Researchers complete wilderness monitoring in Big Snowy Mountains

Katherine Sears
Tuesday, July 6, 2021
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Wilderness Institute Field Leaders Charlie Brown, left, and Bethany Allen, second from left, pose for a photo with volunteers in the Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area during a recent trip to document wilderness characteristics.
Photo courtesy of Charlie Brown, Wilderness Institute

Researchers and volunteers with the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana recently spent several days documenting the landscape in the Bureau of Land Management Twin Coulee Wilderness Study Area.
Located off Red Hill Road on the southeast flank of the Big Snowy Mountains in Golden Valley County, the area is very rugged, with bare limestone and sandstone outcrops within coniferous forest.
As part of the institute’s monitoring program, field leaders visit designated wilderness and wilderness study areas on foot to evaluate character, creating an inventory of the land for federal agencies. The ultimate goal is to inform managing agencies how the land is being used and the impacts of the use, documenting weeds, erosion and the quality of wilderness.
  “It’s wilderness character monitoring, so we cover everything from invasive weeds to changes within the area,” said Lisa Gerloff, the director of the program.
This year, the Twin Coulee WSA was the site of two of the seven trips for the institute this summer. Four volunteers joined Field Leaders Bethany Allen and Charlie Brown to survey the area over several days, most of which was spent documenting invasive weeds with GIS, or geographic information systems.

“It was a beautiful place to be, but very different than other BLM areas I’ve studied,” said Allen. “There really isn’t a whole lot out there; we documented weeds and a of couple of camps; some evidence of elk, deer and bears.”
Allen said the group observed oxide daisy, toadflax, hounds tongue and thistle, but in very small amounts. Since only a portion of the area is grazed, Allen suggested the weeds spread mostly through wind and wild game.
“The northeastern side is where we found the most weeds, along Red Hill Road,” said Allen.  
The group noted the area sees very little human use, possibly due to the rough terrain.
“It’s not used a lot,” said Allen. “We didn’t really see much evidence of hunting, but did find one meat hang so I’m sure someone has hunted there.
“There’s not a lot of water so maybe that’s why,” Allen added. “It’s also hard to navigate; there are rock walls that will prevent you from going up and down easily.”

1979 data
Thanks to technology and GPS, the area is much easier to navigate now than when the last inventory was done in the area in 1979. The group referenced the old inventory on a handwritten map during their most recent study.
“The handwritten map had limestone outcroppings marked and one was a cave,” said Allen. “We couldn’t find the cave this time; it’s [handwritten map] not the same accuracy as we have now.”  
The old map also included scenic overlooks and old roads, which Allen was also unable to locate.
“There were some old roads that had been mapped that we couldn’t find,” said Allen. “It looked like there was a fire and new growth trees had taken over where the road may have been.”

Established in 1975, the Wilderness Institute provides wilderness information, research and interdisciplinary education in response to a variety of wildland issues and needs. Since 2005, the institute has been conducting wilderness monitoring with volunteers within U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands each summer.
Allen has been leading trips every other week for three summers, and spends winters writing GIS reports from the data.
“It’s very rewarding,” said Allen. “It’s very hard work, but my passion is getting into wild spaces.”  
A recent graduate with a science background, Allen enjoys looking at wild places from an analytical perspective.
“I hope to gain more experience to complete more GIS work and volunteer outreach,” said Allen. 

What is a WSA?

Wilderness Study Areas are places that have wilderness characteristics; that is a minimum size, naturalness, and outstanding opportunities for recreation which make them eligible for designation as wilderness. In 1976, Congress directed the BLM to evaluate all of its land for the presence of wilderness characteristics, and identified areas became WSAs. The establishment of a WSA served to identify areas for Congress to consider for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Today, the BLM manages WSAs that contain about 12.6 million acres of public land. Until Congress makes a decision to add or end consideration of a WSA, the BLM manages the area to ensure its suitability for designation as wilderness is not impaired.
-U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management