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Grizzlies Around Yellowstone Are Entering A Big Squeeze

Past research shows bears are sensitive to small amounts of habitat intrusion by recreation and development. But what's the impact now as both of those go boom?

Two paths headed toward a convergence: lone hiker and grizzly bear mother with cub in the Upper Geyser Basin near the Old Faithful Inn In Yellowstone.  How much secure habitat does a healthy population of grizzlies need to persist?  Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
Two paths headed toward a convergence: lone hiker and grizzly bear mother with cub in the Upper Geyser Basin near the Old Faithful Inn In Yellowstone. How much secure habitat does a healthy population of grizzlies need to persist? Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part 3 of a multi-part Mountain Journal series examining the question: "Does recreation equal conservation?" The essay below looks at the impact of outdoor recreation combined with exurban development is shaping the future of the famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population.

By Todd Wilkinson

Grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are said to be “expanding their range” out from what once was a relatively small amount of space where their remnant numbers had fallen to startling lows barely two human generations ago. Now, they are “showing up in places where they haven’t been seen in a century or more.” And there’s the widely-held perception that Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole are "bursting at the seams with bears."

These are only a few of the characterizations made about the current status of the most iconic population of grizzly bears in the world—a population whose biological recovery from the nadir of near collapse 40 years ago has been called one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in history.

Still another unchecked portrayal, often circulated without context by the media, is that the Yellowstone ecosystem population of grizzlies will continue to grow in size and prosper, expanding perpetually into the three states surrounding Yellowstone National Park. A related supposition is that the core of prime bear habitat, which encompasses Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and adjacent national forests—most of that being federal wilderness— is secure and largely impervious to human impacts.

Of course, the latter assessment depends on what impacts are being considered and, secondly, what is or isn't being measuredAs forward-looking projections about bear numbers are made, and states try to remove grizzlies from federal protection, are all of the assumptions above supported by facts—and are they based upon what land management agencies and states claim is “the best available science?”

Given the steady rise of intensifying outdoor recreation pressure on public lands in the region, and the unprecedented inundation of newcomers and part-time residents moving to Greater Yellowstone and expanding the footprint of human development into the rural countryside, will the grizzly population be as stable in 30 years as it is today? More to the point, are grizzlies actually gaining access to quality habitat or losing it?

Two studies, both peer-reviewed and published in reputable scientific journals a decade ago, are timely as ever. The first pertains to how sensitive the grizzly population in Yellowstone Park is to minor human disturbance. The other identifies an area of concern, bear experts say, about what development trends in the valleys beyond Yellowstone—and anti-carnivore cultural sentiments in the three surrounding states—portend for the prospect of grizzlies viably expanding in numbers and re-colonizing areas where they were formerly eliminated. 
Equally as important is that they and other bears are now ambling into landscapes undergoing rapid transition from once being undeveloped to places filled with temptations and hazards that cause wildlife managers to render those bears “nuisances” and “conflict bears.” 
What  experts warn is that previous optimism grossly underestimates a cascade of cumulative effects ranging from sprawl and development to climate change and states rights proponents who want to minimize the amount of terrain grizzlies are allowed to re-occupy.  Habitat options for grizzlies are already being steadily squeezed, they say, transformed from being classified as “secure” to becoming compromised or counted as a net loss for potential use by bears in the years and decades ahead.  The additional wild card is what effect will hotter and drier conditions mean for grizzlies as well as the plants, animals and water sources bears need to survive? 

One thing is certain, climate change is going to leave a lot of bears stressed and needing to roam farther, but when they do, scientists who were once optimistic about their prospects fear they will be entering hostile conflict zones exacerbated by intense recreation use and poorly-planned human development.

Right now, as huge crowds gather to watch the meandering movement of Jackson Hole Grizzly Mother 399, the most famous bear in the world who is 26 years old, the perils of wildlife-unfriendly development loom large. In mid May, 399 “turned out” her four 2.5-year-old cubs to fend for themselves. Before she did, the five-some, fresh out of the den, had taken a journey outside the protective confines of Grand Teton National Park and headed south through the private land suburbs into the exurbs of south Jackson Hole, which historically has been private ranchlands.
 
Last year, the bear family “got into trouble,” state and federal bear managers say, because they found bee hive boxes and horse feed in a pasture which probably left them conditioned to seek out non-natural food. Equally as important is that they and other bears are, with greater frequency, ambling into landscapes undergoing rapid transition from once being undeveloped to places filled with temptations and hazards. When they find them, it causes wildlife managers to render those bears “nuisances” and “conflict bears.” And likely, many will die because simultaneously those same states view them as being expendable. The fundamental issue involves “secure habitat,” how much of it is currently out there where bears will be welcomed and how much already is starting to erode because of human activity.

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Photo by Eric Johnston/NPS
Photo by Eric Johnston/NPS
A few years ago, researchers in Yellowstone wanted to know how recreationists heading into the backcountry, far from the crowded highway corridors of America’s first national park, affected grizzly behavior. They gleaned insights as part of a multi-year effort examining whether “Bear Management Units”—those rarest of areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where public access is sometimes totally restricted—fulfill their purpose of providing habitat security for grizzlies.

While Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly likes to point out that the vast majority of the 4.86 million visits notched in Yellowstone last year happened along or near roadside areas, it’s the backcountry that provides the highest value of protected refugia for bears. 

Yellowstone does not operate according to the “multiple use” management paradigm that prevails on the bulk of federal public lands in Greater Yellowstone administered by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Except for federally-designated wilderness lands and wilderness study areas, those agencies allow a wide array of activities to occur, including logging, mining, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, hunting with bullets, dogs and over bait piles, trapping and snaring, road building and a growing variety of motorized, mechanized and human-powered recreation. Any one of these activities, scientists say, can have acute local impacts on wildlife.

Boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in yellow. Primary bear recovery zone, which represented grizzly bear distribution at time of federal listing in mid 1970s, in red.  Bold purple line, just beyond, encompasses where bears are today in numbers that count toward maintaining population objectives. Click on map to make larger
Boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in yellow. Primary bear recovery zone, which represented grizzly bear distribution at time of federal listing in mid 1970s, in red. Bold purple line, just beyond, encompasses where bears are today in numbers that count toward maintaining population objectives. Click on map to make larger
When all are placed on a map, which otherwise might suggest vast wide open spaces where living is easy for grizzlies, suddenly one understands that bears even in perceived wild country are navigating a gauntlet of dangers and secure habitat much smaller than it appears. Often not considered is how even low levels of dispersed human use affects sensitive species in areas well away from the bustling front country. The Forest Service and BLM acknowledge they don’t have a solid understanding of how wildlife in wilderness and wilderness study areas are being impacted by existing recreation pressure— certainly not what rising numbers will mean for many species over time. Agencies were caught totally off guard by surging numbers related to the Covid pandemic.

The peer-reviewed Yellowstone study on grizzly bears has a long title: “Grizzly Bear and Human Interaction in Yellowstone National Park: An Evaluation of Bear Management Areas.” The authors were researcher Tyler Coleman, Kerry Gunther (lead grizzly bear biologist in Yellowstone), Charles Schwartz (then head of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team), and Scott Creel (an international wildlife ecologist based at Montana State University). The study’s findings, published in The Journal of Wildlife Management in 2013, serve perhaps as a solid baseline reference point for discussion and wider extrapolation. 

