30 November 2007

Giving Thanks for Environmental Activists

A version of this commentary aired on KUFM, Montana Public Radio, as part of a regular series I do for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee (www.cfrtac.org).

Elk season is over. It’s time to clean and put away the rifles. The snow is calling. Purple wax on those cross country skis will be about right.

Give thanks for Pilgrims and Indians and turkeys and elk. And thank the activists that helped bring environmental remedy and restoration to the Clark Fork watershed. Without activists, Arco-British Petroleum would have held even greater sway over the Environmental Protection Agency, and Montana’s Natural Resource Damage suit against Arco-BP might have died for lack of legislative support (i.e. funding).

Instead, Montana obtained 215 million dollars nearly a decade ago as a partial settlement. If we can believe a recent Missoulian newspaper editorial, Montana and Arco-BP will soon resolve remaining claims. Now that’s a holiday present!

The money we have received has done some good. A recent Fish, Wildlife & Parks electrofishing survey of Silver Bow Creek found significant numbers of trout. Most – including a few native westslope cutthroat trout – were found near the confluence with German Gulch. A few were found closer to Butte. Good on the Montana agencies and citizen activists that helped make this possible.

Butte’s George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited played a critical role, working with the Butte-Anaconda Greenway Board, insisting that the recreational project include riparian and stream enhancements. Furthermore, George Grant TU’s restoration project along German Gulch Creek – a Natural Damage Program funded project – enhances the overall restoration of our Silver Bow Creek watershed. Again, thank these activists. This stuff doesn’t just happen unless a whole lot of volunteer citizens put in a whole lot of hours at meetings, in writing grants, and on managing projects.

I’m an environmental philosopher, and believe "the glass is half full and the glass is half empty.” Retired FWP fisheries biologist Wayne Hadley cautions that we should not expect too much, too soon, of Silver Bow Creek. After all, there is a tremendous amount of toxic mine waste outside of the flood plain that is not being cleaned up, and that material may re-pollute much of the creek.

We’re in this for the long haul. I don’t reasonably expect to have good fishing in Silver Bow Creek within my lifetime. If, however, my daughter doesn’t enjoy good fishing in the creek by the time she’s my age, then my ghost will be seriously pissed. We don’t have to accept environmental degradation as "the price of progress," and we can make the world a better place.

The Natural Resource Damage Program will likely sprinkle more fairy dust around the Upper Clark Fork River Basin–about 14 million dollars worth in the coming year or so. Projects include the usual Butte and Anaconda waterline work, but also: more funding for the Silver Bow Creek Greenway; a trail and outdoor education center near Deer Lodge; and restoration work for a public park on Forest Service land near Butte.

Near Missoula, the Clark Fork Coalition should receive nearly three million dollars to remove additional contaminated sediments from Milltown–an amount over and above what the EPA requires under remedy. Ideally, the agency would have made Arco-BP pay for this. Instead, we must spend precious and limited Natural Resource Damage dollars. Still, it’s money well spent. Removing additional mine waste from Silver Bow Creek improved the creek’s environmental future, and removal of additional sediments at Milltown will do the same.

It’s not all clover and roses here in upper end of the Clark Fork River superfund site.

Those contaminated sediments from Milltown? Yep, they go to the Arco-BP waste repository in Opportunity’s backyard. Milltown sediments are a drop in the bucket compared with what’s already there. Still, how happy would you be living with a backyard toxic waste repository of 160 million cubic yards, extending over an area of more than five square miles?

There are no easy answers for questions about environmental justice at Opportunity.

A group of my students in the "Politics of Technical Decisions" class have a novel approach to this problem. They plan to stage a play using techniques developed by Brazilian, Augusto Boal. His "theater of the oppressed" is a popular tool for political dissent and public education in South America and Europe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusto_Boal).

The production is titled, "Too Late for Opportunity?" The short, two-act play will be staged at the Venus Rising CafĂ© in Butte, from 3 - 5 p.m., on Monday, December 10th. To help resolve problems posed in the play, audience members are invited to participate by taking the place of an actor and redefining that actor's role. We’re inviting representatives from Arco-BP and the EPA, as well as Opportunity residents and the general public.

