Skip Kowalski

A lot has changed since I first experienced Idaho’s “wild country” in 1968 when I worked my first seasonal Forest Service job in the Kelly Creek Ranger District. The Dworshak Dam had not yet flooded elk winter range, salmon and steelhead still ran up the North Fork, and the towering western white pine trees had not yet succumbed to blister rust. Although grizzly bears had long been exterminated, black bears were plentiful. This remote country was alive with natural abundance.

Despite these changes, the Upper North Fork remains “wild country” and is important to fish, wildlife, and habitat connectivity. Relatively few roads exist. The wild trout fishery is exceptional, elk and mountain goats frequent the high country, and blister rust-resistant seedlings show promise for restoring white pine habitat. Occasionally, even a grizzly bear is reported.

Straddling the border of Idaho and Montana, this area, known as the “Great Burn,” falls under the stewardship of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in Idaho and the Lolo National Forest in Montana. You’ve probably heard the Great Burn mentioned in the news lately as both National Forests revise their management plans.

The Great Burn provides a crucial linkage habitat for wildlife such as grizzly bears and wolverines. Its value as habitat connectivity cannot be overstated, especially given climate change impacts and the increasing population pressures in Idaho and Montana. The more people move here, with their vehicles and recreational demands, the more important the wild and remote country will become for wildlife requiring large, undisturbed landscapes.

Although most of the Great Burn has been recommended and managed as Wilderness for decades, the newly revised plans will dictate whether the opportunity to be designated as Wilderness will be preserved for the next 15 to 30 years. Unfortunately, the Nez Perce-Clearwater NF has eliminated significant acreage from recommended Wilderness on the Idaho side and is no longer taking public comment.

Fortunately, Lolo NF is just starting its Plan Revision process and is encouraging the public to get involved. It recently released its Proposed Action and recommended its entire portion of the Great Burn in Montana for Wilderness. This is good news for Montana’s wildlife and habitat connectivity because wildlife in Montana’s portion of the Great Burn will face much greater movement and migration barriers in the future.

Obstacles to habitat connectivity will only increase as the population grows in Western Montana, bringing in more people, houses, roads, and traffic on Interstate 90.

You can make a difference by advocating for the Great Burn and its wildlife during the Lolo Forest Plan Revision. It is crucial to ensure the plan preserves habitat connectivity, important wildlife habitats, and everything we love about our National Forests. Comments are due April 1 to the Forest Service.