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Warning Signs Are Flashing

Jackson Hole is on the front line of a new reality: As Susan Marsh notes, we are rapidly running roughshod over the things that bring us to Greater Yellowstone

According to the local “Stay Wild” tourism promotion campaign, Jackson Hole is “a place where you can go days without seeing another soul. But you can’t go a day without running into an elk.”

While I am likely to encounter numerous souls on a given day I doubt the boosters meant it literally when they suggested our likelihood of running into an elk. We do so with regularity. In 2018, 49 elk, 20 moose, and 105 mule deer were hit by vehicles on our roadways, and that’s probably a low figure as many deaths go unreported and some animals walk into the woods to die unseen.

The chart below, courtesy of Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, displays a trend that transcends differences in winter severity and snowpack from year to year – more people on the highways.

It seems we are on a collision course with wildlife in JH, and not only in the sense of actual collisions with vehicles. When asked how we can curb the negative effects of growth on our community and our wildlife, many locals say the best thing we can do is stop promoting the place. That horse is long out of the barn. It’s no surprise to those who live here that the Greater Yellowstone region has become a hot spot for international tourism. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. 

According to the recently published United Nations biodiversity report,the carbon footprint from tourism rose 40 percent between 2009 and 2013. Given the increase in tourism from Asia since then, one has to assume that the 40 percent has been added to in the past 6 years.

We have a thoughtful and civic-minded town council and county commission trying to grapple with dozens of issues related to growth, but they work at cross purposes with the tourism board. We have a 2 percent lodging tax that could be used for mitigating the effects of tourism and development on wildlife, but the bulk of the income goes elsewhere. 
In 2017, the latest year I could find data for, Teton County reported over $3.6 million collected by this tax. How it was spent:
While voters have been sold on approving this lodging tax by promises of spending some of it on something besides tourism, I don’t see it in the numbers above.

In addition to visiting, people also want to live here. Infill in the town of Jackson is reaching a galloping pace. As denser housing and large commercial buildings increase, gone are the vacant lots and small houses with big yards. Snow is now trucked to the few open spaces left in town, the fairgrounds mainly, where the pile rivals Snow King Mountain and doesn’t melt until after Memorial Day. 

Now, while improvements have been made to the rodeo grounds, a horse arena has been built and a new fair building is under construction, there is talk about moving the fairgrounds away from town (making everyone drive farther, adding to traffic congestion and wasting gas and also endangering wildlife since the rodeo and other evening events end well past dusk) in order to build more in-town housing. 

We are making decisions based on an urgent need without time to consider the long term effects. Where will we dump the snow in the future? A new fairgrounds miles south of town? Teton Pass?

Housing for all of the employees our growing business sector requires is a serious issue, and has been for some time. But so-called attainable housing costs mostly over $300,000 to buy and $3,000/month to rent. I doubt the sales clerks and hotel maids earn wages that make these prices attainable. 

Much of the worker housing we used to have is gone – modest apartments converted to  condos, most in-town campgrounds long gone, a small collection of mobile homes rezoned to allow a Marriot to be built in its place, and on-site employee housing at Teton Village, eliminated years ago for high-end condos. At least Ski Corp employees now have an apartment complex in town, but they have to commute to work.

Meanwhile, renters are faced with ever-increasing monthly payments and often have to leave because they can’t afford to stay. 

Homeowners are driven out by rising property taxes and a desire to escape the noise and crowding in Jackson. The result: over 7,100 people commute daily from outlying areas as far as 50 miles away. 

While much good work is being done by the community to reduce our impact on the county’s abundant wildlife, I’m not sure it is enough to make a difference over the long term, assuming current growth trends continue. More traffic means more roads, wider roads, and consumption of open space for parking. 
No, it's not easy to see but it's reality. As the toll of roadkill wildlife continues to mount in many corners of Greater Yellowstone, many people, including decision makers put in charge of managing growth, would rather look away, but it's a problem that's been obvious for years.  Few people in the region, be they in charge of public lands, counties or towns, are willing to talk about imposing limits on human growth in order to preserve the unparalleled quality of the land. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
No, it's not easy to see but it's reality. As the toll of roadkill wildlife continues to mount in many corners of Greater Yellowstone, many people, including decision makers put in charge of managing growth, would rather look away, but it's a problem that's been obvious for years. Few people in the region, be they in charge of public lands, counties or towns, are willing to talk about imposing limits on human growth in order to preserve the unparalleled quality of the land. Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
An idea favored by some elected officials is to increase the number of commuter buses currently operating through our transit system. Workers ride from Star Valley (47 miles) and Teton Valley, Idaho (33 miles) on weekdays. A total of seven round trips with buses able to carry 57 people bring as  many as 400 of the 7,100 commuters to Jackson, or about 5%. How many more buses would have to be added in order to make a difference? Would people ride them?

