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The New West: Growth is bringing huge ecological, economic costs to Greater Yellowstone

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

The slow and steady landscape-level effects of climate change in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are being documented by scientists measuring snowpack, average temperatures, and the drying of forests and wetlands.

Equally significant impacts are bearing down on some corners of Greater Yellowstone, caused by growing human development.

Last fall, I wrote a long investigative piece for the online magazine Mountain Journal ( about some of the sobering demographic trends—especially inward migration—that, if they play out over the coming decades, will leave our region transformed into a dramatically less wild place.

For example, within a single human generation, the population of Bozeman/Gallatin Valley, Montana, at current growth rates, will hold as many people as Salt Lake City proper—210,000, the population of the city of Salt Lake itself, not the entire metro sprawl along the western Wasatch; if those rates continue and there is no evidence they will slow down, Bozeman/Gallatin Valley would be Minneapolis proper-sized, with 420,000 residents, by around 2060.

Mountain Journal created this graphic, done half in jest, to illustrate the spillover effects of Jackson Hole on Teton Valley, Idaho. There may not be Salt Lake City-like skyscrapers there by mid century, but there will be Salt Lake-like sprawl. Illustration by August O’Keefe/Mountain Journal

While jaw dropping to some, that’s actually conservative in some ways, because it assumes that certain things won’t happen, such as an additional wave of climate change refugees pouring in—think people in the water-challenged Southwest fleeing water shortages and extreme heat; think coastal dwellers hit by rising sea water and hurricanes, not only losing their homes, but being told by insurance companies they won’t pay for them to rebuild.

Here’s one of the stunning stats, provided by Randy Carpenter of Future West, a think tank in Bozeman tracking growth issues:

Conservatively, if the growth rate of the last 30 years continues—collectively Greater Yellowstone already is one of the fastest growing rural areas in the U.S.—the overall population of the region is expected to surge, in just 13 years, from the current 450,000 denizens. That translates on the ground to another 100,000 homes and almost 700,000 people.

“And I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t grow faster than that,” Carpenter said.

Another big projected growth in-fill area is the corridor stretching from Idaho Falls to Rexburg to Teton Valley, Idaho, to Jackson Hole and then down the Snake River Canyon toward Star Valley, Bondurant and even Pinedale.

The average number of people per dwelling in Greater Yellowstone homes is approximately 2.3, half the number of two generations ago. Yet even with fewer inhabitants, homes are being built in exurban locations with more square footage; many are going up in the forested wildand-urban interface where they are more likely to burn in a wildfire; and residents will expect to receive expensive taxpayer-subsidized firefighting services from federal, state and local governments.

Some of these people building their dream homes will only reside in them for a few months out of the year, yet the footprint of development they exact is permanent. Craving views and with no context provided by realtors and developers, their investment domiciles will be sited—replete with roads, fences, barking dogs, yard lights, power, and water and sewage infrastructure—in important wildlife winter range or near riparian areas (river corridors), the most important parts of the landscape for biodiversity.

What is fascinating is the depth of bubble thinking—the belief by people who fled urban and suburban settings, now aspiring to cash-in on development and who claim massive growth will never happen here.

They deny the real spillover effects of Jackson Hole on adjacent valleys being caused by the pricing-out of people. And they deny that, under build-out scenarios in Teton County, the population could still easily double by mid-century, exacerbating an affordable housing crisis and congestion that already are degrading local quality of life.

A similar attitude exists in Big Sky, Montana, which is a mini Jackson Hole in the making. In Paradise Valley, Montana, between Yellowstone National Park’s northern gate and Livingston, the number of new homes being built by recreational homeowners is outpacing the number of permanent residents.

This means that more homes are being built leaving ecological footprints that don’t even serve year-round human inhabitation. In future columns and longer stories at, I’ll be taking a deep dive into growth issues that have huge implications for wildlife, and wildness, in the most iconic wildland complex in the lower 48.

What can we do about it? This sounding of the alarm isn’t anti-growth, it means we need wise growth. Besides being ecologically impactful, counties cannot, with current revenue models, afford to deal with the skyrocketing costs associated with the wave of new development.

Humans can be very good at solving problems, especially when they apply themselves and look and think beyond boundaries, but they cannot confront them if they live in denial.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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