30 June 2007

Twin Lakes Backpacking

I had a few days for a backpack trip last week, and friend Dave & his daughter Chelsea suggested Lake of the Isle/Twin Lakes area on the west side of the Great Divide. We ended up going to a long valley just north of LotI, a place I've wanted to visit, just over the ridge (Continental Divide) from 10 Mile Lakes. Here is the cirque, a bit distorted by my amateurish photo-stitching:

Soon after leaving the Twin Lakes trail, we ended up bushwhacking through some difficult deadfall in the mid-elevation forest. Hmmm... I thought there was an old packer's trail into this place. Here are Chelsea, RTD, and I--happy, before the grim reality of cross country hiking in the ugly stuff set in:

Well, we did see lots of critters to cheer us on,
such as this curious mule deer doe:

and this curious elk cow:

I suspect both had young hidden near by, and were reluctant to flee. I thought we would see goats for sure, but found nary a sign of them. They were once common in this area, but seem to be suffering from the constant snow machine harassment that occurs throughout the winter.

Well, lots of bear sign, though (some critters are more tolerant of humans than others),

and fresh (note the hair--this guy recently ate an elk calf, I think):
And we saw a bear, but like so many ursine meetings it was fleeting, no time for a photo.

Here are my companions at an old logger's cabin (the ACM raped the timber out of this area, too, a century or so ago):
The 90 degree F heat made the alpine basin feel especially good. Few trees can match the beauty of the alpine larch. They grow in incredibly harsh conditions, on scree, avalanche chutes, and wind (and lightning) blasted ridges:
There were an extraordinary number of tiny yellow violets dotting the open ground covered by snow drifts just a few weeks ago:

A supper of grilled steaks, baked potatoes, and asparagus looks pretty good too:

ATV trail violations are increasingly a problem in this area, as everywhere. No wonder, given the Forest Service policy of trying to close old roads rather than reclaim them. A big wide road is a big wide invitation to ATV riders, and the pitiful closure efforts mean nothing, as you can see by the illegal bypass:

Putting trails across old roads on clearcuts makes for hot hiking too--as with Dave & Chelsea here on the trek out:

26 June 2007

Another Day on the Creek

Jan, our friend Sheila, and I fished an upper river tributary creek last evening. We began with a picnic at the Home Ranch, and then found our fishing spot.

Though cool and breezy, there were several species/sizes of caddis popping out of the water and some mayfly spinners laying eggs. The fish were rising and it was fun to catch a few larger brookies and a "trophy" whitefish--"trophy" is of course a relative term, but a 14" whitie in a small creek is a trophy. The larger rainbows seem to have left the creek--I think they stay just a few weeks after spawning, and then head back down to the mainstem river once summer arrives and flows decrease. Oddly enough, few elk were out when sunset came. Perhaps they have moved up, though usually quite a few residents stay in the valley. The antelope were a little scarce too. Maybe the wolf pack is around?

Jan, Sheila, and RTD:

Jan and Gaul Creek:

Note that the riparian area in this reach has not fully recovered from the old Anaconda Company days (it is now state land, with well managed cattle rest-rotation). In some areas, willows have fully recolonized the banks, but here it's mostly just grass. Grass does not provide as much bank stability, but it makes for an easier place for novices to fish.

It's all easier said than done, this flyfishing thing. I take for granted keeping my backcast high, keeping my shadow off the water, reading the water, throwing slack and then mending for a good drift, handling the line with the left hand, using the a flick of the rod to pick line up from the water, etc. When did I learn all of this? How? No wonder some novice anglers spend hours practice-casting on a lawn. And no wonder so many anglers who get pretty good at pounding the banks from a boat are helpless (and hopeless) when trying to wade fish. It can be pretty simple, though: I well recall catching nice browns on nymphs in brushy Pennsylvania and New York streams by simply stripping line and drifting the fly into a downstream pool.

22 June 2007

Alpine Solstice Hike

The first day of summer blazed in with hot 80 deg F temperatures--a good day to head for the mountains. RTD and I loaded up, drove to the Pintler, and found the Many Miles Lake trailhead. Thankfully, our good hiking friends in Anaconda have (once again) removed the FS trail marker sign in an effort to keep the searching hordes out of the Last Best Alpine Cirque.