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A healthy grizzly population relies foremost upon quality habitat in order to persist. By “habitat,” it means secure stable terrain that has ample varieties of natural nutritious food to sustain bears while they are active and in hibernation; terrain that keeps them healthy enough to reproduce, doesn’t have a lot of extenuating circumstances beyond normal risks that cause bears to die or be removed, and enables their movement because individual bears have huge home ranges.

Again, the most secure kind of habitat is that where landscapes have minimal human-related fragmentation, human activity, and other perils such as human garbage, livestock, chickens, horse feed, fruit orchards and other attractants that lead to bears getting hooked on non-natural foods and likely to get into trouble. Outdoor recreation is a growing concern and in the next installment of this series we will see how widespread that concern is related to many wildlife species across the West.

Conservation biologists often refer to grizzlies as both a bellwether and an “umbrella” species. Protected habitat that is good for perpetuating survival of bears is also beneficial to hundreds of other native species, including big game animals prized by hunters and fish and game agencies.

Graphic courtesy USGS Grizzly Bear Study Team
Graphic courtesy USGS Grizzly Bear Study Team
There are few places in Greater Yellowstone where secure habitat in the absence of recreationists can be measured against highly used areas. And, as has been mentioned at Mountain Journal time and again, there are no other eco-regions in the Lower 48 that have the original full assemblage of large migratory mammals that were present in 1491, the year before European settlers arrived on the continent. The five main reasons behind that rarefied achievement are a large block of public land anchored by two national parks, large sweeps of open ranch and farmland, a low regional human population, the fact that all of the species, except for wolves, were never fully eliminated, and environmental laws that prevented habitat destruction and wanton killing of bears..

In Yellowstone, researchers focused their study on “bear management units” (BMUs) because they are parts of the par closed seasonally and sometimes annually to both hikers and people on horseback. Mountain biking, e-bikes, motor vehicles and other forms of mechanized recreation are not allowed in the park backcountry. Pet dogs also are not allowed to accompany people on trails and nowhere in national parks are dogs allowed to wander off leash. Nor is there industrial resource extraction apart from tourism and these areas in Yellowstone stand in contrast to Forest Service and BLM multiple use management.

Bear Management Units were first created in 1982 as part of the Yellowstone National Park Grizzly Bear Management Environmental Impact Statement. At the time, grizzlies were being killed or forcibly removed (many because of poor human trash storage methods, poaching and clashes with livestock) at a rate that was exceeding reproduction. The lowest estimate was just 136—most inhabiting Yellowstone and it made wildlife managers realize they needed to take dramatic action.

Scientists worried that if backcountry areas could not provide enough adequate secure habitat to accommodate the natural foraging needs of grizzlies that the health of the population would be in serious jeopardy. That remains a concern. BMUs enable bears to range freely after emerging from their dens and having ready access to natural foods without being bothered by humans.

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The Yellowstone study was centered in six of the park’s 16 BMUs, among them the Two Ocean Pass area in the far southern tier of Yellowstone considered one of the most remote geographical locations—in terms of distance from a road—in the Lower 48. Other areas were two stretches of Clear Creek, Lake Spawn, Riddle Lake Plateau and Heart Lake. All are located adjacent to Yellowstone Lake. Put together those BMUs comprise nine percent of the national park, and 97 percent of the terrain resides in recommended wilderness.
A hiker in the Yellowstone backcountry. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A hiker in the Yellowstone backcountry. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS

Carried out over a couple of years, researchers deployed 18 radio collars, emitting GPS signals, on 14 grizzlies, including 10 male and four female bears.  In parallel, researchers enlisted recreationists to tote signal-emitting devices in their backpacks and horse paniers so their movements could be tracked. The sample size included 345 parties of hikers traveling on foot and 40 parties who went in via horseback. It involved a total of 1,341 people.

As data rolled in, researchers compared how grizzlies used habitat when BMUs were closed off to human access and how bears altered their behavior in the landscape when people moved through and/or camped. What they found is that even relatively few numbers of people, i.e. low intensity of use, displace bears living in some of the most isolated parts of Yellowstone.

Grizzlies, they found, were twice as likely to be present in areas when human access was restricted. When people were allowed to enter a stretch of backcountry, bears were more than twice as likely to be present only when humans were inactive, i.e. at night when campers were asleep. The data demonstrates that human recreational activity displaces bears from habitat where they would otherwise want to be. 

“This suggests an avoidance response of bears to people. This is noteworthy considering the low human use in our study area,” the authors wrote, and added: “Our study provides evidence for the utility of management closures designed to protect a threatened species in a well-visited park. Our approach can be reapplied by managers interested in balancing wildlife conservation and human recreation.”

Poignant is that the study offers insight into grizzly behavior not only when there is no human disruption but, again, it provides a foundation for knowing what happens when disruption levels are small compared to more intense levels of human activity happening in multiple use or popular wilderness areas in national forests. It has many potential implications for pondering bear habitat security in the center of the ecosystem if numbers of human users rise and what higher levels of recreation pressure means and could mean for bears and other wildlife outside the national parks. 
Grizzlies, they found, were twice as likely to be present in areas when human access was restricted. When people were allowed to enter a stretch of backcountry, bears were more than twice as likely to be present only when humans were inactive, i.e. at night when campers were asleep. 
Another key insight is that apart from grizzlies moving to higher elevations in mid to late summer to eat plants, Army cutworm moths, and the nuts found in cones produced by whitebark pine trees (an imperiled tree species in Greater Yellowstone in part owed to climate change), bears often prefer lower-elevation backcountry habitat where they have access to vegetation lying along stream corridors. They are places where winter-killed elk, deer and moose are found, where elk calves are hunted in early summer and whey they scrounge for false-truffles.  A limitation about federal wilderness lands is that they contain a disproportionate amount of higher-elevation terrain, also called “rocks and ice,” which has more limited value to most backcountry species.

Of the findings in Yellowstone, the authors wrote: “Since this was an observational study, we can only describe an association between human and bear movement behavior. However, other research has detected similar patterns.” They noted [again, remember this was written a decade ago when overall visitation to Yellowstone was much lower and not extending robustly across more months as today]: “Park visitation is low in spring and early summer, high in mid-summer, and low in autumn. Visitation trends may influence bear movement behavior because they often avoid busy developed areas and occupied recreation trails.”

In recent years, Forest Service personnel on most national forests in Greater Yellowstone have acknowledged a problem exists with unapproved “user-created trails,” sometimes trails where recreationists usurped wildlife trails, and mechanized recreationists riding off trail, dispersed camping occurring in prime wildlife habitat, and inadequate staffing to deal with impacts and enforce regulations prohibiting those activities. The Yellowstone study also demonstrates that bears prefer to forage along water corridors where food is found. In some Forest Service lands, trails have been sited in riparian areas in recognized grizzly bear habitat and human use levels there are rising. In the future, stream corridors will be even more valuable to wildlife as climate changes and they are, ironically, areas where reduced precipitation brings greater impacts.

