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Mayor Ghosts Nature In Bozeman's Annual State Of The City Address
March 1, 2023
Mayor Ghosts Nature In Bozeman's Annual State Of The City Address
It's strange how so few elected officials in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are willing to speak out for our world-class wildlife. And that does not bode well
Elk find a few moments of peace in the Gallatin Valley outside of Bozeman where crucial habitat and topsoil 15 feet deep is being lost to development. Photo courtesy Holly Pippel
by Todd Wilkinson
Let me begin by divulging a personal bias: I am a fan of Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus. Recently, I spent a Sunday afternoon giving two entire listens to Andrus’s 15-minute-long “State of the City” speech for 2023 and I took careful notes.
God knows running for, and serving in, elected or appointed public office is a tough and thankless job. My respect extends to most civil servants, whether they toil at the local, state or federal level. If you think it’s easy doing what they do, you ought to try it.
While I have served in a number of volunteer community roles, I have never run for public office, nor worked for a government agency. As a journalist, I have met and/or interviewed thousands of people, across nearly four decades, who held elected positions or civil service jobs.
I have admiration—and empathy—for each of them. That said, people who hold public positions must be held to a higher standard. And actions must speak louder than words.
Representing the common public good is not only a privilege and honor, but a sacred duty. When holding office, one’s job is not to make re-election the top priority but rather to make tough decisions that benefit your constituents, even if it means that doing so might cost you at the polls.
Rather than holding up your index finger to determine which way the wind of public opinion blows, true leaders are those who chart brave courses forward. That means being ahead of the curve in helping citizens understand the importance of issues instead of being a meek public official who only reacts to problems rather than preventing them from happening.
If you are paid by citizens to do a job on their behalf—and this includes public land managers and government employees—then the public’s long-term interest takes precedence over rational self or personal interests.
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Such a study should have happened a decade ago and its actual purpose has yet to be revealed, which we’ll get to in a moment.
My biggest disappointment, however, is that not anywhere in Andrus’s speech was the term “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” spoken, nor the fact that Bozeman is the busiest gateway to the most famous nature preserve in the world, Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is the heart and soul of the greatest wildlife-rich large mammal ecosystem in the Lower 48 and one of the most iconic on earth. This natural wonder of the world resides figuratively in Bozeman’s backyard, which would be a thing of envy to any other community. The area’s sense of wildness, as reflected in the presence of wildlife, is one of the reasons people continue to flock here and it is a major engine for the city’s so-called “sustainable economy,” which at the present is based upon an unsustainable model of development.
Strangely, it seems, “Greater Yellowstone” and “wildlife” are treated as if they don’t substantively exist. That’s being narrow minded. It’s a bit like the mayor of Los Angeles never mentioning the city is located on the Pacific Coast and next to a remarkable ocean. In deference to Mayor Andrus, few, if any, of her predecessors have made conservation a priority either.
Bozeman today is dealing with hurricane-force growth issues and it ranks among the fastest-growing micropolitican cities in America. This storm of human inundation, replete with steel, asphalt and concrete entombing fertile soils 15 feet deep, is already transforming the novel, natural sense of place that makes Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley feel so charming.
Ever increasingly, much of Bozeman feels more like a suburb that sprouted around any city anywhere in the aftermath of World War II.
Many people have the false impression that having white-tailed deer present means "wildlife populations" are healthy and abundant. But white-tails, pictured here in the Gallatin Valley, are notoriously "weedy" species—highly adaptable like skunks, raccoons and coyotes that can live in almost every altered landscape. Sprawl, in fact, favors whitetails but it wreaks havoc on vital habitat (especially when there are roaming dogs, fences, roads and traffic) for species that have more specific needs, like grizzlies and elk, mule deer, pronghorn, moose and sensitive songbirds. Photo by Lucas Willis/Shutterstock ID: 1291252909
No direction home? Elk southwest of Bozeman, left tired by having to navigate between subdivisions, take a breather on habitat where new structures are going in. Wildlife advocates say the Gallatin County Commission and planning staff have not done a good job representing the needs of wildlife coping with increasingly fragmented landscapes. They have little confidence the city of Bozeman's "Gallatin Sensitive Lands Study" will yield results if there is not a will from city and county officials to give it teeth. Photo courtesy Holly Pippel.
As Mayor Andrus noted, in 2022 more than 2 million air passengers—a record—flew into Bozeman and it’s safe to assume they weren’t seeking out better opportunities to play pickleball or golf.
