Something happens to me every time I enter the Gallatin Canyon. On one hand, I am uplifted by the natural beauty of the river, the geologic formations above its banks and the ample wildlife along its shores. But on the other, I am saddened by the constant rush of traffic, the never-ending line of construction vehicles and the chest-high piles of traction sand.
This emotional tug-of-war isn’t unique to me—I hear similar reactions from others all the time. It is the central dilemma of a place as beautiful as the Canyon. We want to share this beauty, but how can we while still protecting it for generations to come? How can we do right by the wildlife that call it home, while honoring the legacy of those who came before us?
The short answer is that it won’t be easy, but if we’re able to, it’ll be well worth the effort. Because isn’t the Gallatin as spectacular as any other river in Montana? Isn’t it worth fighting for in the same way that the Smith, Madison, Yellowstone, Big Hole and Flathead are worth fighting for?
Sometimes I think we forget just how important this river is, and how vital its health is for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. When viewed from above, it seems as if the Gallatin cuts straight through the heart of the GYE, pumping it full of the life this region is famous for.
Just the other day, like any average weekday, I noticed a group of elk, huddled in a circle, all eyes looking outward as we rushed by in our cars. The elk were in the middle of a meadow, a safe haven adjacent to the highway, but it was clear they were not looking to stay there long. They wanted to move, and by the look of things, they wanted to move toward and then across the highway.
I didn’t stay to see what happened, but not less than two days later, a report on Explore Big Sky’s Instagram account showed a road-killed cow elk, cut open at the midsection by the force of a passing car. The elk lay dead in the ditch, left to rot as passersby mostly went about their business.
Was this one of the elk that had been huddled in a ball days before in the Canyon? I’ll never know, but I can’t help feeling like this is a powerful metaphor for Big Sky and the Gallatin River that we love.
Right now, the Gallatin is that small herd of elk, huddled nervously in a ball, wondering what fate it awaits. It’s under threats from all sides, and its future is in many ways uncertain. Those of us who care about it can nervously await a negative outcome, such as a hole in the gut, or we can do something.
We can keep taking the proactive steps necessary to make sure we give the Gallatin a fighting chance. Instead of indifferently passing and letting the Gallatin rot, we can commit to a culture of conservation that will keep the river clean and the community healthy.
It is not outside the realm of possibility to have conservation and growth. We can welcome more people, but only if we do so smartly and intentionally and with ecological integrity at the forefront of our decision-making. We must remember that the Gallatin is a singular river playing a unique role in the Greater Yellowstone drama.
To protect it, we cannot forget about it.
This article originally appeared in Explore Big Sky.