Wilderness Study Areas

Photo by Ian Cameron

Wilderness study areas (WSAs) have many of the same characteristics as designated Wilderness areas but have not yet been granted the same determination by Congress. Like designated Wilderness areas, WSAs are protected from development and have the inherent beauty of untrammeled landscapes, natural timber growth, and native wildlife.

Montana has 44 WSAs, 37 of which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The United States Forest Service (USFS) manages the rest.

According to the BLM: "By November 1980, the BLM had completed field inventories and designated about 25 million acres of WSAs. Since 1980, Congress has reviewed some of these areas and has designated some as wilderness and released others for non-wilderness uses. Until Congress makes a final determination on a WSA, the BLM manages these areas to preserve their suitability for designation as wilderness."

United States Forest Service

Ten Lakes

Location: Northeast of Eureka
Size: 34,000 acres
Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area offers an outstanding spectrum of wildlife species and primitive backcountry recreation opportunities for hikers and skiers in the Galton and Whitefish ranges. The area includes forested foothills and glacial basins. Spectacular alpine lakes are surrounded by open ridges that provide panoramic views of Glacier National Park, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, and southern British Columbia. Flower-filled mountain meadows delight the eye. One of the most diverse arrays of large mammals in the Lower 48 can be found in Ten Lakes. The natural integrity of the area is high.

Big Snowy Mountains

Location: South of Lewistown
Size: 98,000 acres
The Big Snowy Mountains Wilderness Study Area is where grain fields and grasslands end abruptly in a massive mountain arch, like a great whale rising from a sea of prairie. The flanks of the range are deeply dissected by rugged limestone canyons, long and densely forested on the north. The craggy southern face of the Snowies is cut into huge bowl-shaped drainages. The entire range is composed of sedimentary rocks exposed in numerous limestone cliffs. Here your feet encounter a thick carpet of wildflowers eight miles long. Under the immense sky, light and shadow dance across distant crag and forest. Many canyons support seasonal streams due to the porous nature of the rock, but surface water is scarce. The Snowies are a vital watershed replenishing underground aquifers and springs of the surrounding plains.

Blue Joint

Location: Originates in the Bitterroot Range high on the Idaho-Montana border
Size: 61,400 acres
Blue Joint encompasses two deep canyons hosting tributaries of the West Fork Bitterroot River. The entire area is thickly forested with Douglas fir, lodgepole, and ponderosa pine in the lower elevations. Large mountain meadows and cliffs are bordered with whitebark pine in the higher elevations. There are abundant populations of bighorn sheep, elk, deer, pine marten, and black bear.

Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn

Location: East of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Bozeman
Size: 155,000
The Gallatin Range stretches south from the fire and ice-carved Hyalite Peaks near Bozeman. The area is renowned for its outstanding wildlife habitat. Porcupine Creek and Buffalo Horn provide wintering grounds for the vast northern Yellowstone elk herd. The area also includes ideal elk calving grounds, summer and fall range. Within these rugged mountains are born the headwaters for the blue-ribbon trout fisheries of the Gallatin and Yellowstone Rivers. The northern end has been heavily glaciated, evident by the spectacular Hyalite Peaks. The central range crest consists of a massive plateau with deep, steep-walled canyons. Many peaks over 10,000 feet are scattered along the length of the Gallatin divide.

Middle Fork Judith River

Location: East slopes of the Little Belt Mountains, 40 miles southeast of Great Falls
Size: 92,000 acres
The proposed wilderness encompasses the Middle and Lost Forks of the Judith River. Both forks of the Judith River have cut deep, twisted canyons through multicolored limestone cliffs. These river canyons form the heart of the wildland. The higher elevations to the west are forested with lodgepole and white-bark pine. To the east, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine are interspersed with open parks and meadows. The study area contains over 29 miles of rivers and tributaries loaded with native cutthroat and rainbow trout. The proposed boundaries will maintain excellent wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, and hunting opportunities in an area of otherwise heavily impacted national forest land.


Location: The Sapphire Range joins the Continental Divide just below the peaks of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness
Size: 98,000 acres
The great divide forms the frozen backbone of a 350,000-acre wildlands complex that stretches from the Big Hole Valley to the pristine headwaters of Rock Creek. The Sapphires form the biological heartland of this diverse mountain ecosystem, a lush wildland that enriches the rocks and ice of the Pintler Range. More than 20 lovely lakes nestle in steep cirques just below the Sapphires' undulating crest. To the west, creeks feed the trout fisheries of the Bitterroot River. To the east, the Sapphires are the watershed from which Rock Creek, a blue-ribbon trout stream, springs.