Looks like a good year for beargrass blooms. They don't flower every year, but seem to like these wet springs. Here are some at mid-elevation (c. 8,000 foot) level:

It was hot as all hell hiking up the steep trail that brings you over from Many More Miles drainage to Many Miles Lakes. My bad for getting a late start. Normally, I'm on the trail by 7 am in hot weather, but Jan, AJ, and I fished until dark last night. Oh yeah, AJ caught his first trout on a dryfly. I told him he had to eat that first one raw, and I think he would have if I could have kept a straight face just 10 seconds longer:

Anyway, over the ridge and into the cirque and wasn't RTD happy to find a snow field and cool down:
Just a little further, and we were at Many Cutthroat Lake. Wow, it's still spring here at 9,000 feet, with golden glacier lillies, purple roosterheads, and tiny spring beauties. The latter have been my favorite since I learned to spring turkey hunt in Pennsylvania on Big Flat at the headwaters of Kinzua Creek. There, I would hide and call in a gobbler, shivering in the cool early-May dawn while listening to the birds and admiring the first flowers of spring:

Like most places in western Montana, even this remote hanging valley was not left untouched by the ravages of the Anaconda Copper Mining company. The company was caught illegally poaching cord wood c. 1900 on the newly created National Forests (i.e. Forest Reserves), and had to abandon the stacked logs. There are dozens of these piles scattered around the lakes: Time for a cup of tea. It's nice to sit on a log, look over the lake to the edge of the world (the lake's outlet), and wait for the water to boil (oh yeah, and swat mosquitoes): No, believe it or not, EcoRover does NOT kill trout everytime he goes out. But there is nothing like a mess of fat cutthroats for supper: As I fished, the air cooled and the billowy cumulus clouds began to tower and develop dark underbellies. Just as I finished cleaning the trout and packing them in snow, the thunderstorm broke. It felt good to hike back across the ridge to the trailhead in a downpour, and the nearby lightning strikes along the ridge were only mildly terrifying. And, with a few beers stashed in the creek for the ride home, life is good no matter how wet you are.

Collaboration and the Path to Extinction

The French Vichy, the Norwegian Quislings, and other collaborators learned an important lesson that environmentalists should have learned: it is not always good to legitimatize ourselves by working with those who have radically opposed values.

“The radical center” was all the rage a few years ago. Groups such as the Quivera Coalition, led by charismatic individuals such as Courtney White, helped popularize the movement among environmentalists. At the same time, there was a rush to form watershed committees – what Peter Lavigne called “the buzzword of the 90s” – where environmentalists, developers, and ranchers would link arms and go skipping happily down the path to Oz.

A little fish has just taught us another humble lesson in the perils of collaboration. Recently, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced that Upper Missouri River Fluvial Arctic Grayling, aka Big Hole River grayling, are no longer a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Arctic grayling is an elegant and beautiful relative of the trout; it has iridescent sides and a large sail-like dorsal fin marked with purple spots. Montana fluvial grayling once thrived throughout the upper Missouri River watershed above Great Falls. Today however, it survives only in a small segment of the upper Big Hole River—less than 5% of its original range.

Last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grayling biologist James Magee estimated that there were approximately 1,000 adult Big Hole River grayling. This year, Magee would not even hazard a guess at how many might be left. Fred Allendorf of the Montana Conservation Genetics Laboratory in Missoula believes that 1,000 to 2,000 adult fish is the minimum threshold population needed to insure viability. This makes it likely that Big Hole River grayling are what fisheries biologist Robert Behnke calls a “ghost species”—organisms that, although present in small numbers, are for all practical purposes already extinct unless extraordinary restoration measures are taken.

Given this situation, the FWS decision has outraged environmentalists, biophiliacs, and anglers everywhere. Rightly so, given the way Bush appointees such as Julie MacDonald have bullied the agency into making political decisions that ignore good science. But many of us – environmentalist, biophiliacs, and anglers all – are complicit in the demise of grayling.

It all began in 1991, when the decidedly non-Quisling group known as the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned FWS to list the fluvial Arctic grayling throughout its historic range. When the agency decided in 1994 that a listing was “warranted but precluded,” this hit Big Hole ranchers like a brick between the eyes. Along with pressure to list the Big Hole as a “chronically dewatered stream” under Montana law, business as usual was itself an endangered species.

The ranchers appealed to then-governor Mark Racicot, the Republican Party politician who went on to manage the Bush re-election campaign. Racicot facilitated creation of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, a multi-stakeholder consensus-based group that included representatives from ranching, outfitting, local government, the tourist industry, and environmental groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Big Hole River Foundation.

At first, all went well. Environmentalists participated in and praised the watershed committee. The group made real strides regarding issues such as land use planning, invasive weed control, and a drought management plan. These all seemed like good things. Attention to fishery management helped postpone a grayling listing year by year, and it kept the environmental members from pushing for a listing.

