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Is High-Flying Bozeman, Montana Losing The Nature Of Its Place?

Analysis: Is this capital city of Greater Yellowstone, along with Gallatin County, becoming the poster children for how not to develop a wild corner of the American Serengeti?

Photograph of Bozeman courtesy Christopher Boyer (check out his work at kestrelaerial.com)
Photograph of Bozeman courtesy Christopher Boyer (check out his work at kestrelaerial.com)

By Todd Wilkinson

Back in the 1980s, if anyone can still remember those non-bustling times, wildlife biologist David Pac was carrying on important research. He noted how development pressing up against the foothills of the Bridger Mountains, rising above Bozeman, Montana, was having a negative impact on mule deer.  Pac spent three decades documenting the effects of habitat disruption on the Western deer species known for being more rugged cousins to white-tails.

Home development along the mountains displaces animals from crucial winter range and other habitat, which, in turn, affects animal energetics (nutrition and animal fitness) which, in turn, affects reproduction and ultimately ripples at the population level, Pac told me when I interviewed him in the 1990s. He gave a public lecture and noted that a radio-collared mule deer had migrated from Yellowstone National Park more than 100 miles to the northern Bridgers. At the time, he didn't want to condemn sprawl that was just beginning on both sides of the Bridgers but it did not bode well for mulies.

In 2018, Bernie Kuntz, a longtime spokesman for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks' regional office in Bozeman, and then retired from his job, reflected on the fate of mule deer in a newspaper essay. It appeared just a few months before his untimely death.  “In the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman ... an area that was once famous for large [mule deer] bucks, the entire countryside has become a playground for skiers, snowboards, hikers, backpackers, joggers, campers, hang gliders...you name it," Kuntz wrote. "Dave Pac told me that several months ago he glassed a section of the Bridgers where decades ago he could regularly spot 200 mule deer. He saw six this time.”

Kuntz went on. “Mule deer face other obstacles in the West. They get outcompeted by white-tailed deer and they have to deal with burgeoning elk populations. And coyote, bear, wolf and mountain lion mortality has increased over the decades. And don't overlook the hundreds of square miles of mule deer winter range that have been usurped by subdivisions and ranchettes during the last 40 years.”

What do prominent wildlife biologists think about what's happening in Bozeman today? They share what the late Mr. Kuntz was getting at:  We’re losing this place.
 
Piece by piece, in the face of impacts being rapidly manifested by human population growth, it’s happening faster than our already overwhelmed sensory perception can process. And yet, we are behaving as if urgency and unprecedented vision aren’t required to address what’s right before our eyes.

If you are a newly-arrived transplant from a major city—read this piece about Bozeman that appeared recently in The Washington Post—you probably don’t realize what I’m referencing and you may ask, “What’s the concern?” This place looks pretty damned good compared to whatever nature-deprived burg you fled from.

In mid November, the Bozeman City Commission approved what can be called, colloquially, a new “growth plan.” Having read the document now a couple of different times, it lays out an aspirational “strategy” for pondering growth, and it identifies several real growth issues. But experts I’ve asked to review it say it is utterly lacking in spine, gut and, most importantly, prescriptive vision that acknowledges our novel natural setting in the world.


We are living astride of, and woven into, a marvel: an American version of the African Serengeti and we’re letting it slip away. The Serengeti comparison has been made by leading conservation biologists not because of Greater Yellowstone’s sublime scenery, outdoor recreation opportunities or tourism industry which is now the region’s biggest economic engine. Rather, it is owed to the still-ubiquitous presence of wildlife, wildlife migrations flowing across unfractured landscapes, and healthy ungulate populations that, in turn, support dynamic predators pursuing prey. 

All of the wildlife species here in this region at the time Europeans arrived in North America five centuries ago still persist in Greater Yellowstone and nowhere else in the Lower 48. That’s why this ecosystem is literally held up as the cradle of American wildlife conservation.

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If you haven’t heard, let’s repeat again something you’ve read before at Mountain Journal: Bozeman and Gallatin County together are one of the fastest-growing micropolitan—meaning “small urban"— areas in all of America. Bozeman's planning staff is overwhelmed.

Were the city/county located in the middle of Iowa or as part of the expanding megalopolis of the Wasatch Front (Greater Salt Lake City) or the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies (the droning Fort Collins to Denver to Pueblo corridor), what’s happening here wouldn’t matter. The natural wonders  once in play in those places were thoughtlessly eroded years ago and they are never coming back because human habitat has supplanted wildlife habitat.

Bozeman/Gallatin County represent the crown of Greater Yellowstone and are an important natural crossroads. Geographically, we share a connection to landscape intactness  that stretches to the southern end of the Wind River mountains in Wyoming a few hundred miles to the south; east to the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming within eyeshot of the Bighorn Mountains; north to the Crazies, Big and Little Belts and drainages that feed the Smith River; and westward from Montpelier, Idaho (near the Utah border) then extending to US Interstate 15 past Pocatello and Idaho Falls to Montana's Centennial Valley on to Dillon and Butte. The wildlife residing inside this vast land mass represent chords that string us together. Be it rancher, hunter, angler, hiker, businessperson, citizen, the presence of so many different animals is part of our common identity. Without them, the lands would seem, well, vacant.

