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One of America's Biggest Wildlife Conservation Issues You Need To Know About

Stretching between Yellowstone and Bozeman, the Gallatins are the only mountains rimming Yellowstone without significant wilderness protection. Will the Forest Service show vision?

The Gallatins are the only mountains rimming Yellowstone not permanently protected with federal Wilderness.  Pictured here is the wild crest of the Gallatins and the wildlife-rich drainages falling away on the west toward the Gallatin River and on the east spilling into Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River. Photo courtesy Ecoflight
The Gallatins are the only mountains rimming Yellowstone not permanently protected with federal Wilderness. Pictured here is the wild crest of the Gallatins and the wildlife-rich drainages falling away on the west toward the Gallatin River and on the east spilling into Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River. Photo courtesy Ecoflight
By Todd Wilkinson

TRUE WILD PLACES ARE DEFINED BY THE WILD CREATURES THAT CALL THEM HOME. The wildest places on Earth still have healthy populations of certain wildlife species because there are not a lot of humans inhabiting them or regularly moving through them. This is a truth tested by time and demonstrated by irrefutable evidence.

On a finite planet with expanding numbers of Homo sapiens, sometimes with big appetites for consumption, such wild places are rare and becoming exceedingly scarce. 

This is what the so-called Anthropocene—the new unprecedented age in which human activity has become the dominant influence in shaping the environment and climate—means for the twenty-first century. Literally, the presence, abundance and survival of many species will come down to decisions made by people on how much they choose to impact the last wild places. 

Consider this, then, a preamble to Mountain Journal’s examination of just one stretch of mountains. Located in the American West, the Gallatin Range is a south to north extension of rugged skyward topography that begins in the wild maw of Yellowstone National Park.  It runs from Mt. Holmes in Yellowstone roughly 75 miles northward to the the backyard of Bozeman, Montana, the fastest growing micropolitan city in the US.

Yellowstone is America’s first national park and progenitor for the natural national park movement globally. As a World Heritage Site, Yellowstone is counted among a collection of Earth's  greatest natural wonders and other creations associated with humankind.  Any World Heritage site must meet just one criteria. Yellowstone meets several.

 • It contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance—e.g. its 10,000 geothermal phenomena and “the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” Thomas Moran’s painting of which convinced to set the lands aside as a pioneering nature preserve and which Wallace Stegner called the best original idea America ever had;

 • It is an outstanding example representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features—e.g. the Yellowstone caldera and super-volcano;

 • it is an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals, e.g. the presence of countless micro-organisms known as thermophiles living in Yellowstone’s geothermal habitats and contributing to important discoveries plus wildlife research that set a global precedent; 

 • It contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation. 

The latter criteria is what gives Yellowstone and the Gallatins a shared legacy. Together, they are important pieces in an ecological puzzle that is unrivaled in the Lower 48 states and regarded as an iconic focal point in the world, held up with the same reverence by scientists as the Serengeti Plain in Africa or the Alaska tundra and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Both are crucial pieces of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the only mass of interwoven geography and human land jurisdictions that holds all of the large native mammal species, avians and other small organisms that existed when Europeans arrived on the North American continent more than half a millennia ago. Every US citizen is a stakeholder.
The Gallatin Mountains, with the diversity of wildlife calling them home, are wilder than most national parks in the Lower 48. Yet some conservationists say they are being treated as just another backyard play area for recreationists who don't appreciate their rareness or what it takes to sustain biological diversity of the highest order.
Context is everything when Greater Yellowstone residents, Americans as a whole and nature-loving humans around the planet, decide whether learning about the fate of the Gallatins today is worthy of  their attention. The context for drawing a conclusion relates to this:

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has a concentration of large free-roaming terrestrial mammals that is unsurpassed south of Canada. The ecosystem is home to Yellowstone, and is one of the birthplaces of the national forest system, as well as having Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole among its treasures and the tri-state region is considered the cradle of US wildlife conservation for the number species that were rescued from near-oblivion here.

On three different sides, the wild character of Yellowstone is bolstered by the presence of federal Wilderness lands on adjacent national forests. Wilderness is a formal land designation that prevents construction of roads and the presence of mechanized machines, ensuring that the wild creatures inside these wild places have unfragmented, untrammeled habitat. 

Only one mountain range that begins in Yellowstone and protrudes outside its boundaries lacks permanent large-scale Wilderness protection. 

That line of mountains is the Gallatins. Again, it is no ordinary rise of rock and its relationship to Yellowstone makes it a public landscape of national interest. 