But grayling were not at the table and neither were grayling-advocacy groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Montana Wildlife Federation. These groups were explicitly excluded because there were “too radical” and “too environmentalist.” But without such advocates, grayling never had a voice. Or a chance.

Grayling continued to decline—despite or perhaps because of efforts by the watershed committee. Even the drought plan, which should have helped fish, did not. Fish need water that “belongs” to ranchers and fish populations decline sharply when flows slip below the lower inflection point for the wetted perimeter. Once flows drop below this level, the riverbed rapidly goes dry.

Like every decision made by the watershed committee, the drought plan was the product of political expediency and not science. Whereas the minimum wetted perimeter in a critical reach for grayling survival was 60 cubic feet per second, the plan allowed flows to slip to 20 cubic feet per second.

This, and other efforts for grayling recovery, were always “too little, too late.” Even now, with the FWS decision not to list, Big Hole Watershed Committee chair Randy Smith told a newspaper reporter, “With listing no longer imminent, ranchers will have more time to evaluate projects to ensure they’re the best for grayling.” Problem is, grayling have run out of time.

19 June 2007


George Wuerthner -- artist, ecologist, and author -- sent me a recommendation for former Secretary of the Interiror Bruce Babbit's book, Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America (Island Press: 2005).

George's review:

"It's an insider's view of some of the issues and politics that took place while he was govenror of Arizona as well as Sec. of Interior. Babbitt is surprisingly well versed in a lot of conservation history, conservation biology principles, basic ecology, and of course politics. I was impressed with his breath of knowledge. He discussed in his book everything from protection of the Everglades to restoration of tall grass prairie in Iowa to water development in Arizona, wolf restoration in Yellowstone, and dam removal across the country. I was surprised to see he had read the Monkey Wrench Gang and seemed to agree with the general premise that some dams should come down.

He minces no words about livestock grazing and says it's one of the biggest impacts on the environment in the West. He correctly asserts that it has minimal economic importance to the nation and argues that it should be ended--at a minimum on all public lands where there is less than 10 inches of precipitation and he also endorsed the idea of permit buy out from willing sellers as a creative solution.

In the book he describes various successful as well as failed campaigns to draw some conclusions about how to succeed on environmental issues. One thing that I particularly liked is his call for federal guidance in land use planning and zoning. He makes the case that the federal government indirectly makes decisions about land use all the time by how it funds things from airports, highways to reservoirs and water projects. He argues that these kinds of projects have direct impacts on where and how development occurs. Rather than just let these things occur by default, he argues the federal government should consider both how these projects affect sprawl, and growth, as well as how they can be used to promote better land use planning.

He comes out very favorably in support of the Clean Water Act and argues that we need to use the Act to restore riparian areas, and reduce non-point pollution.

I was pleased to see that he considers Ag is one of the biggest impacts to the landscape--rightly recognizes that it gets a free ride in this country in terms of its environmental impacts. That was refreshing to read--especially from someone who once was in government.

He is also a big fan of the Endangered Species Act and says more or less that groups that are sueing the government to list species are doing everyone a big favor. (WWP, ONDA, Forest Guaridans, CBD, Earth Justice, etc.

take heart--he thinks you're doing a great service). He also argues strongly in favor of the Endangered Species Act as a potential mechanism that can guide land use decisions as well. I had never thought about it just the way he put it.

He's a good thinker. I highly recommend this book."

Check it out on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Cities-Wilderness-Vision-Land-America/dp/1597261513/ref=pd_bbs_1/103-1879381-5734260?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1182268503&sr=8-1

And see George's photography website at http://www.wuerthnerphotography.com/

18 June 2007

Home Ranch Campout: Montana Beauty

RTD & I mostly car camp this time of year. The June weather and large lingering snowfields make getting around in the high country (i.e. backpacking) difficult at best. As a quick get-away last week, I headed to the Home Ranch:

On a large tributary of the upper Big Hole River, this place has it all. Excellent brook trout fishing in a handful of nearby creeks, and some very good rainbow trout fishing, too (the 'bows spawn in these tribs, and some large fish hold over at least until creek levels drop in mid-July). Lots of sandhill cranes, a few herons, the occasional osprey, etc. And gorgeous views to the Pintler as in photo of the old barn at the Home Ranch (above).