Elected officials serving the city of Bozeman and Gallatin County are smart, dedicated decent humans. Yet they act as if either they don’t realize the facts above, or that they accept as inevitable the steady erosion of nature owed to private land sprawl, landscape fragmentation, and public lands now being flooded with industrial-strength levels of outdoor recreation to the detriment of wildlife.

The window for taking action, if you listen to scientists—and we at Mountain Journal do—is small and narrowing. The reality that we’re incrementally losing this place is real and undeniable. Of course, maybe what's been described is of no concern to you. 

Back in 2017, planning specialist Randy Carpenter with the non-profit group FutureWest looked at the rate of new home development in the region. At the time, Carpenter said that if the growth rate of the past 30 years continues, the overall population of the Greater Yellowstone region was expected to surge in a decade and a half from 450,000 permanent denizens  to 677,000. That translated on the ground, he said, to another100,000 homes. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t grow faster than that,” he added, now saying in reflection that Covid and climate refugees make that figure grossly conservative. (The population of the entire state of Wyoming is 585,000; Montana a little over 1 million; and Idaho 1.7 million).

Of those 100,000 homes, he noted that many would be built outside of established towns; each one of those bearing a footprint, replete with roads and driveways, cars, fences to keep wildlife out and from eating the non-native vegetation, off-leash dogs, yard lights, trash that can be attractants to wildlife, noise, and water use that warrants septic systems. Such footprints cause disruptions to nature well beyond property lines. 

Yes, we are losing this place, experts say. The upshot is that we have an opportunity to prevent disintegration from happening but it requires thinking out of the box which, to date, no local, county, state and federal land management agency has demonstrated that it has the capability or will to do. To say we are losing this place is certainly better than lamenting it’s already been lost.  But if it does wither, it won't be just any place; it will have happened in an essential part of the American Serengeti.
Minneapolis proper (the size of the city only) today has a population of around 425,000. At current growth rates, Bozeman/Gallatin County/Big Sky could reach that number in the decade past the midway point of this century. Salt Lake City proper (the city only) has a present population of 200,000. If you were to draw a line from Idaho Falls to Rexburg to Jackson Hole and south to Afton, Wyoming, there is already a Salt Lake City-proper-sized population. The question is how much larger will that corridor grow with more people moving in? Some believe it could easily double by the middle of this century. That would equal the total number of residents in all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017.
Minneapolis proper (the size of the city only) today has a population of around 425,000. At current growth rates, Bozeman/Gallatin County/Big Sky could reach that number in the decade past the midway point of this century. Salt Lake City proper (the city only) has a present population of 200,000. If you were to draw a line from Idaho Falls to Rexburg to Jackson Hole and south to Afton, Wyoming, there is already a Salt Lake City-proper-sized population. The question is how much larger will that corridor grow with more people moving in? Some believe it could easily double by the middle of this century. That would equal the total number of residents in all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2017.
When I say “we are losing this place,” I am referring to “the ecology of place”—the natural complicated, awe-inspiring, nuanced, wondrous character that has enabled the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to miraculously recover, accommodate and maintain all of the original mammals and birds.  

Few ponder the fact that at the end of the 19th-century and for a few decades into the 20th, every major mammal species, including “fur-bearing animals” and a lot of avians in Greater Yellowstone, were imperiled. Wolves were completely eradicated, elk in Jackson Hole had to have a federal refuge created for them because settlers in the valley had built development that prevented them from migrating to lower elevations; trumpeter swans, decimated by plume and market hunters, had Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge hastily created to protect the few survivors; and grizzlies continued to disappear, requiring emergency intervention by the federal government through the then-nascent Endangered Species Act in 1975. 

Over generations, Americans and locals invested a lot of time and energy into saving the current assemblage of species we have today and for Generation Zers in high school and college, it's possible they believe abundance has always been like this. Yet it is actually a product of earlier citizens (including young people) declaring that wildlife deserves to have space on a landscape—of saying the majesty of intact nature holds more value than any structures fabricated by humans or human-created things designed to be monetized.  Sadly, ask a high schooler what sets their wild backyard apart in the world and they probably don't know it's a global treasure.

A big part of the issue today is denial. Growth, some rationalize, is inevitable (and it is). That Bozeman has been continuously evolving since 1864 (and it has). And that Greater Bozeman's destiny is to necessarily surrender its being to those who fail to appreciate its ecology of place. But it doesn't have to be. No outside planning consultants based in Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, or Minneapolis can advise Bozeman on how to better co-exist with the American Serengeti because such firms have never safeguarded what we have here—the wild spirit that begins in Yellowstone and radiates through terra firma all around us.

