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Taking Account of Gallatin County

Officials seek public input to inform Future Land Use Map and Housing Strategy

Looking southwest from the foothills of Bridger Range, it's easy to see how much open land still exists in the Gallatin Valley. According to the Gallatin County Land Use Profile, more than 83 percent of the privately-owned land is still critical wildlife habitat.
Looking southwest from the foothills of Bridger Range, it's easy to see how much open land still exists in the Gallatin Valley. According to the Gallatin County Land Use Profile, more than 83 percent of the privately-owned land is still critical wildlife habitat.
Story and photos by David Tucker

Looking west from the high ridge of the Bridger Range, the vast expanse of the Gallatin Valley rolls out in front of you. From that great height, the staggering majority of the landscape appears undeveloped, much of it still agricultural, and some of it even wild.

But change is afoot.

According to a recent Headwaters Economics report, nearly 68,000 acres of Gallatin County were converted to housing between 2000 and 2021. Close to 20,000 new homes were built in the county during that period, 27 percent of which were on large lots of 10 acres or more, contributing to increased sprawl and habitat fragmentation. Given the continued growth trends of the past three years, many more acres likely have been converted to housing since.

In light of this trend, county officials are hoping to better plan future development through the creation of a Future Land Use Map, a directive of the 2021 Growth Policy and required by Montana law. Gallatin County Planning Director Sean O’Callaghan says the FLUM will offer the county a roadmap as the area continues to see significant growth.

“[The FLUM] will guide the type, intensity and location for future development,” O’Callaghan said at a March 19 public meeting at the Bozeman Library, “as well as showing areas that should not be developed, areas that should be more or less preserved to maintain what’s there today.”

What’s there today is still a lot of high-quality habitat, productive agricultural land and critical water resources. According to the Gallatin County Land Use Profile, nearly 53 percent of privately-owned land in Gallatin County is high-value wildlife habitat, and an additional 30 percent is “core” wildlife habitat, or land heavily used
Gallatin County residents gathered on March 19 to learn more about the Future Land Use Map, a guiding framework for development in the county. Wildlife and habitat are key criteria for determining the suitability of development in certain areas of the county.
Gallatin County residents gathered on March 19 to learn more about the Future Land Use Map, a guiding framework for development in the county. Wildlife and habitat are key criteria for determining the suitability of development in certain areas of the county.
by wildlife and areas that are essential to the survival of significant species. As the Land Use Profile notes, a decrease in habitat will lead to a decrease in wildlife, which means there is still plenty of land left to potentially preserve if wildlife populations are to be protected.

The above percentages do not include federal- and state-managed public lands, indicating much of the quality habitat in the county overlaps with agricultural operations. As such, habitat is protected if the valley’s agricultural heritage is maintained, a key goal, according to the Land Use Profile.

Beyond providing wildlife habitat, local food production that utilizes irrigation also provides “important ecosystem services, such as maintaining valley water budgets and supporting groundwater recharge,” the report says.

Currently, nearly 24 percent of all land in Gallatin County is farmland, and up to 90 percent of land in the Triangle Plus subarea—roughly Belgrade to Bozeman to Four Corners to Belgrade—is also designated farmland, making even the county’s most heavily developed areas critical habitat that provides key ecosystem services.
"We know that ag is important. We know that wildlife habitat is important. We know that housing is important. How do we balance all those things and provide a more predictable environment for the future?” – Darcie White, Clarion Associates
Because most current and future land-use change is related to the desire for more housing, a Housing Strategy is a parallel effort of the FLUM. While residential development accounts for just over 3 percent of total land use, where and what category of housing gets built in the coming decades will have significant impacts.

“All of this information is our foundation for this suitability analysis that we’re going to be doing,” said Darcie White of Clarion Associates, the consultants Gallatin County hired for the FLUM and Housing Strategy. “And that is really to help us answer the question, ‘where should future development be encouraged or not?’ That is really the million-dollar question for this project … We know that ag is important. We know that wildlife habitat is important. We know that housing is important. How do we balance all those things and provide a more predictable environment for the future?”

With the FLUM project underway, now is the time for local residents and other concerned parties to weigh in. An online story map provides the opportunity for public comment that will help inform the final recommendations. “When you came to this meeting was it because you really care about ag land? Was it wildlife? What’s most important to you? That’s really going to help inform the analysis that helps us develop those criteria to think about where development is more or less suitable,” White told the audience.

While in-person meetings have passed, a virtual presentation is scheduled for March 28 from 6-7:30 p.m., and comments will be collected here until April 14.

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David Tucker
About David Tucker

David Tucker is a freelance journalist covering conservation, recreation and the environment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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