Andrew Hansen

Andrew Hansen, director of Montana State University-Bozeman’s Landscape Biodiversity Lab, spoke Thursday at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

During the last four-plus decades, the population of the Greater Yellowstone Area, or GYA, has more than doubled from around 200,000 residents in 1970 to over 475,000 last count.

Last week, University of Montana-Bozeman professor Andrew Hansen gave a presentation focusing on ways GYA residents can live in such a wild corner of the world without harming the environment that drew many of them there in the first place.

About 70 people turned out at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for Hansen’s public lecture, which kicked off the museum’s 2017 lunchtime lectures.

Space to roam

If Hansen’s talk could be said to have one theme, it’s that preserving Yellowstone and its surrounding ecosystems will require partnerships and concerted community action and not just piecemeal local campaigns.

“It’s only through collaboration that we’re going to be able to sustain some of these places,” Hansen said.

Compared to many other national parks, Yellowstone is indeed a vast tract of largely unpeopled territory.

“As huge as Yellowstone Park is, (however) it’s just not big enough to accommodate all the connections for wildlife,” Hansen said.

He explained that animals such as wolverines, moose and elk require huge, interconnected swaths of territory to roam. Roads, rural homes and grazing fields can interrupt the corridors animals need and are increasingly bringing people into dangerous contact with the wild.

Living in the woods

In the GYA as a whole, 33 percent of the ecosystem has now been developed, Hansen said, showing a map with red marks representing roads, houses and private property lacing the area.

“We now have subdivisions and rural homes right up to the edge of the forest,” he continued, displaying another map that showed the location of residential developments ringing Yellowstone country.

“For all the ecological good we know they do, we now have to suppress these big forest fires to protect those homes.”

Changing climate

Another challenge facing the Park and environs is global climate change. Hansen said scientists predict the world will be 8 to 12 degrees warmer, on average, by the end of this century, a shift he said would imperil the entire GYA ecosystem.

For example, models predict by 2100 under such a scenario, whitebark pines would only be able to occupy 3 percent of their current range within the region.

Snowpack levels and the rivers

sustained by them are also expected to shrink dramatically, threatening coldwater fisheries and even entire riparian corridors.

“We all have an opportunity when we make decisions in our every day lives to try to think about the health of the ecosystem,” Hansen said.

Despite the frightening predictions, Hansen’s presentation was by and large optimistic.

“Native fish species are in real trouble,” Hansen said, but also called rebounding large mammal populations “an amazing conservation story.”

Stakeholder alliances

He pointed to a number of ways in which communities have come together here and in other parts of the country to protect sensitive environments. Particular success stories, he said, include the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative on the Eastern seaboard, and the Continental Divide Collaborative Initiative closer to home.

Since 2012, the CDCI has raised millions of dollars for conservation easements and to support other efforts aimed at keeping a wildlife corridor open between the Crown of the Continent area and the GYA. The CDCI is not only about conservation, but about serving human needs as well, which Hansen cited as a strength.

“You have lots and lots of different stakeholders,” Hansen said after his talk.

Because such large areas need to be addressed, solutions require input from federal government entities such as the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies like Montana and Idaho’s Game and Fish Departments, and several counties, several towns, homeowner associations and individual ranchers and other land owners.

Getting macro-level players like large government agencies to the table while also including crucial decision-makers like individual land owners can be challenging, Hansen admitted. He sees a positive trend though.

“Increasingly, turfism is giving way to collaboration,” he said. “Whether it’s happening fast enough – that’s the question.”

From MSU to NWC

Taylor Russell, a biology student at the school who’s originally from Saratoga, said the lecture had taught him “how important the private land owners are.”

Another woman in the class said, “I liked (Hansen). He was easy to understand and follow.”

Chiming in, a third man in the class added, “Big overviews are nice sometimes.”

Transitioning cultures

Thanks in part to harsh, high-altitude winter weather, Hansen said this part of the country was settled almost 200 years after most other places in the continental U.S. Because of the late-arrival of people to places like Jackson or Bozeman, Mont., this region has retained wilderness characteristics that captivate people around the world.

The influx of residents drawn to those locales today is part of a “transitioning culture” in the West that’s still being worked out, Hansen said after his talk. Increasingly, the region is economically dependent on visitors drawn to the allure of wild places, but it also has strong ranching traditions, and those landowners can have a different relationship to nature than urban vacationers.

Realizing both groups can share an abiding, if somewhat different, love of nature is critical to forging partnerships that can “scale (conservation) efforts up to the greater ecosystem level,” Hansen said.

“We have, I would say, a real opportunity as well as an obligation to try to sustain this system,” he said.

(Max Miller can be reached at

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