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Greater Yellowstone sprawl study: notes from the field

author Published by Rob Harding

Last month, Scientific Director Leon Kolankiewicz visited the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) as part of NumbersUSA’s forthcoming study on the threat posed by urban sprawl to this still-wild region often described as the American Serengeti.

A few dispatches from Leon and others are shared in this post, offering a glimpse into the experience and the uniqueness of Greater Yellowstone.

After a day spent in and around Yellowstone National Park, Leon reported:

The weather was a bit dubious, including snow squalls; the snow was sticking on the terrain and starting to on the road surface, but I still got to see >100 bison, scores of elk, 1 pronghorn, 1 black bear, and 3 grizzlies (a sow and two young cubs). And of course, thousands of tourists and their vehicles. License plates from all over the place, and many international visitors. It was neat to see, as we have all been discussing, that Yellowstone has a truly global reputation. It is also at risk of being “loved to death” in many respects, including the private land development our study is focused on.

Expanding on that comment, Leon added:

When I wrote “loved to death” — heavy park visitation, traffic & associated noise and visual disturbance, difficulty finding parking places, bear/bison jams and the like symbolizing that — I was actually referring more broadly to the phenomenon that I first was exposed to in Roderick Nash’s 1965 classic Wilderness and the American Mind. I think rapid ongoing and projected rapid population growth and private lands development in the 20 GYE counties is the much larger threat to ecosystem integrity, but I also include this under the rubric of this “last best place” region being loved to death.

Esteemed environmental journalist and Yellowstonian co-founder Todd Wilkinson will write the foreword for NumbersUSA’s report on sprawl in Greater Yellowstone. In response to Leon’s comments, Todd contributed a powerful analogy:

[Yellowstone Park’s] ecological function and that of its wild appendages are being strangled, smothered, lacerated and sabotaged by outside forces…Wild country of high caliber is not growing; it’s finite and shrinking every day, being eaten away not merely at the far external fringes, but kind of like a colony of large carpenter ants inside an old Doug fir. The tree appears massive and imperishable, but it’s being eaten away from the inside. In [the GYE], the carpenter ants are real-life carpenters working for developers chewing up the private lands.

This week, Todd delivered another warning about sprawl that’s important to keep in mind:

Far from wildlife carnivores or human hunters being the biggest, most ferocious predators of elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose and pronghorn, the most formidable, incessant and ultimately population-depleting is sprawl. It never goes away.

Thanks to Todd’s leadership in writing about Greater Yellowstone, we know that residents are seriously unhappy about sprawl.

That said, NumbersUSA’s forthcoming study of sprawl in Greater Yellowstone is both urgent and timely.

Remember: Population growth in Greater Yellowstone continues as America’s population expands, fueling sprawl. Federal immigration policy is the overwhelming driver of America’s current population growth, and federal immigration policy is projected to drive nearly all future population growth. Therefore, confronting sprawl at its source includes reducing immigration to a level America can sustain.


Take action: Tell Congress that a sensible immigration policy is compatible with conservation.

Explore more: Our Studies, Conservation Challenges, Sustainability Initiative


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