Wilderness Study Areas

Home Discover the Wild Public Lands 101 Wilderness Study Areas
Photo by Ian Cameron

Wilderness study areas (WSAs) have many of the same characteristics as designated Wilderness areas; the difference is that they have not been granted Wilderness designation by Congress. WSAs are protected from development, although not as stringently as Wilderness areas, and contain ecologically important, beautiful, and untrammeled wildlands that rival those found in designated Wilderness areas. 

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

By November of 1980, the BLM had designated about 25 million acres of WSAs. Since then, Congress has designated some WSAs as Wilderness, while removing protection from others. The BLM continues to manage WSAs to “preserve their suitability for designation as wilderness” until Congress makes a final determination.

Montana’s WSAs are seriously threatened. In 2017, Montana senator Steve Daines introduced a bill to strip protection from five of Montana’s WSAs – the biggest rollback of protected public land in Montana history. A few months later, the threat nearly doubled in size as Congressman Greg Gianforte introduced a bill mirroring Daines’ and another bill eliminating an additional 24 WSAs. Combined, these three bills would have stripped protection from more than 800,000 acres of Montana’s wildest public lands – lands we depend on for clean water, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and much of our $7 billion outdoor recreation economy. 

Thanks to thousands of Montanans who contacted our congressional delegation, those bills are dead. Still, Daines and Gianforte could reintroduce those bills in the next Congress, so we will remain vigilant.

United States Forest Service

Ten Lakes

Location: 45 minutes northeast of Eureka
Size: 34,000 acres

Ten Lakes WSA is home to an outstanding array of wildlife and offers primitive backcountry recreation opportunities for hikers and skiers in the Galton and Whitefish ranges. Forested foothills roll up to glacially carved basins, and flower-filled mountain meadows abound during the summer months. Spectacular alpine lakes are tucked underneath open ridges that provide panoramic views of Glacier National Park, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, and southern British Columbia. Ten Lakes is also home to one the most diverse arrays of large mammals in the contiguous United States, including grizzly bear, lynx, wolverine, fishers, and wolves. 

Big Snowy Mountains

Location: Just south of Lewistown
Size: 98,000 acres 

In the Big Snowy Mountains WSA, the sprawling grasslands of eastern Montana rise abruptly into a steep-walled mountain range. The northern flanks of the range are split by rugged limestone canyons carved through dense forest, while huge glacial basins drain the southern reaches. Wildflowers carpet the ground in July and August, and many canyons support seasonal streams due to the porous nature of the underlying limestone. This unique geology makes the Snowies a vital watershed, responsible for replenishing the underground aquifers and springs of the surrounding plains with crystal clear water.

Blue Joint

Location: The Bitterroot Range high on the Idaho border
Size: 61,400 acres

The Blue Joint WSA encompasses two deep canyons carved by tributaries of the West Fork Bitterroot River. The lower elevations are thickly forested with Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and ponderosa pine, while whitebark pine borders the alpine meadows and cliffs in the higher elevations. Wildlife is abundant in the Blue Joint, too – 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 northern portion of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA is home to the spectacular Hyalite Peaks, while the Gallatin Crest consists of a massive plateau scarred with deep, steep-walled canyons. Many summits reach over 10,000 feet, providing fertile ground for the headwaters of the blue-ribbon trout fisheries of the Gallatin and Yellowstone Rivers. Porcupine Creek and Buffalo Horn also provide year-round range for the vast northern Yellowstone elk herd, from fall forage to spring calving. 

Middle Fork Judith River

Location: The Little Belt Mountains southeast of Great Falls
Size: 92,000 acres

The Middle Fork Judith WSA encompasses the Middle and Lost Forks of the Judith River. Both of these tributaries of the Missouri have cut deep, twisted canyons through limestone cliffs to form the heart of the WSA. To the west, higher elevations are thick with lodgepole and whitebark pine, while Douglas fir and ponderosa pine mingle with broad meadows to the east. The Middle Fork Judith’s waterways are loaded with native cutthroat and rainbow trout, which face real threats in the unprotected lands just outside the WSA boundaries. 


