Wilderness Study Areas Protect Cutthroat Trout & Montana’s Communities

NWF   |   June 21, 2018

In Montana, we see our public lands as part of our American identity and birthright, just like people across the country do.  Public lands and waters sustain fish and wildlife — from elk to black bear and mountain lions to trout. They sustain us, too, providing clean air and water and places to hike, hunt and camp.  

And just like in other states, the passion stirred by our great fish and wildlife populations and our shared public lands and waters can lead to heated disputes over the best way to take care of them. One thing that has helped solved these thorny debates is actually listening to what the person across the table is saying.

Listening to each other and working together have enabled Montanans to find common ground on a wide range of natural resource issues, from timber country in Yaak and Deer Lodge, to ranching in Ovando to outdoor recreation in Bozeman. In neighboring Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson used this same approach to designate the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in 2016. 

Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area. Credit: Dee Linnell Blank.

Preserving these special places for wildlife and future generations is an idea where we can and must find common ground, not political debate. In Montana, we have proven we can do that hard work. Three bills, however, are threatening to endanger some of the West’s most special places and short-circuit collaboration.

Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines have introduced bills to strip protections on more than 800,000 acres of public lands in their home state of Montana. The legislation, S. 2206 and its companion H.R. 5148 as well as H.R. 5149, would open up Wilderness Study Areas to oil and gas drilling, mining and other potentially harmful development. These areas are a category of protected public lands that have been identified as prospects for federally designated wilderness.

Changing their status is a big deal. But there have been no public meetings or town halls on these proposals, even though people have asked for them.

Public feedback on these important public lands should have informed the bills before they were introduced in Congress, as a recent poll from the University of Montana shows. Conducted jointly by both Republican and Democratic firms, the poll showed only 11 percent of Montanans support eliminating all protections in these Wilderness Study Areas.

Rooster Comb in the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. Credit: Zack Porter.

Further, 97 percent say it is important — with 77 percent saying it is very important — that a wide range of stakeholders and local communities have the opportunity to provide input before decisions are made.

Montanans and other Americans have a right to weigh in on the lands we own in common. The Wilderness Study Areas provide drinking water for communities, and habitat for elk, mule deer, grizzly bears and wolverines. Water flowing out of the backcountry feeds the blue-ribbon fisheries like the Big Hole River, home to four species of trout, whitefish and a rare, recovering population of fluvial arctic grayling.

Cutthroat trout. Credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie.

Perhaps not every acre of the 800,000 acres is appropriate for wilderness protection, but many of them are. National Wildlife Federation believes it is time to sit down and resolve the status of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, which have been in limbo for about four decades. Some of them could be reclassified. But this must be done with balance and common sense. Any plan should support conservation, recreation, restoration, and our economy, and incorporate the views of a wide variety of stakeholders and the public.

In Montana, we have seen how people are willing to set aside ideological difference and work together to solve problems. And we feel a responsibility to our fellow Americans to do just that. We know that how we take care of public lands and waters in Montana matters to all Americans because they belong to all Americans. People who — whether they are hunters, anglers, paddlers, hikers, bird watchers, or gardeners in the heart of a big city — want to know that places still exist with wild and scenic rivers, big backcountry, grizzlies and roaming herds of elk.

To learn more, read National Wildlife Federation Associate Vice President for Public Lands Tracy Stone-Manning’s written testimony on the legislation before the House Natural Resources Committee or watch below: