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May 23 2019

Wild Pryor-ities

The Pryor Mountains are an ecological hotspot that deserves protection


The Pryor Mountains are Montana’s only red rock desert ecosystem, a hotspot of ecological diversity, and a sacred place to the Apsaalooke (Crow). Currently, their future is up for debate in the Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan, and we have an opportunity to tell the Forest Service why they need protection. Please submit a comment advocating for the protection of the Pryors by June 6th. 

The Pryors deserve increased habitat protection and a balanced management approach to ensure opportunities for multiple forms of recreation and the protection of ecological and cultural resources. Faculty at Rocky Mountain College have immersed students in the Pryor Mountains for many years, studying plants, wildlife, and geology. This area is not just ecologically valuable, but has importance as a place for students and the greater public for place-based learning and immersion in wilderness. 

In 2012, Rocky Mountain College’s Environmental Science program worked closely with the USFS, BLM, The Pryors Coalition, and the Eastern Wildlands Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association to conduct a BioBlitz in the Pryor Mountains. With many members of the community working as citizen scientists and professional biologists, we documented 812 species of plants and animals in just 24 hours in a section of the Pryor Mountains near Crooked Creek.

The diversity recorded during this survey highlights many of the unique species that inhabit the Pryor Mountains. Due to the range of elevation and varying moisture regimes, there are many different habitat types, and thus one can find both plant and animal species found nowhere else in Montana. For example, the Pryors have the highest diversity of bats anywhere in Montana, house 40% of all plant species found in the state, and provide opportunities to spot rare birds, if one knows where to look. In addition, there are bighorn sheep, elk, a good population of black bear, genetically important cutthroat trout, and incredible spring wildflowers and butterflies. 

These unique characteristics have earned the Pryor Mountains designations that recognize their ecological value. Parts of the Pryors have been variously recognized as Important Plant Areas, wilderness study areas, Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, and proposed wilderness areas.  These designations recognize the ecological value of the range and highlight the importance of preserving areas that remain less accessible to humans and off-limits for road building. Managing for roadless areas is critical, as these areas help retain important ecosystem functions, retain water quality, reduce the likelihood of invasive weed establishment, and can serve as critical cover and escape terrain for wildlife species. 

Currently, the Custer Gallatin National Forest is reviewing options for their forest management plan in the Pryor Mountains. The Draft Forest Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is available now for public comment. There are four recommended wilderness areas (Lost Water, Big Pryor, Punch Bowl, and Bear Canyon) which should be designated as wilderness and managed to allow only foot and horse travel. It is critical to have areas like this in the Pryor Mountains, because they retain ecological services and provide havens for ecologically diversity in contrast to the majority of the Pryor Mountains, which already allows motorized vehicles and bicycles.

Once these areas are protected, they can be used as study sites to monitor species in relatively untouched areas and assess the impacts of human activities on the landscape. There is important value in a Wilderness designation, while there is no need for new designations such as backcountry area (one of the proposed alternatives in the DEIS).

Please take some time and send the forest service your comments explaining why protecting the ecological diversity of the Pryors is so important. The deadline for comments is June 6th.

- Kayhan Ostovar is a professor of biology and environmental science at Rocky Mountain College in Billings