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Gallatin Valley's Tempest Of Growth

Headwaters Economics calls attention to an alarming rate of disappearing open space around Bozeman. What does it mean for the wild Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?

Bozeman as it is. Photo courtesy Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana is one of the fastest-growing non-metropolitan areas in the country. 

An impressive statistic, certainly, though for most Americans who dwell within commuting distance to a major city, it might seem inconsequential.  After all, the pattern of humans gathering in mass near natural resources is one that dates to antiquity.

Yet for those passionate about public lands and wildlife, Bozeman is considered a crucial bellwether for assessing dramatic growth-related impacts now affecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its most prominent global landmark, Yellowstone National Park.

Can a place grow and not lose the things that make it wild?

Every other month, it seems, there's a new subdivision rising or expanding around Bozeman. As tendrils of development spread like vines, stretching from the town's urban core to the edges of once-remote trailheads in surrounding national forests, the pastoral Gallatin Valley, which factors significantly into Bozeman’s aesthetic appeal, is being rapidly transformed.

Now a digital map (see below) and data highlighted in fresh research from Headwaters Economics makes the picture of Gallatin County’s development pattern clear over time.  As part of its analysis, Headwaters examined growth and construction trends in all of Montana’s 56 counties. 

From 1990 to 2016, the number of single-family homes in Montana grew by 50 percent, from roughly 224,000 dwellings in1990 to 337,000 in 2016. Four counties—Gallatin, Flathead, Missoula and Yellowstone—have claimed half of all new home construction in the state since the new millennium began. Three of those—Gallatin, Flathead (which encompasses Kalispell on the edge of Glacier National Park) and Missoula (home of the university town of the same name)—are located in the northern Rockies.

Gallatin for nearly two decades has been the fastest-growing, driven by the busiest commercial airport in the state, a wave of arriving Baby Boomer retirees, a soaring real estate market, increase in students at Montana State University, and an emerging niche of high-tech entrepreneurs. 

Also, however, consider this not so insignificant asset and let it fully soak in. Gallatin shares a profound 21st-century distinction with Montana's Park County and Wyoming’s Park, Teton and Fremont that maybe only a couple of other counties in the Lower 48  can claim: here, you can still find the full complement of original large wildlife species that were on the landscape 500 years ago.
Gallatin shares a profound 21st-century distinction that maybe only a couple of other counties in the Lower 48 can claim: here, you can still find the full complement of original large wildlife species that were on the landscape 500 years ago.
The inward migration of people occurring in Gallatin isn’t just unsurpassed but it began to accelerate in the years after the Great Recession of 2008-2009. 

During a 15-year span between 2001 and 2016, Gallatin’s population grew three times faster than the state and accounted for at least one of every four new jobs. Since 1990, the number of single family-homes in Gallatin grew by 150 percent from roughly 11,640 in 1990 to almost 29,000 in 2016.  

As noted in an earlier Mountain Journal story, before a child born this year graduates from high school, Greater Bozeman/Gallatin is on pace to add the equivalent of a Boulder, Colorado-sized population to the landscape.

One consequence of the rapidly-expanding development footprint, according to Headwaters senior researcher Patty Gude, is that Gallatin lost more open space than any other county in the state and worrisome is where it’s occurring on the landscape.  

Development is not happening in a planned, orderly or sustainable fashion if the objective is insuring that said wildlife, mentioned above, will persist. Corridors that used to serve as seasonal passageways for elk and mule deer are being blocked or constricted; in some places where elk used to gather in large numbers a generation ago, they've moved elsewhere.
More than a third of the new builds in Gallatin countywide occurred on lots greater than 10 acres, Headwaters found. To put that in perspective, the amount of open space consumed to accommodate development that’s already cemented in place is equivalent to 146 square miles or around six times the current size of the city of Bozeman.  Hence, the prospect of adding another Boulder-sized population to the valley by the 2030s without a corresponding strategy is, to most, unthinkable. 

The release of Headwaters’ data, many say, couldn’t come at a timelier moment.  Not only are elected officials in Bozeman and Gallatin County on the verge of finally taking a bigger picture approach to assessing growth impacts—a topic they’ve long avoided largely owed to ideological differences—but voters now have a ballot initiative before them.  Many see the property tax mill levy as a referendum on what kind of valley citizens want to have going forward.

The purpose of the proposition, being promoted by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land, would raise $20 million over 15 years. It would replenish the coffers of a special open space bond fund that's been available to acquire conservation easements on agricultural lands, creating parks and trails and working to protect properties deemed strategically important for wildlife. 

How much would passage cost an average property holder? For the owner of a $350,000 home, the amount would be about $21 in increased taxes annually (about the price for two adult movie tickets or one large pizza or a single round of micro-brews with four friends or half a tank of gas for a mid-sized SUV).

In the past, earlier iterations of the bond won overwhelming approval at the polls with significant majorities. Over 17 years, more than 50,000 acres of open land in Gallatin County was protected by securing easements from willing private sellers. Those public tax dollars delivered a five to one leveraged return through collaborations with the private sector. 
The Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Trust for Public Land have been instrumental in protecting open space and building trails.
The Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Trust for Public Land have been instrumental in protecting open space and building trails.
North of Bozeman between Belgrade and the Bridger Mountains, Becky Weed and husband Dave Tyler have been running the Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company for decades. She’s also been a leader in the predator-friendly movement in the interior West which involves managing their operation so that it reduces conflicts with livestock predators. 