Location: Just south of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness
Size: 98,000 acres

The Sapphire WSA is the biological heartland of the wilderness complex that stretches from the Big Hole Valley to the pristine headwaters of Rock Creek. It’s the center of a diverse mountain ecosystem, tucked below the crest of the Pintler Range, and home to more than 20 lovely alpine lakes nestled in steep cirques. To the west, creeks feed the trout fisheries of the Bitterroot River. To the east, the crystalline waters of Rock Creek support large populations of cutthroat and rainbow trout.

West Pioneers

Location: Along the Idaho border west of Dillon
Size: 148,150 acres

The West Pioneer WSA is the largest remaining roadless area in southwest Montana. Rolling and forested, the West Pioneers provide gentle contrast to the craggy summits of the East Pioneers and are home to a large population of elk. The crest of the range offers spectacular views of the Continental Divide and East Pioneers, while creeks meander through meadows to the east into the Wise River and on to the famous Big Hole. Along the divide, backpackers can find a dozen small lakes tucked away in tumbledown cirques.

Bureau of Land Management

Antelope Creek

Location: The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 12,350 acres

Axolotl Lakes

Location: The northern edge of the Greenhorn Mountains northeast of Dillon
Size: 7,804 acres

Beaver Meadows

Location: The eastern side of the Lewis and Clark National Forest southwest of Augusta
Size: 595 acres

Bell/Limekiln Canyons

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

Big Horn Tack-on

Location: Between the Pryor Mountain Range and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation area
Size: 2,470 acres

Billy Creek

Location: The south-central portion of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge south of Glasgow
Size: 3,450 acres

Bitter Creek

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

Black Sage

Location: In the Elkhorn Mountains between Boulder and Whitehall
Size: 5,926 acres

Blacktail Mountains

Location: Just south of Dillon
Size: 17,479 acres

Bridge Coulee

Location: South of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge near Glasgow
Size: 5,900 acres

Burnt Lodge

Location: Adjacent to the western edge of the Pryor Mountains
Size: 13,730 acres

Burnt Timber Canyon

Location: South of the Pryor Mountains three miles from the Wyoming border
Size: 3,430 acres

Centennial Mountains

Location: South of Red Rock Lakes on the Idaho border
Size: 27,691 acres

Cow Creek

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

Dog Creek South

Location: South of the Missouri River in 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 of the Missouri River in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 10,200 acres

Farlin Creek

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

Henneberry Ridge

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

Hidden Pasture Creek

Location: In the Beaverhead Mountains west of Dell
Size: 15,509 acres

Hoodoo Mountain

Location: Near the Wales Creek Study between Drummond and Lincoln
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 near Glasgow
Size: 8,650 acres

North Fork Sun River

Location: Northeast of the Gibson Reservoir between Missoula and Great Falls
Size: 196 acres

Pryor Mountain

Location: Adjacent to Custer National Forest on the Wyoming border
Size: 12,575 acres

Quigg West

Location: Near Rock Creek Road east of Hamilton
Size: 520 acres

Ruby Mountains

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

Seven Blackfoot

Location: The south-central portion of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge south of Glasgow
Size: 20,250 acres

Sleeping Giant/Sheep Creek

Location: North of Helena 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 in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 4,800 acres

Terry Badlands

Location: Just northwest of Terry
Size: 44,910 acres

Twin Coulee

Location: Just southeast of the Big Snowy WSA
Size: 6,870 acres

Wales Creek

Location: Near the Hoodoo Mountain Wilderness Study Area south of Ovando
Size: 11,580 acres


Location: In the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument near Fort Benton
Size: 8,100 acres

Yellowstone River Island

Location: In the Yellowstone River just northeast of Livingston
Size: 53 acres