For more news about Anaconda, Opportunity, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink www.cfrtac.org.

From Butte to Missoula, we deserve a clean, healthy, and accessible Clark Fork River. It’s your river. Wade in, and help make the future.

29 November 2007

Endangered Species Act: the law of the land

[a version of this editorial by me was printed in the Montana Standard newspaper]

How sad, that we the people of the United States must sue our own government if we want the law of the land to be enforced. Whatever happened to the notion that America is “A nation of laws, not of men?” Under the Bush administration, we have become a nation where the executive branch rules with arbitrary and capricious power.

No one disagrees that the Big Hole River grayling (aka “Upper Missouri River Fluvial Arctic Grayling”) is on the verge of extinction. And yet the US Fish & Wildlife Service deemed Big Hole grayling insignificant— ignoring its own scientists, a peer-review by professional fisheries biologists, and the law. The Center for Biological Diversity, along with a group of plaintiffs including me, must sue the federal government to enforce the law.

Blame Julie MacDonald, the Bush appointee who dictated endangered species decisions – including the decision that Big Hole grayling are insignificant – at the Department of Interior. Though MacDonald resigned following accusations of politically bulldogging agency scientists, the damage lingers.

Mike Stempel, a Fish & Wildlife Service administrator, made several outrageous statements in a recent Montana Standard article.

Stempel stated there are 6,000 grayling in the Big Hole River. The truth is, Montana FWP biologists can’t even find enough grayling to estimate the population size. It has declined significantly from an estimate made several years ago of approximately 1,000 breeding age fish.

Stempel stated that the Endangered Species Act is “not the best tool” to protect grayling, and that Montana is doing just fine in restoring the fish. The truth is, Big Hole grayling have declined steadily under Montana FWP management ever since FWP “discovered” the fish were in trouble in the 1970s. At this point, the ESA is the only tool.

I admire the small handful of Big Hole ranchers that have made personal sacrifices in water use in order to help grayling. The simple fact is, however, that Big Hole irrigators (as a group) consistently dewater the river each year: year, after year, after year. Voluntary efforts have failed at maintaining minimal river flows needed to sustain Big Hole grayling.

How sad, that our children and grandchildren may have to venture to Alaska in order to catch a grayling. It is wrong that our government is willing to sacrifice our natural heritage. The Endangered Species Act works, as demonstrated by the success in recovering bald eagles and many other once-rare species.

Legal Challenge to FWS Decision re: Montana fluvial Arctic grayling

For Immediate Release, November 15, 2007

Contacts: Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495
Pat Munday, Grayling Restoration Alliance, (406) 496-4461
Leah Elwell, Federation of Fly Fishers, (406) 222-9369 x102
Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 788-2290

Protection sought for Montana Fluvial Arctic Grayling


Helena, MT.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Federation of Fly Fishers, Western Watersheds Project, Dr. Pat Munday and former Montana fishing guide George Wuerthner filed suit today to overturn an April 24, 2007 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denying protection of the Montana fluvial arctic grayling as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The suit was filed simultaneously with several other suits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of six endangered species.

“The Montana fluvial arctic grayling is on the brink of extinction in the U.S.,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “In decisions over the grayling, and dozens of other wildlife species, the Bush administration has repeatedly disregarded survival of the nation’s wildlife.”

Rather than concluding Montana grayling are not endangered, the agency instead decided that extinction of the Montana population, which is the last in the lower 48 states, is insignificant. According to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the decision went against the recommendations of the agency’s own scientists. It was made in Washington, D.C., under the influence of Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald, who resigned under pressure April 30th after an investigation by the Department of Interior’s Inspector General found she had bullied agency scientists to change their conclusions and improperly released internal documents to industry lobbyists and attorneys.

