by Todd Wilkinson
On its present trajectory, with a rapidly expanding human development footprint being cemented on private land, soaring outdoor recreation pressure on public land, and deepening negative effects from climate change, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, experts say, is at high risk of losing its healthy, world-class wildlife populations.
The prime culprits: destruction of secure habitat due to proliferating human presence and disruption of wildlife migration corridors. On top of it, climate change is altering the hydrology of the region and fostering conditions ripe for exotic weeds and invasive species to flourish, which further compromises the ability of the land to sustain native animals and plants.
Below are several big ideas, not pie in the sky notions, that could be pursued.
Grizzly 399 and her first set of triplets. Nature tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies and one of the biggest drivers is wildlife watching. Two of the top attractions are grizzly bears and wolves in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. However, those two national parks are not large enough, by themselves, to sustain wildlife that migrates and has large home ranges. The health of public wildlife depends on the ecological health of private lands surrounding public lands. “Teton Rush Hour” photo courtesy Thomas Mangelsen. To see more of his collectible photography go to mangelsen.com
Truth: Wildlife, not outdoor recreation or resource extraction opportunities, are what sets Greater Yellowstone apart as the cradle of American wildlife conservation. Without a plan to protect native species, declines are inevitable.
Greater Yellowstone is the only ecosystem left in the Lower 48 that still has all of its native species that were present in 1491, including large mammal populations and predators and prey that can still roam widely across unfragmented landscapes. The good news is that public concern for wildlife is ubiquitous and a powerful focal point that brings people together.
All the non-human mammals present in Yellowstone in 1491 are still there—a feat few other places on earth can claim.
Lacking in America’s most iconic wildlife ecosystem, however, is a common vision for the future that puts everyone on the same page in terms of goals and objectives. Desperately needed is a regionwide conservation strategy to preserve the ecological health of Greater Yellowstone and prevent it from following the path of the Colorado Rockies, Wasatch Mountains of Utah, Sierra and other ranges in California, and the Florida Everglades. (Image at right can be purchased at foldinguides.com)
The superstructure of 21st-century cross-boundary thinking would be a unified strategy that prioritizes the protection of wildlife, the habitat it needs and vital migration corridors that exist at scale nowhere else. Such a plan would make wildlife protection a top goal and it would involve federal and state land management agencies that oversee 18 million acres of public land coming together with elected officials in towns and 20 counties that influence the development patterns on six million acres of private land.
Other necessary advocates include representatives of the conservation, agriculture, business and recreation communities embracing a game plan for the three-state region. Without a strategy, there is little hope that present uncoordinated fragmented decision making can protect enough vital lands to sustain Greater Yellowstone’s amazing array of species. Every day, windows of opportunity to advance conservation are closing.
This elk migration map, produced by the Wyoming Migration Initiative, shows the seasonal movements of a dozen different wapiti herds in Greater Yellowstone. There are other maps showing how mule deer, pronghorn and other species migrate, too. The reason why such migrations can still occur in Greater Yellowstone is because the landscape remains conducive to long-distance travel; in most of the Lower 48 species have either been lost or migratory populations have dwindled because of fragmentation caused by natural resource extraction and private land development. Image courtesy Wyoming Migration Initiative
Any GYE grand strategy must be informed by reliable data
Myth: Wildlife can adapt and still thrive amid relentless urbanization, suburbanization and exurbanization of landscape. History proves otherwise. One way forward in creating a conservation roadmap is letting wildlife tell us what habitat it needs. How to do that? Wildlife doesn’t speak human languages. A solution: In the near term, put more GPS collars on animals and use DNA wildlife censusing techniques.
Even as a red state, Wyoming has been a leader in thinking about large landscape conservation. For whatever reason, Montana and Idaho lag far behind the curve. In addition to tracking wildlife, cutting-edge technology enables researchers to take water samples from rivers and lakes and identify DNA material to show what kinds of species live in a given watershed. One vital rule of thumb: If you don’t know something exists, or deny its presence, it’s hard to incorporate smart conservation into your decision making.
In the Gallatin Valley of Montana, elk are competing for survival against trophy homes. Indeed, on private land in Greater Yellowstone counties and others up and down the Rockies, vital wildlife winter range and other habitat is rapidly being lost to the impacts of exurban sprawl, particularly as ranches are replaced by subdivision. It’s happening and in many places county commissions are doing little to stop it. Photo courtesy Holly Pippel
Enforceable zoning must be a necessary component of land-use planning
Sadly, in Bozeman and Gallatin County, Montana—capital of Greater Yellowstone—no mayor or county commission, conservation organization or land-management agency, has ever held public meetings focused on celebrating and protecting the area’s biodiversity. Bozeman and Gallatin County aren’t alone.
