- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - The Gallatin Mountains are a remarkable place. Extending north from Yellowstone National Park to Bozeman’s backdoor, the range consists of soaring peaks, alpine valleys and virgin forest - habitat important to the grizzly bears, elk and mountain goats that call the Gallatins home.

The Gallatin Range also represents the last large unprotected tract of mountain country bordering Yellowstone in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In 1977, Congress designated 155,000 acres of the Gallatins a Wilderness Study Area.

“Protection of the Gallatin Range and the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area is important to maintaining the qualities that Yellowstone has,” said Sally Cathey, Gallatin Wilderness Character Project Associate for Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “The Gallatin Range is home to the iconic flora and fauna that Yellowstone is famous for. Protecting this area is important to ensure that these species continue to exist.”

Through September, Cathey will venture into remote areas of the Gallatin Mountains to assess the area’s wilderness character. She’ll use GPS technology on five outings to inventory and map human presence - or lack thereof - in the Gallatins.

And she’s looking for a little help.

“What we have to accomplish is to see what is on the land and what wilderness characteristics these areas have,” Cathey said. “We are not making the determination, but this information will help inform the discussion. We are looking for eight people to join per trip.”

Each group will use GPS devices and iPads in the field to record a variety of metrics, developed by The Wilderness Institute in collaboration with the Forest Service, that determine wilderness character. These observations may include campsites, noise, user-created trails, noxious weeds, wildlife interactions, rare species, encounters with people and visual intrusions outside the WSA boundary, such as roads or houses.

The Forest Service, along with the National Forest Foundation and the Mountaineers Foundation, is sponsoring the project. The information collected on the hikes will be delivered to the Forest Service for consideration in the upcoming Forest Plan.

“The Forest Plan is our overarching framework for going forward with projects on a case-by-case basis,” said Mariah Leuschen, Custer and Gallatin National Forests public affairs specialist. “It provides the guidance, rules and policies with which we care for the land. We established out national plan in 2012. Each forest goes through its own revision process and ours is tentatively scheduled for 2016.”

The Forest Service is required to manage wilderness study areas for wilderness characteristics, and to preserve and protect those characteristics for future designation. Congressional approval is needed for the designation of wilderness areas.

Leuschen said the Forest Service will use the data collected during the outings and overlay it with existing data once it is vetted. The information, along with public comment and other input will be weighed when drafting the new Forest Plan.

Cathey said some of the areas to be surveyed have never been studied before. The data collected will provide a baseline for future observation. Other hikes include areas of the Gallatin Range that were inventoried during a 2011 project. New observations will build on that data.

“We are not strictly monitoring the WSA,” Cathey said. “We are also looking at inventoried roadless areas. South Cottonwood is neither (a WSA or IRA), but we are still looking because it has wilderness characteristics.”

Cathey said the project has received a strong response, but there are still opportunities to volunteer.

“When the Forest Service is deciding what to do in their plan,” Cathey said, “they will have knowledge of what is actually out there on the ground.”

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