Building Bridges: How Collaboration is Addressing Wildlife-Vehicle Conflicts in Montana's Upper Yellowstone Watershed
Year of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Department or School/College
Shawn Johnson, Brooke Shifrin
Wildlife-Vehicle Conflicts, Collaboration, Liaison, Upper Yellowstone, Montana, Paradise Valley
University of Montana
Environmental Studies | Leadership Studies | Natural Resources and Conservation
In my first semester of graduate studies at the University of Montana – Fall, 2019 – I was given an assignment from one of my professors to research a “landscape-scale” conflict of my choosing and compose a professional memo that could be sent to key influencers or stakeholders tied to the issue. Naturally, I directed my attention to a community I know and love, the Upper Yellowstone, and a conflict that is ubiquitous across the West: Wildlife-Vehicle Conflicts (WVCs).
In the pages that follow I describe how Yellowstone Safe Passages came to be, who is involved, and the steps we have taken thus far. I also share recommendations from our experience that I hope provide insights for people in Montana who may be grappling with the same question: How do we effectively address WVCs in our own community? Nearly two years has passed since I began researching wildlife-vehicle conflicts on US Highway 89, and since my founding question was presented to our core group of NGO partners. To paraphrase, that founding question went something like this: “Would a community-driven collaborative partnership be worth attempting as a means to build bridges over Highway 89?” The answer from the group, which included representatives from Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC), National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), and Park County Environmental Council (PCEC) was a unanimous “Yes”, followed by, “Do you want to be the person to lead it?!” And so the story unfolds. Building bridges, I’ve learned, has more to do with social dynamics than it does physical structures. It has more to do with how data is created and used, who is involved in generating the data, and the objectives data is intended to fulfill. It has more to do with a thoughtful and inclusive process than it does in building structures.
I begin by introducing the broad strokes of wildlife-vehicle conflicts in the United States and Montana, touching on a handful of elements related to WVCs in the Upper Yellowstone watershed. I present the three pillars of wildlife-vehicle conflict (human safety, wildlife impact, and economic impact) in an attempt to pull the veil back on this issue, and in a manner that is digestible. Wildlife-vehicle conflicts are measurable and preventable. The question is whether or not communities such as the Upper Yellowstone have the right people, sufficient information, and effective process put in place to come up with solutions.
Well over two decades of credible research has demonstrated the efficacy of WVC mitigation solutions such as wildlife overpasses, underpasses (large culverts), and diversion fencing that guides wildlife to the structures. Presenting solutions on the ground, and in rural communities, however, is an entirely different hurdle. It begins by bringing this information into the community, asking for feedback, inviting community members into the problem-solving circle, and raising awareness about WVCs to new heights. In “Addressing the Issue” I expand on the genesis of my role as Liaison and how Yellowstone Safe Passages dedicated ourselves to the collaborative process. The story is augmented with personal reflections and the sharing of specific activities, objectives, and milestones in our partnership’s work. I also introduce a series of recommendations on how to build a collaborative culture within defined geographies or communities such as the Upper Yellowstone watershed.
Throughout the paper, and from different angles, I argue that collaboration is the key to addressing and resolving wildlife-vehicle conflicts – both in aligning diverse interests and capacities toward a shared vision and in developing a process through which cross-cultural, cross-jurisdictional, and community-wide bridge building can occur. This is what I refer to as “Community in Collaboration,” which represents a pragmatic ideal to build relationships and interdependency among diverse interests (even those of competing nature). Community in Collaboration elevates a belief that conflicts of all shapes and sizes will come and go in the passage of time, but the quality of our relationships set guideposts on how we navigate those obstacles. In the context of wildlife-vehicle conflicts, I consider the potential of a subtle cultural transformation where transparency about the use of knowledge and data becomes an unspoken mantra; where deeper understanding of the perceptions of landownership and private property rights invites compassion and empathy over that of criticism and judgement; and where framing WVCs as an impact on livelihoods enables leaders in state and federal agencies to consider that human safety is not a measure of life and death, but rather of an individual’s ability to thrive.
Toward the end of the paper I discuss the role tribes might play throughout Montana, praising the efforts of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in the renowned US Highway 93 North case study. Concluding the paper, I speak to the exciting and relevant conversations taking place at this very moment. The local scene in the Upper Yellowstone is building momentum. Statewide leadership is developing plans to implement WVC mitigation projects in key areas like the Upper Yellowstone, Greater Missoula area, and other high priority areas. Under the Biden administration new federal support will dedicate funds to states, through competitive grant cycles over the next five years, focusing specifically on WVC mitigation and habitat connectivity efforts. We are primed for great work in the years to come.
To accomplish this great work we must make space for co-created visions and culture shifts. In an attempt to support this change I provide a distillation of advice and recommendations from my experience working in the field of collaborative conservation, attempting to identify a few of the distinct threads that weave successful collaborations together – the key principles that articulate how “Community in Collaboration” can be applied in other communities, watersheds, and regions across the West.
Anderson, D.P. (2021). Building Bridges: How Collaboration is Addressing Wildlife-Vehicle Conflicts in Montana's Upper Yellowstone Watershed. Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers. Environmental Studies, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana.
Environmental Studies Commons, Leadership Studies Commons, Natural Resources and Conservation Commons
© Copyright 2021 Daniel Phelps Anderson