The famous Crow Chief Plenty Coups spent four days fasting in the Crazy Mountains in 1860. He was 11. He returned with a vision of bison disappearing and being replaced by cattle, and of a storm that destroyed the forest. The vision proved prophetic and important.
A century-and-a-half later, the Crazy Mountains remain important to people like Shane Doyle, a Crow Tribal member who lives in Bozeman. He remembers his relatives going there to fast, and he did so himself a couple of decades ago.
It’s that history and spiritual connection that has inspired him and others to call for protecting the island range northeast of Livingston from any expansion of motorized or mechanized use in the next version of the Custer Gallatin Forest Plan. He joined forces with Crow Tribal Chairman AJ Not Afraid and the lead monitor of the tribe’s historic preservation office Adrian Bird Jr. to pen an opinion column urging protections for the mountains.
“We want to preserve a sacred space for the Crow Tribe,” Doyle said. “Those mountains are like a big church.”
Some conservation groups want to see a chunk of the range protected, too, as recommended wilderness. They argue that it represents a significant chunk of wildlife habitat and a potential route to connect animals between the Yellowstone ecosystem and the ecosystem in and around Glacier National Park.
Bonnie Rice, of the Sierra Club, said its high elevation and deep snow are important for wolverines, and Rice said the range will only become more important for the species as the world warms.
“Just thinking about where the habitat is going to be with climate change,” Rice said. “They’re so snow dependent that they’re going to need options.”
But some who live near the mountains aren’t so keen on the idea of increased protections. Page Dringman, the Sweet Grass County planner and a landowner on the east side of the range, said the county has held several meetings and heard concern that any wilderness-style designation would limit use and management activities — like timber harvest or weed control. She said they hadn’t heard from anyone who wants wilderness there.
“Generally residents think there should be multiple use,” Dringman said.
Forest officials are nearing the end of the final public comment period in the forest plan revision process. Until midnight Thursday, officials are accepting public comment on the draft plan and environmental analysis, which looked at a wide range of different alternatives for the 3.1 million-acre forest. So far, they’ve received more than 4,200 comments, said revision team leader Virginia Kelly.
A final environmental analysis and draft decision are expected next spring.
The proposals are broken into different geographic regions across the forest, which runs from West Yellowstone east into South Dakota. The Crazies are grouped with the Bridger and Bangtail mountains.
No part of the Crazies is protected as either wilderness or recommended wilderness now, but much of the range remains empty, roadless and wild. It also remains controversial. Fights over its trails have boiled over in recent years, and it’s known for its complicated checkerboard land ownership — where squares of private land interrupt blocks of public.
A wilderness recommendation wouldn’t deal with any of those conflicts, and multiple sources said they don’t see the forest plan as a realm for those battles. It also wouldn’t make the land formal wilderness — only Congress can do that. But it would direct management of the land toward preserving its wild characteristics the land has by blocking motorized and mechanized uses — the sort of protection Doyle said would preserve the spiritual experience that brings tribal members there.
“When you have a ceremony there, you don’t want to hear motorcycles coming over the ridge,” Doyle said.
Just one of the alternatives forest officials offered this spring would recommend any part of the Crazies as wilderness. Alternative D would recommend wilderness for almost 60,000 acres of roadless land. The others would cover it under different designations — like key linkage area or backcountry area — that allow other sorts of uses.
A map of that alternative showed one of the primary complications of such a recommendation — private land. A swath of green showing the proposed recommended wilderness is pockmarked with private holdings, what’s known as checkerboard land ownership.
Dringman said that combined with some existing mineral rights and other factors makes proposing wilderness puzzling.
“In the Crazies, wilderness seems inappropriate,” Dringman said.
Max Hjortsberg, of the Park County Environmental Council, said the land ownership is a reality that has to be dealt with, but that he’s optimistic it could be. He said he hopes someday parts of the range could be consolidated into public ownership, though that seems an especially tall order.
“We hope to work with landowners and the Forest Service and whoever else is willing to try to find a solution to the checkerboard land issue in that mountain range,” Hjortsberg said.
His group supports recommending as much wilderness as possible, seeing it as the best way to ensure the wildlife habitat there is protected. Experts have opined that such a designation reduces the disturbance of wildlife in those areas, keeping fast-moving vehicles out of otherwise untouched places.
The grizzly bear is one species he and others think about when considering what might need the range in the future. There have been no confirmed sightings of the bears in the Crazies, but it could be used as a corridor for the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide bears to meet up.
The Yellowstone bears are already in the northern part of the Absaroka-Beartooth range.
“It’s not hard to imagine a grizzly bear migrating across the Yellowstone River and up into the Crazies,” Hjortsberg said.