As pilot Bruce Gordon put it, "A picture might be worth a thousand words, but taking an airplane ride is worth a thousand photos."
With three members of the media onboard a flight over the Gallatin Range operated by Gordon, president of Aspen, Colo. based EcoFlights, and narrated by local wildlife biologist Steve Gehman, Gordon's estimate might not have been far off.
Gordon's company, EcoFlight, advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat through the use of small aircraft. He's traveled around the west, highlighting what he considers to be vital ecosystems that are in need of conservation. As it happens, many of the lands he's focused on are located right here in the Treasure State.
"I combine my love of the environment with my love of flying and working with dedicated groups of individuals," said Gordon. "We can bring people the aerial perspective. From the air, you can really see what's at stake -- the contiguous and continuous land and watersheds. We feel some of the last best places are here in Montana, just outside Yellowstone National Park. It just doesn't get any better than this."
Gehman, the tour's expert guide, has studied bears, wolverines, and other forest carnivores in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska for over 20 years. He's also the co-founder of Wild Things Unlimited, an organization dedicated to wildlife research and education, and is the author of a 28-page report, issued in 2010, that details the wildlife of the Gallatin Mountains and south-central Montana.
"The Gallatin Range is a natural travelling corridor for animals looking to move in and out of the northern section of Yellowstone National Park into other mountain ranges," Gehman said. "We've documented grizzlies moving north from the park back into the Gallatins. It used to be part of their range, and now that they're discovering we're a little friendlier than we were in the past, they're coming back. It's the same with elk, moose, deer, et cetera. It's a natural wildlife refuge with tremendous diversity of vegetation and topography."
The 75-mile long and 20-mile wide Gallatin Range loomed in the distance as Gordon's small plane took off from Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport Friday morning. Soon, the plane was above the range and Gehman began filling in the passengers on the landscape. The first stretch of the tour showcased an area frequented by humans, from Storm Castle to Swan and Portal Creeks. From above, Forest Service access roads and logging striations could easily be seen crisscrossing the evergreen mountainside.
But as the aircraft pressed further south, the human activity became less apparent. Soon the forested hillsides morphed into high-altitude rocky cirques, some facing the north were still coated with snow. Surrounding meadows, moist with fresh snowmelt, were lush green patches amidst the jagged peaks.
Gehman was quick to point out that these comparably mellow meadows are the perfect habitat for a plethora of the wildlife that call the range home sweet home. And he should know -- he's spent two decades studying the area as a consulting biologist and co-founder of Wild Things Unlimited, an organization born from his desire to create a greater sense of structure, stability, and effectiveness for research and education efforts in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.
And sure enough, as the EcoFlight plane navigated over one sizeable rolling meadow, an elk could be seen far below. As Gehman noted, the alpine meadows are also home to the elusive wolverine, a rarely seen and difficult to study species that Gehman estimates number between eight to 12 individuals in the Gallatin Range.
As the aerial tour continued south, rocky peaks became jagged and alpine lakes, some still icy blue and frozen, made their appearance. This is the land of bighorn sheep and mountain goats, species that Gehman said were isolated from each other in the Gallatin Range until recently.
In his report, Gehman noted that the goats were not regularly sighted in the Gallatin Range until the early 2000's. Bighorns, on the other hand, have been staples of the Gallatin ecosystem for decades. Part of his study focuses on the effects of the two species coexisting, noting that populations of bighorns have declined in recent years, whilst mountain goats, who share the same diet and propensity for treacherous slopes as bighorn do, have seen a population and range increase.
Soon, Lone Mountain, etched with ski runs, could be seen to the southwest and nearby, the uniquely shaped Sphinx Mountain was impossible to miss. It was around that time when the unpredictable mountain winds began to blow, so Gordon, noting that one of the passengers was getting green around the gills, looped around to head back towards civilization.
On the way back, from the right side of the plane, the slopes of the Gallatin Range gave way to Tom Miner Basin, another wildlife haven Gehman has spent countless hours studying. To the left, a group of mountain goats clung to the stark and unforgiving mountainsides below the plane.
"Should we loop in for a closer view?" asked Gehman when his passengers showed interest the goats. Just then, a gust of wind caught the plane, causing it to drop noticeably in the air. That was the pilot's cue to head back to the safety of land.
Soon, the undoubtedly humbled passengers were back in less turbulent territory, quickly passing Hyalite Reservoir and the gridded farmland outskirts of Bozeman before a smooth landing back at the airport.
To see more aerial images from the flight over the Gallatin Crest, along with many other ranges, visit http://www.ecoflight.org.