Southwest Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Natural System

by Rick and Susie Graetz
widgeon pond at red rock lakes national wildlife refuge below the centennial mountains near lakeview, mt
Centennial Range and the Continental Divide | John Lambing

Standing on the summit of 9,860-foot Pioneer Mountain in Montana’s Madison Range, one is presented with a striking 360-degree panorama. Sprawled, in every compass direction, is one of the nation’s most pristine and intact natural systems. A wellspring for the Northern Rockies… the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

In the early 1960s, nationally acclaimed wildlife biologists and grizzly bear experts John and Frank Craighead were instrumental in inventing and using radio collars to track every aspect of the wild animals they studied in the 2.4 million acres of Yellowstone National Park. Telemetry data showed that bears don’t recognize the Park’s boundaries, and the brothers felt at least six-million acres of connectivity beyond the Park’s perimeter was necessary for the bruins to survive and thrive.

The Craigheads’ notion of a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem took hold and is now considered an intrinsic link and part of the work-in-progress, 5,000-mile-long wildlife corridor called Yellowstone to the Yukon, or Y2Y.

Today, the Greater Yellowstone is a 20-million-acre piece of America encompassing two national parks—Yellowstone and Grand Teton, ten million acres of seven national forests, three wildlife refuges, seemingly countless acres of BLM and state lands, private landholdings, and numerous small communities. Three states—Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho—claim segments of this epic geography.

A segment of the designated Southwest Montana tourism region is an integral part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The open west slope of the Madison Range facing the expanse of the Madison Valley is an important winter haven for thousands of elk migrating from YNP and the Gallatin Range to the east.

West of the Madison, the Gravelly Range, Tobacco Roots, Centennial, Snowcrest, Blacktail and Ruby mountains all harbor intact biological diversity and allow for wildlife connectivity throughout this realm of Southwest Montana. Sparsely populated valleys in between the ranges provide winter habitat for many species and also, like the higher geography, permit extensive migration freedom.

Indeed, as wildlife biologists study ways to connect this region of the state, sometimes, in conservation circles known as “The Hi-Divide” with more than seven million acres of Central Idaho wildlands, Southwest Montana’s status will grow even more critical as a wildlife stronghold and in turn add to its lure as a place to visit.

Southwest Montana is also a prime example of how humans can live in an ecosystem in equilibrium with the landscape and wild animals. It’s called good stewardship and a caring for the natural topography.

From the Gravelly Range looking east to the Madison Range | Rick and Susie Graetz