Crowding Out Yellowstone’s Bears

The land that surrounds Yellowstone National Park is famous for its mountain vistas and wide open spaces, for its trout fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. But as population shifts and development patterns bring in more people to a region popularly known as America’s Serengeti, the outskirts of the nation’s original national park are looking more like suburban sprawl.

In fact, according to a new report produced by the Sierra Club, if the 20 counties that surround Yellowstone (in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) were taken as a single state, it would be one of the fastest growing in the Lower 48.

For Yellowstone grizzly bears, the Sierra report argues, the development of private lands spells trouble. Once a common sight through the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, grizzlies have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1975. If the grizzly cannot face booming residential sprawl, bear advocates say, then other wildlife populations like gray wolves, bison and elk may suffer as well.

Louisa Wilcox, director of the Sierra Club’s Grizzly Bear Ecosystem Project, would like to see public officials take on the private-property rights advocates who form a powerful lobby in the West. She also says that the federal government should compensate for the growing pace of development by placing more public lands off-limits to logging, oil and gas exploration. “Development is taking place in the worst places for wildlife,” says Wilcox. “For wolves and bears, it’s a very real problem. But it’s a very hard thing to sell when people are moving here to escape.”

For its part, the federal government appears to be in tune with the report’s conclusions—although officials take exception to some of Wilcox’s prescriptions. Jay Gore of the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee says that his committee agrees that development is a problem, but argues that locking up more federal lands may not be the correct response. In turn, Gore says, the environmental community would be better off focussing on buying land, establishing conservation easements and bending the ear of the county commissioners who can control growth.

That’s just what the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is dedicated to doing, says the group’s stewardship program director Dennis Glick. “Only in the past few years have citizens begun to question decisions by elected officials with regard to private land use,” Glick says. “In the old days, the population was so sparse that we could take a laissez-faire approach to development, but those days are gone.”