The human footprint consumes both wildlife habitat and the ability of farms and ranches to operate at scale. There are many different forms that a nature consumption tax could take with the proceeds applied to buying conservation easements, incentivizing clustered development, keeping agrarians on the and, having a revenue source for affordable housing and helping local governments maintain infrastructure. See a few of them below. Photo illustration courtesy Shutterstock/ID 1212292750
Public officials and conservationists often invoke lack of money as an obstacle to visionary thinking. And yet it’s vision that attracts investment
New funding sources for land protection exist in plain sight. They can be found in taxing tourists, newcomers, land users and those who profit off healthy environments. Money and new funding sources could be a game-changer in not only incentivizing zoning but creating a war chest that enables land trusts and other conservation entities to pay ranchers and farmers to stay on the land, protect habitat and open space, and prevent key parcels from being bought up and subdivided. Money would enable incentivized conservation to proceed faster at a time when the expanding human development footprint is fast outpacing land protection. Some of the possible funding sources are:
Chris Boyer’s aerial photo is worth a thousand words. It’s impossible to ignore the obliteration of once-exceptional wildlife habitat that existed in Big Sky, Montana before industrial strength outdoor recreation and billions of dollars’ worth of real estate were carved into the valley enwrapping Lone Mountain. Steadily, wildlife have been displaced in Big Sky and it is exacting huge negative spillover effects on adjacent public lands. Today, only upper class people can afford to buy property in Big Sky. Were a real-estate transfer tax in place, a large sum could be generated for conservation to buffer nature from the resort community’s ballooning negative impacts. Photo courtesy Christopher Boyer. To see more of his collectible photographs go to kestrelaerial.com
A. Implement a real estate transfer tax
At present, state legislatures prevent the creation of a real estate transfer tax, which is a modest tax applied whenever real estate is bought and sold. The idea is that people buying up large parcels and building trophy homes are in a financial position where they can afford to pay. Think of a real estate transfer tax as a habitat and open space “consumption tax” in that development consumes wildlife and scenic views valued by the community. Since the arrival of Covid, billions of dollars’ worth of real estate has changed hands in Greater Yellowstone. A modest tax of even 1 percent would over a short time generate hundreds of millions of dollars that be applied to conservation, affordable housing and existing infrastructure challenges in towns and counties dealing with rising maintenance costs owed to growth. And, in some towns and counties, the money could help reduce property taxes. Realtors and land brokers need to stop standing in the way. They, who have benefitted so much from land development, need to support funding sources that benefit nature.
Hikers in Yellowstone wander down a trail that skirts Osprey Falls. A backpack tax would apply to all outdoor clothing and gear, the same way that hunters and anglers currently pay a small excise tax on guns, ammo and fishing gear, generating huge sums that protect wildlife habitat and help fund federal and state game agencies. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/ YNP
B. Implement a national “backpack tax” that applies to all outdoor gear
The time has come and there’s no time to waste. The outdoor recreation industry and manufacturers proudly state every year that outdoor recreation is approaching $1 trillion in economic worth. For many decades, hunters and anglers have been assessed modest taxes whenever they purchase gear, ammo, tackle and other products related to their pastimes. Those taxes have been an incredibly important funding source for both habitat protection and helping to support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state game and fish agencies that today are cash strapped amid huge budgetary challenges. A modest backpack tax, which is a tax that would be levied on all outdoor products, from apparel to backpacks, skis and other recreation gear, would generate billions over time.
“This comparatively small tax would generate an estimated $4.6 billion in revenue per year, about 45 percent above current annual funding levels for the National Park Service and more than four times the amount generated by existing taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. We estimate that the average consumer would only pay about $12 in taxes each year, and the tax would generate an excess burden of only 4 percent of tax revenues.”
C. Impose modest enplanement fees at GYE airports
and on commercial bus tour operators
Many airports in the country levy enplanement fees, or small taxes on air travel. People who can afford to fly can afford to pay a modest surcharge when they land or take off. The revenues of this fee would be dispersed. Between the airports at Bozeman and Jackson alone, which are the busiest in Montana and Wyoming, around 1.5 million passengers come and go annually. If a $5 landing and a $5 departure fee were levied at just those airports, it would generate $15 million annually that could be spread around in the region to incentivize conservation, help create affordable housing and pay for infrastructure challenges. In addition, impose a tax on commercial bus tours, which every year carry hundreds of thousands of passengers to Greater Yellowstone. Some of the money generated could go to building more wildlife overpasses and underpasses.
