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Back to Stories November 24, 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. Back in the s, 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 s. He gave a public lecture and noted that a radio-collared mule deer had migrated from Yellowstone National Park more than 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 , 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. He saw six this time. Kuntz went on. 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. 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 Bozeman's planning staff is overwhelmed.
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. 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. The window for taking action, if you listen to scientists—and we at Mountain Journal do—is small and narrowing.
Of course, maybe what's been described is of no concern to you. Back in , 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 , permanent denizens to , That translated on the ground, he said, to another , homes. The population of the entire state of Wyoming is ,; Montana a little over 1 million; and Idaho 1.
Of those , homes, he noted that many would be built outside of established towns; each one of those bearing a footprint, replete with ro 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. 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 , Salt Lake City proper the city only has a present population of , 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 of residents in all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 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 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 deed 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 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 deers, 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. 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 people, surprisingly by a relatively small of people who work for local conservation organizations. 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. 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.
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. 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 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. Within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, undeveloped lands declined in various forms of ecological function 33 percent between and and represented 31 percent of the ecosystem in , 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 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. 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. 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. Since the city puts so much emphasis in rhetorically mentioning "sustainability" and "environment" throughout its planning documents, I asked about where wildlife fits in. Take a look at the map below; better yet, 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.
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. Do the math. If most of the population rise was housed in rows of story buildings, the amount of land supporting growth wouldn't be a major issue in a dell once called "the valley of flowers.
But that fails to 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 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 s 69 to 70, readily acknowledges that iconic wildlife are destined to vanish. 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. These provide a variety of recreational, environmental sustainability, and safety values such as flood control as well as habitat. One might ask: habitat , but 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.Bozeman and nature
email: [email protected] - phone:(248) 189-5356 x 3555
Bozeman Montana Nature & Outdoors, Wilderness Areas