“In denying the grayling protection, the Bush administration has once again ignored science and the law,” stated Dr. Pat Munday, Director of the Grayling Restoration Alliance. “Unfortunately, this could spell disaster for the last river dwelling population of the grayling in the continental U.S.”

Once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, the fluvial arctic grayling has been reduced to a single self-sustaining population in a short stretch of the Big Hole River. A primary factor in this range decline was, and continues to be, the dewatering of the grayling’s stream habitat and degradation of riparian areas. Extensive water withdrawals from the Big Hole River and seven consecutive years of drought continue to threaten the Big Hole population. In recent years, so few grayling have been found that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have not been able to estimate their populations, suggesting grayling populations are on the brink of extinction.

“The grayling is a unique part of the natural heritage of Montana,” said Leah Elwell, conservation coordinator for the Federation of Fly Fishers. “Loss of the grayling would be a terrible tragedy for anglers, Montanans and the nation.”

In addition to challenging the government’s refusal to protect the Montana fluvial arctic grayling, lawsuits filed today by the Center challenge decisions to deny the Mexican garter snake (Arizona and New Mexico) protection, drastic reductions in critical habitat for three endangered fish found in rivers in California, Arizona and New Mexico and refusal to grant critical habitat for the Mississippi gopher frog. These actions follow a September notice of intent to sue over 55 species that were subject to corruption and high-level political interference within the Bush Administration’s endangered species program. (see www.biologicaldiversity.org/ )

In their challenge of denial of protection of the grayling, the groups are represented by attorney Judi Brawer.


A member of the salmon family, the arctic grayling is a beautiful fish with a prominent dorsal fin that is widely distributed across Canada and Alaska. Historically, fluvial populations of arctic grayling existed in only two places in the lower 48 states: Michigan and the upper Missouri River of Montana. Populations in Michigan went extinct by the 1930s, and populations in Montana were restricted to the Big Hole River by the end of the 1970s. Studies demonstrate that Montana fluvial arctic grayling are genetically distinct from populations in Canada and Alaska, and genetically and behaviorally distinct from lake populations in Montana and other states. Studies also show that grayling adapted to lake environments do not maintain their position in rivers but instead allow themselves to drift downstream.

The Bush administration has listed fewer species under the Endangered Species Act than any other administration since the law was enacted in 1973, to date only listing 58 species compared to 522 under Clinton and 231 under the first Bush president. The Bush administration has not listed a single species in nearly 18 months. In August, the Center presented Secretary of Interior Kempthorne the “rubber dodo” award for failing to protect any new species under the Endangered Species Act.

27 November 2007

Going Elkless (Almost): Elk Hunting near Butte, Montana

There I was, combing the hills several miles from the road on the last day of elk season. I had grown entirely too smug about elk hunting, having shot bull elk four-out-of-five years that I hunted them, and having shot several cows within a mile or so of the highway. Not this year.

Season began with me at a conference in Washington, DC. Of course, conditions were perfect with cold weather and eight inches of fresh snow. The second week, I was complacent. My friend Don was coming to hunt the following week, and so I roamed the hills and even passed up a shot at a cow. Well, it wasn't a good shot, and as my friend and now-retired colleague Dennis Haley counseled, "Hunting elk in timber is a percentage thing. If you are patient and get into them six or seven times, then you will get the good shot you want. There's no need to take those "iffy" shots."

Here's AJ, crashed for a nap in the warm noonday sun after we climbed into a remote (and elkless) Pintler basin:

Meanwhile, I ate my lunch and waited for the tea to boil:

Don Kieffer arrived from upstate New York the first week of November. The weather was beautiful: warm, sunny, and lousy for elk hunting. Up high, the old snow metamorphosed, turning icy and crunchy. Down low, the snow melted away. But we had a great time hiking the hills:

Visiting some of my favorite elk haunts:

And of course enjoying a hot cup of tea come noontime:

As my old friend BAT (aka Bob Thomas) likes to remind me, hunting is a lot more than killing. Especially on those blue sky days when the weather is just too damned good for serious elk hunting, you can lie back and listen to the serenade of migrating flocks of snow geese:

And swans:

Don & I also saw a peregrine falcon, and visited the spot where indigenous peoples mined jasper for tools:

After Don left, I tried to get more serious about elk hunting, but still the weather was not conducive to it. Hunting at such times becomes a good excuse for hiking into spots that need to be visited from time to time, such as these logging-era cabins, probably built to feed the flume that sluiced cord wood from the Big Hole valley to the Anaconda smelter:

And when the elk are hard to find, there is the occasional moose; here, a cow and calf on a remote, windswept ridge along the Continental Divide (folks don't think of moose as mountain animals, but they are in Montana!):

And the occasional fool hen (this one, felled with a rock, made a welcome and savory supper that night):

Finally, though, right at the end of season, conditions turned favorable with new, quiet snow and consistently cold temperatures. I spent a day or two hunting a spot that I had hunted many times over the years with Brent Patch and Dave Carter. In those years, I had not learned the lessons of a good "black timber" hunter, and wasted a lot of time peeking into parks and coursing through open stands of lodge pole pine.

In the timber, you keep your nose to the wind, move slowly and quietly, and check out all those stumps and rocks that look very much like elk:

Two Butte boys, hunting a park along the ridge line, flushed a bunch of elk from the north-side timber just below the ridge. I smelled them out ahead of me, found their tracks, began repeating my mantra ("I will honor your spirit and use your flesh well."), and began still hunting. One mile into the chase, they passed through a stand of dense Douglas fir, meandered about, and I thought sure they would bed down. It took me an hour to track them slowly and carefully through a half-mile wide thicket, sometimes crawling on my hands & knees to be quiet and stay below the branches. I could smell them and knew they were not far ahead. They continued through and fed in a small park. This told me they were relaxed and not worried about a predator on their heels. Very encouraging.

And then there they were, heads tilting and ears twitching, bedded in some thick, snow-covered firs at the park's edge. In timber, one seldom sees a whole elk. Because of the roll of the slope, I could not see any elk shoulders or ribs, my preferred shot. I usually avoid neck shots, since if you don't hit the spine there is not a quick death. But the elk were just seventy yards or so away, and I had a good rest on a tree limb. She never moved from her bed:

An hour or so later, I had the carcass split into two halves, dragged well away from the gut pile where the coyotes and ravens would be less likely to feed on it, and covered with pine branches until I could return:

The heart, liver, tenderloins, back straps, and tongue I laid out on the snow to cool:

Together, they made a forty pound load in my little rucksack. By the time I reached the road, three miles distant, the load felt like one hundred and forty pounds.

At the Check Station, I learned from the nice biologist that there was a Forest Service road within a half-mile of where I killed the cow. The next morning AJ came along to help me, and his good company and a sled made for a pleasant down-hill drag:

"I will honor your spirit and use your flesh well." This promise began with a supper of elk liver and onions last night, the heart is ready for pickling, and there are already plans for barbecued ribs, grilled tenderloin, back strap schnitzel, and roasted tongue with huckleberry glaze. Elk are great animals, and deserve the honor of a great (and arduous) hunt.

09 November 2007

Montana Mule Deer Hunting

Mule deer hunting is to elk hunting as an easy morning hike is to a three-day peak bagging trip. Both mulie and elk hunting are wonderful pursuits, but they differ enormously in scale. And of course there are exceptions, such as the high-country, wilderness, "pack 'em out six miles" hunts that my young friend and superb bow hunter Chad Krause engages in.

A word about ethics: since I am talking about hunting and not mere shooting, I'll omit any serious consideration for the way that many of my fellow Butte residents "hunt" mule deer. As one good friend and former student (and a pretty good guy in most ways) puts it, "Hell, elk hunting is about hunting. Mule deer? We road hunt them fuckers."

