The Great Burn

The Great Burn Proposed Wilderness Area

The Great Burn is a 250,000 acre expanse of wild country along the Montana/Idaho border west of Missoula, Montana in the northern Bitterroot Mountains. This primeval landscape burned heavily in the Great Fire of 1910 leaving charred snags, grassy slopes, and expanses of sub-alpine meadows. High cirques, impressive stands of mountain hemlock, and dozens of clear lakes also adorn the high country. While not as high and "craggy" as the main Bitterroot Range to the south, the area is biologically rich. Spared by the great fire are magical pockets of ancient western red cedar - some individuals over 500 years old - carpeted underfoot with mossy beds of sword and maidenhair ferns. Wind-swept peaks like Rhodes and Crater rise to nearly 8,000 ft., and an abundance of moisture nurtures the area. The Burn is a critical biological link between the massive Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness complex to the south and the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem to the north. Full protection of this interstate wildland is essential to ensure a quality wilderness experiences for future generations.

Elevations in the Great Burn range from 3200’ at Fish Creek to 7900’ on Rhodes Peak and annual precipitation ranges from 30 inches near the eastern border to 100 inches along the divide (snow depths of 10-14 feet are not uncommon.)


Due to abundant wild habitat and clean water, big-game hunting and fishing are the most popular recreation activities. Backpacking has become more and more popular. Spectacular scenery and a good system of uncrowded trails lure hikers. Hikers can enjoy 40 miles of the splendid Bitterroot divide without encountering a road. Horse packing & day rides, berry and mushroom picking, and outdoor photography are additional activities gaining popularity. In winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular activities up the west fork of Fish creek via Clearwater crossing trailhead.

Visitors are drawn to the outstanding scenery, the variety and abundance of wildlife such as; elk, black bears, mountain goats, and moose, the high-quality westslope cutthroat trout fishery, and 33 sparkling mountain lakes. Wolves are permanent inhabitants and grizzly bears likely use the area.

Elk and Fisheries

Elk are an important socio-economic component of Montana and Idaho’s culture and economy. At one time, the Clearwater Basin elk population in Idaho was one of the largest herds in the country. This was in part due to the large fires that occurred in the basin through 1934. Elk summer range is a key feature of the Great Burn, nicely complementing winter range in places like Cache Creek and the Burdette Creek roadless area (which is identified and managed for this purpose).

Fish Creek receives 2,000 angler days a year (an angler day is one person fishing for at least 4 hours.) The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) conducted a survey of the lakes in the Great Burn between 2004 and 2006 which included bull trout counts and genetic testing on cutthroat trout. As a result a comprehensive fisheries management plan is in place for the area.

Most of the major tributaries of the Great Burn have been proposed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as critical habitat for bull trout, a threatened species under the endangered Species Act. Fish Creek is:

  • Primary drainage for bull trout spawning and rearing in Middle Clark Fork River
  • Stronghold for westslope cutthroat trout
  • Important source of trout recruitment for Clark Fork River Fishery
  • Fish Creek main stem is a popular trout fishery

Bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout

Bull trout are present in, Trout Creek, Cement Creek, North Fork Fish Creek, Straight Creek, West Fork Fish Creek, Surveyor Creek, Montana Creek, Cache Creek, and White Creek. According to MFWP there are more migratory bull trout in the West Fork of Fish Creek than in all the other tributaries of the middle Clark Fork River, combined. The two major spawning areas for bull trout in the Fish Creek drainage are in the West Fork and North Fork of Fish Creek within the proposed wilderness area. Proposed critical habitat designations for bull trout; includes all the watersheds of the creeks listed as "bull trout present." Also includes Burdette Creek watershed. Geographically, critical habitat designations match up closely with roadless boundaries.

Fish Creek in the Great Burn is the primary drainage for bull trout spawning and rearing in Middle Clark Fork River.

Westslope Cutthroat Trout are the dominant species, occurring throughout the Great Burn. Many of the waters support genetically pure cutthroat trout populations. Those creeks are; Trout, Cement, North Fork of Fish, Straight, Indian, Surveyor, Montana, Cache, Pebble, and White, as well as Burdette and Lupine Creeks in the Burdette Creek IRA. Pure Westslope cutthroat trout (non-hybridized) core habitat: All of Cache Creek, Lupine Creek, and the Blacktail Creek/Packers Gulch area north of Clearwater Crossing.

To get involved contact our Missoula field office at 406-549-1142 or visit:

Click on map for a larger version (3.9 Meg pdf).

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