What Bozeman needs to do is overcome the paradox; it needs to grow in a way no other micropolitan city ever has and it's going to require enlisting an unprecedented convergence of urban planners who grasp the big picture, yes, but also visionary landscape architects and designers, scientists, policy experts, wildlife-literate recreationists, farmers, ranchers, businesspeople, tourism promoters, and those who grasp the intrinsic priceless worth of nature. They would be creating a vision not based on another place but custom engineered for Greater Yellowstone that would become a reference point for other regions struggling to put the fractured mass of Humpty Dumpty—if Humpty Dumpty were nature—back together again.

While some have a profit motivation to deny the impacts of growth, others just aren't aware or naturally awoken and, in the case of elected officials or those working as professional civil servants, they are involved in a game of kick the can, as in defer important decisions pertaining to protecting nature down the road or claim there needs to be evidence to justify bold action.

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Not long ago, Dr. Andrew Hansen, professor in the Ecology Department and director of the Landscape Biodiversity Lab at Montana State University in Bozeman, shared findings of two different analyses conducted by him and colleagues that focused on biodiversity loss. Hansen is among an elite group of scientists working with NASA to evaluate global conservation hotspots. He presented the data on a Zoom session watched by nearly 200 people, surprisingly by a relatively small number of people who work for local conservation organizations.

One way to ponder landscape-level change, Hansen told Mountain Journal, is assessing how much of a given area has maintained its “natural vegetation cover” or NVC. Native forests are canopies for species diversity dwelling from the treetops on down; native grass and scrublands are platforms for supporting species from the ground up; and rivers and wetlands are the richest places of species convergence. 

A valley that gets covered in monoculture orange groves or almond farms or alfalfa fields or is carpeted by residential subdivisions and suffers a loss of native forests, grasslands and water will lose its ecological integrity. Of course, as the adage goes, cows in an alfalfa pasture are far better than condos—because open space is better for wildlife than the permanent labyrinth of the human footprint. However, alfalfa pastures are not benign. They are monocultures lacking native plant species diversity which means they also hold less wildlife species diversity and growing alfalfa often demands diverting water out of streams that can negatively affect aquatic species.  If the natural essence of a region is going to be maintained, researchers assert, then it is important to prioritize remaining areas that still have their natural vegetation cover and then calculate the risk of future loss. 

Ambitiously, Hansen and colleagues devised a scoring system that identified where natural vegetation cover still exists in the Pacific Northwest. Here is what’s really important to consider, he says: While three-quarters of Greater Yellowstone’s roughly 22.5 million acres is comprised of public lands, it is the one-fourth held as private property, most often in lower-elevation valleys, that is pivotal for wildlife. Valleys and the uplands girding them are where the rivers pass through, and serve as conduits for wildlife passing between public lands, and where vital winter range is found. 

One might think that hip “New West” lifestyle hubs, like Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Missoula, Big Sky and Sun Valley would stand out favorably as environmental beacons. They appeal, after all, to wealthy, upwardly mobile, well-educated people who appreciate the great outdoors, value public lands and probably believe they’re pretty savvy when it comes to understanding nature's intricacies.  Places like Bozeman and Jackson Hole also have a lot of professional conservation organizations. However, development patterns expanding across private land in Bozeman and Gallatin County—and meeting little resistance— demonstrate how little elected officials, planning department staffs, businesspeople and citizens in general grasp the value of habitat.  
Landscape ecologists say pictures can be deceiving. What may appear pastoral today can, with rapid infill of development, transform ag and undeveloped open lands into suburbs where wildlife disappears. Huge swaths of the Gallatin Valley and many valleys in Greater Yellowstone have already been subdivided. The only question is if and when homes might appear. Then it becomes extremely expensive to protect what remains, despite heroic efforts by groups like local land trusts.  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Landscape ecologists say pictures can be deceiving. What may appear pastoral today can, with rapid infill of development, transform ag and undeveloped open lands into suburbs where wildlife disappears. Huge swaths of the Gallatin Valley and many valleys in Greater Yellowstone have already been subdivided. The only question is if and when homes might appear. Then it becomes extremely expensive to protect what remains, despite heroic efforts by groups like local land trusts. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Hansen's team found that Bozeman and other New West towns dealing with explosive growth are seeing some of the biggest per capita declines of natural vegetation cover. The culprits are sprawl, deterioration of functioning wildlife habitat and intense levels of human use. Hansen said the results for Bozeman were surprising because one might assume it is place where informed citizens have both a motivation and capacity to safeguard habitat. An avid mountain biker himself, Hansen says that just because a person recreates on public land does not make that person a wildlife conservationist.

“The values derived from [natural vegetation cover] will likely continue to be eroded to the detriment of ecological integrity and the human communities that are thriving partially due to the high quality of remaining natural habitats and the associated natural amenities,” the authors wrote in one paper still in review. “[Understanding natural vegetation cover] enables decisionmakers and citizens to have knowledge of which wildlands are most at risk and the types of human communities that have the greatest potential to either destroy or sustain wildlands.”