D. Increase impact fees on developers,
especially development that harms Nature
Should local citizens through property and other taxes subsidize the profits of developers? There is spartan evidence that backs up assertions from the building and trade, commercial real estate and development communities that higher impact fees imposed on business that bring burdens on local services would cause a significant economic slowdown in high-growth counties.
Growth is already taking a serious toll on wildlife and habitat. More development has increased traffic problems and road maintenance costs, exacerbated employee shortages and the affordable housing crisis, and resulted in higher taxes to pay for new schools, expanded police, fire, emergency services and water treatment costs, elevated water concerns, and impacted local quality of life. If taxes keep going up and are imposed on property owners who do not like watching their communities undergo dramatic changes, then it’s another sign that growth is not paying for itself. Profits are being internalized by developers yet the costs of doing business are being externalized on the community.
E. Allow—and be more creative with—transfer of development rights
F. Allow citizens and communities to approve a sales tax
Contrary to claims that a sale tax would penalize working-class people, certain essentials could be exempted such as groceries. Instead, the sale tax would be aimed at the millions of visitors who wouldn’t think twice about paying a modest tax on lodging, eating out in restaurants, car rentals and tourism services. Millions would be generated annually.
Reject or disincentivize building in the wildland-urban interface
In high growth areas, make lower ag tax rates and subsidies available only to farmers and ranchers who agree to conserve their land
In lots of valleys, farmers and ranchers enjoy lower tax rates compared to what urban property owners pay. Many of the same agrarians also enjoy public subsidies such as federal disaster relief if crops fail and droughts, blizzards and wildfires happen. In addition, they receive valuable ag services, predator control, and below market value grazing rates on public land. Such benefits exist as a way of society rewarding those who grow food and fiber. And yet many farms and ranches, which were able to remain economically viable because of public generosity, see wildlife habitat and open space obliterated when those properties are sold to land developers. Some suggest that in order for agrarians to continue to receive subsidies they ought to give back to the public in turn by attaching development restrictions to the deeds of their property.
Establish urban growth boundaries
Follow the example of Oregon where decades ago, under the leadership of a Republican governor, the state enacted urban growth boundaries in every town. This concentrates growth inside urban areas and protects farm and forest land outside the boundaries. It has enabled local officials to better plan for growth, it yields predictability for developers and agrarians, and it results in lower costs of services that skyrocket in rural areas where counties have to provide expanded services such as law enforcement, fire protection, road maintenance, school bus routes, emergency responders, and eventually sewer and water. Again, soaring costs of suburban and exurban development have demonstrated in many studies that growth does not pay for itself and most often the bill is footed by all taxpayers. Read more about urban growth boundaries in these Mountain Journal stories featuring nationally-renowned planning expert Robert Liberty. Learn about what Oregon did by viewing the short video below and remember that Portland does not have the wildlife values we still do in Greater Yellowstone.
Consolidate public land management into
a regional approach for Greater Yellowstone
Reorganize Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the five different national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands into one management region. A remarkable ecosystem like Greater Yellowstone is worthy of special status. This reorganization would allow different agencies that now report to regional bosses in different states and would reconcile conflicts that exist in “multiple use” philosophy. Land managers, local communities and counties need to do a far better job of understanding negative cumulative effects instead of turning a blind eye.
Heinrich Berran created this map of Yellowstone looking southwesterly toward the Tetons and into Idaho for the National Park Service decades ago. While the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee is supposed to be leading the way in ecosystem thinking, many of its member agencies remain entrenched in their bureaucratic silos and have been absent in tackling issues like sprawl and industrial recreation that is negatively affecting public lands.
Bringing agencies together around a bioregional strategy would prevent them from working at cross purposes (which wastes tax dollars), would save money through greater efficiency, and allow them to better harness resources. Agencies, gateway towns and counties should be financially incentivized to work together. A key component: the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, which comprises the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies needs to take a leadership role in acknowledging and assessing the negative impacts of private land development on adjacent public land. To date, GYCC has failed to do that.
Don’t Surrender A Single Congressionally-designed Wilderness Study Area
To Multiple Use Management As Practiced by Forest Service and BLM
Wilderness study areas represent some of the most important wild country in Greater Yellowstone and the rest of the West that remain. There isn’t any more high-quality natural land like this being made and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Yet there are some who would like to open up these areas to traditional resource extraction of old, along with road building and industrial strength outdoor recreation—all that could at the expense of wildlife.
