These are strange and tense times. Having been involved in Montana’s conservation politics for 32 years—I remember when Pat Williams was young!—it’s interesting and encouraging to witness recent Montana-based conservation legislation, even as Washington, D.C. pulses and throbs with paralyzing vitriol.

Maybe what we are doing in Montana is an uptick, or maybe it’s a real trend. The bipartisan support for the Gateway Act to protect the north entrance to Yellowstone from international mining interests, and likewise support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, are both reminders that our economy depends more than ever upon the integrity of Montana’s open space and wild places.

Maybe what we are doing in Montana is an uptick, or maybe it’s a real trend. Regardless, clear opportunity exists for another bipartisan solution to a threatening issue for which exists a ready-made, no-brainer solution. The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), a 1,200-mile, high-volume through-hiker trail along the Canadian border, was, after 32 years of opposition by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nonetheless quietly authorized by attachment of a single paragraph to a must-pass omnibus bill. The route authorized passed through the middle of the most vital grizzly habitat in the Yaak Valley. (The legislation also required the USFS to complete a management plan for the 1,200-mile trail within two years of the bill’s passage. For unknown reasons, the USFS failed to even initiate such planning for eight years, and never completed it. Until a few years ago, many people in Montana didn’t realize a trail had been authorized).

So many concerns attend to the genesis of this legislation: the lack of Montana’s stakeholders to be engaged in the discussion; the untested map itself, which cobbled together an matrix of existing trails, logging roads, new trails, and in some cases, high-speed paved U.S. highways, the latter of which is as illegal as it is unsafe for both hikers and motorists. Conflicts with border agents along the Canadian-U.S. border are being documented, as are long stretches of trail in which hikers don’t have reliable access to water. Local search-and-rescue responders also lament the location of the existing route.

One way to deal with this train wreck of a piece of legislation would be to simply deauthorize the Montana portion of the trail. (Washington state and Idaho communities have challenges and problems with their portions of the trail as well. Let those states get things right in their own states; in the meantime, there’s no need to export their problems to Montana.) With only 25 grizzlies surviving in the Yaak Valley—maybe only three or four breeding age females with cubs—it’s past time to cease advertising and promoting a high-volume trail through 26 miles of the most critical designated core grizzly habitat in Montana.

Another option, however, still meeting the wants of through-hikers, would be a re-route. In 1978, the late Dr. Chuck Jonkel, legendary grizzly scientist, tasked with detailing for Congress the problems with the hikers’ club’s proposed route, identified a route just south of the Kootenai River, which would avoid placing high numbers of hikers into the small alpine meadows along the border. These tiny alpine meadows—so limited and rare in the Yaak—are the vital (and designated) core habitat for female grizzlies with cubs. (A 2018 analysis by Dr. Lance Craighead and Wayne McCrory confirmed the veracity of Dr. Jonkel’s findings).

Some hikers, viewing this route on the map, complain about having to walk a little farther—1,300 miles, say, instead of 1,200, in order to help protect the most endangered grizzly subpopulation in Montana. Those who are investigating the Jonkel route rave about the scenery of the majestic Kootenai River, and the incredible biodiversity of northwest Montana. Dr. Jonkel’s southern scenic alternative—giving hikers the option of dropping into the trail towns of Libby and Troy, if desired—also travels to nearly twice as many high points, with their spectacular views, compared to the existing, hastily-legislated route.

Businesses in Libby and Troy are asking the delegation to legislatively re-route the trail to provide maximum economic opportunity in Lincoln County, and to avoid bisecting core grizzly habitat. (Once the high-volume trail receives 200 users per year, it becomes classified as yet another open road in grizzly country, with all sorts of ramifications for proposed vegetative management in the area).

Sen. Tester, Sen. Daines, Rep. Gianforte: keep the ball rolling. Let Washington D.C. keep waging titanic battles of dysfunction. There is plenty of work here to keep us all busy, taking care of business at home.

Rick Bass, former writer-in-residence at Montana State University, is a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council ( and Save the Yellowstone Grizzly ( He is a recipient of the 2018 Governor’s Award in the Arts.