Within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, undeveloped lands declined in various forms of ecological function 33 percent between 1970 and 2010 and represented 31 percent of the ecosystem in 2016, they note. 

In the first decade of this new millennium, in contrast, developed areas increased by an average of 8 percent and cropland—most of it monoculture— increased by 5 percent. Moreover, rates of wildlands lost to development during this time were particularly high in the Upper Columbia Basin (25 percent), metro area of Kootenai Spokane (19 percent), Greater Yellowstone (17 percent ), Washington Cascades (16 percent), and Colorado Mountains (13 percent).  None of those other areas, however, have the full assemblage of large mammals Greater Yellowstone does.

Hansen says the trend of loss has only accelerated in pace in Greater Yellowstone in recent years. Covid-19 is spurring a new wave of refugees, many of whom are seeking to own ranchettes in rural areas away from cities. And in this Hansen finds irony. “Given that many people and businesses have relocated to the region because they value natural scenery, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and wilderness, a critically important question is how these natural values can be maintained in the face of the rapidly increasing human pressures,” he and colleagues write. 

Out of the box thinking requires having elected officials who are willing to risk saying what the status quo—those without a high level of ecological literacy—may not wish to hear. Hansen believes there is still time to act. "Places like Bozeman have incredible pressure to build out," he said. "We have the opportunity to harness the high level of motivation and education and resources that many residents have to try to conserve these habitats despite incredible growth."

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Before recent Bozeman Mayor Chris Mehl left office, he and I met outside in a Bozeman park and discussed some of the troubling trendlines. He cited issues typically associated with urban areas, i.e. people issues. Since the city puts so much emphasis in rhetorically mentioning "sustainability" and "environment" throughout its planning documents, I asked about where wildlife fits in. We didn’t even delve into the coming impacts of climate change that will challenge water availability and the ability of rural private property and public lands to keep delivering high quality wildlife habitat.

Prior to becoming mayor, Mehl worked as a policy/communications expert at Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics which delivered a report this year chronicling what is undeniably evident: we are losing wildlife habitat, open space and ag lands at a fast clip in southwest Montana. Take a look at the map below; better yet, click here and watch the animated graphic Headwaters created which shows the tendrils of private land development advancing steadily toward the heart of Greater Yellowstone's public lands.

Some of Headwaters' findings:  A quarter of all 344,365  homes on the landscape in Montana in 2018 were built since 2000—in just 18 years. The number of single-family homes grew by 50 percent from 1990 to 2018. More than 60 percent of homes constructed in Montana were built outside of incorporated areas, and nearly half of homes were constructed on large lots of more than 10 acres.

Soberingly, Headwaters’ findings don’t even include added population pressure being brought by Covid refugees and those leaving areas like California dealing with chronic annual fire danger. This is the question I posed to Mr. Mehl and it is one that could be directed to every member of the Bozeman City and Gallatin County commissions and their overwhelmed planning staffs: how do you protect something important and of high value to local citizens if you fail to acknowledge it exists?
One would think that "New West" capitals like Bozeman, which pride themselves on having well-educated, well-heeled and nature-loving citizens would be beacons for private land protection. In fact, a study shows, Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley have registered one of the highest per capita losses of natural ground cover which is bad news for protecting wild landscapes and the animals inhabiting them.
In only vague generalities, the new Bozeman growth management strategy barely mentions wildlife. City leaders publicly have boasted it is a momentous demonstration of progress in thinking and granted it is an urban growth plan. However, it is being coordinated with representatives from the city of Belgrade and Gallatin County. The architects have touted how a major focus is being made to concentrate growth in the so-called “triangle” bounded with perimeter lines running between Bozeman and Four Corners, from Four Corners to Belgrade and then from Belgrade to Bozeman.

Bozeman/Gallatin County presently have 115,000 people. At current population growth rates (now between three and five percent) that number will double by the time a baby born here today graduates from high school and double again by the time that child reaches her/his early 40s. Do the math. But it's not merely a matter of numbers of people but footprint of human presence and where it’s located. If most of the population rise was housed in rows of 30-story buildings, the amount of land supporting growth wouldn't be a major issue in a dell once called "the valley of flowers."

Savvy people trained in urban planning agree that it’s smart to try and concentrate as many residents as possible inside “the triangle.” And along with it Bozeman leaders claim they can make an appreciable difference in slowing leapfrog sprawl by concentrating lots more people in the core of downtown Bozeman. But that fails to account for the fact that worker bees must then commute to the center of town because downtown is fast becoming a place where few but the wealthy can still afford to live.

In defense of the city, any growth strategy that considers and avows to protect nature will not succeed without sincere cooperation from Gallatin County and attention paid to slowing development in rural areas well beyond the triangle and saving as much agricultural or open land as possible. The legacy of current and previous county commissions rejecting serious planning is written across the Gallatin Valley and now, with the average age of many farmers and ranchers being in their 60s or higher—and many of their offspring unlikely to carry on the family business, the next decade will determine if we are capable of charting a different course with growth.

