Sadly, in 2020 life is imitating art in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Art: In the Paramount Network’s hit contemporary Western series Yellowstone, set in western Montana’s rugged Rocky Mountains, Kevin Costner plays grizzled old cattle rancher and crusty patriarch John Dutton.
For generations, Dutton and his forebears running the vast family ranch named “Yellowstone,” have had to contend with bone-chilling winter temperatures, blizzards, disease outbreaks, broken fences, snarling and sneaky predators, cattle rustlers, rowdy cowboys, aggrieved Indian neighbors, and environmental regulators.
Now, in the 21st century, he must also face off with an unprecedented nemesis far more treacherous and relentless than these earlier threats to the ranch’s profitability and survival: rampaging in-migration, population growth, encroaching development pressures, and greedy developers.
Life: read this excerpt from a recent piece in The New York Times and weep:
“The phenomenon of gridlock in a natural paradise has been seen across the West for years. But in Montana it has accelerated markedly this year, fueled by urbanites fleeing the pandemic. Now, many residents are concerned that the state that calls itself the Last Best Place has bragged a little too loudly and too often.”
Open space and big sky at risk in Montana:
Missouri River downstream of Great Falls; the Lewis and Clark Expedition paddled and poled upstream here in 1805, en route to their grueling month-long portage around five waterfalls where the City of Great Falls stands today.
I myself know all too well about that gridlock: even 35 years ago, I once got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic one summer day at the entrance to Glacier National Park’s fabled Going-to-the-Sun Highway in northwestern Montana.
But I turned away and fled the throng and vehicle exhaust: I had absolutely no interest in dealing with traffic and crowds as if I were visiting a jam-packed Disney-style theme park in crowded southern California or central Florida. Yet this was practically in Canada! (From which I had just come, after backpacking and hiking amidst the alpine meadow wildflowers and glaciers in majestic Jasper and Banff National Parks in the Canadian Rockies.)
The Mountain Journal adds:
“Like a wild West boom town of old, growth around Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana is happening at breakneck speed. This unprecedented expansion of human footprint isn’t owed to traditional resource extraction but a new kind of industrial activity: real estate opportunity and land development that seemingly knows little bounds. At present, bickering …has left any discussions of how to plan sensibly for the future, while maintaining the natural character of place that lures newcomers in droves, in a quagmire.”
The NY Times article recounts that in 2020, “trailheads are cramped with parked cars and fishing on the Madison River is like a Disneyland ride.” A board member of a local chapter of the NGO Trout Unlimited complained that: “It seems like everyone was flocking to Montana this summer.”
Business has been brisk for outdoor outfitters who sell and rent equipment to anglers, mountain bikers, kayakers, rafters, hikers, campers, and cross-country skiers. And who could be so churlish as to complain about good sales for small businesses at a dismal time of lockdowns and quarantines, when so much of the country and the world would kill to be as lucky?
Yet many locals and natives understandably fear that this burst of commerce will not be short-lived, but instead, signifies change that is far more permanent, profound, and negative: of Montana and Yellowstone losing the very qualities people celebrate and seek.
They worry about nature being loved and trampled to death, a dire prospect raised more than half a century ago by environmental historian Roderick Nash in his acclaimed 1965 book Wilderness and the American Mind, which documented changing American attitudes towards the wilds, from fear and hostility centuries ago to admiration and affection today.
In this view, 2020 may represent not a fleeting Coronavirus pandemic epiphenomenon. Rather, it may be the acceleration of what was already a long-term trend. A trend of urbanites and suburbanites discovering and flocking en masse to a hitherto sublime mountain paradise: and by the force of their very numbers alone, taming or even slaying it. An unintended but inexorable consequence of numerical excess.
“You call some place paradise – kiss it goodbye,” wrote songwriter Don Henley in the Eagles’ classic elegiac song “The Last Resort.”
The Times article adds that, “the cramping of recreational pursuits is just one dimension.”
“The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which takes in more than 34,000 square miles of wildland around Yellowstone National Park and includes the cities of Bozeman and Jackson, Wyo., is considered the largest nearly intact temperate ecosystem in the world.
“It is one of the few places in the continental United States where landscape-level ecological processes can play out, including wolf packs hunting elk and deer, long-distance wildlife migrations and wildfires that can be left to burn in order to rejuvenate the natural landscape.”
Since timber wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park (the first national park in the U.S. and the entire world) a quarter-century ago, after an absence of 70 years, wildlife biologists and conservation planners have touted the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – consisting of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and five surrounding national forests – as an enormous real-world laboratory experiment of applied ecological restoration.
Rapid in-migration, human population growth, and development in this region jeopardize not just the quality of life for existing (and future) residents, but the integrity of intact ecosystems. Habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation and human interactions (e.g., collisions with vehicles, attacks on people, raiding garbage, livestock depredation) are some of the greatest threats to large mammals such as grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and bison, which roam across huge areas and require large territories to survive and maintain genetic fitness (avoiding inbreeding).
Neither The New York Times nor the Mountain Journal would ever think of emphasizing or even mentioning it of course – lest they be “cancelled” by the open borders zealots among their readers – but national rates of immigration-driven population growth of some 20-30 million new residents per decade over the past half century have been a major driver of unwanted growth in “Last Best Places” like Montana.
In the future, given that immigration is expected to account for up to 90% of U.S. population growth to 2060, its effects will be even more pronounced. The graph below from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the future U.S. population depends largely on the level of immigration Americans choose…or which is forced on us by Congress.
The February 2020 Census Bureau report “A Changing Nation: Population Projections Under Alternative Immigration Scenarios” indicates that: “Different levels of immigration between now and 2060 could change the projection of the population in that year by as much as 127 million people, with estimates ranging anywhere from 320 to 447 million U.S. residents.”
While immigrants from regions with warmer climates do not tend to seek out or settle directly in cold, remote spots like the Northern Rockies, their large numbers often induce secondary domestic migration by displaced native-born Americans. Mass immigration in recent decades has had an enormous effect on the standard of living and quality of life in tarnished, densely populated urban areas such as Greater Los Angeles, Bay Area cities, and New York City.
Many natives have opted to flee toward places with lower housing prices, less traffic congestion, crime, and ethnic tensions, and also, places that are wilder, and places which boast more natural landscapes with more wildlife and fewer humans. The pandemic has only exacerbated long-standing concerns about excessive population density and overcrowding.
Half a century from now, whether Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosy can still boast of being wildlife-rich, scenic, unspoiled “paradises” will depend in good part on whether American citizens can prevail upon their politicians and special interests to reduce immigration rates.
Piegan Pass in Glacier National Park:
Whether or not opportunities for genuine solitude in wilderness will endure in the Northern Rockies’ future – given population growth trends – is by no means certain
LEON KOLANKIEWICZ is the Scientific Director for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Dec 14th 2020 @ 1:05pm EST