The Pryors Mountains, about 40 miles south of Billings, include approximately 150,000 acres of public land with management fractured among Custer Gallatin National Forest (CGNF), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (BCNRA). Additional Pryors landscape is on Crow Tribal land to the north.
The Pryor Mountains are an isolated island range ecologically, geologically, and climactically very different from the nearby Beartooth Mountains and all other wildlands in western Montana. There are no similar landscapes in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) or proposed for inclusion. This alone is sufficient reason that the Pryors need to be preserved as Wilderness to enrich the NWPS.
Pryor Mountain Wilderness:
CGNF recommends a paltry 6,800 acres in Lost Water Canyon for Wilderness designation – only 9% of the FS land in the Pryors. In contrast BLM and BCNRA recognize the value of the wild Pryors and recommend 41,000 acres for Wilderness designation – just over 50% of the Pryor Mountain land they manage. GYWA and other organizations propose designation of four Wilderness areas in the Forest Service part of the Pryors totaling about 46,000 acres. (See specifics below.) This is in addition to the BLM and BCNRA proposed Wilderness.
CGNF has acknowledged these four areas qualify for Recommended Wilderness status in its current Forest Planning process. Unfortunately, so far, it appears that CGNF will only re-designate the miserly 6,800 acres designated in 1987. CGNF has proposed designating “Backcountry Areas” instead. It is not clear what this ad hoc designation means. If it means much of anything at all, it seems to be a human-centered recreational designation rather than a wildlife-centered ecological designation (including both flora and fauna) to preserve natural landscapes. “Backcountry Area” designation certainly does not have the well understood management implications of Wilderness Area designation.
The Pryor Landscape:
Elevations in potential Pryor Wilderness range from under 5,000 ft. to nearly 9,000 ft. Average precipitation ranges from half-a-dozen inches to twenty inches per year. Because of this variation and the diversity of soil types, the Montana Native Plant Society has designated a Pryor Mountain Important Plant Area (IPA) to recognize the approximately 29 distinct plant communities, endemic species, species of concern and peripheral populations in this small island range. This amazing botanical diversity includes: black sagebrush and big sagebrush shrublands; Utah juniper woodlands; riparian canyon bottoms with narrow-leaved cottonwoods and a rich understory of shrubs; limber pine woodlands; Douglas fir forests; Idaho fescue grasslands; and grasslands dominated by bluebunch wheatgrass and many species of cushion plants.
Potential Pryors Wilderness also includes a Montana Audubon Society designated Important Bird Area (IBA). With breeding populations of more than a dozen species on the Montana Priority Bird Species List. Species found include Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Gray Flycatchers, Common Poorwills, Loggerhead Shrikes, Sage Thrashers, Green-tailed Towhees, Pinyon Jays, and Greater Sage-Grouse, and a rich diversity of neotropical migrants.
GYWA supports the following four Wilderness Areas:
(In addition to the BLM and BCNRA proposed Wilderness Areas)
Lost Water / Crooked Creek Canyon Recommended Wilderness Area (13,000 + 1,000 acres):
The 1986 Custer National Forest Management Plan designated a minimalist 6,800 acre Lost Water Canyon Recommended Wilderness Area (RWA). But there seems no reason for the arbitrary boundaries chosen for this tiny RWA. We propose expanding this to 13,000 acres. ALL of this area passed the U.S. house in Pat Williams’ Wilderness bill in 1994. In addition to the spectacular Lost Water and Crooked Creek Canyons (some of the most wild and scenic features of the Pryor Mountains), this would include Cave Ridge, Island Ridge and Commissary Ridge and the intervening canyons. Both Crooked Creek and Lost Water Creeks have been found to be eligible for Wild and Scenic designation.
On its southern boundary this RWA would be contiguous with the BLM Burnt Timber Canyon Wilderness Study Area (WSA). The eastern boundary of this RWA is the Burnt Timber Ridge 4WD trail. Just east of this 4WD trail is another 1,000 acres of “orphaned” FS land embedded within the BLM Pryor Mountain WSA. It should also be designated RWA by the FS. Then the 4WD trail would be a narrow corridor between two proposed Wildernesses.