The city plan gives plenty of deference to how people should be able to move across the landscape seamlessly on foot or by bike but makes only vague references to how the same accommodation will be made for wildlife. And certainly, at some point, the ability of lands surrounding Bozeman to support wildlife passage may become moot. Nowhere is the habitat lost to development being meaningfully offset or replaced.

In fact, the plan recently adopted by the city, on pages 69 to 70, readily acknowledges that iconic wildlife are destined to vanish. “The habitat needs of larger and/or predatory wildlife species such as deer, moose, bears, coyotes, or similar species will not be met within urban density development and will likely be in conflict with people. Therefore, these types of animals are found to be undesirable within the City boundaries,” the plan states. “Smaller species, especially birds, are compatible within urban density development and should be preserved, including the encouragement of suitable habitats.”

Earlier studies by Hansen and colleagues have shown how landscape fragmentation accelerates the loss of sensitive and diverse native bird species and favors colonization of more aggressive generalist birds. Think magpies and grackles. The plan adds that “high value wetlands, stream corridors, and similar high value habitats should be preserved in accordance with the City’s adopted standards. These provide a variety of recreational, environmental sustainability, and safety values such as flood control as well as habitat.” 

One might ask: habitatbut for what? Many acres of wetlands already have been lost, without enforcement taken by the US Army Corps of Engineers and city, and many stream corridors are flanked by development. Moreover, wetland areas converted to public parks have nearly all lost their ground nesting birds due to harassment by pet dogs off leash. The proliferation of dogs on trails and its impacts on wildlife is an issue left for another time.

So, if the growing acreage of developed lands residing inside the expanding city limits are being treated essentially as a sacrifice zone for wildlife, it makes protection of lands in the county all the more important. At present, on any given day, there might be grizzly bears, wolves, elk, mule deer, moose, and bobcats on the periphery of Bozeman only a few miles from downtown —a remarkable feat for one of the fastest growing small cities in the land.  But will it still be true in a decade? How can it given the deluge of people?  One potential model for how a town can co-exist with megafauna is Canmore, Alberta, gateway to Banff National Park where regulations implemented to reduce conflicts with wildlife have been implemented. 

In Hansen's presentation, crucial habitats based upon native vegetation cover most at risk were located in the fringes between public and private land at the bases of mountain ranges. Hansen says scattershot development that leaves only islands of protected areas is part of the problem. His findings are echoed in Bozeman science writer David Quammen’s acclaimed book The Song of the Dodo about “island biogeography." One theme is how species globally disappear at higher rates when they are forced to inhabit small islands of habitat disconnected from one another. Further, most protected areas comprising public land—even Yellowstone— are insufficient to support migratory wildlife by themselves.

There is both good and bad news. The bad news is that, according to a Headwaters Economic analysis, Montana's four most populated counties—Gallatin, Flathead (Kalispell), Yellowstone  (Billings), and Missoula (Missoula)—account for more than half of Montana home construction since 2000 and it is rising. The good news is that the share of homes built on large lot areas declined by roughly 25 percent. More people taking up less space is best for wildlife. But whether the Covid trend—wealthy newcomers desiring more space between their neighbors—will reverse that inclination is uncertain.
Photo at top: Full-field energy development permitted by the federal Bureau of Land Management in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field just off the west side of the Wind River Range in the Upper Green River Basin. Oil and gas drilling has shows to have huge impacts on migratory pronghorn and mule deer as well as imperiled  Greater sage-grouse.  The image beneath it is an aerial overview of Superior, Colorado, a bedroom community of Boulder, Colorado that grew from 255 people in 1990 to more than 11,000. This community has created almost no jobs and no sales tax base, putting a huge strain on local government, i.e. taxpayers. Both energy development and housing sprawl destroy wildlife habitat. What's the difference? Oil and gas wells eventually go away. Subdivisions are forever.  Photos courtesy Ecoflight (ecoflight.org)
Photo at top: Full-field energy development permitted by the federal Bureau of Land Management in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field just off the west side of the Wind River Range in the Upper Green River Basin. Oil and gas drilling has shows to have huge impacts on migratory pronghorn and mule deer as well as imperiled Greater sage-grouse. The image beneath it is an aerial overview of Superior, Colorado, a bedroom community of Boulder, Colorado that grew from 255 people in 1990 to more than 11,000. This community has created almost no jobs and no sales tax base, putting a huge strain on local government, i.e. taxpayers. Both energy development and housing sprawl destroy wildlife habitat. What's the difference? Oil and gas wells eventually go away. Subdivisions are forever. Photos courtesy Ecoflight (ecoflight.org)
What a fast-growing part of  “the American Serengeti” needs, scientists say, are county commissioners and planning staff that are up to the task of crafting a bio-regional strategy that has never before been implemented in support of saving ecological integrity with wildlife persistence as a measure of success.  Examples of the failure of Gallatin County's earlier laissez-faire, private property rights first at any-cost ideology abound. Cruise the blighted corridor of the county along US Interstate-90 leading to and from Belgrade, or Four Corners and its creep of sprawl to Gallatin Gateway; and count the number of gravel pits and pockets of remote rural development putting an ever-growing financial strain on county government to service, with costs that will only rise.

