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The New West: Is Bozeman losing the nature of its place?

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Two cyclists enjoy the open landscape east of Bozeman. PHOTO BY PASCAL BEAUVAIS

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

We’re losing this place.

This capital city of Greater Yellowstone, along with Gallatin County, are becoming

poster children for how not to develop a corner of America’s Serengeti.

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 detect. And yet, we are behaving as if urgency and unprecedented vision aren’t required to address what’s right before our eyes.

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

Yes, we are living astride of, and woven into, a marvel: the American version of the African Serengeti and we’re letting it slip away.

If you haven’t heard, let’s repeat again something you’ve read before: Bozeman and Gallatin County are among the fastest-growing micropolitan places—meaning “small urban areas”—in all of America. 

Were we 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 blighted and droning Fort Collins to Denver to Pueblo corridor), what’s happening here wouldn’t matter. The assets in play here were eroded there years ago and they are never coming back.

Bozeman and Gallatin County represent the crown and a natural crossroads for the last best wildlife-rich ecosystem remaining in the Lower 48. 

The window for taking action, if you listen to scientists, is small and narrowing. 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 or federal land management agency has demonstrated that it has the capability or will to do.

Before recent Bozeman Mayor Chris Mehl left office, he and I met outside in a Bozeman park and discussed some of the troubling trendlines.  

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. 

Here is the question I posed to Mr. Mehl and it is one we ought to be directing to every member of the Bozeman City and Gallatin County commissions and their overwhelmed planning staffs: How do you protect something important and of value if you fail to acknowledge it exists?

Bozeman/Gallatin County presently have 110,000 people. At current growth rates—now between 3 and 5 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. It’s not merely a matter of human population, but rather the footprint of human presence and where it’s located.

In defense of the city, any growth strategy that considers and avows to protect nature will not succeed without sincere cooperation from Gallatin County.  

What are some of the casualties that currently factor little into the thinking about impacts of growth?

Wildlife. Migration pathways. Protection of riparian corridors: those ribbons of habitat located along rivers that are the richest reservoirs of biological diversity. These are things that set Greater Yellowstone apart from every other region, save for Alaska. 

Those in the Bozeman and Gallatin County planning offices can’t tell us what’s already been lost from a wildlife ecological perspective, 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 planning document is likely so save or sacrifice habitat. 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 who could advise staff and the commission. 

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. 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 other programs.  

Rural development that occurs in what’s called the “wildland-urban interface” also degrades the ecological function of those places for wildlife. 

It would be one thing if city, county and land management agencies could claim they didn’t know better, but they do.  

We’re going to lose 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 our elected officials and the professional bureaucrats with the Forest Service are interesting in mapping out a different strategy from the one they claim is inevitable. And when you have that attitude, you ensure destruction of nature becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.

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