Mulies inhabit a wide range of habitat in the Northern Rockies, from the flat sagebrush prairie to the jagged, broken foothills to the alpine meadows and goat rocks. Thanks to my friend and former hunter Dave Carter, I learned of a jagged, broken ridge that fits my ideal for a perfect mule deer hunt. It is far enough away from roads to keep the riff-raff out, and yet with a little planning and good luck you can find, kill, and haul out a mulie buck in a half-day's hunt. Sometimes.

This past weekend, I was blessed with two mule deer hunting partners: our "little brother" AJ and my old friend Don Kieffer. The latter made a long-overdue visit from upstate New York, where he is blessed with fine white-tailed deer and turkey hunting. Here's Don, hiking across some typical sage brush and mountain mahogany habitat on the slopes of our ridge, where we expect to see both white-tailed and mule deer:

Oftentimes, especially during the rut and with heavy hunting pressure, a mule deer buck and "his" does head for the highest, most rugged country they can find. And so this is where we spent our time, clambering along the top, staying off the ridge line, glassing carefully for bedded deer, and stalking every group we could find. I'm fussy about mule deer hunting, and generally avoid shooting the big bucks or any buck with a lot of does. Dominant bucks are stinky, and I'm talking gag-a-maggot stinky here. Usually, the stink seems to stay on the hide, but occasionally it permeates the meat no matter how carefully you field dress, skin, and butcher the critter. Ask Brent Patch, who once killed a stinky big buck whose strong-flavored wild flesh refused to be tamed by the strongest and hottest of spices!

Three humans moving through mulie habitat is a bit much. Mule deer have sharp vision and acute hearing, and still-hunting is difficult at best. After a brief conference, AJ hunted one way along the ridge while Don & I went the other. AJ was barely out of sight when we heard my little 25 Roberts crack once and then -- a minute later -- once again (I gave him three cartridges this year). Sure enough, AJ killed his buck:

And what an unusual rack: a 6 X 6 with triple brow tines on once side, double brow tines on the other, and one set of double points:

Maybe it was a mulie-whitetail hybrid, or maybe just a case of too much testerone. He was a stinky one, and ruled over about twenty does. Almost before Don & I could figure out what was going on (we're a little slow on the uptake, sometimes), we saw AJ a mile below us washing his hands in the river, his buck safely stashed along the railroad tracks. Like last year, we found a mountain bike handy for the two-mile trek along the railway grade. Tough going, but it beat dragging all the hair off on the rough ballast between the ties:

Don & I have 50-some year old knees, and by the time we got AJ & his buck back to the truck, we were tuckered out and it was dark. Did I say that you could hunt this ridge in a half-day? Well, there was a qualifier about "good planning and a little luck" with that claim. And not being 15-years old--an age when no task seems too daunting if you want to do it.

After letting the ridge quiet down for a day or so, Don & I went back and sure enough found the perfect mule deer buck: a fat forkhorn. Not too rutty. Young & tender. And in an appropriately rugged spot near the top of this outcrop:

Just before we saw the buck silhouetted on the ridge, we watched a 3/4 curl bighorn ram strut out of the sagebrush ahead of us, and a yearling moose ford the river far below us. Don's 7 X 57 is a great deer rifle, and he was generous in letting me shoot it. The rifle dropped this little buck in its tracks. It took longer to move it the first two hundred yards out of the rocks than it did to drag it the next mile to the truck:

With the two of us ferrying packs and rifle and taking turns on drag duty, we were home well before noon. A sandwhich and quick cup of coffee, and us old guys were starting to feel young again. We had time to drive back over to the lower Big Hole for a quick afternoon antelope hunt.

It took awhile to locate them in the basin where I usually hunt. We drove by three or four mulie bucks that would have been a Butte road hunter's dream. Turns out, all the antelope bucks and does were together in a herd of fifty or more critters. By the time we spotted them and stalked within almost-shooting distance, the sun was well behind the western ridge. Though I was sorely tempted, Don wisely suggested we save this one for another day. As Chad Krause pointed when I told him this, "A lot can go wrong real quick. Especially when it's getting dark." Good advice, Chad. Good judgment, Don.