West Pioneers

Location: Along the border of Idaho, west of Dillon
Size: 148,150 acres
The West Pioneers are the largest remaining roadless area in southwest Montana. A forested wilderness of rolling terrain and rich wildlife habitat, the West Pioneers provide gentle contrast to the craggy summits of the East Pioneers. The crest of the range includes several peaks over 9,000 feet with great views of the Continental Divide and East Pioneers. Long, meadow-lined tributaries flow east into Wise River and thence to the Big Hole River. West-side creeks feed directly into the Big Hole River, a blue-ribbon fishery. About a dozen small lakes lie in rock-rubble cirques along the divide. The West Pioneers provide superb elk habitat.

Bureau of Land Management

Antelope Creek

Location: North side of the Missouri along the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 12,350 acres

Axolotl Lakes

Location: Northern edge of the Greenhorn Mountains, 70 miles northeast of Dillon
Size: 7,804 acres

Beaver Meadows

Location: Adjoining the eastern side of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, roughly 20 miles southwest of Augusta.
Size: 595 acres

Bell/Limekiln Canyons

Location: Near the Clark Canyon Reservoir along Interstate 15 southwest of Dillon
Size: 9,650 acres

Big Horn Tack-on

Location: Wedged between the Pryor Mountain Range and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation area, less than two miles west of the Crow Indian Reservation and crossing the Wyoming border.
Size: 2,470 acres

Billy Creek

Location: Southcentral portion of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge surrounding Lake Fort Peck (south of Glasgow).
Size: 3,450 acres

Bitter Creek

Location: Along the Canadian Border north of Glasgow.
Size: 59,660 acres

Black Sage

Location: Halfway between Boulder and Whitehall near HWY 69
Size: 5,926 acres

Blacktail Mountains

Location: South of Dillon.
Size: 17,479 acres

Bridge Coulee

Location: Just south of Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge near Glasgow and north of the Musselshell Breaks Wilderness Study Area.
Size: 5,900 acres

Burnt Lodge

Location: Adjacent to the western edge of the Pryor Mountain Range and in the southern edge of Custer National Forest (just over two miles north of the Wyoming border)
Size: 13,730 acres

Burnt Timber Canyon

Location: South of Billings, near the Wyoming Border
Size: 3,430 acres

Centennial Mountains

Location: South of Red Rock Lakes near Yellowstone National Park
Size: 27,691 acres

Cow Creek

Location: North side of the Missouri River along the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 34,050 acres

Dog Creek South

Location: South side of the Missouri River along the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 5,150 acres

East Fork Blacktail Deer Creek

Location: North of Red Rock Lakes near Yellowstone National Park.
Size: 6,230 acres

Elkhorn Wilderness

Location: Halfway between Boulder and Clancy near Interstate 15.
Size: 3,585 acres

Ervin Ridge

Location: South side of the Missouri River in the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River corridor near Fort Benton.
Size: 10,200 acres

Farlin Creek

Location: South of Beaverhead National Forest between Dillon and Wisdom, near MT HWY 278
Size: 1,139 acres

Henneberry Ridge

Location: South of Bannack State Park near Dillon.
Size: 9,806 acres

Hidden Pasture Creek

Location: West of Dell.
Size: 15,509 acres

Hoodoo Mountain

Location: Near the Wales Creek Study area Nevada Lake north of Deer Lodge.
Size: 11,380 acres

Humbug Spires

Location: South of Butte near Interstate 15
Size: 11,175 acres

Musselshell Breaks

Location: South of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge and Bridge Coulee Wilderness Study Area, along the Musselshell River (near Glasgow)
Size: 8,650 acres

North Fork Sun River

Location: Nearly broken off of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, northeast of the Gibson Reservoir between Missoula and Great Falls
Size: 196 acres

Pryor Mountain

Location: Adjacent to Custer National Forest and reaching the border of Montana and Wyoming
Size: 12,575 acres

Quigg West

Location: Near Rock Creek Road (County Rd 102) east of Hamilton
Size: 520 acres

Ruby Mountains

Location: Near Ruby River Reservoir, east of Dillon
Size: 26,611 acres

Seven Blackfoot

Location: Southcentral portion of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge surrounding Lake Fort Peck (south of Glasgow)
Size: 20,250 acres

Sleeping Giant/Sheep Creek

Location: With the "Sleeping Giant" visible from Helena, it is southeast of Wolf Creek, near the Gates of the Mountains and Holter Lake.
Size: 10,454 acres

Square Butte

Location: South of Geraldine
Size: 1,947 acres


Location: North side of the Missouri River and within Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River Corridor near Fort Benton
Size: 4,800 acres

Terry Badlands

Location: Halfway between Miles City and Glendive along Interstate 94.
Size: 44,910 acres

Twin Coulee

Location: Near Big Snowy, south of Lewistown.
Size: 6,870 acres

Wales Creek

Location: Near the Hoodoo Mountain Wilderness Study Area and Kleinschmidt Lake north of Deer Lodge.
Size: 11,580 acres


Location: Roughly 90 percent located in the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River Corridor near Fort Benton
Size: 8,100 acres

Yellowstone River Island

Location: Inside the Yellowstone River, roughly 4 miles northeast of Livingston
Size: 53 acres