Featured Wilderness: Rocky Mountain Front

Grizzlies Still Roam the Front

There is a place in the United States so remote, so wild and untethered by man, so much like it was when the Blackfeet traversed its great expanses, that grizzly bears mark the beginning of each spring by awakening from their slumber to leave their mountain dens and roam the open plains of grass in search of deer and elk exactly as their ancestors have done for millennia. This year, March was the month when Montana's Rocky Mountain Front officially awoke.

Moving west across the Great Plains, one encounters what appears to be an impenetrable wall of rugged granite. Often snowy, always imposing, “the Front,” as it's simply known locally, is part of the Rocky Mountains that run several hundred miles south from the Canadian border. Here, where the plains meet the peaks, herds of elk and deer, antelope, wolves, and grizzly bears provide a snapshot of the American West before sprawl and development. Whether by accidents of history or the oppressiveness of the near ceaseless wind, this area has escaped the sprawl of similar places such as Denver and Boulder. For this gift, we can all be thankful.

This landscape so inspires and awes that it introduces the Montana State Constitution: “We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of the rolling plains….” Perhaps nothing can more accurately describe the Front than “quiet beauty.”

The Front's awakening this year came a little sooner than expected. Mother grizzlies with cubs were spotted earlier than normal in several places, including the Blackleaf Canyon Wildlife Management Area just west of the small community of Choteau. Adult males usually precede mothers with cubs, leading biologists to believe that some hungry guys have already left their dens. They are now following the icy bottoms of the Sun and Teton rivers and numerous other small streams that flow onto the plains, in search of much-needed protein.

Montanans have long recognized the importance of protecting the Front, even decades before passage of the Wilderness Act. The mountain peaks to the west of the prairie sit within three designated wilderness areas, the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, and the Great Bear. The first was established as one of the original wilderness areas in 1964, but enjoyed agency protection going back to 1930s. The Great Bear was the last designated, in 1978. Together these areas are known as the Bob Marshall wilderness complex and cover more than 1.5 million contiguous acres.

Today, Montanans are pursuing the next stage of protection. Building on the successful 2006 effort to safeguard the area from oil and gas development, the Montana Wilderness Association and others worked with local ranchers to craft a proposal to designate lands along the confluence of the mountains and plains. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, sponsored by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), would protect more than 275,000 acres using a mix of wilderness and special management designations.

Our forebears had the foresight to recognize how valuable the Front's “quiet beauty” would be to future generations. Montanans continue to honor their heritage, and the state's wilderness ethic, by working to ensure that we are not the last to experience the Front's windswept grandeur. Their hard work ensures that there will always be a place, so wild and special, that grizzly bears are still free to wake up each spring and lumber out onto the prairie.

Where to Hike

Great hikes abound on the Rocky Mountain Front. One of the best with easy access west of Choteau is Blackleaf Canyon. The canyon is part of the state's Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area, and is excellent habitat for elk, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, among other species. (The area is closed to human use from December to May to protect winter range for wildlife.) The hike up the canyon is moderate to difficult, and typically snow-free only in summer.

Always take the necessary precautions when hiking in grizzly country.

Hiking information and directions can be found here.

Information on rock climbing can be found here.