Truly puzzling is why vital wildlife conservation issues get such chronic short shrift from elected officials in the region; the lack of mention from both municipal and county officials could easily give the impression they don’t care, that wildlife doesn’t matter, or that they possess little brainpower to grasp the nuances of ecology. You would think things might be different in a town like Bozeman where the city commission is overly progressive yet tone deaf on wildlife concerns. The ghosting of nature isn't political; both parties do it.
Truly puzzling is why vital wildlife conservation issues get such chronic short shrift from elected officials in the region; the lack of mention from both municipal and county officials could easily give the impression they don’t care, that wildlife doesn’t matter, or that they possess little brainpower to grasp the nuances of ecology.
While heartfelt and sincere as she always is, Andrus delivered a State of the City address that could easily have passed for one given to citizens of Boulder, Colorado, or Mesa, Arizona, or a suburb of Salt Lake City where, long ago, any sense of wildness, as represented by wildlife diversity, was sacrificed to thoughtless growth.
We deserve better, and it’s a big problem for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem if it goes unremedied. If one isn’t overtly proclaiming the exceptional things that sets communities apart and gives them their superior context, then it’s almost as if they are invisible. When that happens, protection doesn’t get the budgetary attention from decision-makers it deserves.
When it comes to being mindful of human diversity, equity and inclusion, everyone talks a strong game, but few elected officials extend that thinking to wildlife. We have around us right now the greatest diversity of free-ranging large native mammals in the Lower 48—and it is a pillar for why we love this place and feel blessed to live here— yet our elected officials treat that stellar fact as if they are blind to it. We rightfully build warming huts; we stock and support foodbanks, and we do things to alleviate suffering for vulnerable and homeless humans yet we act collectively with indifference to another important kind of homelessness—this one befalling wildlife being stripped of vital habitat.
Mayor Andrus opened her State of the City remarks by making a land acknowledgement, noting that today modern dwellers in the Gallatin Valley are living in places that, prior to European settlement, were inhabited by the Crow, Blackfeet, Eastern Shoshone, Lakota and other tribes that passed through. Land acknowledgement, however, rings hollow in its sincerity without providing context that often goes missing.
The reason those tribes considered Bozeman/Gallatin Valley homelands isn’t because there were tech jobs, good bicycle paths on the national forest or the presence of the Bozeman Community Food Co-op. They were here historically because of the native wildlife and plants that provided sustenance.
The farther Bozeman slides away from being a viable home for wildlife, the more the Gallatin Valley ceases to be relatable to the language, idioms and oral traditions of those indigenous cultures. If you are an elected official and want to truly show respect, you would honor the reverence our indigenous neighbors have for members of the nonhuman world put here by the Creator.
The farther Bozeman slides away from being a viable home for wildlife, the more the Gallatin Valley ceases to be relatable to the language, idioms and oral traditions of indigenous cultures recognized in land acknowledgments. If you are an elected official and want to truly show respect, you would honor the reverence our indigenous neighbors have for members of the nonhuman world put here by the Creator.
So why, then, is it apparently so difficult for mayors, council people and county commissioners to regularly declare our great fortune to be in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? Even more important than a politician acknowledging Greater Yellowstone is committing its importance into public discussion, and hammering it home, time and again, until colleagues and citizens understand and take it seriously.
What are some examples of elected officials actually doing a good job on this front? Read this Mountain Journal piece by Cindy Riegel, chair of the Teton County, Idaho Board of Commissioners who voices concerns shared with her colleagues, or this one by Jonathan Schechter, a member of the Jackson, Wyoming Town Council. Add into that shortlist of attentive politicians Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb of the Teton County, Wyoming Commission, folks like Bill Berg and former colleague Steve Caldwell on the Park County, Montana Commission and courageous members of the Driggs, Idaho and Livingston town councils.
They have been leaders in thinking about where their communities reside inside a bigger world-class natural landscape, but almost never do you hear their level of ecological awareness being matched by elected officials serving in Bozeman or Gallatin County. Why is that and who are they afraid of alienating?
In Greater Yellowstone today, many corners of the ecosystem being beset with high levels of population growth, development and outdoor recreation pressure are at a point of inflection. Call it a turning point in which the action or inaction we take will result in priceless, ineffable things being lost forever.
They’re already being lost, squandered, or given away not because we don’t know better but because we are turning our backs and treating the degradation of nature as being too hard to confront or not worth fighting for.
As I mentioned earlier, Bozeman has, under enormous public pressure, commissioned its first-ever “Gallatin Sensitive Lands Study.” The $130,000 project is being assembled by the consulting firm Logan Simpson of Fort Collins, Colorado. It is supposed to make an assessment of “sensitive lands” that extends valley wide, including beyond Bozeman’s present boundaries, but a few things make it extraordinary.