No county in the history of America has ever successfully preserved an aggregation of wildlife as it exists here by adhering to free-market, anti-regulation thinking. To return to the question posed to Mr. Mehl: how can government protect what it fails to not only acknowledge but prioritize, his answer was that it can’t. 

It would be one thing if the boom in Bozeman as well as Big Sky were contained. The impacts of growth in Bozeman/Gallatin County are rapidly spilling over into Park, Madison, Jefferson and Broadwater counties—the latter, in fact, may be the emblem for how not to approach rural development. As the need for affordable housing (habitat for all humans), justice-equity-diversity-inclusion, concerns about rising taxes and things like growing traffic congestion dominate the civic conversation, wildlife has received short shrift. So has attention to migration pathways and protection of riparian corridors.

"Wild" values  set Greater Yellowstone apart from every other region, save for Alaska. How can Bozeman and Gallatin County, arguably the high-profile capital of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, hold themselves up as beacons of forethought, I asked Mr. Mehl, if neither of them have a single permanent staff ecologist well versed in how growth is impacting wildlife at the landscape level?

Those in the Bozeman and Gallatin County planning offices can tell us where they want to build new roundabouts or where the city will annex parts of the county next. But they can’t tell us what’s already been lost from a wildlife and ecological perspective, or what is likely to be lost because of development plans already approved, and neither do they and elected officials have any sense of what, how or why the new city planning document is likely so save or sacrifice habitat directly or indirectly. That’s a problem, experts I spoke to say.
Those in the Bozeman and Gallatin County planning offices can tell us where they want to build new roundabouts or where the city will annex parts of the county next. But they can’t tell us what’s already been lost from a wildlife and ecological perspective, or what is likely to be lost because of development plans already approved. That's a problem. 
Former Mayor Mehl admitted that a prosperous city and county where people want to be and where taxes are rapidly rising, ought to be able to afford hiring a top-flight ecologist (and more than one) who could advise staff and commissions, in frank terms without fear of punishment, about how nature is being impacted by growth.  He vowed that, after the election, he would visit with colleagues and make overtures about having Gallatin County potentially share in the cost of a position.

Now the election is over, the city has approved its growth plan, Mr. Mehl has left the commission and, again, city and county officials are, at best, pursuing inadequate, piecemeal approacesh when it comes to pondering “the nature of” Bozeman and Gallatin. The city’s planning document is not intended to provide specifics though it is in the specifics that matter. However, in talking with some of the people who worked on the planning document in its draft forms, there was fierce resistance to discussing details. 

Meanwhile, elk herds that once used to gather on winter range south of Bozeman are being disrupted, displaced and eventually will disappear due to the impacts of human development.  Federal Highway 191 between Four Corners and the mouth of Gallatin Canyon has become a route of carnage where dozens of elk have been killed in crashes in recent years. Interstate 90 over Bozeman Pass represents a formidable barrier to animal movement. 
A Greater Yellowstone mule deer buck in velvet. Mulies are one barometer for gauging wildlife's tolerance for landscape fragmentation. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
A Greater Yellowstone mule deer buck in velvet. Mulies are one barometer for gauging wildlife's tolerance for landscape fragmentation. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Dave Pac saw what was coming 30 years ago. Elk and mule deer should be viewed as barometers, a way of thinking about how other species are and will be negatively affected by growth. On top of it, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest has demonstrated what critics call a narrow-minded silo approach to thinking about growth that is certain to result in impaired ecological function on the public lands under its stewardship—namely the Gallatin and Bridger mountain ranges.

While civil servants and elected leaders will claim they are paying more attention, the reality, if one heeds the declines documented by Hansen and others, is that what they’re doing is clearly not enough. The Forest Service has demonstrated little acknowledgement that the twin force to private land development—swelling outdoor recreation—is a problem; even as user numbers arise and conflicts between users become common, as more “user-created” trails proliferate, as illegal trespass in some areas happens and as the agency admits it doesn’t have adequate staff to deal with law enforcement and impacts. 

Even more telling, Mountain Journal has found, is that the Forest Service, like the city of Bozeman and Gallatin County, doesn’t have a handle on what negative impacts have already occurred from recreation, what will happen if the current Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan is implemented as recommended, and as the impacts of of explosive population growth and climate change take hold. Growth is impacting public lands in insidious ways.