Looking across Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, Weed has watched the number of  yard lights swell, an indication of what’s occurring beneath them on the ground. On the day we spoke, she had just been part of a field trip with grade school students learning about agriculture. “The fundamental issue is the same. In a place like the Gallatin Valley there are too many people moving in and, at the same time, we have an agricultural system that isn’t working right. As a result we are losing good ground fast,” she said. “I told the kids that these days I am far more worried about two-legged carnivores chewing up open space than four-legged carnivores threatening my lambs.”

Growth, especially the kind that pushes unbridled into rural areas, is far more expensive for counties to service, considering the higher costs assessed on all taxpayers to provide law enforcement, fire protection, schools and road maintenance etc. to those outlying areas.

What’s seldom discussed are the consequences to agrarian lifestyles and identify, sense of place, and wildlife. While the onslaught of growth is obvious in Greater Bozeman/Gallatin County, the impacts of leapfrog development and lack of a coherent strategy for protecting landscapes are shaping rural, less-populous counties in ways that aren’t obvious at first.
Growth, especially the kind that pushes unbridled into rural areas, is far more expensive for counties to service, considering the higher costs assessed on all taxpayers for law enforcement, fire protection, schools and road maintenance etc. 
“What I think is most important is that in the vast majority of Montana the pattern of people developing on very large lots is holding,” Gude says. 

Although high-growth cities in the northern Rockies such as Bozeman have been seeing development occur more densely, rural landscapes in the exurbs of those towns and other ag valleys are dealing with scattershot ranchette-style development. It involves 10, 20, and 40-acre lot sizes yielding spaghetti patterns of roads, fences demarking property lines, fragmentation of wildlife corridors and disappearance of working ag lands.

“As that progresses over time, we are already seeing, and will see an an increasing loss of open space and ‘the market’ is unlikely to solve that problem for us,” Gude said. “It’s a tough conversation for folks to have, to acknowledge we are all contributing to the problem. On the other hand, for those who value the things that make Montana Montana, it doesn’t do any of us any good to not be aware of the rate at which the loss of open space is happening.”

The paradox, Gude believes, involves a lack of public awareness among people moving to the northern Rockies and building homes but not reflecting on how their choices are contributing to the erosion of wild and pastoral landscapes.  The mill levy in Gallatin County, its proponents say, allows citizens to make a modest contribution to conservation and get big dividends.

Not all Montanans realize that the wildlife abundance they savor on public lands is directly connected to the stewardship of private land that is used as winter range and connective wildlife corridors.  

Gude pointed to a study completed by Dr. Charles Schwartz, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and his colleagues. Schwartz noted that development densities as low as a house and related infrastructure on 640 acres—an entire section of land— can cause bears to avoid areas. Thus, the pattern of scattershot ranchette development exacerbates the impact, creating habitat that becomes a black hole or local population sink for grizzlies—places where bears wander into rural subdivisions but get into conflict and don’t emerge alive.  

The disruption to bears can also be applied to elk, mule deer and even sensitive songbird populations. “The negative environmental consequences of rural land development, including landscape fragmentation, have been widespread and extensive in the US,” Schwartz wrote in that scientific journal article.  “Over 90 percent of the land in the Lower 48 states has been logged, plowed, mined, overgrazed, paved or otherwise modified from pre-settlement conditions. Communities and counties that choose to conserve open space, adopt garbage management ordinances and institute bear wise programs, especially at the landscape scale, can significantly reduce the negative impacts of urban and exurban sprawl on wildlife habitat in general and on secure grizzly bear habitat, in particular.”
The pastoral Gallatin Valley is coming under unprecedented development pressure. Photo courtesy FutureWest/Alice Buckley
The pastoral Gallatin Valley is coming under unprecedented development pressure. Photo courtesy FutureWest/Alice Buckley
People are moving to the Greater Yellowstone, drawn by uncluttered viewsheds that are so unlike the places they inhabited. “If that is a driving force bringing people here, then it is not surprising that people’s preferences are to develop inside beautiful, semi-natural areas,” Gude says.

To them, a valley in Montana or Wyoming or Idaho that is only a third as wild as it used to be is still 10 times wilder than the environs where transplants previously lived. “This trend is only going to be more challenging because you have the ongoing retirement of so many Baby Boomers who have substantial financial assets and they can build pretty much anywhere they want,” she adds.

Among the companies that has endorsed the open space mill levy is Simms Fishing Products, whose corporate mystique emanates in part from having its headquarters close to so many legendary streams, most of which are still unlined by subdivisions girding every bend.

Diane Bristol, Simms’ senior director of employee and community engagement, said her company supports conservation because it protects a higher-quality experience for  customers. “For our industry, which includes both fishing people and those who just want to be in the outdoors, public access, healthy fisheries, clean water and open lands are really critical,” she said. “If you turn the countryside into subdivisions or don’t look after the river corridors, it’s a problem.”

Protected healthy landscapes also are important in Simms’ ability to attract talented employees, Bristol added, noting that the company has given employees time off to get involved with landscape protection efforts. “Conservation is a good business move and it supports the lifestyles we enjoy,” she said.  “We take serious the need to educate the public and our employees what that means.” 

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Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  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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