Support Local Journalism


Subscribe


The Gallatin Range, like so many wild places in the American West, is a refuge for wildlife. Elk, grizzly bear and wolverine are among the many species that rely on the remote reaches of the Gallatins for survival. They find food and shelter in the timbered draws and rocky slopes along the Gallatin Crest.

But like so many other wild places, the Gallatin Mountains face ever-increasing pressure from humanity. Development and increased recreational use put pressure on wildlife species that need open spaces and room to roam. Dr. Lance Craighead, of the Bozeman-based Craighead Institute, recently completed a study on the wildlife of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in the heart of the Gallatin Range. Craighead will present his findings during a talk at the Bozeman Public Library on Monday at 6 p.m.

The study “paints a picture of the importance of the (HPBH) area for wildlife,” Craighead said Tuesday. “It is the core of the Gallatin elk herd. Most of the herd relies on the Gallatin Crest for their summer range. Almost all of the WSA is now considered primary habitat for grizzly bears as they have expanded out of Yellowstone. And it is primary maternal habitat for wolverines.”

The Craighead Institute was founded in 1964 by grizzly bear researcher Dr. Frank Craighead. The institute is a science and research organization with a history of conservation efforts in the Northern Rockies. The institute aims to maintain healthy populations of wildlife, plants and people as part of a sustainable ecosystem.

Craighead’s report was commissioned by the Lee and Donna Metcalf Foundation.

“Since the HPBH was created by a bill started by and really dedicated to the memory of Lee Metcalf, it seemed fitting that the foundation provide funds to assist in determining wise uses for the area,” said Mike Meloy of LDMF. “The Forest Service has been in the process of defining public use of the area. In making its determination, the wildlife qualities of the area must necessarily be considered so that any prospective uses in various parts of the study area don’t significantly impact the existing ‘residents’ of the area.”

Craighead’s research focused on seven species — bighorn sheep, mountain goats, cutthroat trout, elk, grizzly bear, wolverine and pika. He spent six months gathering data from a variety of sources including Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the U.S. Forest Service and independent research organizations.

Wild Things Unlimited, which has conducted wildlife surveys in the Gallatins for years, provided a report, “Wildlife of the Gallatin Mountains,” for Craighead’s research.

“We have this amazing wildlife treasure right here,” said Steve Gehman of WTU. “We can see grizzly bear and wolverine habitat from town. The thing I come back to is how do we impress upon people that move here and want to use the Gallatin Range, that if we keep whittling away at it with more and more use, that there is a certain threshold out there for those animals. How do you balance that desire for recreation and the stronghold that the Gallatins are for these species?”

The HPBH was established as a Wilderness Study Area with the passage of the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977. The intent of the legislation was to “provide for the study of certain lands to determine their suitability for designation as wilderness in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964, and for other purposes.”

For a variety of reasons no decision has been made on whether to designate the HPBH as wilderness, but Craighead said the importance of the area to wildlife is clear.

“One point a lot of people don’t appreciate is that wildlife don’t just move somewhere else, because there is nowhere else to go,” Craighead said. “These roadless areas are the last place for many of these animals to go. You don’t just push them out, you reduce their populations.”

The difficult reality for wildlife is that even in roadless areas like the HPBH, human presence is expanding. Particularly in the Gallatins, recreational use is adding a layer of stress to the already perilous struggle for survival.

“Most of the wildlife species around here are very sensitive to human disturbance,” Craighead said. “Human activities cause them to avoid areas or even to run away, and can alienate habitat.”

In addition to studying wildlife, Craighead examined a variety of climate change models to predict what the future might look like for wildlife in the Gallatin Range. His research indicates a future that will see a slight increase in precipitation and a rise in temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Those predictions bold well for the GYE as compared to other areas in the West, and underscore the importance of the Gallatin Range as a current and future safe haven for wildlife.

“Roadless areas are important to protect because they are critical for the maintenance of the wildlife populations we have and they will be more critical in the future as more habitat disappears due to climate change,” Craighead said.

Research also indicates that wildlife species in Yellowstone are now using the Gallatin Range as primary habitat.

There is evidence that suggests Yellowstone is not big enough to support the populations of grizzly bears, elk and wolverines in the park. Elk migrate out of the park to winter range in the Gallatins and nearby Madison Mountains. Grizzly bears have expanded north from the park and now inhabit much of the range.

“The HPBH is directly connected to Yellowstone, so that is a very effective part of the GYE,” Craighead said. “Borders are artificial to wildlife.”

And that begs the question: As Bozeman continues to expand and we come closer to wild places, what is our backyard wildlife legacy?

“In my experience, the Gallatin Range is a really unique resource,” Craighead said. “To have backcountry that is that unspoiled so close to a city like Bozeman — it is a real precious wildlife resource that is also under a lot of pressure … and there are a lot of questions about how to balance those uses.”

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.