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Is Gallatin County sacrificing its elk to rural sprawl?

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Remote pockets of elk and habitat in the eastern Gallatin Valley are becoming rarer and rarer. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPLE

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Holly Pippel has seen amazing things. Across her home dale when most people seem too busy to pay attention, she’s observed lines of elk trailing over ridgelines at sunrise and under the full moon with their regalness pronounced as they pause in silhouette. She’s been out there at calving time, witnessing wapiti mothers coming together and giving birth to their calves in spring, then forming nursery bands. She’s stood freezing in darkness, listening to elk bulls bugle and spar during the autumn rut.

Pippel has put in countless hours moving throughout the Gallatin Valley which enwraps Bozeman, Montana, and is experiencing one of the fastest per capita human population growth rates in the rural West. What Pippel has chronicled is enough to make the heart swoon and should simultaneously be interpreted as a clarion call of alarm. 

Were she not a nature photographer, real estate associate and manager of a small business here in the valley, her perspective could easily be dismissed by those who deny that what’s happening in the southern Gallatin Valley is steadily progressing toward a point where habitat for migratory elk is permanently lost, as sprawl replaces old farms and ranches. She and a growing number of residents don’t want that to happen. 

More humans building dream homes and ranchettes can become a nightmare for stressed out wildlife. In Gallatin Gateway, this herd huddles with a jungle gym in the foreground. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPLE

Pippel’s photographs are reminders of what’s at risk. Prior to coming West, she got a degree from Florida State University in criminal justice and then lived in Thomasville, Georgia where she operated an equine riding and training business. 

Today, Pippel makes her home on the outskirts of Gallatin Gateway and whenever possible works with farmers and ranchers interested in trying to protect their land in perpetuity. Not long ago, I became aware of both her extraordinary photographs and her own backstory. Our conversation begins below.

TODD WILKINSON: You are one of Greater Yellowstone’s very talented yet lesser-known nature photographers. I must say that your images of elk in the Gallatin Valley are both stunning and eye-opening. When did you first start taking photographs of wapiti?

HOLLY PIPPEL: When I first moved to the Gallatin Valley in 1995, elk and other wildlife soon became a passion of mine. Spending time in the mountains and valley horseback or on foot with my camera became my quiet place to soak up the sounds, smells and behavior of the wildlife here. At the end of August every year I could hear the elk bugle from my cabin where I lived on the Flying D. It was like an alarm clock that drew me to the hills to carefully sit undetected and watch the elk interact. 

TWWhat’s also intriguing is that you didn’t have to go to Yellowstone or Grand Teton to build your portfolio of great elk landscape shots. Could you perhaps comment on what it says about the Gallatin Valley and other valleys in Greater Yellowstone that still have a strong semblance of their rural character, which also translates into open space and higher quality habitat.

HP: People comment all the time on my elk photos and think I must be in Yellowstone! Not so. In several areas around the Gallatin Valley there are herds of elk. This is a big part of what makes our valley special and keeps the feel of Montana and not “just another valley” as in other more heavily populated states. The rural landscape is what brought us and keeps most of us here. My hope is that this specialness will not be lost to sprawl.

TWHaving lived in the Gallatin Valley for a quarter-century gives you perspective and your photos, besides being exquisite glimpses at elk presence and seasonal migration, are going to be important as historic visual touchstones—hopefully not eulogies. What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed in terms of development and elk behavior over time?

HP: Over time there have been big changes in the valley, as to be expected. The depressing thing is that many of these changes came without thoughtfulness for the wildlife and skyline viewsheds where many are building. It’s a delicate balance between landowner rights, profitable farming, hunting, wildlife management and growth. All of these areas need to be given the respect they deserve. The “Gateway Elk,” as I call them, have had trials and tribulations, as well as “the salad days” when the herds had more space. The introduction of wolves back onto the landscape and valley growth have changed their migration patterns and tolerance for being in closer proximity to our homes and human activity. Add COVID-19 into this equation and that brought the masses to the outdoors and closer to the hidey holes on public lands where wildlife get recharged for another day.

TWYou are based in Gallatin Gateway where, out your western window, you can enjoy the benefits of Turner putting a conservation easement on the 113,000-acre Flying D, meaning it will never be developed to any major extent. Meanwhile, you’ve observed the tidal wave of sprawl and leapfrog development emanating from Bozeman and Belgrade. At the same time, traffic loads on Highway 191 have swelled, often dominated by construction worker commuters heading south to work at Big Sky. What are conservation-minded people in Gateway talking about these days?

HP: One of the looming hurdles and stresses they currently face on a daily basis is traffic and growth with no zoning or thoughtfulness for our wildlife. This and growth are the main topics most of us who have lived years or lifetimes in the valley speak about. I live off of Highway 191 and it sometimes takes me 10 minutes to pull out and often it is a Hail Mary move. A little gap between cars would be much appreciated by all of us who live off of 191. 

TWAnd how is the traffic manifesting itself with regard to wildlife?

