The morning sun warmed journalists and environmentalists as they set off at 8:30 am on Thursday to learn about "Preserving Wildlife in a Changing World."
The group spent the day exploring the homes of the snowshoe hare, lynx, elk, wolf, and dozens of other species living on the edges of Montana's urban areas.
At the first stop, they visited a new housing development near Missoula, with views across urban elk habitat.
On Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal land, game cameras monitoring wildlife corridors -- underpasses and overpasses -- caught footage of curious journalists instead.
As the tour rolled to the Seeley Lake area, experts discussed wolf management by way of hunting and non-lethal practices.
Upon arrival the group met a caged wild hare, whose ears and feet were beginning their seasonal change from earthen brown to snowy white. The animal was one of many being tracked by University of Montana researchers.
The group left the Flathead National Forest en route to the Rattlesnake Valley, ending the day's tour with a demonstration by Pepin, a canine employed by Working Dogs for Conservation. This obsessive shepherd is trained to memorize the scent of species scat, in order to locate that animal’s feces in the field to determine population size.
Some day, all roads will lead to Alberta...that is, if the Canadian province's vast oil reserve known as the tar sands continues its steep development trajectory.
According to Janet Annesley, vice president of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, everything changed for Alberta in 2002, when the U.S. Department of Energy officially declared the Alberta tar sands as an economically and politically feasible source of energy. With a flick of its regulatory pen, the DOE shifted the landscape of the whole energy-consuming world.
As Annesley explained, the tar sands oil reserve constitutes "half the investible oil in the free world."
Oil reserves of unequalled magnitude means environmental impacts and challenges on similar scales. The speakers gathered for the Friday morning session represented voices from all sides of the environmental and regulatory debate:
Roughly a dozen SEJ conference attendees ventured into the Montana wilderness braving the early morning chill, and a trail that could potentially lead them 19 miles into the Bitterroot Mountains. They were at Kootenai Creek: a tour added at the last minute, thanks to high interest in hikes along trout habitat.
As I was the only volunteer who was familiar with the area, I was asked to lead the group and be van-driver to the Stevensville trail Thursday morning.
Although the group opted to hike only about two and a half miles in, the group reached the edge of a scorched landscape, where trees were reduced to ash and matchsticks along Kootenai Creek, which burned in a 4500-acre fire along the canyon last fall.
They encountered snakes and wooly-bear caterpillars along the trail and saw trout swimming in pools along the river, camouflaged by multicolored rocks along the streambed.
The two-hour hike gave the visiting journalists and scientists a slice of recreational wilderness in Montana. Kootenai Creek is often home to hikers, kayakers and rock climbers during the summer.
SEJ's Thursday tour of the Clark Fork River Superfund cleanup sites took us to Butte, home of the immense Berkeley Pit copper mine. Here the abandoned open pit mine contains 40 billion gallons of acidic mine water with a pH of 2.5 -- about the same as vinegar.
The water contains the proverbial witches brew of manganese, cadmium, arsenic, copper, and a host of other less scary stuff. The big concern as far as human health goes, is the arsenic, although for fisheries aluminum and zinc can be problematic.
Having scheduled an extra day to regroup after our journey to Missoula from Philadelphia, my husband Bob (an academic member of SEJ) and I headed out to do some exploring and photography, to get acclimated to the ecosystem and local culture before the conference's official start.
Our destination: The National Bison Range, a wildlife refuge about 45 minutes outside the city, up routes 200 and 93. Moments after leaving Missoula, we were greeted with mountains rising like dinosaur spines in the east. On the way, there's a wildlife overpass and lots of open range with horse and cattle ranches (no surprise).
Once there, we checked out the visitors center, which recounts the history of the American bison. It's a remarkable tale of environmental destruction and (ongoing) restoration: At one time some 30 million bison roamed what's now the U.S. with a range extending as far as the Mid-Atlantic. Human predation reduced their numbers to less than 100 individuals.
Fortunately, in the early part of the 20th century conservationists (including the ASPCA!) committed themselves to saving the bison, and the range was established as the first preserve with that goal.
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and First Dog Jag, his border collie, will be SEJ's guests at the opening reception and dinner Wednesday evening. Thomas Friedman, in Hot, Flat and Crowded, quotes Gov. Schweitzer at length on global warming. The governor and his wife, Nancy, are plugging an electric ZAP truck in this photo.
It turns out that Montanans get it: elk hunting season has had to be pushed back from October to November, because the heavy mountain snows that push elk to lower elevations where hunters can track and kill them don’t arrive in October any more.
“Changing the date for the start of elk hunting season is not being driven by scientists,” he said. It’s being driven by guys who want to hunt and are telling me, ‘I have not shot an elk in three years.’ These are just regular people, and they may not have the climate data, but they know what they know, and they know something is different.”
Montana’s getting less snow and it’s melting off earlier. Temperatures in trout streams are rising, not good for those cold-loving trout. Some rivers have been closed to fishing. Insects larvae that used to be killed by frigid winter temperatures are surviving warmer winters (relatively speaking – it’s still Montana), to eat up the trees. More dead trees means more devastating forest fires.
“We now have acres and acres of dead and dying trees in the Rockies,” said Schweitzer. “Nature has her way of dealing with that – lightning strikes. A healthy forest will burn a little and then a little rain will come and it will all stay in balance. Now, with so many dead and dying trees, you get a lightning strike and boom – 500,000 acres of trees are gone. It is changing the whole composition of the forest.”
See Chapter 5, Global Wierding, of Friedman’s book for more. I look forward to hearing Gov. Schweitzer at the dinner, and meeting Jag. The conference will have lots of sessions on subjects from wildfire to salmon. See you there.
I spent about an hour this morning meeting with a wildlands management advocate based here in Portland, Ore., during a relaxed, a get-to-know-you session. It was a chance to brush up on a variety of challenges and opportunities facing the forests, oceans, rivers and deserts of the Pacific Northwest.
I wasn't working on any particular story, so we took our time meandering around diverse topics. Our conversation reminded me of why I enjoy journalism so much: I constantly learn new things, explore them and inspect them and study them. In a way, journalism offers the best things about school, constantly.
My contact's vivid depictions of the natural landscape in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho left me daydreaming about the trip I'll take to get to Missoula. On one hand, I'll get to experience much of this landscape as I wander to the SEJ conference. But on the other, once I get to Montana it's not as if the landscape will be less interesting: I can't wait to experience Missoula, and Glacier National Park, and whatever else I see during the event.
After all this exploring, the conference will be where I get to dive in, ponder what I've seen, and how it's changing, with everyone who will be there to share their own reflections and expertise.
This morning's meeting was a reminder of how many important topics there are for just one region of this country. So I'm really giddy about what I'll learn about in October. I must admit, though, I'm equally enthusiastic about the adventure of traveling to Missoula, of crossing forests, paralleling rivers, climbing mountains, and stopping in small towns for lunch.