A Day in the Life

by Dennis Glick

My alarm and the robins both started chirping at the same time: 4:30 am. I had committed to attending a meeting in Island Park, Idaho scheduled for 9:00 am. It’s a three hour drive from Livingston, 45 minutes to get ready, and a half hour to walk the dog — thus my early rising.

The reward was a lovely sunrise drive over the hill to Gallatin Valley, then on to the Madison with its wide open spaces filled not with homes, but with wandering pronghorn, deer and elk.

Dropping into Island Park with its nicely regenerating lodgepole and the world famous Henry’s Fork, I kept my eyes peeled for a chance sighting of one of the grizzly bears in the rebounding Yellowstone population that biologists say regularly cross the highway.

Appropriately, the focus of the meeting was the issue of wildlife-vehicle accidents and how to mitigate them on that stretch of road. The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) is formulating a plan for making Highway 20 safer for drivers despite ever increasing traffic. We also want to make it safer for wildlife.

The group I was meeting with is called the Henrys Fork Legacy Project. It includes representatives of state and federal agencies, land trusts, advocacy groups, and community-based conservationists, many of whom have been meeting for almost eight years. We come together with a mission “to conserve the rural landscapes and unique natural resources of the Upper Henrys Fork.”

Some of these folks have been there from the beginning. Others are new. But all are dedicated to sustaining the natural values of this important corner of Greater Yellowstone for the benefit of local residents and the nation as a whole.

We always begin meetings with a round robin where each organization shares an update on events, projects and observations relevant to the group and our collective mission. “Three campgrounds were retrofitted with bear proof garbage cans.” “New sage grouse research revealed that some birds migrate over 50 miles.” “A conservation easement was completed on an ecologically critical ranch property.” “A new trail is being built and an old forest road closed.” “Outreach to homeowners will be stepped up to help make their homes more wildfire resistant.” The list of noteworthy projects is always long and impressive. Equally impressive to me is how both government and non-governmental organizations are leading these projects, if not in coordination, at least in a complementary fashion.

After the round robin we moved on to the main topic of discussion: how can we engage in the ITD redesign of Highway 20 to ensure the issue of wildlife-vehicle accidents is addressed in a significant way? Nearly a quarter of all vehicle accidents in Island Park involve wildlife, which results in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages annually, injuries to drivers, and death to many wildlife species including some that are endangered.

As always, I was impressed by the passion of the group, but also by their thoughtful and informed analysis of conservation problems and solutions. By the end of the meeting we had fine-tuned a strategy for raising awareness of this issue and for constructively engaging in the ITD highway redesign process. The kickoff for community outreach will begin this 4th of July weekend.

The meeting was over by early afternoon. After a bit more chit chat — “What are your kids up to this summer?” “How’s fishing on the Henrys Fork?” “Congratulations on your retirement!” — We departed company.

Now my big decision – do I return via Yellowstone Park, or retrace my route through the Madison and Gallatin Valleys? Not everyone can traverse the world’s first national park as part of their commute, so I decided to go for it. I’d heard traffic was already setting records. But what the heck, I hadn’t yet traveled through that portion of the park this summer. And I had plenty of time to get home before my dog got too antsy for his evening stroll.

The line of cars at the entrance station was mercifully short – a good sign. And I was surprised that while busy, there were no major bison jams, elk tie ups, or stalled cars with steaming radiators. The park was looking extraordinarily verdant and alive — I’d made the right call.

I left the Park through the newly redesigned entrance in Gardiner, an effort spearheaded by local citizens. “Well done” I thought, “spruced up and safer, but still a little funky. Perfect for Gardiner.”

For the final leg of my journey, I drove up Paradise Valley, scattered with its fair share of rural subdivisions, but it still lives up to its name.

I guess I should have been tired when I finally got home. But I wasn’t.  The scenic drive, lively interaction with conservation colleagues, knowing we had crafted a solid plan for addressing a serious wildlife issue – it doesn’t get any better than this, for me anyway.

Well, maybe a little better. With the setting sun once again gilding the landscape, I walked my dog along the Yellowstone River just down the street from my home, chatting with other strollers also admiring the view. And just like me, they were thanking their lucky stars that we get to call this place home.