Between the northwest border of Yellowstone and Bozeman’s southern horizon, within the Gallatins itself, is the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area situated inside the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Created in 1977, this WSA comprised of three major drainages is supposed to be managed in safekeeping by the U.S. Forest Service until its permanent classification is determined by Congress. By dimension, the area is about about 36 miles in length and between four and 12 miles wide, flanked on the west by the Gallatin River Canyon and on the east by Paradise and the Upper Yellowstone River Valley.

As a WSA, it means the Forest Service is required to essentially manage the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn as a Wilderness Area. Early in the 20th century, no less a figure than Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, said the range needed special protection to insure the survival of the Gallatin Elk Herd, the most famous population of wild wapiti next to the Jackson Elk Herd in Jackson Hole. His conclusion was shared by a federal biologist, Olaus J. Murie, based in Moose, Wyoming, who was known for his pathfinding studies of elk. 

Miraculously, no roads have ever been blazed across the Gallatins, bisecting them, but the effort to maintain their wild character has faced many challenges. 

Travis Belote, a research ecologist with The Wilderness Society, an organization to which Murie served as a founding member, recently did an assessment of Wilderness Study Areas in states comprising the Northern Rockies. He concluded that many of these WSAs, given the richness of their wildlife, makes them wilder than many of the large national parks in the West. 

The Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in the Gallatins has all of its original wildlife species, making it the crown jewel of Wilderness Study Areas in America. Its wild denizens include grizzly bears, gray wolves and mountain lions, elk, moose, bison, lynx, wolverines, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer and native trout. The mountain’s river drainages and uplands serve as key wildlife migration zones for ungulates moving between Yellowstone and winter range in the Madison, Gallatin and Centennial valleys.

° ° ° °

More than a quarter century ago, I wrote a series of stories about efforts to consolidate land ownership in the Gallatins and those stories referenced the Porcupine Drainage, in particular, as what hunters and wildlife watchers dubbed “the Holy Land” owed to the amazing diversity of animals. 

The whole idea behind the concept of Greater Yellowstone is that Yellowstone Park alone is insufficient to accommodate the survival of species that live inside it. They need room to roam. They need refuge from huge numbers of people. They need undisturbed and unfragmented habitat found at different elevation levels during specific seasons. 

Topographically, the Gallatins are a vital ecological appendage of America’s first national park. In the past, attempts to permanently protect the Montana stretch of the Gallatins have failed. At present, there is a debate about how the Gallatins should best be secured in ways that allow them to withstand a rapidly rising population of humans on three sides, replete with land development pinching in on them from Bozeman, Big Sky, the Gallatin Canyon, Livingston and Paradise Valley.

One of the biggest threats is climate change. Research already shows a trend of warming temperatures over the last 50 years. Some 85 percent of the water serving growing Bozeman comes from snowmelt and rain in the Gallatins. Projections are that as more carbon dioxide loads in Earth’s atmosphere the Northern Rockies will be rendered hotter, drier and more water-challenged in summer. 

Apart from the impacts on people, increased heat means wildlife will need secure habitat in the mountains as a refuge. The same climatic effects are expected to bring more large wildfires, potentially significantly altering forested habitat that has sheltered species. 

Prominent conservation biologists say the surest way to maintain resilient wildlife populations is to provide them with larger masses of habitat, away from humans, and to connect them to other areas. The threats are not limited to private land development. Emerging evidence, building on existing studies, shows that growing numbers of outdoor recreationists on public lands in the West are displacing wildlife. 

From scientists to lifelong conservationists, the amount of acreage protected in the Gallatin Range and the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area is considered one of the most important conservation issues in Greater Yellowstone in decades, they say. The decision will determine the ecological health of this high-profile range and the wildlife that lives there, but it will also have direct and secondary effects on Yellowstone. 
From scientists to lifelong conservationists, the amount of acreage protected in the Gallatin Range and the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area is considered one of the most important conservation issues in Greater Yellowstone in decades.
As our investigation has discovered, there is no place in the world that has maintained its high caliber of intrinsic wildness, as defined by the sensitive wildlife that lives there, in the face of intense human pressure causing habitat loss, displacement of species from human incursion, and dramatic system disruptions that may be coming with climate change, scientific experts whom Mountain Journal interviewed say. 

Mountain Journal already has featured a number of guest essays about the debate over the Gallatins. You can read some of those below. This series is based upon interviews and our own reporting and it focuses foremost on the ecological significance of the range. It will be published between now and the end of May 2020, about the time the Custer-Gallatin National Forest releases a plan for managing the Gallatins, including its recommendation for the amount of acreage protected as federal Wilderness. 

The fate of the Gallatins is viewed as bellwether, harbinger and symbol for assessing the state of the wildlands protection movement in America. In terms of high wildlife values in Greater Yellowstone, never has more been at stake in this new millennium.

NOTE: Read Mountain Journal's three-part investigative report:

Also read these op-eds below about the Gallatin Range:

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the summer 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing 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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