Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 12 September 2004

Bozeman's growth increases conflict between people, wildlife

By SCOTT McMILLIONBozeman Daily Chronicle Staff Writer

Clickety clickety click.

The snow was deep that night last winter and the small herd of mule deer was trying to stay out of it, so the sound of their sharp little hooves crackled through the frosty air as they trotted along the plowed sidewalks at the intersection of 19th Avenue and Main Street.

That's normally one of Bozeman's busiest intersections, but at 4 a.m., the traffic is thin, so the does and fawns passed unmolested beneath the glowing lights of casinos and car lots, clicking down Bozeman's main thoroughfare, trotting along like they owned the place.

For now, they still do.

Bozeman is growing fast, paving over more wildlife habitat every year.

Yet some wild animals manage to adjust, to make a living among the cars and big-box stores, the foreign plants and barking dogs.

Deer have found refuge within the city limits, as have raccoons and skunks. Elk live just outside of town. Visitors include black bears and the occasional moose. Mountain lions sneak through town now and then.

Kurt Alt, regional wildlife manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman, recalls getting a call two winters ago.

The manager of the Kagy Korner grocery store had spotted a mountain lion near the Museum of the Rockies.

"It was across from the store, watching traffic," Alt recalled.

Then the lion did what lions do best: it disappeared, melting into the background.

In recent months, other big cats have been spotted in Helena, Missoula and in Kalispell, where one crawled into somebody's basement.

Deer droppings are common sights on the lawn of Montana's capitol building in Helena, where 500 deer live in the city limits. In Bozeman, deer loiter at the Law and Justice Center, especially in winter.

"They're hanging out here in the parking lot," said Bozeman police officer Jason LaCross, who works the night shift.

Bumping into each other

It's hard to find a Montana resident who doesn't like wildlife, but even the enthusiasts among us sometimes complain.

Deer eat our shrubbery and flowers. Raccoons raid the garbage. Beavers flood yards and magpies divebomb people who approach their nests. Ravens steal, skunks stink and bears and lions make us grab the children and hustle inside.

In Montana today, there are more big game animals and more people than there have been in a century, and for some species, the animal populations are growing faster than the human numbers.

Deer and people number roughly 900,000 each, according to FWP and the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1900, there were 243,000 people and deer were hard to locate, as were elk, and the moose were gone altogether.

Now, thanks to good wildlife management, the state harbors 160,000 elk, 6,000 moose, 5,000 bighorn sheep, 126,000 antelope and 17,000 black bears, according to FWP estimates.

But it also includes 473,000 houses, apartments and trailers, according to the U.S. Census. Of that number, 73,000, more than 15 percent, have been built since 1990 and an increasing number are in the river bottoms and south-facing hillsides critical to wildlife.

Accordingly, things bump into each other.

Our relationship with wild animals is complicated. Our warm homes draw mice in the cooling fall days, so we keep cats. But we also put out bird feeders, which is just fine with the cat, or the neighbor's cat, but can also spread avian diseases like conjunctivitis.

One study from the University of Wisconsin estimated that housecats kill between 4 million and 5 million songbirds every day in the United States.

Housecats don't fare so well against crows, ravens and magpies, species that thrive in towns and suburbs and that often eat the eggs or young of smaller birds.

The impacts start to add up. And as the diversity of birds changes, so do the bugs and the plants the bugs eat.

Sprawl and habitat

Andrew Hansen, a professor of ecology at Montana State University, studies how the spread of residential development affects the natural world.

Where and how we build homes will affect floods, fires and vegetation, which changes habitat. It also alters how species interact with each other. In some residential areas near Seattle, Hansen found, the number of native birds living there dropped from 35 species to 15.

On the other hand, some species flourish around people. Coopers hawks like Tucson just fine and moose in northern Alberta are moving into developed areas. Squirrels, chipmunks, crows, European starlings, skunks and raccoons do fine in town.

And across the nation, "whitetail deer are just exploding," he said.

That means grim work for some people.

Two or three times a month, somebody runs over a deer in the city of Bozeman, said John VanDelinder, the city's street superintendent.

"We've hit a few with snowplows, too," he added.

People are also mashing skunks and raccoons, and VanDelinder's crew has to clean up the carcasses.

"Some people just can't handle it," he said. "They're throwing up lunch."

Dead skunks require deft work with a shovel and a bag, he said, but motorists still sometimes cast the evil eye at city vehicles hauling odiferous roadkill.

Beyond the immediate dirty work of scraping up the dead, the interactions between residential development and the natural world is dimly understood.

Scientists have studied logging, agriculture and mining for decades, Hansen noted, and they have a pretty good handle on how a clearcut or an alfalfa field affects wildlife, for better or worse.

But there is much less understanding of sprawl, he said, though it covers 25 percent of the nation. That adds up to a lot of lawn chemicals, river riprap, pavement, dogs, cats and commuter miles.

Some species do well. Others suffer.

One thing is clear, Hansen said. Logging, agriculture and recreation are intermittent activities that give creatures periodic breaks. Residential development never goes away, and its impacts last much longer.

Subdivisions built in the 1950s are still changing how wild things make a living today, Hansen found, and the effects ripple far beyond the property boundaries.

Rural development "is permanent on the order of decades or longer and its effect may intensify over time," Hansen's study says.

No easy answers

Traditional wildlife management, often focused on hunting or other methods of removing animals, is frequently stymied by urban or suburban situations, Alt said.

"It's just tough," he said. When elk herds hammer crops adjacent to subdivisions, as happens just east of Bozeman, human values collide. The farmer has a legitimate problem, but the new residents don't like the prospect of bullets flying by their homes.

"There are no easy answers" in such cases, Alt said.

Homeowners often find conflicting advice, as well.

The Humane Society of the United States's Web site offers lessons on building better brush piles to create habitat for birds and small mammals. Wildlife advocates encourage landowners to foster native plants. Yet wildfire specialists and insurance companies tell you to get rid of the brush and keep lawns green.

Meanwhile, communities like Bozeman continue to spread.

Hansen said there are a number of things people can do to minimize their impact: keep pets under control; contain pet food and garbage; use native landscaping; choose building sites carefully and avoid streambanks; and don't overgraze pastures, since doing so fosters weeds and the manure feeds creatures you might not want around.

"I don't think this has to be onerous," Hansen said. "It's not that hard to live with wildlife."

But if we're not careful, it could become increasingly difficult for wildlife to live with us.

Deer still click their feet on Main Street in Bozeman, passing from one open area to another. That might not happen forever.

"Once the paved surface exceeds a certain level, they begin dropping off," Hansen said.