The most ecologically damaging and economically costly form of sprawl is happening on rural lands in places that press right up to the Forest Service boundary, Hansen and other prominent wildlife experts say.  Many of those neighborhoods are at high risk of burning in a wildfire and millions upon millions of dollars will have to be spent defending the structures, often at huge cost to the Forest Service and at the expensive of its other programs.  Ray Rasker, founder of Headwaters Economics which has examined the phenomenon nationally, says that if counties aren't discouraging people from building homes in wildfire-prone areas, it is akin to encouraging people to build in a river flood plain with taxpayers footing part of the bill for federal flood insurance. Already, insurance companies are becoming more reticent about issuing policies to homeowners building in wildfire-prone terrain.
When the map documenting elk migrations in Greater Yellowstone was produced a few years ago by the Wyoming Migration Initiative, it made people realize the importance of landscapes unfragmented by development, across public and private lands, more than ever before. In the case of elk they move into Yellowstone National Park in spring and summer and then out to winter range, like lungs breathing in and exhaling. Similar maps could exist for lots of species, illustrating why Greater Yellowstone is compared to the Serengeti.  But until the science is incorporated into planning efforts by cities and counties in Greater Yellowstone, the gauntlets of wildlife corridors will become only more perilous for the animals using them. Eventually, they can stop functioning.
When the map documenting elk migrations in Greater Yellowstone was produced a few years ago by the Wyoming Migration Initiative, it made people realize the importance of landscapes unfragmented by development, across public and private lands, more than ever before. In the case of elk they move into Yellowstone National Park in spring and summer and then out to winter range, like lungs breathing in and exhaling. Similar maps could exist for lots of species, illustrating why Greater Yellowstone is compared to the Serengeti. But until the science is incorporated into planning efforts by cities and counties in Greater Yellowstone, the gauntlets of wildlife corridors will become only more perilous for the animals using them. Eventually, they can stop functioning.
Many counties in Greater Yellowstone [i.e. taxpayers] are struggling to pay for the cost of services in rural development such as law enforcement and fire protection, roads, schools and eventual public water and sewer. It means that those who live in town are often being asked to subsidize those who choose to live in remote areas. 

Rural development that occurs in what’s called “the wildland-urban interface” also degrades the ecological function of those places for wildlife. Over time, amid—again— buildings, dogs that chase wildlife, noises, human activity, structures built on forage areas, fences, roads, and yard lights, wildlife abandon their former homes, leaving behind only the rare half-tame/half-wild moose or elk. The answer is not to teach aspiring homeowners how to build better fire-proof structures right at the national forest edge in critical wildlife habitat; it is to dissuade development from occurring there, scientists say.

In recent months a few conservation organizations have laudably submitted comments on the city planning document; however there is not a single conservation organization that day in and day out provides the tenacious scrutiny necessary to steer the city and county toward conscientious planning that makes wildlife a priority. 

Groups like the Gallatin Valley Land Trust have done an extraordinary job of protecting ag lands when they become available and building recreation trails inside the urban boundary. The organization has conserved over 48,000 acres of productive river bottoms, prime agricultural lands, and critical wildlife corridors throughout the Gallatin, Shields, and Paradise valleys. But land trusts can't do it alone and their good work and limited budgets aren't able to slow growth. Nor is the land trust  designed to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire or pressure government to adopt comprehensive strategies. (See sidebar below on options for dealing with growth and protecting wildlife habitat).

A few groups are doing the tough work that is not the purview of land trusts—entities like Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Park County Environmental Council based in Livingston, Montana, FutureWest based in Bozeman, and Valley Advocates for Responsible Planning in Teton Valley, Idaho. 

Most major conservation groups are largely missing in action when it comes to private land growth issues that have huge implications for wildlife. The same organizations have been timid in demanding the Forest Service understand the cumulative effects of outdoor recreation before it allows activities to occur or expand. 

Much of their emphasis, ironically, has been on pressing for more human access to public lands, increasing numbers of users and pressing for more people to disperse more widely across “underutilized” areas of public lands without reflecting much on the fact that, for the wildlife that live there, more people does not improve wildlife conservation nor do animals probably believe their home terrain is being underutilized.  In many proposals that advocate for expanded human access, “wildlife” is often barely mentioned and the impacts of what more human access means not fully understood.

As has been noted by a number of people, more elk are leaving the national forest in spring, summer and fall and going on to undeveloped private land because human recreation pressure on public lands is displacing them. What’s poignant is there’s actually a lot of scientific evidence related to what happens to wildlife in the absence of growth strategies that prioritize the protection of high quality habitat, also known as refugia. Regarding what occurs with rising levels of human activity, the scientific data is irrefutable.

Let's stop kidding ourselves and justifying our consumption by invoking the metaphor that "we're loving this place to death."  I love Bozeman, Montana, but no one knowingly kills the things they love. What we're doing is using this place up. No other ecosystem in the Lower 48 has the high wildlife values Greater Yellowstone does. It would be one thing if city, county and land management agencies could claim they didn’t know better, but they do. 

In one of my last conversations with former Bozeman Mayor Chris Mehl, we pondered this possibility: What if Bozeman/Gallatin County, Montana becomes a city with the best, most thrilling recreation trails in the world, resolves the affordable housing conundrum (which isn't likely), shines as a beacon for justice-equity-diversity-inclusion, has a great public transportation system and is home to the best eateries and coffee houses in the West—yet we lose the wild character of the land all around. Would that be a victory?