Firewood close by (here, a rack of lodgepole):

Elk cows and calves (usually, the elk stay several hundred yards away; this momma let RTD & I walk a short distance away since she seemed to think she & calf were invisible). The mother is in the willows at the lower left, and the calf is in the grass laying flat with its head down (look for the reddish-brown):

Where the deer and the antelope play (these two does ran off with their fawns, but then returned and posed after hiding the little ones):
And of course wildflowers: elephant's head, lupines, sunflowers...

The Home Ranch and Mule Ranch were former Anaconda Copper Mining corporation holdings. In addition to raising mules for the Butte mines, the company pastured sheep here--moving them back and forth to the Mill/Willow Creek area in the shadow of the giant (500 feet+) Anaconda Smelter stack. In this way, the ACM could maintain the illusion (and legal pretense) that arsenic and heavy metals fallout from the smelter did not harm domestic stock. This was an important element in the ACM's ability to prevail over the Deer Lodge valley ranchers in the "smoke wars" of c. 1900 to 1920--efforts by the ranchers to obtain compensation for harmful pollution. The properties became state property after the company had no further use for them, and they have benefitted enormously by limiting the degree of cattle grazing.
Alas, even a few years ago there were many grayling in these creeks, but let's not ruin my mood.

11 June 2007

In Praise of Bitterroots (and other Late Spring Wildflowers of the Northern Rockies)

Well, here it is, well into June. The weather is spring-crazy, with snow one day and 70 deg F the next, and it has been exceptionally wet. The wildflowers love it, and I have never seen the bitterroots especially produce so many blooms.

In this view, you can see why they are locally known to the old-timers as "rock roses:"

For some years, I did not recognize the bitterroot plant. The flowers would show up in late June or early July (they are exceptionally early this year around my home at c. 6100 feet elevation), but the leaves had long died away. The rosettes of leaves are beautiful in and of themselves, as in this photo from late April:
Then, the leaves gradually die away (07 May):
The buds form (24 May):

And swell and multiply (01 June):

And then, one day, there is a tentative half-opened flower (04 June):

Soon followed by many, many more:

What joy as the lovely blooms paint the most desolate and dry slopes. Bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva) were an important staple of the native peoples in this region, and one of several root crops that helped keep the Lewis & Clark party from starvation.

Also in bloom, the lodgepole pines:

Whack a branch with your walking stick and watch the thick, rich pollen roll out into the still morning air. Ah, sex in the open air:

There is a worm in this garden. Well, they have to eat too--like this writhing mass of tent caterpillars on the old apple tree:

Just over the divide, on the wet, lush meadows of the upper Big Hole river, the blue camas light up the prarie. A large concentration of them looks like a sea of blue when viewed at a low angle from a distance:

The single stalks are lovely up close, too:

With their companion, the bistort:

Blue camas (Camassia quamash) roots, even more of a staple than bitterroots, were the bread of the Nez Perce and Salish. A maiden was judged, in part, by how many baskets of roots she could gather in a day. By steaming the roots, Indians converted their indigestible insulin sugars to readily digestible starches. By pounding and drying the roots in thin sheets (often flavored with other roots or berries), they could be preserved in earthen vessels for a year or more. When the US Army destroyed the Nez Perce caches of bitterroot, it helped lead to war.

Bistort (Bistorta bistortoides = Polygonum bistortoides) , sometimes called snakeroot, was also an important herb--used as food, as an herbal decoction for various illnesses, and as a poultice for wounds.

08 June 2007

Cognitvie Development & the Moral Worth of Other Species

I never fail to be disappointed at otherwise bright individuals who come off as ignorant and uncaring when it comes to the natural world. Even friends who are dedicated anglers, hunters, and outdoorsmen frequently come off this way. After more than 30 years of reading & teaching cognitive moral theory (Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, etc), I should not be disappointed. I know only too well from the research and from my work with students that general intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for dealing with moral issues in an autonomous and principled way.

My friend the math professor and fishing guide is an example of this. No one could question his intelligence or practical ability to put paying clients onto big trout. And yet this fellow could care less if Big Hole River grayling become extinct, and he will twist common sense and historical fact into a pretzel in order to avoid even admitting that grayling were ever abundant in the upper reaches of the Missouri River basin. In his mind, it is natural and acceptable that grayling just "go away."

At a practical level, fishing and his attitude toward nature seem to be all about making money (those paying clients again), pleasing his own ego by sticking big fish (with brains the size of a pea), and counting the number of trout caught as if they were cordwood used to fuel a locomotive trip to heaven. Moral consideration for other species -- especially "useless" ones like the fluvial Arctic grayling -- is a non-question. He also does not support or participate in conservation/environmental groups, and largely seems to take it on faith that rivers and trout will always be there. He's a bit like the fin de siecle physicists that clung to the notion of an aether filling all space, and because of this dogmatic faith in and unwillingness to question their reality, they saw Einstein's relativistic space-time as a non-question: given their view of nature, Einstein's phenomenology simply was not possible.