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Neither public lands nor wildlife inhabiting them exist as islands unto themselves, nor in isolation from intensifying patterns taking hold on private lands. Species populations suffer more and disappear faster in fragmented landscapes. The issue of grizzly bear recovery is less about numbers of grizzlies and more about how much terrain is needed to support a healthy population of bears in perpetuity. 

Even though the three states of Wyoming (which comprise most of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Montana and Idaho have adopted new policies that limit where bear presence is acceptable. Their argument for removing bears from federal protection hinges on these assumptions: 4. That the current population is large. 2. That core habitat is secure. 3. That there is an abundance of secure habitat beyond the core, and;  4.That bears will be able to easily more between secure habitat. 

For a long time, leaders of grizzly bear recovery have asserted that bears are so resilient and opportunistic that they’ll find a way to persist but now the leader who subscribed to that assumption has grave doubts in the face of new realities. Many grizzlies, including mother bears like Grizzly 399 and cubs, go back and forth between national park and national forest lands, and many bears that spend time on public lands need private land in order to reach other public lands. Impact to private land can have serious deleterious consequences for wildlife at the individual and population level.
Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 and four cubs when they were younger and mother was teaching them where to go in the world. In May 2022, 399 parted company with her 2.5 year-old offspring and there are fears that if the youngsters wander into developed areas and are deemed troublemakers or human safety hazards by state  wildlife officials in Wyoming they may be euthanized. Their plight is emblematic of a bigger problem; that is exurban sprawl erupting in rural areas where bears once enjoyed wider latitude.  Scientists say such development is displacing bears from habitat they need and is undermining the gains of recovery. Photo courtesy Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 and four cubs when they were younger and mother was teaching them where to go in the world. In May 2022, 399 parted company with her 2.5 year-old offspring and there are fears that if the youngsters wander into developed areas and are deemed troublemakers or human safety hazards by state wildlife officials in Wyoming they may be euthanized. Their plight is emblematic of a bigger problem; that is exurban sprawl erupting in rural areas where bears once enjoyed wider latitude. Scientists say such development is displacing bears from habitat they need and is undermining the gains of recovery. Photo courtesy Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)

This point was made clear in another peer-reviewed paper, published in the journal Wildlife Biology in 2012, just a year before the findings of the Yellowstone study was released.  “Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) are considered wilderness species requiring large undisturbed areas,” wrote lead author Dr. Charles Schwartz and co-authors Patricia Gude, and USGS bear researchers Lisa Landenburger,  Mark Haroldson and Shannon Podruzny. By wilderness, they mean secure habitat.

The “exurbs,”  in some areas called the “wildlife-urban interface,” are the realm of landscape beyond the suburbs, where many traditional ranches are being carved up and where many newcomers dream of placing their home, aware of their impacts on wildlife. Traditionally those ag properties have been sparsely populated by people.. A decade ago, the authors observed that “exurban development is consuming wildlife habitat within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with potential consequences to the long-term conservation of grizzly bears.” 

The truth of that prediction cannot be disputed today. Their paper projected how secure habitat once holding promise for grizzlies beyond lands like national parks and forests was instead being transformed into “sinks,”—places where prime “source habitat” becomes no longer viable for grizzlies to be, as bear deaths and removal outpace reproduction and replacement. As Schwartz told me, “bears going from shrinking wilderness-caliber lands into exurbia but they often don’t come out alive.”

“Areas outside reserves (areas afforded high levels of protection that represent source habitat such as national parks) typically represent population sinks because large carnivores are killed by humans and most deaths occur beyond reserve boundaries,” the authors of the study wrote. “When source areas are small relative to home ranges, animals cannot live entirely within the reserve boundary and must use habitats that are less secure outside of reserves, which can result in reduction or even extinction of the population. This is particularly true where human killing represents the greatest threat to demographic stability.”

“Human killing” can mean grizzlies being accidentally shot by hunters or in self-defense, bears lethally removed for preying on livestock or being attracted to non-natural foods and being deemed aggressive, killed by poachers, or being struck by vehicles on highways.  

“Our findings showed that extremely low densities of residential development created sink habitat,” the authors noted. Perhaps astonishing to some was this insight: “Ignoring differences in human behavior, the model predicted that the construction of a single house within an undeveloped section of land was enough to convert that habitat to a sink for grizzly bears.” Yes, one house on 640 acres of previously undeveloped land.
A model predicted the construction of a single house within an undeveloped section of land was enough to convert that habitat to a sink for grizzly bears. Yes, one house on 360 acres of previously undeveloped land.
Where the first study, in Yellowstone, found that bears could be displaced by low levels of recreationists on public land in habitat thought secure, so too is it paralleled with development, albeit permanently, on private lands that previously were conducive to bears.  It begs the inquiry: if bears don't have totally secure habitat on public lands and not in expansion areas either, then where is it?

The authors of the second study congealed available data, as of 2012, and plotted a sobering trajectory for habitat loss forward into the year 2020. They noted that in1980 three percent of occupied grizzly bear habitat (meaning habitat closer to the center of the ecosystem) had been impacted by exurban development. By 2020, they predicted, that number would more than double to 6.9 percent or even 10.7 percent under what they called “the boom growth scenario.” 

They wrote: “Areas projected to have the greatest amount of source-habitat converted to sink-habitat as a result of exurban development were the Big Sky-Moonlight Basin areas east of Ennis, Montana, the area around Henrys Lake near Island Park, Idaho, an area north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the areas west of Cody, Wyoming, including the North Fork and South Fork of the Shoshone River.”

In the paper, they elaborated (references below are verbatim):

° “Development in the Big Sky area already constitutes sink habitat and projected development west of Big Sky in the Moonlight Basin could potentially fracture the Lee Metcalf Wilderness to the north from undeveloped Forest Service lands and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness to the south.”

° “Projected development in the Henrys Lake area of Idaho may also create a fracture zone for grizzly bears attempting to move between Forest Service lands west of the Continental Divide and east of the Henrys Fork with the Centennial Mountains in Montana and Idaho to the west, a possible linkage between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Bitterroot Range.” 

° “Projected development in the drainage of the [Shoshone] River will also add to the already existing fracture zone created by roads and developments in the valley bottoms projecting into secure grizzly bear habitat. This area was first identified as a conflict ‘hot-spot’ in 2006 and continues to be an area of concern.”

I spoke in 2021 with Chuck Schwartz, who contributed to both papers and is now retired from government service. It’s important to highlight, he said, that there was no way he and colleagues could have anticipated the kind of hyper-growth—exceeding their “boom growth” scenario—related to the enigmatic circumstances surrounding the pandemic. That unforeseen event brought explosive inward population numbers and expansion of  exurban development around Bozeman, Big Sky, Island Park, Idaho, Star Valley and Afton, Wyoming, and southern sections of Jackson Hole with rippling effects rapidly taking hold in Paradise Valley, Montana and Teton Valley, Idaho. Most of these areas are located close to grizzly bear habitat core areas and public lands thought conducive to bear expansion.