As scientists say, we're losing the nature of this place. The opportunity where hope resides is that we don’t have to; the tragedy is that we probably will because as of right now there is no evidence that we as communities possess the gumption to map out a different strategy from the one so many elected officials and professional bureaucrats treat as inevitable. When you have that attitude, you insure that the destruction of nature—in this case, our corner of the American Serengeti— becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Final Note: People often ask about potential tangible solutions. Here are six based on conversations Mountain Journal has hand with scientists and planners. See below.

1. Elevate Ecological Literacy Among Citizens And Visitors

Citizens need to become more ecologically aware and literate about the habitat needs of wildlife. That includes understanding what is at risk and the cause and effect of impacts. They need to elect people to public office who make protection of nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a priority.

2. Government Land Management Agencies Need To Get Out Of Their Silos

The National Park Service, US Forest Service, BLM and other members of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee [GYCC] need to stop claiming their authority and influence halts where their boundaries end.  That’s patently false and it is counter to the ideals of transboundary ecosystem thinking they claim to champion. While the GYCC might claim it is engaging in dialogue on a number of issues, it isn’t happening fast enough to keep up with the pace of change nor is there a bold vision. Vice versa, those agencies and state wildlife agencies need to be more vocal and present in informing cities and counties of how private land development impairs the ecological function of public land.

3. Cities And Counties Need Better Data And Trained Ecologists

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem needs a coordinated strategy that brings together the public and private sector around useable maps, identifying the most urgent conservation priorities and crafts strategies that bring economics and the business sector into the discussion as advocates helping to devise creative solutions. Cities and counties need ecologists on staff who are given as much respect as other professionals. Along with that, high growth communities ought to convene a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to identify and devise a strategy for saving the best that's left. Universities and independent scientists can be key resources.

4. More Money Needs To Be Generated To Reward Private Landowners For Wildlife Conservation

To fund landscape protection, a revenue generating mechanism must be created that can incentivize and reward private property owners who put their land under conservation easement and do things that deliver permanent protection for wildlife using those lands and moving across them. The most obvious source is a modest tax primarily aimed at millions of visitors coming to the region. It could take the form a small surcharge imposed on the cost of airline tickets, rental cars, motel rooms, outfitters and guides, guest ranch stays and an excise tax on outdoor gear. In Montana this would require the state legislature granting citizens in cities like Bozeman the ability to go to the polls and approve a tourist tax. People who travel to Greater Yellowstone, economists say, can afford to pay a little bit more (pennies on every dollar they spend). A tax assessed on outdoor gear would amount to a consumption tax, (i.e. the more stuff you can afford to buy, the more you can afford to pay—again a penny or two on a dollar of every purchase).  In addition, billions of dollars in real estate value has been sold in Greater Yellowstone since the onset of covid alone. A modest real-estate transfer tax would also generate funds for conservation.

5. Conservation Groups Need To Be Bolder, Pushing Counties And Cities As Well As Federal Land Managers

Ponder this: there are presently hundreds of people employed by dozens of professional conservation groups in Greater Yellowstone with a cumulative annual budget of tens of millions of dollars annually, if not more. Greater Yellowstone, particularly Greater Bozeman, needs a private-land focused conservation watchdog devoted to pushing city and county governments to do better and to relentlessly make the best science available to decisionmakers. The new group needs to have the courage to speak three words—the P-word, the Z-word and the R-word—that many conservation groups have dared not push county governments to utter: Planning. Zoning. Regulation. In no way can the true nature of Greater Yellowstone survive without them. When the right economic incentives are put in place, it's amazing how fast positive change can happen.

6. Growth That Doesn't Pay Its Way Amounts To A Taxpayer Subsidy For Developers

The interests of conservation and fiscal conservatism converge over the question of who pays for what. The data is clear. Development that occurs inside urban growth boundaries—especially clustered commercial— generates more tax revenue and is less expensive to service than growth happening in rural areas. Those in real estate and development claim that higher impact fees assessed on large enterprises would hamstring the economy and push more bad development into the country. Others say they would take the subsidized cost of doing businesses, particularly by land developers building subdivisions, off the backs of taxpayers. That's another reason why proponents say that Bozeman/Gallatin County need to devise a joint growth strategy. Impact fees only deal with most immediate impact of development, however, such as the need to improve the arterial flow of traffic. But infrastructure has to be maintained and replaced over time and impact fees paid at the beginning of projects don’t come close to footing the bill absorbed by local governments to service them. That's why growth begets more growth as new projects are approved in part to generate more revenue in the short term to pay for rising infrastructure costs to service development approved in the past. If growth is really "paying for itself," then why do local taxes continue to go up?
 

Why do migratory animals need plenty of open space to move? View the fascinating short video below prepared by the Wyoming Migration Initiative showing why protecting public and private lands is important.


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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