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Let's Make 2023 A Year Of Thoughtful, Courageous Action For Wildlife
January 1, 2023
Let's Make 2023 A Year Of Thoughtful, Courageous Action For Wildlife
Wildlife researchers April and Lance Craighead say good things are happening to protect crucial habitat, but it's not enough. Developers, recreationists must be part of the solution
A family group of grazing bison move through the fog in Yellowstone. Descended from ancestors who survived near extinction, park bison face ongoing intolerance in Montana based on the disproven premise that they represent the most serious threat of spreading brucellosis to private cattle herds outside Yellowstone. There has never been a documented case of Yellowstone bison spreading brucellosis to cattle. A report from the National Academies of Sciences concluded the most serious threat of wildlife to livestock transmission resides with migratory elk that carry the disease. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
A Guest Essay
by biologists April and Lance Craighead
The start of a new year always seems to be a time of reflection in assessing what happened in the annum before, either good or bad, and then searching for reasons to have hope in the months to come. There are things to be hopeful about, generally speaking in the world, including improved vaccines against Covid, decreased inflation, small gains in social justice and increased climate change awareness.
However, there are many issues that need to be addressed by citizens and political parties. As we all confront the realities of climate change, overseas wars, and attacks on democracy and justice at home and abroad, most of us feel as if we have little energy left to focus on local problems.
But focus we must because the issues in front of us now are shaping the future of our communities, their level of livability for all and, of course, whether we'll be able to maintain the wild essence of the three-state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
It is at a local level that we can be effective and contribute to meaningful change. And local issues, where the region's remarkable wildlife is concerned, urgently need our attention—now.
Just as seemingly small environmental degradation accumulates over time and space to collapse ecosystems, so too can improvements and enhancements (and preventions) provide positive cumulative effects that can save or maintain ecosystems. Whether you realize it or not, all species, including us, need healthy ecosystems to survive.
While other regions of the globe and country, ecologically, are falling apart, we continue to live in an incredible place still buffered from the worst kinds of turmoil and destruction. Greater Yellowstone (despite how Montana is portrayed on the TV show Yellowstone) contains some of the wildest country left within the Lower 48 states and hosts a full complement of wildlife rarely found anywhere else in the world.
We are lucky to live in a place where the people who came before us decided to protect large areas as public lands and national parks. Private lands, especially farms and ranches, play a very important role in the preservation and maintenance of wildlife in the region. However, both of these landscapes are under withering, squeezing pressure from growth, development and recreation.
This growth has resulted in sky-high housing prices and demand for houses that far outstrips available inventory. Recent studies out of both Montana State University and University of Montana found that new immigrants to the state are coming here for our quality of life, recreation opportunities and uniqueness, while people leaving the state are migrating because of too many people, loss of sense of place, and loss of affordability.
The question for all of us is how do we continue to grow (which is probably inevitable as long as there is undeveloped private land) and still provide open spaces for wildlife—and not lose the unique sense of place that defines this area? Will we become the next Front Range of Colorado with bumper-to-bumper traffic and 100 miles of sprawl?
This is the time when communities like Bozeman need to stand up and decide what we want our community to look like, and seriously consider whether we can achieve that vision. In the extreme, governments could try to prohibit subdivision of existing properties and new houses or infrastructure.
But that might seem inconceivable given our history of property rights and our profit-driven value systems. It is, however, coming at undeniable cost. We see it in the Gallatin Valley and Highway 191 between Four Corners and Big Sky; in Jackson Hole and Teton Valley, Idaho; in Paradise Valley, the North Fork of the Shoshone River corridor between Yellowstone and Cody, along Bozeman Pass, and in portions of the Madison Valley.
Our best hope for private lands is to be able to guide growth by zoning and control of density. By the time the problems finally become obvious to citizens, it will be too late.
The most obvious strategy for preserving wildlife habitat is to protect it on public lands while acquiring development rights on critical pieces of private lands that need to be protected and because they are essential in connecting core areas of habitat that holds large systems together. In some rare instances, daring citizens and planners may be able to say no to the mantra of "growth for growth’s sake," say no to surrounding key wildlife habitat and ag lands, refuse to allow poor planning, and force developers to to minimize their impacts.