First is the vagueness of its purpose and the fact that many prominent local experts I know in large landscape conservation have, as of yet, not been consulted to provide expertise; second, the document that Logan Simpson delivers to the city will only hold recommendations that are “advisory”; third, Gallatin County, perhaps the most important entity in the study area, is not seriously invested in the outcome nor has it given any indication the recommendations will be implemented; and, fourth, any vague focus on “sensitive lands” that does not involve joint planning between the city and county, with regulations that hold teeth, is destined to fail to protect wildlife.
This view of Bozeman taken from the Bridger Mountains shows the city with tendrils of development extending out across the Gallatin Valley. All but weedy species of wildlife have been displaced from the urban and suburban footprint. Will the city of Bozeman's "Gallatin Sensitive Lands Study" make an appreciable difference in getting habitat protected at the edge of the mountains crucial for so many species? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
One glimpse of the kind of development rimming the Gallatin Valley on former farm and ranch lands located near the edge of the mountains where wildlife have gathered for centuries if not much longer. Photo courtesy Holly Pippel
How do we know the latter to be true? Because the failure is happening now, and has been for decades, with neither the city nor county showing any indication they are willing to make tough decisions to prevent us from becoming the same kind of nature-degraded environs as Boulder and Fort Collins.
Drive Jackrabbit Lane south from Belgrade to Four Corners and then continue down US 191 to the entrance of Gallatin Canyon. What you will encounter are both unspeakable visual scars and carnage. What does lack of foresighted planning and zoning look like, when decisions are left to the whims of the free market and people who put quick profit ahead of honoring sense of place?
Judge for yourself. Upon reaching Four Corners, show up in the morning or evening and you will find a stream of intense traffic worthy of an urban suburb headed to and from Big Sky. Often, as was the case in recent months, you’ll encounter dead elk, including mother wapiti and calves, that tried to cross the road but were killed by speeding cars and trucks.
It’s not just the jarring sight of roadkill; a deeper story is how development pressure is destroying the farmland and winter range for big game animals that have given our valley its mystique. (The same can be said of high-growth valleys in every corner of the ecosystem.)
In recent months, developers in Big Sky have built employee housing in that part of the Gallatin Valley because they claim they cannot afford to provide quarters in Big Sky 40 miles away.
Big Sky is exporting its problems and poor planning to the Gallatin Valley, forcing service workers to make a daily one-hour drive in each direction for a paycheck. Meanwhile, those same developers are involved in building massive trophy homes and tourist guest lodges around Big Sky that rent rooms for thousands of dollars per night to visitors.
This expression of the “free market” is destroying wildlife habitat in Big Sky, in the Gallatin Valley, and by putting a lot more people on winding Highway 191 is elevating the danger level of the road. Today, there is talk of installing a wildlife overpass or underpass north of the Gallatin Canyon but that will be a band-aid unless it’s met with smart land-use planning.
The Bozeman-based Gallatin Wildlife Association has tried to make the case for wildlife crossings along Bozeman Pass and US Highway 191 by renting billboard space. Recently, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation indicated that in a new study an area north of the Gallatin Canyon might be suitable for a wildlife crossing. But the utility of that crossing could become moot if essential private lands under threat of development are not safeguarded.
We are giving away our sense of place in many parts of the Rockies with nary a whimper of protest. Save for mere handfuls of outspoken citizens and a couple of vocal conservation organizations, we hear citizens whine and complain about unwanted change but few of us are willing to say anything. Again, the deafening silence includes elected officials on both the Gallatin County and Bozeman commissions.
As Jackson Town Council member Schechter writes, it is well established that growth, especially suburban and exurban sprawl, does not pay for itself, meaning citizens standing at the sidelines in horror are being asked to subsidize the profits of developers who are ever so happy to externalize their costs. Growth is not going to stop, nor should it, but bad, fiscally irresponsible growth would certainly slow if developers, the building and trades industries and realtors were compelled to better foot the bill for sprawl that benefits them and no one else.
In a bizarre twist, natural amenities are being marketed, monetized, commodified and exploited for private gain yet there’s little accountability demanded by cities and counties when they are destroyed.
If Bozeman and Gallatin County were located in the middle of Iowa cornfields, that would be one thing. But that isn’t where we’re at. We’re the last great wild ecosystem still standing. Stubbornly, elected officials at both the city and county levels continue their refusal to prioritize the hiring of staff ecologists experienced in large landscape conservation. While they freely debate whether they’re willing to spend $1 million or more building another roundabout to address traffic congestion, they can’t find the funds apparently to put professional ecologists in place who can remind us what’s at stake ecologically with every new subdivision being approved.