From historical examples like this and from my own teaching, I know it is not possible to grab someone by the collar and drag them up to a new cognitive level. Yes, occasionally -- if someone is teetering on the cusp of embracing a new reality -- you can give them a little nudge. But it's a rare thing, and it's like the psychologist's light bulb that can only be changed if it wants to change.

Clearly, immersion experiences get nearly any intelligent individual over the "moral considerability of nature" hump. But the immersion seems to require years and years of specific kinds of experience with nature along with an open mind toward/long exposure to the ideas of edgy nature writers such as Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Aldo Leopold, and Gary Snyder. In other words, knowing (and learning to care about) nature is hard work. There are no short cuts (Carlos Castaneda's experience with psychotropics notwithstanding).

06 June 2007

Big Hole River Salmonflies

Well, it's that time of year again: the lilacs are in full bloom on the Butte hill and it's salmonfly madness on the Big Hole River. Despite the severe dewatering going on in the upper reach of the river where grayling live, flows in the middle section of the river are very good. Dave, RTD, and I floated Divide to Melrose Saturday, hoping to see the big flight of western tanagers that often show up about the same time as the salmonfly hatch:
Unfortunately, we saw just one tanager. Lots of other birds -- tri-colored blackbirds, robins, flycatchers, etc. -- were ready for the feast. The salmonfly hatch is about a week early this year, and the migrating tanagers might not adjust easily to the advanced schedules brought by global warming. Salmonfly nymphs live two years before crawling out of the river and taking to the air. Two years ago must have been excellent mating conditions, for this year salmonflies are as abundant as I have ever seen them.

A few days or so before the actual hatch, trout feed heavily on the nymphs that migrate from the rocky fastwater toward shore. It's a good time to fish, especially if you are upriver a few miles from where salmonflies have emerged. All the anglers are downstream, and it's just you and the big, hungry trout:

Even during the hatch itself, the stoneflies spend much of their time hiding out in the willows. First, to shed their nymphal exoskeleton, dry their new wings, find a mate, and (for the females) develop their egg-bomb:

Rain and wind knock a fair share into the water, though, and a good dry imitation can be deadly:

Still, because the mature flies spend so much time hiding out, I find that a nymph or wet-fished dry imitation often produces better than staying on the surface. Fishing on the surface with dries, most of the fish I catch seem to be in the 12" to 15" class. (and mostly rainbow trout):

Fishing below the surface with nymphs or drowned flies, most of the fish I catch seem to be in the 16" to 20" class (and mostly brown trout):

Yesterday, I got on the water in mid-afternoon. Hard rainshowers swept down the valley, with intermittent periods of clearing and almost-sun. During the hardshowers, the salmonflies would retreat deep into the willows. As the rain passed, they would crawl back up toward the tops of the willows. There were always a few crawling around my neck or under the brim of my hat, and enough must have been getting knocked into the water to keep the trout feeding. With the heavy fishing pressure, the trout do seem to get a little wary of imitations. But by prospecting the edges and snags and rocky spots where the boats do not generally reach, there were plenty of eager fish. After a few hours, my arm tired of horsing them out of the heavy water on 3X tippet.

05 June 2007

Big Hole Watershed Committee Kills Grayling

Well, here we go again. Once again, it's an above average precipitation year. Furthermore, the past month has been wetter than average.

And yet, the Big Hole Watershed Committee -- the group supposedly responsible for maintaining minimum flow levels -- is killing Big Hole River grayling. Fisheries biologists recommend that flows be at the upper inflection point on the wetted perimeter in order to maximize a fish population. At Wisdom, that flow = 160 cfs. A survival flow is defined as the lower inflection point. At Wisdom, that flow = 60 cfs. At any flow below 160 cfs, fish are lost.

Here is the current flow at Wisdom (from http://waterdata.usgs.gov/mt/nwis/uv?06024450):

As everyone can see, river flows have plummeted as ranchers opened the floodgates to irrigate their fields. In some places, cattle are standing in water on the pastures. Once again, the Big Hole Watershed Committee is demonstrating its negligence with regard to grayling recovery. Though the Watershed Committee has of late been blowing its horn about costly stream habitat restoration projects, the finest habitat in the world is worthless for fish if there ain't no water in it.