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Discovery Newsletter

Volume 13Discovery NewsletterIssue 6Discovery NewsletterApril 2002Discovery NewsletterMontana State University-Bozeman

Main Page On the Web Featured Stories In Focus


MSU Study Details Changes in Greater
Yellowstone Ecosystem


rural subdivision

by Evelyn Boswell

People flock to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), in part because of its scenery and recreational opportunities. That's no big secret.

But a study that involved five Montana State University-Bozeman researchers over five years describes how those people have dramatically affected the area since the 1970s.

The GYE's overall population, for example, grew by 55 percent between 1970 and 1997 while the fastest growing counties in that area jumped 107.2 percent. The resulting changes threaten biodiversity and challenge efforts to sustain local communities and ecosystems.

"Everybody that lives around Yellowstone is well aware that major changes have been occurring, but until now, there have been relatively few system-wide assessments of those changes," said Andrew Hansen, lead author of a paper describing those changes and their consequences.

"Ecological Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in the New West" was published in the February issue of the prestigious BioScience journal.

The GYE includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, seven national forests and more than 20 other federal and state jurisdictions. The national parks are relatively high in elevation, while the other public lands lie mostly at middle elevations. Private land is mainly found in the lower elevations.

In an attempt to better understand that area and the rest of the intermountain West, MSU received a $600,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for a three-year study, Hansen said. That grant led to others until the study became a $3-million project involving researchers in ecology, land resources and environmental science, remote sensing, political science, forestry and socioeconomics.

"Why would we or anyone study a big area like this?" Hansen asked. "I think people intuitively realize it's one human and ecological system even though it's heavily fragmented by federal, state and county jurisdictions."

The scientists looked at changes in the density of people, changes in land cover and uses, and changes in economic variables like personal income, Hansen said. They found, among other things, that the area covered by forests decreased by two percent between 1975 and 1995, while agricultural areas fell by nine percent. Urban areas increased 377 percent in the fast-growth counties and 147 percent in the slow-growth counties.

Mining, oil, gas, timber, farming and ranching accounted for 19 percent of the total personal income in 1970 and six percent in 1995. More than 99 percent of the net growth in personal income from 1970 to 1995 was in industries other than the traditional ones.

"GYE counties that wish to stimulate economic growth may find it prudent to expand wilderness areas and other public lands, manage land use to protect scenery, ensure that streams and rivers remain free flowing and conserve wildlife," the report suggested.

It's a crucial challenge, however, to balance the needs of human communities and the environment that attracts them, the researchers noted.

Ray Rasker, who focused on socioeconomic matters, said the study pointed out the value of airports to an area's growth.

"One thing sticks out, and that is the presence of airports," commented Rasker, director of the socioeconomic program for the Sonoran Institute in Bozeman. "You need access to larger markets. ... Places like Bozeman are growing and not just because of beautiful places and high quality of life, but because we can get to Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake in a very short time."

Bruce Maxwell, associate professor in land resources and environmental science, said he became particularly concerned about the number of low-density housing developments locating next to bio-reserves and national parks. Such developments are starting to displace species that used to use those areas, he said. They are also bringing in exotic animals and plants that are or may do the same.

Other researchers in the project were Jay Rotella, Jerry Johnson, and Rick Lawrence. They, with the others, said more research is needed to look at new questions about retaining healthy ecosystems and livable human communities.

Evelyn Boswell is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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