Bozeman Daily Chronicle

By Howie Wolke, guest columnist
May 11, 2016

Recently, about 130 people attended a panel discussion regarding a proposed wilderness plan for the Gallatin Range. An informal group called Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness sponsored the event. As the moderator, I briefly discussed wilderness as an exercise in selflessness, something that is necessary for wildlife and that also has intrinsic value in an increasingly human-dominated world. I was also honored to introduce the panelists: some of the most distinguished conservationists and wildlife biologists in the country.

Bozeman conservationist and writer Phil Knight discussed the citizens’ proposal for a 230,000-acre Gallatin Range Wilderness for the national forest portion of the range north of Yellowstone Park. Within that 230,000-acre proposed wilderness is a 150,000-acre wilderness study area. Phil also analyzed the large area of former railroad grant sections in the Gallatins that has been returned to public ownership. The proposed wilderness area is now entirely public land.

Noted ecologist Dr. Lance Craighead, also of Bozeman, then considered the importance of protecting unbroken tracts of wild country for various wildlife species. He described some species, such as the boreal toad and grizzly bear, as, to varying extents “umbrella species.” This means that if you protect enough habitat to sustain healthy populations of these animals, many other species will also be conserved, falling under their “umbrella.” The Gallatin Range includes some of the best remaining unprotected wildlife habitats in the country!

Activist and former Forest Service wildlife biologist Dr. Sara Jane Johnson of Three Forks discussed research that concludes that most forests are not “overgrown” and don’t need to be thinned to avert “catastrophic” wildfire. Dr. Johnson explained that typical fire cycles in this region are measured in centuries, not decades; that dense stands are normal, and that large-scale wildfires are natural essential events that have shaped landscapes for millennia. She also noted that to protect structures from wildfire, humans must thin flammable fuels within a 100-meter radius of the structure, not way out in roadless backcountry.

Sierra Club representative Bonnie Rice of Bozeman spoke about quiet recreation, including benefits not just to wildlife but also to many of us wild humans in this increasingly crowded, noisy and motor-driven society. Note that the Wilderness Act, in great forethought, precludes all “mechanized” forms of transportation in designated wilderness.

And world-renowned grizzly expert Dr. David Mattson of Livingston focused on the needs of grizzlies and other “wilderness-dependent species,” such as wolverine and lynx. He noted that the degree of wilderness-dependence depends upon human behavior and tolerance for animals such as large carnivores. Dr. Mattson also suggested that the proposed Gallatin Range Wilderness is an important potential corridor that could connect populations of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies (and other large carnivores) with populations to the north in the Glacier Park-Bob Marshall Wilderness Ecosystem.

The panelists’ presentations were followed by a question-and-answer session in which it was noted that half of the Gallatin Range acreage north of Yellowstone was already “roaded and developed,” not proposed for wilderness designation, and already open to logging, road-building and nearly all forms of mechanized on and off-road travel.

Remember, though, wilderness is not just about recreation, and public lands are not outdoor gymnasiums. Wilderness is about making room for other life forms. And because wilderness areas are untrammeled and unmanipulated, their function in allowing natural processes to persist is a statement that we humans do not and can never know it all.

At this event, three dozen additional groups and individuals endorsed the Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness proposal, bringing the endorsement list to over 120 groups and individuals! This is a great proposal, the only existing wilderness proposal for the Gallatin Range. It was carefully researched and conceived, and it’s a plan that makes sense for protecting this vulnerable Yellowstone Ecosystem wildland. Please consider adding your voice to those who already have spoken up for some of the best remaining unprotected wildlife habitat left on Earth! Please contact your elected representatives and Forest Service officials and urge them to support the Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness proposal. For more information, go to

Howie Wolke lives in Park County. He is a wilderness guide/outfitter, the current President of Wilderness Watch, and a founding member of Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness.

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