This is a graphic, not a real sign; still the message comes across. Those who claim that little regulation and zoning results in protected landscapes that preserve the essence of special places need to pay a visit to the stretch of Highway 191/Jackrabbit lane between Gallatin Gateway and Belgrade west of Bozeman. It is full of visual blight and has displaced wildlife. So far, Bozeman and Gallatin County have failed to adopt a joint strategy for dealing with leapfrog sprawl that negatively affects wildlife. If habitat important to the region's world-class diversity of species is going to be protected, it will require a combination of conservation easements, zoning with incentives to minimize human footprint and flat-out rejection of poorly designed projects, conservation biologists say.
A cynic would say their refusal to prioritize such hirings is deliberate because they don’t want to hear or be reminded what they are giving away—so that they can continue to claim the destruction of nature is out of sight, out of mind. But ignorance is not bliss.
The sad fact is that there are plenty of talented wildlife scientists at Montana State University who have researched the impacts of unplanned growth on nature, but they too are wary of political retaliation from state politicians or boards of regents who don’t want to stir up controversy among developers.
Finally, let’s be honest: the rapidly expanding city limits of Bozeman are no longer places conducive to wildlife migrations, or having grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, elk, and moose wandering through. That habitat is gone forever, claimed from them without negotiation or forethought, by us.
Because sprawl is happening outside the city, it doesn’t mean that Bozeman leaders and citizens should not be thinking about how they can prevent the footprint of Bozeman/Gallatin County from ruining the remaining pastoral and wild landscapes that still encircle us. Bozeman is not an island unto itself.
What happens here radiates outward and what’s important is not only how we plan for growth, but how we think about it, having a clear understanding of why sprawl is deleteriously costly to everything natural we value about this place. If that’s not worth a regular mention in a State of the City address, for a town located on the edge of the greatest wildlife ecosystem remaining in the Lower 48, then what is?
NOTE: For further reading:
Thanks for that great article I just read in Mountain Journal on Bozeman’s mayor ghosting nature in her “State of the City” address. I was sorry to read the omission of wildlife and wildlands, especially since Gallatin Wildlife Association is involved in the Sensitive Lands Study. We at GWA believe all public officials need to be placing more emphasis on wildlife at every opportunity, for not to do so, is a missed opportunity.
The bar of concern could have been raised if the city had given the issue its rightful due diligence. GWA has met with county commissioners and soon will be meeting with Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cam Sholly and Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson on the issue of wildlife infrastructure. But you are right, these structures will not matter if there is nothing to connect wildlife to on the other side. There are many wrongs to be made right on this issue.
GWA entered the Sensitive Lands Study with high hopes it would prove advantageous to wildlife. It still may, but there is a long way to go presently. Much of the result will depend upon the residents of the city and county for final comment and the approval process of government officials. Time will tell. Any pressure we can put on city, county, state, and federal officials, must be for the positive good. I keep telling myself that.
Mayor Andrus and many other GYE officials have presided over years of thoughtless growth, so why would we expect words of nature, environment, sense of place, and wildlife in a speech? Was the coming water crisis for Bozeman and the GYE mentioned much in the speech?
The reasons for the omission of the words could be what Dr. Robert Pyle wrote in 1993, " We lack a widespread sense of intimacy with the living world." And our lack of intimacy is evident in how we treat the GYE.
When we continue to cite individual rights at the expense of the rights of nature and wildlife, and we are all guilty, from the developers who only regard the land as a commodity to second homeowners who build trophy houses in the fire-prone forest and the recreation/ tourist industry and recreators that want more access to sensitive forest areas that will disrupt the homes of wildlife that have been here for thousands of years.
If we continue to treat the GYE as another commodity, we will lose a sense of place and wildlife. How do we gain intimacy with words that were never mentioned?
First, to acknowledge that we all contribute to the destruction of the GYE, and to save the GYE, we must change our behavior and consumption habits, advocate to protect what remains of the GYE, and make the sacrifices necessary to save the GYE.
The future of the GYE is in our hands, and we must act. The action calls for nothing less than a massive, comprehensive plan that includes every county in the GYE to not only mention the words nature, wildlife, environment, and a sense of place but to act to protect the GYE and stop our thoughtless trend of destruction.
(Former resident of Bozeman, former civilian employee in Yellowstone and longtime member of the building and trades industry)