A Sportsman’s Perspective on Wilderness Study Areas

Daines claims that his bill has support from hunters, but the facts just don’t bear that out

By Alec Underwood

To many Montana hunters, there is no better feeling than being deep in the backcountry where elk and deer see little hunting pressure. These wild places are critical, not only for the overall experience of the hunt, but as secure habitat for fish and wildlife.

The first elk bugle I ever heard was in the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. When that bull cut through the silence of the crisp, early September morning, it left my hunting partner and I wide-eyed and full of adrenaline. I learned to elk hunt in the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, and I developed a deep appreciation for this special place.

The West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area is another place where I have found solitude and some of the best hunting and fishing in Montana. Whether it is the abundant elk population or unique angling opportunities for Arctic grayling or cutthroat trout, this area is special to thousands of hunters, anglers, and other outdoorspeople who use it every year.

Unfortunately, the Sapphire and West Pioneers, along with and three other wilderness study areas totaling 450,000 acres, are in danger because of Montana Sen. Steve Daines. Daines has introduced a bill to roll back the protections on these areas, which would open them to mining and other development, as well as increased motorized use.

Congress declared these lands as wilderness study areas in order to protect their status until a determination can be made about whether to designate them as wilderness or not. There are many examples across Montana of how local collaboration can make that determination, such as the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project. Instead of listening to these local efforts, Daines has taken a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that ignores transparent public process.

In pushing to repeal these wilderness study areas, Daines has called for more motorized access.  What he doesn’t tell Montanans is that there are already vast opportunities for motorized use throughout the Bitterroot National Forest and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. In fact, 60 percent of the entire Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is open to snowmobile use, including every acre of the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area and one-third of the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area.

Montana has no shortage of public land for activities like snowmobiling and off-highway motorcycling. In pushing for these activities in wilderness study areas, Daines is ignoring the negative impact that such activity has on big game. Science tells us that elk and deer need large roadless areas like the Sapphires and West Pioneers for security, and that motorized activity displaces animals and degrades habitat. All sportsmen benefit from these lands, even those who don’t hunt them. Without security habitat, we will have fewer elk and worse hunting opportunities across public and private land.

Daines claims that his bill has support from hunters, but the facts just don’t bear that out. Dozens of sportsmen’s groups around the state – including the Montana Wildlife Federation, Anaconda Sportsman’s Club, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Helena Hunters and Anglers, and numerous other local groups – were never consulted over the fate of these wilderness study areas. Daines did not hold a single public meeting before introducing it, and so far, he has only been willing to talk to hand-picked groups of supporters.

Sportsmen’s groups are more than willing to come to the table and talk about the fate of our Wilderness Study Areas. Daines should put aside this distracting bill, talk to those of us who have hunted these lands, and support collaborative local discussions. Working together, Montanans can find solutions that accommodate all public land user groups. We need leaders who will listen to us, not lecture us.

Alec Underwood is the western field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.