The Bridger Range and the Gallatin National Forest Travel Plan

The Bridger Range and the Gallatin National Forest Travel Plan

Regnerus, Shawn
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The Bridgers give Bozeman a skyline as distinctive as any city. The silhouettes of Saddle Peak, Ross Peak, Sacajawea, and Hardscrabble are as recognizable to Gallatin Valley residents as the silhouettes of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are to New Yorkers.

But the Bridgers are more than just a pretty backdrop; they are Bozeman's closest, dearest backcountry playground. Within half an hour’s drive of any office in Bozeman there are numerous trailheads that offer hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or skiing. Beside trailheads like the M, Sypes Canyon, and Middle Cottonwood, there are maintained campgrounds and picnic sites at Fairy Lake and Battle Ridge. In the winter there is downhill skiing at Bridger Bowl, miles of groomed cross-country tracks at Bohart Ranch, and ample backcountry skiing opportunities for everything from open meadows to steep chutes. And best of all, its all on public land.

In addition to being Bozeman’s backcountry playground, the Bridgers provide habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife: elk, deer, moose, mountain goat, black bear, mountain lion, wolverine, marten, bobcat and possibly even lynx. How can a relatively small range like the Bridgers—that is in the back yard of one of the largest and possibly the most outdoor–sports-crazed towns in Montana—still have a population of bears, mountain lions and even wolverines, a species that has been driven out of all but a few western states?

Wolverines are perhaps the most wilderness-dependent species of wildlife in North America. When they're denning in late winter, the slightest disturbance-even a single visit by a skier or snowmobiler-can cause them to abandon the den, jeopardizing the young pups’ survival. And unfortunately for wolverines, they den in high alpine basins, the same areas sought out by backcountry skiers and high-marking snowmobilers.

But the range’s long, narrow geography means no spot is more than 2.5 miles from a road. In other words, every spot in the range can be reached in a half day’s walk. It may also surprise some people that almost all of the trails in the Bridgers are open to motorized use, and with the exception of the land surrounding the Bridger Bowl, the entire range is open to unrestricted snowmobiling. With the increasing levels of recreational use and the increasing capabilities of machines to penetrate the backcountry, the important question is this: How much longer can the Bridgers support a population of wilderness-dependent wildlife like wolverines?

Because the Bridgers are part of the Gallatin National Forest (GNF), that question will ultimately be answered by the public. As with every other national forest, recreational use—whether on foot, horseback, mountain bike, motorcycle, ATV, snowmobile, SUV, or passenger car—in the GNF is controlled by a document called a travel plan. The last travel plan for the GNF was enacted in 1986. No one needs to be told how much the area has grown since then. Just as the rising population results in increased traffic and puts increasing strains on city streets, it also puts an increasing strain on our public lands. Types of use have changed as well. In 1986, ATVs were a novelty and few snowmobiles had the power to operate in powder snow, especially on steeper slopes. Now, ATV sales have skyrocketed and there are few slopes that are beyond the capabilities of current high-performance snowmachines.

Right now, the GNF is revising its travel plan. Because almost all recreation relies on motorized vehicles in some way (even those who don't ride ORVs into the backcountry DO use cars to access the trailhead) the new travel plan will have an enormous effect on recreation. And because where, when, and how recreation takes place determines how well species like wolverine can survive in the Bridgers, the travel plan will also have an enormous effect on wildlife. Balancing the needs of wildlife and the desires of recreationists is the biggest challenge the Forest Service faces in drafting tne new travel plan. Holding on to what we love about the Bridgers may mean we have to make some hard choices about when and where we recreate. Holding on to a population of wolverines may mean we have to limit where and when we ski and snowmobile.

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