Right now there is a proposal from the US Forest Service and an entity called the Gallatin Forest Partnership to do away with the 155,000-acre Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in the Gallatin Mountain Range between Bozeman and Yellowstone Park and replace it with about 100,000 acres of designated wilderness and a pair of new less protective land classifications. The Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn is home to one of the most complete and intact mammal populations left in the Lower 48, including grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, bighorn sheep, moose, bison, native trout and the world-famous Gallatin elk herd. Ironically, maintaining the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn as a Wilderness Study Area guarantees better protection for wildlife than doing what the Forest Service and Gallatin Forest Partnership propose. Wilderness study areas also hold tremendous value as buffers against the effects of climate change and suburban development squeezing the ecological function of public lands.
At a time when large sums of money are being spent elsewhere trying to recover biodiversity and wildness that has been lost, and in an age when wilderness-caliber lands are coming under increasing human pressures, why would anyone want to leave lands that make Greater Yellowstone a beacon for the world with less protection?
If you can’t protect it, don’t promote it (Part 1)
OK, answer this question honestly: With soaring visitation to Greater Yellowstone’s national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton); an expanded tourist season; rising levels of outdoor recreation that leave trails, rivers and campgrounds crowded; increasing numbers of air travelers; hotel rooms and rentals hard to come by; and affordable housing for locals in crisis, does the region really need more tourism promotion? Between the three states, millions are spent annually in national and international PR campaigns touting Yellowstone as a destination. In addition, local lodging taxes in gateway communities require that a certain percentage of the revenue be earmarked for telling more people to come. And then there are TV shows like “Yellowstone” and other catalysts driving visitation and growth. At what point will local officials admit that we are loving the region to death? How much is enough?
If you can’t protect it, don’t promote it (Part 2)
The real estate industry needs to reflect on the consequences of its constant, sometimes shameless promotion of land development and speculation—and be held accountable. Do brokers not realize that rural lands are home to wildlife? In addition, those outdoor folk with an addiction to posting on social media need to stop sharing the locations of “secret” fishing holes, less-used hiking trails, and backcountry skiing spots because it only leads to a lot more people beating a path there. Some places are equipped to handle lots of people; others are not. Protect the latter by keeping the memories of your adventures to yourself.
If you can’t protect it, don’t promote it (Part 3)
Putting more people and more uses into secure habitat for wildlife negatively impacts the species living there. The Custer Gallatin National Forest recently approved a management plan that sets the stage for a lot more people using its trail system in the years ahead, yet forest officials readily admit they don’t know what the current impacts of outdoor recreation are on wildlife. And further, they acknowledge they do not have enough backcountry and law enforcement officials on staff to deal with the problem of illegal trespass and proliferation of user-created trails.
Expanding human recreation does not equate to better wildlife conservation; in fact, in most cases, exactly the opposite. In addition, many environmental/conservation organizations in Greater Yellowstone have become allied with the outdoor recreation industry in pushing for more recreation infrastructure, trails and more access, and have remained silent in the face of the rising controversy over “user-created” trails. Right now, Grand Targhee Resort is seeking approval from the Caribou Targhee National Forest in eastern Idaho to expand its operation on public land. Yet many conservation organizations are missing in action, the same as when they were in confronting the expansion of Big Sky in the Madison Range, more recreation-related facilities in Bridger Canyon, and more trails in sensitive habitat on Snow King Mountain in Jackson Hole.
Ignorance is not bliss
Be informed: Local governments, as part of their strategy for dealing with growth, need to hire wildlife ecologists to assess impacts of human development on nature.
Towns and counties in high-growth areas ought to have a professional wildlife ecologist on staff who is seasoned and an expert in large landscape conservation. The scientists would need to be given free rein, much like an internal auditor who is protected from political interference and pressure from developers. The person could provide honest assessments on impacts of proposed development and help educate elected officials, members of planning staffs, and the public about the location of key wildlife habitat. Ecological issues don’t factor into decision making if they don’t have visibility. Such knowledge could be the cornerstones of truly enlightened planning.
A statement of protest in Park County, Montana against sensible land use planning and zoning. There’s universal agreement in rural valleys around Greater Yellowstone that they don’t want to end up like Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley and Jackson Hole. Ironically, those who fight against planning are only accelerating their pathway to become just like the sprawl-filled Gallatin Valley which is dealing with lots of growth challenges, including the loss of its wildlife and sense of place.
Mandate education for those creating the biggest impacts on landscapes
Compel those having the biggest impact on the landscape to at least be knowledgeable about ecosystem issues. State regulatory agencies could require that people involved in the building and trades, real estate and architecture industries take remedial classes in wildlife ecology as part of their business-license renewals. The cause of raising awareness and enhancing public ecological literacy extends to all of us who recreate. Remember, there are animals living in the places where we go to play and they have no other home. We can leave and we have plenty of places to have fun or work out; wildlife does not, and its habitat is finite.