One of the authors of the second study, Patricia Gude, who today goes by her original name, Patricia Hernandez, is a co-founder of Headwaters Economics, based in Bozeman, which recently updated its database examining growth trends in southwest Montana. Earlier, Headwaters also released a study that identified high exurban growth occurring in the region known as the “High Divide” which extends from roughly Teton Valley and Island Park, Idaho on a northwestward trajectory through a series of rural valleys in southwestern Montana to east central Idaho

Why southwest Montana matters is because it has long been identified as a key place for geographically linking the isolated grizzly population of Greater Yellowstone with bears living in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and, potentially, recolonizing wilderness areas in the Bitterroot Mountains. 

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Every year, statistics are released by the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which functions in cooperation with the three states. Those stats relate to how and why bears die. Nearly every year states like Wyoming assert that numbers of human-bear conflicts, bear relocations and deaths are indicative of too many bears. This means, therefore, according to the thinking that there is a surplus of bears and that to reduce conflicts bears need to be controlled. If bear numbers need to be controlled and if there are surplus bears, the reasoning goes, then why not generate some money from licenses and give citizens the opportunity to hunt them? 

No one disputes, be it state and federal wildlife officials, grizzly advocates, those who don’t like grizzlies or don’t want to live with them that having bears present in human neighborhoods is not a good idea. But that’s a different issue from what is causing conflicts. Grizzlies, with few exceptions, don’t get into trouble with humans in the absence of lots of people, access to non-natural food and livestock in a landscape. Nor do they “go looking for trouble.” As the Yellowstone study shows, they try to avoid people. 

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Dr. Christopher Servheen, who for 35 years was leader of national grizzly bear recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says development patterns taking hold and state management policies hostile to grizzlies could imperil connectivity. He is not alone. He adds that recent legislation signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in Montana—which used to be considered a grizzly-friendly state—is undermining the prognosis for bear recovery. One element of the new legislation is it prevents relocation of bears that wander into an expanding grid of exurbia and normally would be given additional chances of survival in wildlands in or out of existing recovery areas. 

A decade ago, Servheen supported delisting of grizzlies, which are currently classified as “threatened,” from protection under the Endangered Species Act, and having their management handed over to the states. He says legislative action—and development trends that have erupted in the last few years—have reversed his confidence in the ability of bear recovery to be sustained, likely exacerbated by the effects of climate change.  Figures relating to habitat loss on private land in southwest Montana speak for themselves, foreshadowing what’s still to come, he and other scientists say. 

In an earlier analysis on the trends of land conversion, Headwaters wrote: “From 1990 to 2016, the number of single-family homes in Gallatin County (which surrounds Bozeman) grew by 150 percent, from roughly 11,640 homes in 1990 to 28,938 in 2016. Since 1990, 15 percent of all Montana homes were built in Gallatin County and from 2001-2016, Gallatin County grew three times faster than the rest of the state. More than a third were built on lots greater than 10 acres.”
The stat of 93,440 acres lost in Gallatin County alone is actually a conservative and somewhat deceptive calculation for it does not speak to how many more acres, likely several times that number, are becoming impaired for wildlife function, meaning animal movement is being negatively affected and eventually will result in animals being extirpated or their presence un-tolerated.
That translated into 93,440 acres converted from open space to sprawl, meaning it is quality habitat lost for wildlife. And Bozeman’s high prices are causing people to look to build homes in adjacent valleys, the same as is happening in Jackson Hole. According to Headwaters, 82 percent of the homes being built in Beaverhead County, Montana are outside the boundary of a town and 73 percent on 10 acres or more. In Jefferson County, it’s 87 percent and 73 percent respectively. In Madison County, even where roughly half of large ranches in the county are protected by conservation easement,it’s 90 percent and 80 percent.

 In Park County, home to Paradise Valley, it’s 76 percent and 71 percent; Stillwater County 88 percent and 74 percent; Sweetgrass County 78 and 85 percent; and Carbon, home to Red Lodge, 78 percent and 72 percent. In other words, a lot of people are defying the mantra, “if you love the wild West, then live in town.”

If, as now-retired grizzly bear biologist Schwartz notes, that just one home rising on a section of land can cause a bear to exhibit avoidance behavior, then how much landscape, formerly considered conducive to regular bear movement, no longer exists or represents a new conflict zone? And if grizzlies are an umbrella and indicator species, then how many other wildlife species will also be negative affected?

The stat of 93,440 acres lost in Gallatin County alone is actually a conservative and somewhat deceptive calculation for it does not speak to how many more acres, likely several times that number, are becoming impaired for wildlife function, meaning animal movement is being negatively affected and eventually will result in animals being extirpated or their presence un-tolerated. The above figure also doesn’t include acreage that’s been developed since 2020 nor development projects approved and in the pipeline, nor acreage that is already plotted—it may appear, to the human naked eye today as open space but is destined to be lost when homes are built on it.

When grizzlies were proposed for removal from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service required that that all six national forests in Greater Yellowstone adopt recommendations found in a document called the Conservation Strategy as binding amendments into their forest plans. The Conservation Strategy commits national forests  to maintaining habitat security in the core grizzly bear recovery zone primarily but also beyond. National forests, like private lands, are the venues where true grizzly recovery will be achieved or not, says Servheen, who as national grizzly bear recovery coordinator, insisted upon national forests embracing tougher habitat protection measures.
Top: signs have been springing up in Paradise Valley, Montana defiantly mocking any calls to implement zoning in order to protect wildlife, ranch land and the sense of place. At the same time, residents of Park County vow that they never want "to become like Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley."  Ironic, considering that the more Park County rejects zoning the more it seems destined to become the Gallatin Valley which has lost more than 100,000 acres of open space and wildlife habitat to exurban development in the absence of zoning. These photos by Holly Pippel show the stressful life of wapiti and a herd of elk in the Gallatin Valley that returned to home ground currently being torn up by heavy machinery to make way for a new subdivision.
Top: signs have been springing up in Paradise Valley, Montana defiantly mocking any calls to implement zoning in order to protect wildlife, ranch land and the sense of place. At the same time, residents of Park County vow that they never want "to become like Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley." Ironic, considering that the more Park County rejects zoning the more it seems destined to become the Gallatin Valley which has lost more than 100,000 acres of open space and wildlife habitat to exurban development in the absence of zoning. These photos by Holly Pippel show the stressful life of wapiti and a herd of elk in the Gallatin Valley that returned to home ground currently being torn up by heavy machinery to make way for a new subdivision.
Basically, leaders of every forest agree to carry out management in such a way that habitat encircling Yellowstone is not eroded. At the time of the Conservation Strategy’s completion 25 years ago, there were approximately 267 developed recreation sites inside the grizzly habitat core area, representing nearly one-third of all developed recreation sites found in all six Greater Yellowstone national forests.

One addendum to the Conservation Strategy is a document that discusses how to model cumulative effects on grizzly bears written in 1997 by Beverly Gail Dixon for her Master’s thesis at Montana State University. She is today a lead wildlife biologist on the Custer Gallatin.

“The National Environmental Policy Act requires an assessment of the cumulative impacts of human activities upon the environment,” Dixon wrote a quarter century ago and then directly referenced Forest Service thinking. “With respect to grizzly bear habitat modeling, cumulative effects have generally been described as ‘the combined effect upon a species or its habitat caused by the activity or program at hand, as well as other reasonably foreseeable events which are likely to have similar effects upon that species or its habitat. Cumulative effects can result from individual but collectively significant events taking place over a period of time.’”