In the absence of that, current development trends and basic human greed will lead inexorably to the sprawl of human communities across our landscape in Greater Yellowstone and beyond; that is, everywhere that they are allowed without being scrutinized for impacts on wildlife. Montana will still be a very attractive place compared to other degraded regions, especially as climate change makes deserts and coastal areas inhospitable.
All of this paints a gloomy picture for the future, but it doesn’t have to be that way completely. There are examples of leadership. We’re heartened by how the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) stood up for nature and their heritage in a battle against Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).
In 1989, MDT proposed expanding US Highway 89 north to a four-lane highway to provide higher road speeds from Evaro to Polson—a 56 mile stretch of highway. However, residents of the Flathead Reservation, the CSKT, said an unequivocal “no.”
There would not be any road improvements, they said, until MDT listened to the tribes’ needs surrounding wildlife and their culture. After a decade of negotiations, the tribes and MDT finally came to an agreement in 2000 and initial work began to improve the road and consider meaningful wildlife mitigation solutions.
When the project finished, a total of 42 crossing structures were placed along the highway allowing the full range of species, from amphibians to grizzly bears, to cross this very busy highway. Results from the Highway 93 project found that the combination of fencing, overpasses or underpasses there was a 80 percent reduction in wildlife fatalities. If fencing is continues along the roadway and with mitigation measures, wildlife fatalities can be reduced to close to 90 percent as seen in a study done near Pinedale, Wyoming. Wyoming has been a leader in thinking about migrations and taking action.
The Highway 93 project in Montana led to a wealth of research here and other states to detail and monitor how wildlife moves across transportation infrastructure. All of this happened because a group of courageous and thoughtful people stood up and said no to the status quo. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai had the power, as a sovereign nation, to do that.
As members of the conservation community, we do not have sovereign status and so we must work within the system to achieve smaller gains and reach more modest goals.
Our non profit wildlife research organization, The Craighead Institute, has been examining the impacts of growth and outdoor recreation on wildlife. To maintain healthy the wildlife populations we still have in Greater Yellowstone into the future, it will be necessary to limit disturbance to animals and habitat as much as possible. The best approach is to maintain current intact ecosystems in wilderness-like conditions where human access is limited to foot or perhaps horse travel. This is fair and equitable for the most part although most people, even in Montana, cannot afford to own horses. Their low number has less of an impact except in the case of daily tourist trail rides.
Allowing access into secure habitat that is vitally needed by wildlife to any human who can afford a mountain bike, electric bike, motorcycle, ATV, or snowmobile is unnecessary. There is currently enough wildlife habitat, already compromised being enjoyed by mechanized and motorized means without diminishing the remaining intact habitat that is still functional.
Unfortunately, this is not the view that land management agencies and many of the larger “conservation” groups have taken. The current approach to managing public lands seems to be to find a compromise among all the human user groups that want to exploit the land in their own unique and self-centered ways; wildlife are not a part of those equations.
In fact, wildlife populations and habitat are facing biological limits to their survival and persistence that human user groups are not. If mountain bikers are excluded from an area like the Gallatin Crest there will still be mountain bikers and they can still find plenty of other challenging places to ride. If grizzly bears or wolverines or lynx are displayed from an area like the Gallatin Crest they may actually disappear from a large and important part of their world—a part that becomes more critical with each passing day as the climate continues to warm and human pressures rise.
As people continue to move to areas like the Greater Yellowstone area, all citizens must truly consider what they find special about this region and what’s worth fighting for. Will we become another front range of the Colorado Rockies or Wasatch or will we be more farsighted and altruistic to include space for wildlife to continue to migrate through the valley and encourage generational farms and ranches to thrive?
Only time will tell; but time is running short. Will we as a community be brave enough to say no to further destruction?
POSTNOTE: If you have thoughts about April and Lance Craighead's essay, please share them with us. You can send them along by clicking here and we may publish them below.