Teach the unique importance of Greater Yellowstone in schools
Living in Greater Yellowstone ought to be a source of regional identity and pride. And an investment should be made in reaching groups that have felt excluded or unwelcome. Make classes that highlight the unique nature of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem part of the essential core curriculum of education in the public schools from elementary onward into college. Give every student an ecosystem wall map to take home to their families.
Adapt the “Code of the West” into a wildlife-oriented
version for Greater Yellowstone
It would inform people, especially newcomers, that living in a wildlife-rich region comes replete with special responsibilities like doing one’s best to be smarter about coexisting with wildlife and when pondering development to do no harm or minimize impacts. In Jackson Hole, a local version of this is The Mountain Neighbor Handbook: A Local’s Guide to Stewardship in the Tetons. There ought to be one of these in every rural valley.
Destructive attitudes can change if ecological ignorance is confronted
GYE towns, counties need to gather often and share info
Why isn’t this happening already? An easy move is to initiate regular planning and information-sharing sessions at least once a year between towns and counties dealing with high population growth. At present, leaders in Bozeman/Gallatin County, Montana, and Jackson/Teton County, Wyoming, almost never get together and certainly not without all commission members and planning staffs present. There’s a lot of intelligence and hard lessons that could be shared. Plus, there is a lot that adjacent areas such as Teton Valley and Island Park in Idaho; Park County in Wyoming; Big Sky, Livingston/Gardiner/Paradise Valley in Montana, along with Madison, Beaverhead and Carbon counties, and others could learn from each other.
Value indigenous knowledge
Lakota gather at a giveaway in which those with more material forturne share with those who have lesss and are in need.
Universities and schools should make classes that blend together the insights of indigenous wisdom about landscape with science part of their core curriculum. This has huge potential positive implications for wildlife conservation, local native food systems, and engendering respect among people with different cultural perspectives. There are insights ready to be applied and they predate the creation of Yellowstone National Park, in 1872, by thousands of years. Indigenous people promoted cultural values that frowned upon opulent displays of material possessions and helping those in need. To learn more about how tribes in the Pacific Northwest incorporated this into their lifeways, read a ceremony known as the potlatch.
Conservation and business need to come together
Do this on a massive scale. There should be regular, centralized meetings of conservation and hunting organizations and business leaders to both harness their insights and strengths and fine tune approaches that revolve how healthy environments support healthy economies and vice versa. NOTE: Greater Yellowstone urgently needs more conservation groups working in the space of land-use planning. Why aren’t more doing it? While it is among the hardest work, it has the most important implications for saving the region. Imagine if all of the national, regional and local conservation organizations together touted the need for a Greater Yellowstone vision and devoted themselves to scrutinizing private land development and holding local cities and counties accountable for bad decisions that are destroying wildlife and their community way of life.
Pass open space bonds and support your local land trust
Below the plane wings are some of the 122 conservation easements in southwest Montana overseen by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. Land trusts throughout Greater Yellowstone and the West are doing extraordinary work but the rate of acquisition, because of limited funds, is not keeping pace with amount of ground lost to sprawl. Photo courtesy Gallatin Valley Land Trust.
State legislatures need to get out of the way
and stop their rhetorical hypocrisy
While state legislatures in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho claim that they support local control and governance that happens closer to the ground, they have hamstrung the ability of local communities to tax the millions of tourists who are bringing impact and using the best planning tools available.
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Have fun, be inspired, but give back to wildlife by not poaching habitat
Getting outdoors is good for our physical and mental health. People who care about wildlife are more inclined to protect it. You don’t have to live, visit or play in Greater Yellowstone to be an advocate for protecting the animals that live here. Sometimes the most profound thing we can do is a little thing, such as setting aside space for wildlife and not having to take it for ourselves. People don’t need the permission of others to care about the survival of wildlife. To all young people out there: Get involved, run for public office and challenge the status quo by bringing brave new ideas forward. We need you!
Everything we do ripples, for good or bad
Make positive waves in the world and inspire others to do the same. Reject cynicism and do good work on behalf of others, including wildlife. Seriously, it will make you feel better and more optimistic. We can create a tsunami of goodwill that changes the trajectory of destructive development and overuse of Greater Yellowstone. We can set an example for the world to follow. We can love America’s most iconic wildlife ecosystem without loving it to death. It will not be saved, however, unless there is agreement wildlife matters. Does it matter to you?
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