Curiously, by far the biggest impact today occurring on the landscape in the vicinity of core grizzly bear habitat is something given nary a mention in the Forest Service’s or the US Fish and Wildlife Service's calculation of accumulative effects, both in the Conservation Strategy and in recent forest plans like the one written by the Custer Gallatin National Forest. That impact is human development and sprawl on private land. A future part of this series will examine how much the Custer Gallatin actually knows about the likely impacts of actions promoted in its new forest plan. Soon the Bridger-Teton National Forest will embark upon writing a new plan, too.

Tim Preso, a senior attorney with the environmental law firm EarthJustice, which successfully sued to force the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population put back under federal protection after it was delisted, has long argued that a major flaw in calculating bear recovery is not including negative habitat trends on private land.

EarthJustice’s lawsuit in 2018 prevented Wyoming from implementing its first sport hunt of grizzlies in more than 40 years. And while the Fish and Wildlife Service is in negotiations with states today to address issues raised by Preso and legal colleagues to get bears again remove from federal protection, those states are now working with members of their Congressional delegations to legally force delisting. One motivation is to bring back sport hunting of grizzlies categorized as “discretionary mortality,” meaning bears deemed as not being essential to contributing to the overall health of the population.

However, what’s not being considered, Preso has said, is how development could lower the ability of the landscape to support bears and result in more bears being targeted for removal. Sprawl is prolific and accelerating, it has numerous insidious spillover effects on wildlife using public land, and its impact is as great as the cumulative effects of mines, clearcut, oil and gas development and livestock grazing on public land, Servheen and Schwartz say. 
What’s not being considered, Preso has said, is how development could lower the ability of the landscape to support bears and result in more bears being targeted for removal. Sprawl is prolific and accelerating, it has numerous insidious spillover effects on wildlife using public land, and its impact is as great as the cumulative effects of mines, clearcuts, oil and gas developments and livestock grazing, Servheen and Schwartz say.
Slowing sprawl or at least steering it away from important wildlife habitat is the onus of county and city government and planning departments, most of which in Greater Yellowstone are either resistant to regulation, late in identifying critical wildlife habitat or have adopted habitat protection recommendations that are advisory only. The record of those strategies not working is undeniably apparent.

The negative effects of sprawl are never the subject of an Environmental Impact Statement that considers their totality, nor does the Forest Service or have state wildlife agencies called attention to its deleterious impacts on wildlife as being an urgent issue.  

The Conservation Strategy mandates that any secure habitat for grizzlies lost on Forest Service land in the core of the bear recovery zone, whether owed to Forest Service actions or not, be kept to one percent and that any net loss of secure habitat be offset. “This level of habitat security, along with other habitat conditions inside the Primary Conservation Area in 1998, provided the base environment that led to the growth of the bear population and the achievement of all demographic recovery targets by 1998. The bear population continues to grow in range and numbers under these secure habitat conditions,” the Forest Service states. Many say a lot has changed since 1998 and the assumption of secure habitat is no longer accurate considering the twin impacts of recreation pressure and development.

The Forest Service boasts of decommissioning many miles of former logging roads and vowing to minimize developed areas on the forests. “Developments [on Forest Service lands] also reduce the effectiveness of the natural habitat near these sites… Research shows grizzly bear use is lower and foraging behavior is disrupted in areas near human developments and activities…The larger the developed site and the more people using the site, the greater the potential for conflicts and reduction in the effectiveness of the adjacent habitat for bears. Food storage regulations and information and education efforts mitigate much of the potential for conflict,” the agency states.

Yet close by on private lands adjacent to national forests are permanent expanding developments— thousands of new homes and outbuildings that have gone up, new roads blazed for subdivisions and accompanied by fences, yard lights, noise, gardens, the smells of trash attractants, roaming dogs, human fears and less tolerance. In fact, around Bozeman, Island Park and Jackson, recreationists drive through subdivisions to reach Forest Service trailheads.

These things compromise grizzly bear habitat security on public lands but they have gone largely unaddressed and unaccounted for in the outlook for bears and other wildlife. Servheen warned about this in autumn 2021 at a virtual Town Hall cohosted by me and journalist Joe O’Connor and the discussion included Servheen, Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen and Jodi Hilty, president and senior biologist of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. While he mentioned it in the context of Grizzly 399 and her wanderings through the Jackson Hole exurbs, he says it applies to every city and county near the core of grizzly habitat.
What does suburban/exurban sprawl look like in a valley like Jackson Hole famous for its wildlife and a county—Teton, Wyo—routinely among the richest per capita in America? Photos above are of the west side of the Snake River of a few decades. The landscape transformation from it being rural with ranches and low numbers of people and structures to being coated with structures is how an area conducive to safe wildlife travel is now deadly and a hazard for bears.  GoogleEarth images courtesy Susan Marsh
What does suburban/exurban sprawl look like in a valley like Jackson Hole famous for its wildlife and a county—Teton, Wyo—routinely among the richest per capita in America? Photos above are of the west side of the Snake River of a few decades. The landscape transformation from it being rural with ranches and low numbers of people and structures to being coated with structures is how an area conducive to safe wildlife travel is now deadly and a hazard for bears. GoogleEarth images courtesy Susan Marsh

While federal land managers vow to try to reduce human-bear conflicts—and rising outdoor recreation pressure is new phenomenon—what’s happening just beyond their boundaries are emerging conflict zone that will be chronic sinks. The Forest Service says it carefully seeks to find balance between social acceptability for bears and identifying suitable habitat, yet when human users enter into suitable habitat for bears and conflict arises, social acceptability for grizzlies diminishes. The search for “balance” between human uses of land under the Forest Service’s multiple use paradigm and meeting the needs of bears, almost always results in bears giving up a little more of their finite secure habitat.

The Forest Service vows to practice “adaptive management” in response to new issues that arise. How has it adapted its approaches to benefit wildlife stewardship in the wake of record levels of recreation use and massive sprawl on its forest edge? Have the impacts of sprawl on wildlife habitat prompted the agency to increase habitat protection inside its borders? Have state wildlife management agencies?

In the decades since the Conservation Strategy was written, indeed much has changed. Big Sky, located in the Madison Range between the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Custer Gallatin national forests, has ballooned in the size of human footprint, number of permanent and part-time residents moving there and recreationists using adjacent public land. Massive gated developments have gone up and new complexes in the nearby Moonlight Basin are coming on line. Big Sky has grown markedly as a grizzly bear sink. Exurban development continues to pinch in sharply on parts of the Custer Gallatin, Bridger-Teton, Caribou-Targhee, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge forests. The Shoshone National Forest is seeing development along the Shoshone River corridors and commissioners in Park County have been reluctant to embrace zoning. With regard to the Forest Service closing roads, Yellowstone Park has no roads in its backcountry and yet the study mentioned above noted how hikers and horse-packers moving slow through the landscape displace bears. 

