkoski and have some recollections to share, please pass them along by clicking here. Please try to keep them short and we will share them.

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I am so saddened by Joe's passing. He was a huge help to us at the National Wildlife Federation as we undertook efforts to change the outcome for Yellowstone's bison. Helping with the Montana Wildlife Federation and Gallatin Wildlife Association, he was a clear and ardent advocate for bison to be managed as wildlife. We have lost so many conservation heroes lately—Jim Posewitz, Valerius Geist, Tom Warren (a former NWF board chair that kept us in the bison effort) and now Joe. I hope young people will be inspired by Joe's example and step forward to also advocate for wildlife. We need people like Joe who saw accommodation as a slippery slope. Rest in peace, Joe.

—Dr. Stephen Torbit, assistant regional director of science application for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region and former Rocky Mountain regional director, National Wildlife Federation, in Colorado

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Joseph Gutkoski was a friend of over three decades. A "wolverine"? Perhaps, as a hunter. But as a person of character, Joe was one of the finest, most considerate, people you'd ever hope to meet. In his personal relations, Joe put others ahead of himself. As a conservationist, his efforts for rivers and buffalo were unflagging. As he once said, "It's what I live for." Now, Joe's memory and inspiring spirit live in those who knew him. But I'll stop there: Joe would brook no further adulation. Perhaps it was the wolverine in him?

—Doug Coffman, Eugene, Oregon

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I want to congratulate MoJo  for maybe one of the most important articles in your history. The article on Joe Gutkoski summarizes all that has been good in conservation in the Greater Yellowstone.  He was a dogged defender— I would sometimes get six calls a week!—of all things wild. He was determined to let bison finally be wild. He arranged a Buffalo Commons meeting with the Poppers in Lewistown, Montana long before the American Prairie Reserve started. He had appointed me President of the American/Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation.  I got a call the day of the meeting from the Fergus County (Montana) Sheriff, who said: "You had better not come as we cannot guarantee your safety!"

Life was exciting around Joe.

—Joan Montagne, Bozeman

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I first met Joe at the founding meeting of Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness. He was in his late 70's then, and apologized for being "a bit tired" since he had been packing an elk out of the Gallatins for the last few days. By himself. He ended up field mapping the entire Gallatin Range Roadless Area, and we used his work to draw up the 230,000-acre wilderness proposal for the Gallatins. Not too long ago he told me that he hoped to live to see that wilderness proposal come to fruition. That didn't happen, but we can sure honor Joe by getting the job done; that is, by designating the entire Gallatin 230,000-acre roadless area as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Joe was not just a great advocate for wild living things and places, but he was humble yet unyielding. Let's honor Joe and get the job done.

—Howie Wolke, Emigrant, Montana

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Had the pleasure of floating the Wild and Scenic Missouri with Joe a couple of decades back. He brought a garbage bag filled with the little he needed, rolling his sleeping bag out under a downed cottonwood. Slumgullion (his home-concocted variation of pemmican) was on the menu breakfast, lunch and supper.

One afternoon a storm drove our canoes to shore early. After the skies had cleared, Joe took off on a long hike. He came back with wild tales about encountering Waco Johnny Dean in a cabin on the edge of the Little Rockies. "I'm on the run from the Texas Rangers," Waco told Joe, admonishing him to keep his distance and tell no one of Waco's whereabouts.

Waco Johnny Dean was the product of Joe's fertile imagination, but Joe was the real thing. May his legend continue to enrich Montana's wilds.

—Bert Lindler, Missoula
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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