The Lee Metcalf Wilderness

The Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which consists of four separate units, lies to the northwest of Yellowstone National Park, and protects significant portions of the Madison mountain range. The general area contains some of the best grizzly bear and elk country in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is also a sad story of lost opportunities due to political maneuvering the difficulties presented by private ownership of alternate sections of land (the result of the infamous old Northern Pacific Railroad land grant).   

Bear tracks at Alp Creek. Copyright Ralph MaughanBear tracks along Alp Creek. Taylor Peaks area

In the 1970s, Montana conservationists were optimistic that a big, continuous 600,000 acre wilderness could be set aside to protect almost all of the NW flank of the Yellowstone country. This big wilderness would include the existing Spanish Peaks Primitive Area and all of the roadless Madison Range to the south. This roadless area adjoined the NW border of Yellowstone National Park for many miles.

Montana U.S. senator John Melcher, however, was able to push through Congress a bill that split this roadless area into four sections and allowed logging development to take place (some say this was the point). Melcher then named the area the "Lee Metcalf" -- a sorry insult to one of Montana's greatest senators and champions of wilderness.

The bill allowed the unbroken Madison Range to be cut in along its north/south axis by opening the pristine Jacks Creek drainage to be logging and roads. The result was a north Madison Range roadless area and a south Madison roadless area. The southern roadless area was then further separated from its contiguous boundary with Yellowstone N.P. by creating the Cabin Creek "Wildlife Management Area" between the Taylor-Hilgard Unit of the Wilderness on west and the Monument Peaks Unit on the east (adjacent to Yellowstone).  This was to allow snowmobiling in the interior of the range.

Wilderness supporters had also hoped the existing Spanish Peaks Wilderness area would include roadless land to its west -- named "Cowboy Heaven" and the Beartrap Canyon (of the Madison River).  However, Cowboy Heaven between the Spanish Peaks Units and Beartrap Canyon Unit was left out. 

The result was a Spanish Peaks unit on the north, consisting of only 76,000 acres of rugged alpine peaks and cirque lakes. Nearby, but also separated from the Spanish Peaks, is the Beartrap Canyon unit of 6,000 acres. This is a long narrow wilderness the surrounds the deep, scenic, and good-angling canyon of the Madison River as it cuts through the mountains in the last miles of its journey to becoming the headwaters of the Missouri River. 

The Helmet and the Sphinx in the Taylor-Hilgard Unit. Copyright © Ralph Maughan

Southward and separate from the Spanish Peaks and Beartrap Canyon is the larger Taylor-Hilgard unit in southern Madison Range -- 141,000 acres -- again of glaciated rugged peaks, cirque lakes, deep canyons, and, on the east, large meadows. The Cabin Creek Wildlife Management unit has not been, and probably will not be roaded. Wintertime snowmobiles probably do little damage until mid-March when the grizzlies begin to emerge from their dens. However, they are not monitored and there is little doubt they leave the area and trammel much of the designated wilderness.

 Sage Peak and Sage Basin
Sage Peak and Sage Basin in the Cabin Creek Wildlife
Management Unit. Copyright © Ralph Maughan

This roadless, but "non-wilderness" wildlife management unit is the best wildlife habitat of the various portions of this wild country.

The final unit, The Monument Peaks unit, lies to its east along the Yellowstone National Park Boundary adjoining the Cabin Creek area. It is a 33,000 acre area of peaks, somewhat less spectacular than the Taylor-Hilgards, but outstanding wildlife habitat.

The Taylor and the Hilgard Peaks are the same Madison mountain range, but the Hilgard Peaks area is composed of dark igneous rock and the Taylor Peaks are of lighter rock, mostly sedimentary geology.

Below are two photos taken in the Taylor-Hilgard Unit of the Wilderness. Copyright © Ralph Maughan

Taylor Peaks in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness
The Taylor peaks from the Sentinel Creek/Alp Creek Divide. Taylor-Hilgard Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.

Hilgard PeakA photo taken from the east of the dark Hilgards (Hilgard Peak is center left).  © Ralph Maughan

Some of the most significant environmental protection in the area has come through private action by media founder, and entrepreneur, Ted Turner, who owns a 125,000 acre ranch abutting the north boundary of the Spanish Peaks. 25,000 acres of the ranch is a roadless area adjacent to the wilderness. The entire ranch is under a conservation easement donated to the Nature Conservancy. Turner eliminated cows from the ranch and raises bison. Turner recently told a gathering of faculty and students at New Mexico State University that in New Mexico "the attempt to conduct ranching on a large-scale [in New Mexico] 'looks like a foolish mistake' because cattle, introduced by Spaniards, are not native to the region. The only hoofed mammals that roamed old New Mexico grasslands were bison, and then only where rainfall led to lush growth of grass."

Turner hired Mike Phillips, the former leader of the Yellowstone wolf recovery team, for wildlife projects on the Montana, other Turner ranches, such as the 250,000-acre Ladder Ranch and the 380,000 Reminders Ranch in New Mexico.

Turner now owns 11 ranches in Montana, New Mexico, Nebraska and South Dakota, as well as several plantations in Florida and South Carolina, making him the largest private landowner in the United States.

Both wild wolves and grizzly bears are welcome on his Montana Ranch and wolves and grizzly bears now flourish throughout the Madison Range inside and outside the designated Wilderness portions.

Unfortunately, old railroad land grant (private) lands between the Spanish Peaks and Yellowstone is beset by rapidly growing sub-divisions and ski areas -- cancers on the Yellowstone country, including a private town for the superrich only. Some folks may want to read the article in the High Country News, "Big Sky, Big Mess."

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The Lee Metcalf Wilderness/ Email / Nov. 16, 2006