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Dr. Susan Clark has just published a new book, Yellowstone Survival: Call for a New Conservation Story, that summarizes 50 years of assessing what has worked or failed in trying to advance ecosystem thinking in Greater Yellowstone. Clark founded the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson Hole that forges conduits between field and social sciences and public policy. For 40 years, she also has been an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and early in her field career studied black-footed ferrets outside Meeteetse, Wyoming after ferrets were classified as extinct.

“The agencies have done good things compared to what they did in the past. They ought to be recognized for that. Thank god for their good efforts since the 1970s but it’s clear today that we have to start thinking in more connected ways. And with grizzlies seriously start looking across boundaries because what’s at stake is the bigger picture—not just what happens on Forest Service land. We need to be heeding cumulative effects” Clark said, noting that the onslaught of impacts demands land management agencies be bolder in taking action to prevent outcomes that are irreversible. “While we might make some gains on Forest Service lands, if we’re not managing to save the things that transcend borders we can still lose the ball game.”

Two decades ago, Kurt Alt, a senior wildlife manager for the Montana Department of  Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman said exurban sprawl converts wildlife from being looked upon as assets to being treated as unwanted nuisances. Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have touted their roles with grizzly and wolf recovery, and allegedly restoring populations of those animals in a spirit of goodwill.  But Servheen says they are sabotaging the potential for foresighted land management policies in ways that environmentalists say cast doubt on their real commitment to species recovery.

Brent Brock, a noted landscape ecologist with Future West who has looked at recreation and development trends in the Gallatin, Madison and Paradise valleys, has a sophisticated program that calculates how wildlife is negatively affected as human use level intensifies.  It enables him to predict everything from the effects of new trails, roads and greater recreation access on public lands to subdivisions in the wildland-urban interface. At existing trend levels, wildlife are going to be bumped out of many places where they are today, he says.

Schwartz says it doesn’t take many people to register bigger footprints and the amount of land being impacted needs to be heeded. “The tendency to build on large residential lots—with parcels of 10, 20, and even 40 acres in size—is quickly changing Montana’s culture, economy, and natural resources,” Headwaters Economics writes. “Large lot development poses challenges for wildlife, water quality, and the state's heritage of wide open lands. Fortunately, vast areas of undeveloped land remain and Montanans can contain the negative impacts of growth through careful discussion, coordination, and planning.”

Yet there is scant evidence that careful discussion, coordination and planning are happening in most of Greater Yellowstone’s 20 counties, at least with regard to pondering and prioritizing what the region’s world-class wildlife will need to persist. Counties throughout Greater Yellowstone seldom deny subdivision and development proposals on rural lands and almost never out of concerns for wildlife habitat and at some point whether they do or not becomes moot.  Many admit they are reticent out of fear of being sued by developers.
"Eyes of the Grizzly," a photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
"Eyes of the Grizzly," a photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)

Similarly, environmental groups seldom sue counties to halt approval of new subdivisions on behalf of wildlife in part because most are not involved intensively in county land use planning and zoning issues. As a result of their absence, thousands upon thousands of acres of prime habitat for wildlife have been lost without challenge. Dennis Glick, the retired founder of Future West, calls that a major blind spot in the region’s land protection strategy. While lawsuits filed against federal agencies to prevent mines and clearcuts on public land are far more common, developments on private land that are actually more harmful have often not been scrutinized.

Had environmental groups paid more attention to poorly-designed development proposals, and fought to stop them, the public would realize the magnitude of what has—and is—being lost.  An early promotor in Greater Yellowstone of “collaborative conservation” in which differing interests come together to work out solutions to conflicts, Glick says that strategy can have limitations when it involves controversies where the outcomes are permanent irreversible impacts.

Two decades ago, Glick was a private lands conservation specialist with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition when it intervened to challenge a subdivision approved by Gallatin County. In fact, the case was highlighted as a touchstone in a special report prepared in 2009 for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks by The Land Use Clinic at the University of Montana Law School.  "Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Inc. (GYC) v. Board of County Commissioners  is the principal Montana case concerning zoning and wildlife,” authors DarAnne Dunning and Melissa Hayes wrote. “There, Gallatin County considered the rezoning of 323 acres of undeveloped land near Duck Creek, Hebgen Lake, and Forest Service lands. The rezoning changed the allowable density from 32 single family residences to as many as 1,615 multiple family residences.” 

The details were described in the court filings as follows:  The area around the Duck Creek parcel north of West Yellowstone, Montana contains important wildlife habitat. The northern portion of the parcel along Fir Ridge serves as a corridor for grizzly bears traveling between Yellowstone Park and the Madison Range. Evidence in the record estimated that 16 grizzly bears use the Duck Creek parcel as part of their habitat and another 17 bears were found in adjacent habitat. North of there in the southern Gallatin mountains was an area deemed one of the most important for female grizzlies of reproductive age and cubs in the ecosystem. Duck Creek is representative of a lot of rural private land areas surrounding Yellowstone. Elk, moose, and bison from Yellowstone also use the area in and around Duck Creek for winter range. And the creek itself is important for wild trout.

“Testimony indicated that increased density in development on the Duck Creek parcel will displace wildlife, affect habitat, lead to an increase in human-wildlife conflict, and degrade the water quality in Duck Creek,” authors from The Land Use Clinic wrote. “Despite this evidence, Gallatin County approved the rezone based on a general finding that the new zoning ‘met the general welfare, public necessity and convenience’ of the area. The district court, however, voided the rezone after concluding that there was ‘nothing in the record’ and ‘scant evidence in the record’ to support such a finding. The district court held that the evidence showed just the opposite— that the ‘extremely sensitive nature of the Duck Creek parcel and its importance to wildlife habitat . . . is a significant factor to be weighed in evaluating the public welfare . . . .’ Affirming the district court, the Montana Supreme Court cited to substantial evidence in the record from neighbors, agency officials, a wildlife biologist, and the general public that showed the rezone would negatively affect ‘some of the most significant wildlife habitat in the country,’ harming both the general public and people living in the area.”

Glick says that using the collaborative conservation model might have resulted in a slightly smaller development sited in sensitive habitat but there are times when compromise doesn’t preserve priceless things that need total protection. Mike Clark, who was executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition at the time, and the late conservationist Joe Gutkoski who supported GYC’s decision, told me after the Duck Creek victory the outcome set an important potentially valuable precedent. It made the public aware of how counties were green-lighting subdivisions that would have had serious long-term negative consequences for public wildlife. But inexplicably, both said, in recent years as the number of developments being approved has proliferated, few wildlife advocacy groups have tried to stop them.  

In May 2022, the US Interior Department announced that it will direct $68 million in funding, as part of bi-partisan infrastructure legislation, into ecosystem restoration efforts at 125 sites across the country.  And, out in southern California, it was announced this year that the largest wildlife crossing in human history—a structure 210 feet long and 165 feet wide—is being built over 10-lane Highway 101. The purpose of the $90 million project: to provide safer passage for a small remnant population of mountain lions, snakes, toads and lizards.  

Glick praises those initiatives but he reminds that the first rule of conservation is don’t de-wildwhat is still wild, and protecting what is still healthy is far better for wildlife, less costly for taxpayers and easier than having to fix problems after the fact that could have been prevented through foresight on the part of elected officials, land managers and vigilance from conservationists. 

