“Yellowstone” has become one of the hottest streaming shows. Filmed on location in the west, mostly in Montana, the drama tells the story of a modern-day ranch owner, John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, and his family dynasty.
The storyline is deliciously engrossing, with devious and family intrigue, high-stakes power games, and dramatic plot twists, but the cinematography is a key element of attraction. Breathtaking views, snow-capped mountains and charming small towns are captured in all episodes.
Still, ask local Montanans what they think of the show, and you’re likely to be met with grimaces and criticism.
Ginger Rice, a lifelong resident of the state, said she initially vowed not to watch the series after watching just one episode.
“It’s unreal,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t show the life of Bozeman or Montana.”
Yet Rice, who admits the show eventually drew her in, also recognizes that the show makes her home state alluring to viewers: “See what our state is like? The mountains and prairies, and who can’t love that?”
The production itself has a significant economic impact on the state, according to a University of Montana study. When the fourth season was filmed on location last year, production in the state was spending $72 million, with state companies receiving another $85 million in economic boost. The study was funded in part by Paramount, which owns the show.
This study did not quantify the impact of all the free advertising Montana receives from Yellowstone. But it’s clear that the fictional John Dutton and his fictional sprawling ranch gave city rich people an idea of what it would be like to become a real-life baron of the Wild West.
A still from the Yellowstone TV series on Paramount Networks, set in Montana.
Courtesy: Paramount Networks.
“We’ve had an influx of all kinds of wealthy individuals looking for ranches,” Robert Keith, founder of boutique investment firm Beartooth Group, told CNBC. “They really want to own amazingly large properties.”
As demand for land and houses has skyrocketed, prices have followed suit.
In the Bozeman area, the median cost of a single-family home has increased from less than $500,000 before the pandemic to almost $750,000, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors. The Missoula and Kalispell areas saw even more dramatic price increases. The rents are so high that even working people find it difficult to find affordable housing. And some landlords, seeking higher rents, are not renewing leases with tenants.
Huge demand in Big Sky
Big Sky Country’s population boom had lasted for years. Montana, the eighth smallest state by population, today has a population of more than 1.1 million people. From 2010 to 2020, the state grew 9.6%, according to the US Census Bureau.
Then came Covid and telecommuting. In 2021, Montana became one of the fastest growing locations in the country, according to the US Census Bureau.
“Many of our clients came out during the pandemic and found shelter on the ranches, a place of safety and no people around,” says Tim Murphy, a longtime Bozeman ranch broker and partner at Hall & Hall.
Last year, Chris Kimbrell, who had been living in Georgia, joined the mass migration to Montana to get a job as a veterinarian in Bozeman. Since his very first visit as a 9-year-old, he has said he was addicted to the state and kept making fly-fishing trips back and forth through college.
But he weighed the rising cost of living carefully.
Montana Home Prices Soar: A 55-and-Older Community in Bozeman.
Countess Brewer | CNBC
“If it weren’t for a family member who would let me live on their property, I would have to really seriously consider moving out here,” Kimbrell said. “Rent and housing are becoming extremely expensive.” Support staff at his veterinary practice will be released from the home, he added.
Rice, the lifelong Montana resident, said her daughter and son-in-law recently received word that their landlord would not be renewing their lease on a three-bedroom home they had rented for more than a decade. It’s an insane mess to find a two-bedroom apartment at three times the rent they were paying, she said.
“My daughter says we’ll never be able to afford a house,” she said. “We tried to save, but everything goes uphill and uphill.”
Some families, even those with full-time jobs, are moving into RVs or tents. Local roads are now littered with people in campers who can no longer afford to rent or own a home. Habitat for Humanity is calling it a housing crisis. “Montana has quickly become inaccessible to those who live and work here,” said the nonprofit, which is urging lawmakers to prioritize housing affordability.
Fly fishing and designer jeans
Longtime residents also criticize the cultural gap between newcomers and longtime Montaners. They frown on newcomers who buy properties but refuse to get involved and get involved in their communities.
“I used to think it was great that you knew your neighbors. We still know our neighbors, but we’re not really friends with our neighbors,” Rice said.
She silently complains that Bozeman is full of “highfalutin people” who wear fancy clothes and are uncomfortable around them. And she says the city center has become almost unrecognizable.
“I don’t like how busy it is. I don’t like the traffic. And it’s too expensive,” she said.
Longtime residents told CNBC the changes are evident in Missoula and Kalispell as well. Outsiders are always in a hurry and too loud with their unrealistic demands. Rice said at her previous job at a dry cleaner, a customer insisted on having paint splatter removed from designer jeans. “What did you draw in those pants, anyway?” She wondered.
The “Yellowstone” effect reminds residents of another culture clash that ensued when Hollywood portrayed Montana in the film “A River Runs Through It.” The film, directed by Robert Redford and starring a rising movie star named Brad Pitt, was shot on location in 1991 and released in 1992. He won the Oscar for best cinematography.
“This is when fly-fishing became fashionable,” said ranch broker Murphy, “as a large number of people in the area wanted to buy fly-fishing real estate.”
As a result, fly fishing grew by 60% in both 1991 and 1992, according to Forbes.
He sees the rise again, he said, even as uncertainty clouded the economy. “When the stock market falters and there is turmoil, it only heats up our market because the real estate market is pretty stable,” he said.
Many of the newcomers come with deep pockets and the entrepreneurial ambitions that fuel Montana’s growing economy. Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said in May that the state economy grew 6.7% in 2021, the fastest pace in more than 40 years, making it the seventh fastest-growing state economy in the country.
Montana real estate prices soar as Beartooth Group founder Robert Keith rehabilitates damaged land and sells the restored ranches to conservation-conscious buyers
Countess Brewer | CNBC
Beartooth Group bets that investors want not just financial return, but legacy. The company specializes in rehabilitating degraded land – such as old mines, feedlots or ranches – and then selling it.
Keith, the founder of Beartooth, showed CNBC a creek that had been turned into a winding waterway perfect for trout. Generations ago it had been forced into a ditch to be used for agriculture. But now the fish are attracting birds. Ospreys built a nest and the parents were seen feeding their young.
It’s the type of property that will appeal to potential buyers with ideas about Montana’s wild landscapes, Keith said. They want to see deer and bears and butterflies.
“I think we can all agree that there aren’t enough dollars going into conservation,” he said. Wealthy, conservation-conscious buyers often invest even more in restoring the land once they own a property. He said Beartooth’s pitch was unique: “By doing something good for the world, we make it more valuable financially and environmentally.”
The state also hopes to lure former residents back to Big Sky State with the Come Home Montana marketing campaign.
“No matter how long you’ve been away, now is the time to return to rural Montana,” the campaign reads. “Embrace the life you really want to live.”
But if you want to live there, bring your check book with you. Former residents will find that their home state is far more expensive than when they left.