HP: The lack of care our valley drivers show for the elk, turkeys, deer or whatever species, as those animals try to cross roads to water, grazing, calving grounds and sheltered nap areas is mind boggling to me. A lot of people say, “It’s the new people moving here!” Honestly, it’s mostly the locals and workers going to and fro to Big Sky using Cottonwood and Gooch Hill roads. They hurry the elk along as they [the elk] try to cross. I have seen elk fall to the pavement being pressured by drivers as they try to cross the road or lay all day in an open field after they have given up trying to migrate to quieter places. Of course, the elk are on the move at the same time of day when traffic is heaviest on these roads which makes it even more of challenge for them. If the people wanting to drive fast to go to work in Big Sky, a more suitable route is Huffine to 191.

TWShort of the last remaining rural lands being protected or wildlife underpasses or overpasses being built across Highway 191, what else would you suggest?

HP: I encourage people to slow down and remember why you moved here and support the wildness of the valley. Plus slowing down to watch the elk for a moment is good way to start or end your busy day. Here, I’d like to extend a big thank you to the private landowners who try and keep these elk habitat areas whole and protect the historic corridors for our valley wildlife all while making a living off of the land. The conservation efforts of Ted Turner and his family have had such a positive impact for the Gallatin Valley and beyond. My personal time on the Flying D was nothing short of educational and inspirational.

TWIn the last few years, it seems that one of the fastest-growing professions have been real estate brokers. They’re on the very front lines of the transformation that’s occurring with the natural environment. And yet they can help to educate people who come here and may not be aware how Greater Yellowstone is different from other regions they came from. What positive role can realtors play?

HP: Realtors do play a role in educating people as they come explore the possibilities of moving to the Gallatin Valley. I always hope that I can convey what it means to be a good neighbor not only to our human neighbors, but to our wildlife residents as well. This includes also being knowledgeable about weeds and weed control. They should understand how water crosses property and why hunting is a tradition, and know about trail systems, farming practices and what to expect when you live next to a farm or ranch. I find that most people I encounter are interested in becoming an asset to the community and not a hinderance in the new place they call home, but education is key.

TW: As alluded to, you once lived on the Flying D as an employee and so you understand the importance of the ranch as a sort of refuge for public wildlife away from the intensifying human footprint. The only way to preserve the movements and long-term vitality of elk in the valley is through an accelerated strategy that involves conservation easements, planning and zoning, biologists say. Based on what you’ve witnessed, how quickly is the window of opportunity closing?

HP: The window closes a little more each day in the valley and at the South end before the Gallatin Canyon there is little left as a safe passage to the Flying D. I believe that a couple of the herds on this end of town rely soley on the east side of 191 for food, water and shelter. So, they really depend on what happens with development on the east side. Some private landowners are wanting to secure the possibility of development down the road on portions of their land for their children and grandchildren. A safety net of sorts. Therefore, they go forward to get things platted before zoning laws may change. Others have taken a different approach. A few farmers in the south end of the valley have placed crucial areas for the preservation of farming and wildlife habitat in conservation easements, if they could afford to do so. I am very fortunate to have landowner permission to hike and sit and take photos on a few of these properties.

TWWhat about the newcomers who may not understand the correlation between undeveloped land and wildlife?

HP: Many of the new landowners enjoy the elk and other wildlife that partake in foraging on their land. However, we need to be conscious that it involves safeguarding our farmers’ livelihood when they lease land from you and rely on harvest yields. So, should the lessee pay the difference to the farmer? I’m not sure what the answer is. But farmers and ranchers are key to the conservation effort in keeping corridors open and healthy managed populations and putting food on our tables and hay in our barns. Bottom line is there are a lot of people moving to this valley and if we don’t preserve the charm and wildness we will lose the very thing that drew us all here.

TWOnly decades ago, thousands of elk would pass through the southern Gallatin Valley and some of them headed westward to the Flying D and then, in recent years, northward in winter. If we lose these herds what does it say about us and our values?

HP: For me personally if we lose these herds, it strips away the natural element of the valley that I have cherished and makes me question the very souls of some of us. Knowing that on any given morning I can jump in the truck in my glorified pajamas with my coffee and have spectacular sunrises, sometimes that includes the Gateway Elk, other wildlife cannot be replaced. Going to Yellowstone is wonderful, but these herds are crucial to the character of the Gallatin Range we claim to respect. As I said before, I hope we don’t turn into “just another developed valley.” At some point I’m hoping the powers that be and citizens choose to come together and preserve what remains. 

Wildlife deaths on our highways is way up. Wouldn’t it be great to get some esthetically pleasing wildlife corridors built across our busiest highways? They seem to have great success in other states. Not only that but wildlife and our wild places generate millions of dollars in revenue for our state each year. It’s big business and another reason to cultivate and protect it.

TWYour art and photographs are more than pretty pictures. They speak to the sense of the wildness people living here cherish. When the imagery is on their walls, what message do you hope it conveys?

HP: When people see my images, I hope it provokes emotions of joy and contemplation and makes us question our place as humans in the natural landscape. What are we willing to do to protect habitat and wildlife while keeping a balance between livelihoods, development and recreation. My message to readers would be to slow down and really watch and listen. You will be surprised what you see and hear.

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

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