“The most important decision-makers on private lands in the region are county commissioners and most seem to have no understanding of the role they could play in limiting development and protecting some of the most important conservation lands in the country,” Mike Clark, former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says. “Their decisions have huge implications for the health of public lands and wildlife. If the health of the Yellowstone ecosystem collapses, it will be in part because county commissioners have not followed the highest principles of land protection in the public interest.”

Even seemingly simple community actions have been difficult to implement because of those who claim any regulation is an impingement on their freedom and liberty. Only recently, after concerns about Grizzly 399 and cubs were brought to the fore by the public, did the Teton County, Wyoming Commission vote to mandate that citizens use bear-proof trash containers. Adoption has been even slower in coming to other counties.
A Rorschach test for public land managers and elected officials in Montana? No, it's an "elk disturbance map" created by landscape biologist Brent Brock with Future West. It shows the disturbance footprint created by human activity that wildlife avoid or exhibit high levels of stress across western Montana and based on scientific studies. Home impacts are represented by reddish (salmon) color;  roads in brown and trails in blue. "The results indicate that the human disturbance footprint is pervasive across the majority of land in western Montana, including large roadless areas," Brock says.
A Rorschach test for public land managers and elected officials in Montana? No, it's an "elk disturbance map" created by landscape biologist Brent Brock with Future West. It shows the disturbance footprint created by human activity that wildlife avoid or exhibit high levels of stress across western Montana and based on scientific studies. Home impacts are represented by reddish (salmon) color; roads in brown and trails in blue. "The results indicate that the human disturbance footprint is pervasive across the majority of land in western Montana, including large roadless areas," Brock says.

On ag lands, livestock can be managed to prevent conflicts between cattle, sheep, bears and wolves. When rural land is converted to subdivision, there is little that can be done to ameliorate the impacts on many species through lost habitat. Servheen says another challenge is misguided public perception. If a couple of grizzlies are seen ambling at the edge of a town or wandering in a valley, and the information is circulated on social media, it creates a mass impression that bears are everywhere and enjoy being among humans.

But it is not indicative of grizzlies being able to exist in exurbia, that exurbia contributes to bear recovery, nor should conservationists pin their hopes on that happening. Chances are good, Servheen says, that eventually bears moving through exurbia need to be removed and habitat is put in a net loss column. 

Such management actions, too, are costly for game departments and they fuel a corresponding perception that bears are only burdensome and liabilities—depictions reflected in how state legislators often reference grizzlies and wolves. This, in turn, has given rise to circular thinking among state wildlife agencies classifying them as “conflict” or “nuisance” bears. 

In recent years, governors and legislators who only base the value of grizzlies and wolves outside national parks on the amount of revenue they might generate for states through the sale of hunting tags, have said conflict bears ought to be the first bruins targeted in sport hunts. Never mind that it is weak county zoning regulations, which bring more people into bear habitat and more ways of finding trouble, that is causing conflicts to be created.  

All of this means that the perceived “growing” grizzly population is expanding from a core, being inundated by new recreation pressure, into a wider landscape filled with land mines of development, less social tolerance, and more people. “The assumption has long been that if bears are displaced they’ll simply go somewhere else,” Servheen, who today is vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says. “But we are getting to the point where their resiliency [being able to adapt to changes on the landscape because they have other habitat options] is gone.”

When Greater Yellowstone had a lower human population, more open ranch land and less outdoor recreation, recovering grizzlies was still a formidable, seemingly impossible task but there was more space to facilitate growth in bear numbers. That was the backdrop to grizzly recovery being considered a wildlife conservation success story. But the previous trend lines are shifting. Servheen says that while the impacts of climate change on habitat going forward cannot be controlled, regulating where development should occur and managing recreation for better wildlife outcomes can be. The footprint of human development permanently forecloses upon options in the future. 

° ° ° °

In southern Jackson Hole to the south of Grand Teton National Park, private lands, which used to be open wildlife-friendly ranch lands, are being converted to residential subdivisions. Last year, 399 and offspring wandered into southern reaches of Jackson Hole on both sides of the Snake River where exurban development is expanding. There, they found non-natural food attractants and they returned there this spring.  Click on video below: see how, in 15 seconds and only a matter how years, the southern reaches of Jackson Hole rapidly went from being wildlife friendly to a massive zone of displacement for wildlife and a future sink for grizzlies.

Dan Thompson, large carnivore section chief with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told Mike Koshmrl of Wyofile in spring 2022 that while special treatment was afforded 399 and cubs in 2021, it will not be extended to her offspring who left their mother’s side the second week of May 2022.  It means they may not be caught and relocated, following protocols that have existed for decades, but rather euthanized.  Will their cause of death be attributed to something they did or the result of human actions? 

Development in habitat where formerly grizzlies had space is just one example of how wild bears become transformed into conflict bears in the eyes of state wildlife managers. And it’s a scene being repeated in many places. Again, Wyoming has made it clear that it will exhibit far less tolerance for grizzlies wandering into southern regions of the ecosystem because of livestock operations and communities that do not want grizzlies in their public land backyard. 

To understand the caliber of hostility awaiting carnivores outside protected areas consider the nearly two dozen Yellowstone wolves shot and trapped when they crossed the northern park border in Montana in 2021-2022, resulting in the obliteration of an entire pack. The state’s rationale for allowing them to be taken had no basis in them representing a major menace to livestock or that they were seriously impacting elk.


° ° ° °

When MoJo met with a planning expert in 2017 who projected population growth for Bozeman/Gallatin County based on existing data, he said the area would reach Minneapolis proper size (440,000 people) by the mid to late 2060s. The Covid pandemic accelerated the growth rate beyond 2017 levels.. Meanwhile, the corridor connecting Idaho Falls to Rexburg-Teton Valley-Jackson Hole-Star Valley currently holds a population equivalent to current-day Salt Lake City proper (225,000 people) and is expected to add another 225,000 more. Without planning and zoning, wildlife habitat will not be protected,
When MoJo met with a planning expert in 2017 who projected population growth for Bozeman/Gallatin County based on existing data, he said the area would reach Minneapolis proper size (440,000 people) by the mid to late 2060s. The Covid pandemic accelerated the growth rate beyond 2017 levels.. Meanwhile, the corridor connecting Idaho Falls to Rexburg-Teton Valley-Jackson Hole-Star Valley currently holds a population equivalent to current-day Salt Lake City proper (225,000 people) and is expected to add another 225,000 more. Without planning and zoning, wildlife habitat will not be protected,
Big protected private lands in Greater Yellowstone are what leverage the value of more than 18 million acres of public land. Through a grant provided by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Future West has launched a “no net loss” working ranchlands program that will provide compensation for protection of wildlife habitat on working lands. Similar compensation programs have been advanced for elk by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and in Paradise Valley with an alliance between the free-market environmental organization PERC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. For decades local and regional land trusts in Greater Yellowstone have done amazing work brokering conservation easements with ranchers and farmers to protect viable wildlife habitat and open space. 