Bear Canyon Recommended Wilderness Area (10,300 acres):
The Bear Canyon road-free area encompasses most of the Bear Creek watershed on the south facing slope of Big Pryor and Red Pryor Mountains. Several forks of rugged limestone-cliffed Bear Canyon are included. Partly due to the elevation, climbing from just over 5,000 feet to 8,600 feet in about 7 miles, this small area exhibits a wide range of ecological habitats ranging from arid semi-desert, with rare riparian areas in the canyons, to dense Douglas fir forest, and the sub-alpine plateau near the top of Big Pryor Mountain.
The near complete watershed within this Bear Canyon road-free area is particularly significant.
The Bear Canyon RWA would include much of the Montana Audubon IPA. An interesting recent study shows that Sage Grouse annually migrate up through the Bear Canyon watershed from nesting areas just to the south to summer range at the high elevations of the Bear Canyon and Big Pryor RWAs. It is reported that these migrations happen before the chicks are old enough to fly.
Bear Creek and its spectacular canyon should be designated as a Wild and Scenic River. The FS has proposed finding a short section eligible for Wild and Scenic designation, but the whole thing should be.
If the FS designates the Bear Canyon RWA, then the BLM can and should designate another 1,800 acres of contiguous wildland on the south as Land with Wilderness Character. That will make a 12,100 acre “Wilderness in Waiting” for Congress to designate as the Bear Canyon Wilderness.
Big Pryor Recommended Wilderness Area (12,800 acres):
The crown jewel of the proposed Big Pryor RWA is the expansive, sub-alpine Big Pryor Plateau. It is several thousand acres of gently rolling “prairie in the sky” – but with very different plant communities than the “real” prairie some 4,000 feet below. Rising from 8,400 feet to top of the Pryors at 8,786 feet elevation this plateau seems another world from the arid desert to the south. Steep north-facing slopes of dense Douglas fir help isolate the Big Pryor Plateau from the Sage Creek area to the north.
In July the plateau is ablaze with wildflowers of innumerable colors. Including: phlox, minuartia, common yarrow, nodding onion, pasque flowers, wyoming kittentails, shooting stars, Howard’s alpine forget-me-not, mat buckwheat and sword townsendia and many more.
From high points on the plateau there are expansive views of the Beartooths to the west, Wyoming and the Wind River Mountains to the south, East Pryor Mountain and the Bighorn Mountains to the east, and the Crow part of the Pryors and the Montana prairie to the north.
Sage grouse from nesting areas in the desert to the south are sometimes seen on the plateau. Deer and bear are often seen on Big Pryor. The plateau is good elk habitat, but they have rarely been reported. Wilderness designation would be a step to restoration of resident elk.
Punch Bowl Recommended Wilderness Area (8,700 acres):
The Punch Bowl area is unlike any other area in the Pryors. It is north of and below Dryhead Overlook, the high northeast “corner” of East Pryor Mountain. This incredibly wild country includes both Punch Bowl Creek and Dryhead Creek Canyons. This area in the shadow of East Pryor Mountain has a very different climate (sun, wind, temperature and precipitation) than the southern and western slopes of the Pryors. It has the highest precipitation in the Pryors. The plant diversity here is even greater than elsewhere in the Pryors with many species that grow nowhere else in the Pryors. There are beautiful aspen stands, with an understory of native shrubs and forbs, bordering sagebrush meadows with a backdrop of the limestone cliffs of the north face of East Pryor Mountain. This is historic elk habitat. In recent years elk have increasingly been seen in the area. Designation of the Punch Bowl RWA would be a step toward increasing elk security in the Pryors.
The Apsáalooke and the Pryors:
The Apsáalooke (Crow) call Dryhead Overlook, Bishiáxpe Alíkuua ("Where They Saw the Rope”). Like much of the Pryors this point is very important part of the Pryors Ethnographic Landscape for the Apsáalooke. High ridges with big views including Bishiáxpe Alíkuua, and the rim of the Big Pryor Plateau, are important fasting sites for Apsáalooke. Designation of the Pryor Mountain RWAs will help protect this cultural landscape.
“The significance of the Pryor Mountain Unit to the Crow cannot be overemphasized. It is used on a regular basis for fasting, plant collection – medicinal... subsistence... and ceremonial.... [A]reas of the Pryors such as the Dry Head Overlook are associated with the fasting sites of individuals important in Crow history (e.g., Plenty Coups...).”
“Ethnographic Overview of the ... Beartooth Ranger Districts of the Custer National Forest.” by Deaver and Koistra-Manning, 1995, page 4.95.