Just How Wild are our Wild Places?
That’s what our volunteers in southwestern Montana are aiming to find out
One after another, 13 volunteers and I followed the singletrack trail upstream. We’d only met a few minutes before, but we slipped easily into conversations that made the miles fly by. The importance of wilderness character, the troubles with invasive weeds, the history of Beartrap Canyon, our project site for the day - we covered plenty on the short-three mile jaunt along the Madison River, with enough passion to distract us - almost - from the miserable weather.
This snowy, rainy, and hail-filled Saturday in June was the first formal training day for our volunteer wilderness character monitors. We’d come to the Beartrap Wilderness, the only BLM-managed wilderness area in Montana, to learn how we could help the BLM’s Dillon Field Office study critical wild areas and gather important data about how the public uses them.
In addition to the Beartrap, the BLM manages numerous wilderness study areas (WSAs) in southwestern Montana, and does so with a severely limited number of staff. Due to the discrepancy between the acres under its jurisdiction and the people available to manage them, the BLM is becoming increasingly reliant on volunteers to help carry out its mission.
Fortunately, we have an extremely dedicated volunteer base eager to learn about, protect, and explore wild places. Out of this shared interest in protecting these landscapes sprung forth a new partnership: MWA volunteers gather data regarding the wilderness character of several areas of interest, which we provide to the agency to help inform their management decisions.
Collaboration between MWA and federal land management agencies is not a novel endeavour. Over the past several summers, MWA has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to coordinate volunteers to complete solitude monitoring work in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana. While the purpose and scope of our work with the BLM in southwestern Montana is very similar, this is the first time in recent history that MWA has partnered with the BLM on such a project.
We hope that piloting the project in southwestern Montana this summer will help us build a strong relationship with the BLM, which will allow us to expand the wilderness character monitoring program into other parts of the state over the coming years. By supporting the BLM’s need for actionable data, we’re helping to protect wild places while at the same time building a strong collaborative relationship that will help ensure that Wilderness has a seat at the table in future management decision-making processes.
While the sky continued to empty its bucket of ever-changing precipitation onto our heads, we broke for lunch at a popular campsite where Beartrap Creek joins the Madison River. Between bites, we continued to chat about common types of natural resource damage and signs of unauthorized uses often observed in wilderness campsites. Some of the volunteers even cleaned up a mess of uneaten food left behind by a recent group of campers.
Our group of 13 volunteers had come from Butte, Dillon, Bozeman, and places in-between. Many were drawn to this project by the allure of exploring new areas right in their backyard, and all were intrigued by the concept of generating important data while doing things they were already planning to do, namely hiking and camping on Montana’s public lands. Throughout the training, the excitement of the BLM personnel was also evident. To a person, they expressed their happiness to be cooperatively partnering with MWA to work together towards a shared goal.
In the aftermath of last year’s attack on Montana’s wilderness study areas, it is more important than ever to clearly demonstrate the wilderness value of our wildlands. One of the best ways we can do this is by helping the BLM gather the information it needs to make strong, data-driven decisions regarding their management policies.
This is where you come in! Your volunteer mission - should you choose to accept it - is simply to go for a hike in one (or many!) of southwestern Montana’s WSAs or the Beartrap Canyon Wilderness. While there, snap some photos and complete a simple monitoring form to record things like unauthorized uses, the number of people you see, wildlife observations, and maintenance needs. The BLM will compile all of this data and use it to help drive their decision-making in ways that will preserve the wilderness character of these areas. This information helps bring us one step closer to one day protecting more of our critical wildlands in southwestern Montana.
- Spencer Bruce, MWA conservation fellow