The reason growth and traffic matter to wildlife is obvious, but we are good at hanging onto myths and mantras that deny cause and effect (think climate change). One that I hear on occasion sounds almost like a complaint: 97 percent of the county is protected public land. This is usually part of an argument that the remaining 3 percent doesn’t matter.
The reason growth and traffic matter to wildlife is obvious, but we are good at hanging onto myths and mantras that deny cause and effect (think climate change). One that I hear on occasion sounds almost like a complaint: 97 percent of the county is protected public land. This is usually part of an argument that the remaining 3 percent doesn’t matter.
In addition to protected land being the reason we have the wildlife, it’s worth considering that our county’s 97% is part of an increasingly small percentage of land that is expected to remain open for the benefit wildlife in another 30 years. Again citing the UN biodiversity report, 75%of the global land surface is significantly altered and 66 percent of the ocean is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts. Over 85 percent of wetlands have been lost.

Put in this context, our 3,995 square miles in Teton County matters greatly. We get to live in what’s one of the few functioning ecosystems left on earth. Our small bit of private land matters too, since connectivity and conservation of movement corridors and wetlands is are among the primary things we can do to keep our ecosystem functioning. Connectivity across private land and roadways matters.

Another thing I hear in the context of protecting wildlife from collisions with vehicles is that more buses and bike paths in the valley will reduce traffic. We have an integrated transportation plan that relied heavily on what citizens said they wanted. This didn’t include more vehicle traffic or wider highways. Bike paths and bus service were seen, in the abstract, as a better alternative.

All I can say about this is dream on. People are addicted to their cars. In small towns with large open spaces around them, busses can’t always substitute for personal travel. They don’t provide the convenience that you have by hopping into your car for a quick errand. They don’t drop you off at a trailhead and come get you later. (They do in larger urban areas, where populations are large enough to pay for these services.)
We’re trying but we can’t prevent all the deaths. Still, it’s hard to watch the unnecessary carnage and each time you wish we could get our planned safe wildlife crossings built right now, today. After several moose were killed in the Wilson area this spring, a few more signs went up to caution people. I pass them, slowly, and wonder if there are any moose left to protect.
As for bikes, we have a good and growing pathway system and some do use it for commuting. I don’t know that we have enough information to estimate how many people have swapped their cars for a bike to get to work, but given our mountain weather and the challenges of riding safely in town, I doubt there are enough bikers to offset the increasing traffic.

It is sometimes stated that building more worker housing in town will result in less traffic. True enough, but developers have little incentive to provide housing that people can afford. And enough of town has already been developed that there are few places to consider such housing. Thus the idea of moving the fairgrounds. Thus the construction of a monstrosity of an eyesore on wetland property once owned by the Forest Service.

This has been a far-ranging ramble on my part, as I try to put together how to live with little impact locally in the context of global ecosystem breakdown. I meant to stick to what we can do to reduce the number of wild animals killed by our vehicles. 

Certainly wildlife crossings help. It has been heartening to see the ones constructed on the highway south of Jackson, with more to follow. But these are expensive, and the state highway department has to ration its funds to do the best work state-wide. It costs a lot more to build a wildlife passage structure in Teton County than it does in other places, where species like mule deer and pronghorns need as much help as the deer, elk and moose do here.

To recognize the financial challenge, the county is looking at funding safe wildlife crossings with part of the excise tax – a voter-approved 1% increase in the sales tax – to be funded this year. I hope something similar can be done with the revenue from the lodging tax. Certainly it benefits tourists to have a fun vacation rather than having it ruined by wrecking their vehicles while “running into elk,” as the promoters say.

In the meanwhile, what can we do about the bloodbath on our roads? We’ve lowered the speed limit in certain areas where moose and elk typically cross and Grand Teton National Park has a 45 mph limit at night. This works as long as drivers obey the limit, but speeding is a sport here. When highways go from two lanes to five, designed for higher speeds, the 45 mph limit feels like crawling.

The highway department, county, and Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation have together purchased a number of mobile electric signs that warn drivers of wildlife migration, moose concentrations, and even fledging ospreys, as many of the platforms built for them are next to the roads. Blinking lights have been installed where elk cross the highway during migration. Citizens have put up home-made signs and wildlife silhouettes on their property as reminders.

We’re trying but we can’t prevent all the deaths. Still, it’s hard to watch the unnecessary carnage and each time you wish we could get our planned safe wildlife crossings built right now, today. After several moose were killed in the Wilson area this spring, a few more signs went up to caution people. I pass them, slowly, and wonder if there are any moose left to protect.

Regardless of our earnest efforts to live more compatibly with wildlife, each year there are more vehicles on the road and the lack of affordable housing means more commuting. I would love to hear how other communities in the region are addressing this problem in ways that might be adopted here.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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