Brock says unfortunately all of those noble efforts are not keeping up with the amount of rural/exurban acreage being developed and this is why, policy experts like Susan Clark say, elected officials at the local, county, state and federal level, as well as public land managers, need to urgently embrace the call for an ecosystemwide vision. Grizzlies are not just a bellwether for other species, they are a test of whether major land players are capable of ecosystem thinking.

High-profile landscapes that may appear functional to the public are already in trouble. As just one example, when former grizzly bear study team leader Schwartz and I had a conversation in summer 2021, he pointed to the Bridger Mountain Range that extends northward from the city boundary of Bozeman.  In the 1990s, the Bridgers were looked upon as a possible connective north-south corridor for wildlife, including grizzlies, but exurban homes have pressed in on the western and eastern flanks of the mountains. The Bridgers are heavily used by recreationists who take to the ridgetop, the foothills and everyplace in-between.  Plus, on the east side, there is the presence of Bridger Bowl Ski Area and Crosscut Mountain Sports Center, which have spurred even more private land development by people who want to live near those recreation areas.

Under the headline for an op-ed, “Custer Gallatin is helping wildlife on the move” which appeared recently in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Zack Wurtzebach and Anna Wearn of the nonprofit Center for Large Landscape Conservation, based in Bozeman, painted an optimistic portrait. They said the Center worked with the Custer Gallatin Forest “to develop a cutting-edge habitat connectivity model that mapped potential movement corridors for a wide range of species.” Resulting maps, they wrote, are spurring the Forest Service “to designate ‘key linkage areas’ for wildlife movement on the west side of the Bridger Mountains and a portion of the Gallatin Range” in the national forest’s recently revised management plan.

“These linkage areas will be managed to limit human-caused disturbance that would otherwise interfere with wildlife movement,” they noted. “They not only allow species to move within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but also create a bridge to intact habitat to the north, near Glacier National Park and into Canada.”

That optimism, however, is not widely shared and it’s not difficult to understand why there's skepticism when one looks at the crazy-quilt pattern of suburban and exurban sprawl on the west side of the Bridgers. A question many scientists are asking is how, exactly, is the Forest Service’s linkage zone along the steep western face of the Bridgers going to work? The mountains already are heavily impacted, and every month the corridor is being constricted more by development and human users. The flanks of the Bridgers today represent a gauntlet for wildlife and Schwartz told me that any hope of these mountains functioning as a viable biological corridor for grizzlies on the west side is gone. 

In fact, warning lights have been flashing a long time. For five decades, wildlife researcher Dave Pac has witnessed and chronicled the decline of mule deer in the Bridgers. He warned in the 1990s about how exurban development on both sides of the mountains was impacting population viability and indeed mule deer are dwindling. 

Wishful abstract optimism about corridors being viable is very different from them actually being functional. It is unclear where and how the Forest Service sees the Bridgers fulfilling that promise now. In addition, how does the Forest Service or the Center for Large Landscape Conservation imagine the Gallatins on the south side of Interstate 90 being connected to the Bridgers to the north? Leapfrog sprawl, due to lax zoning laws, continues almost unabated on both sides of the interstate. 

The next possible place for facilitating bear and wildlife movement is on Bozeman Pass, between Bozeman and Livingston, specifically between the north Gallatins and the Bangtail mountains. But that, too, is divided by four lanes of Interstate 90. Also daunting, from the perspective of potential connectivity via a wildlife overpass or underpass is that pockets of homes are proliferating on both sides of I-90. Wildlife crossings work, but they are no panacea, especially if the habitat leading to and from them is increasingly clogged with sprawl.   

A number of years ago, Brock did an analysis and actually walked the environs around Bozeman Pass.  He said there were then only two possible pathways where an overpass could get grizzlies across I-90 from the Gallatins to either the Bridgers or Bangtails that were not within 500 yards of a home. "My guess," he said, "is that those options are now gone."
View from the Bridgers looking back toward the northeast edge of Bozeman. Out of view, lower left, is the popular "M" hiking trail. With all due respect offered to the Forest Service and Center for Large Landscape Conservation, how do they imagine the foreground possibly being a viable wildlife migration corridor as the land continues to fill in? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
View from the Bridgers looking back toward the northeast edge of Bozeman. Out of view, lower left, is the popular "M" hiking trail. With all due respect offered to the Forest Service and Center for Large Landscape Conservation, how do they imagine the foreground possibly being a viable wildlife migration corridor as the land continues to fill in? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Today, thousands of undeveloped lots sit invisible on the landscape in Greater Yellowstone ready for homes to be built and, because they are approved, their construction cannot be halted if the owner wants to put up a structure. A major criticism aimed at the Forest Service is that a succession of forest supervisors have said their legal influence stops at the forest boundary—which it does— and they’ve used that as a reason for not entering into contentious planning and zoning discussions when land on their border was being subdivided and the lands they steward impacted. They are, however, under no constraints from speaking up loudly of how the lands under their jurisdiction are being degraded by forces next to them. Still, they have remained silent.

In the op-ed in the Bozeman Chronicle, the representatives from the Center for Landscape Conservation praised Gallatin County’s 2021 Growth Policy document which has attracted, at best, lukewarm reviews. It has been roundly criticized by many conservation biologists because it is based on voluntary habitat protection on private land. The county has resisted zoning and for decades squandered options to protect wildlife corridors. At this very moment, elk herds in the southeastern part of Gallatin Valley between Bozeman and the Gallatin mountains are frantically navigating a labyrinth of land fragmentation.

Such patterns are underway in a lot of valleys simultaneously where wildness is a mirage in rapid fade mode. How much time is there to secure corridors before it is too late? During an exchange with veteran grizzly bear conservationist Servheen about the extensive body of evidence concerning recreation impacts on wildlife, he mentioned something that also applies to rural development.  No entity—not land or wildlife management agencies, not towns or counties and few conservation organizations— are measuring the impacts of exurban sprawl and considering the cumulative effects. Scrutiny has fallen through the cracks on an issue as important for wildlife as climate change.

“The natural behaviors of wild animals are corrupted by close association with humans, even in national parks and wilderness areas and places formerly thought to be reserves of naturally functioning ecosystems,” he said. “If we want to retain functional wild systems, we will need to learn to limit our activities and our presence in important areas or we will lose the very thing we have come to these places to enjoy.”

Rather than this being a pitched polemical battle pitting resource extraction, private land developers and recreationists against wildlife conservation, it is instead an issue, scientists say, that ought to be framed another way.  Do citizens who regard the wildlife populations of Greater Yellowstone as a national treasure  want to maintain them at existing levels? How much habitat has wildlife already given up nationally and regionally? What lesson does the costly installation of a wildlife overpass to accommodate a small number of mountain lions in southern California offer about the need for progressive thinking rather than reactionary? What does it take to keep wildlife populations healthy on the landscape here? Who is held responsible when and if they decline?

Amid this rising human pressure being exerted inside and astride of wild lands, what are the more developed corners of Greater Yellowstone going to look like in 30 years? If habitat protection safeguards are not put in place to buffer the effects, will the present diversity of wildlife be able to persist? Again, these are questions for society to ask but as the two scientific studies mentioned at the beginning of this essay make clear, it doesn’t take many humans to impact the behavior of a grizzly.




Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the summer 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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