Protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse

By Rich Rusnak – Idaho Chapter Executive Committee and Greater Yellowstone Campaign Volunteer

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An ocean of sagebrush borders the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) on several fronts. These often unappreciated lands lie in the shadow of Yellowstone’s majestic peaks and thermal and megafauna drama. In the not too distant past, these lonely steppes of sage held most of the GYE’s megafauna in an ages-old cycle of migration, supporting both predator and prey in an abundance we can scarcely imagine today.

ImageAlong with the thousands of bison and pronghorn migrating from winter to summer range, there also thronged a shy and graceful creature in synchronous abundance – a creature solely reliant on an undisturbed expanse of sagebrush. Once numbering in the tens of millions, today the Greater Sage-Grouse survives on dwindling broken habitat separated from the core GYE by myriad habitat degradations. The sage grouse (centrocercus urophasianus) population is under intense pressure from all sides, natural and unnatural. From coyotes to magpies, natural predators are ever present in the life cycle of sage grouse. Human encroachment has altered the landscape systemically, all seeming to affect the sage grouse life cycle in some way.

Collectively, mega fires, invasive plants, fences, buildings, power poles, irrigation structures and millions of livestock all break down the continuity of cover that sage grouse rely on for completing their lifecycle. With a lack of adequate nesting cover, the brooding chicks are easy prey and habitat degradation results in a high loss of juvenile birds. Successful brood rearing is directly related to availability of taller, dense herbaceous cover provided by an unbroken artemesia plant community. Simply put, the more cover, the harder it is for predators to find the vulnerable ground-nesting sage grouse during the critical chick rearing period.

I once observed this predator vs. prey drama unfold while in sagebrush country. Out of curiosity I stopped to watch a Northern Harrier’s repeated swooping dives into a heavily roaded, sage-covered hill. After several aggressive attempts, I saw a very agile hen sage grouse bolt skyward to intercept the persistent raptor. I had never seen a sage grouse fly straight skyward, but this hen seemed desperate in her determination to pummel this predator. The Harrier persisted its swooping dives, easily avoiding the frantic grouse’s counterattack. After several minutes of back and forth aggression, the hawk’s harrying paid off. A chick bolted away from the brush on weak, shallow wingbeats. Seemingly without missing  a beat of its rhythmic attack, the hawk plucked the inexperienced chick from midair and disappeared over a rise. A Harrier by trade indeed. I have to wonder if this ages-old fight for survival would have been different had there been no roads, and thus heavier cover and continuity of habitat in which the chicks could hide. Nor will I ever know if this was the last chick of her brood. Were they all picked off due to the influence of a degraded habitat? I waited to see the survivors but experienced only a silence and absence of motion after the event passed.

In sagebrush country, there is a new urgency to help the sage grouse before it may become listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Federal and state agencies are developing various recovery plans for this stunningly beautiful bird in an attempt to preclude ESA listing. The Federal agency responsible for recovery of species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is reviewing several western states’ plans and will determine whether the states are providing adequate recovery of the sage grouse. The USFWS is required to make a decision in 2015 on whether to propose protecting the sage grouse under the ESA.

There is hope, as the Sierra Club and many other groups are working to influence policy and sage grouse recovery plans, and to do on-the-ground work to aid sage grouse recovery.

On the western flanks of the GYE and just south of the Continental Divide, the Sierra Club is working with The Nature Conservancy to remove fencing and hang warning flags acrossImage miles of barbed wire fence in sage grouse habitat. The flags flash white at the slightest breeze, and alert the sage grouse, which are prone to crash into the top fence wires during bad weather or panicked flight. This unfamiliarity with structures seems to be killing a large number of sage grouse. They are vulnerable while moving between spring habitat used during lekking (mating) activity and the more protected summer ranges. ImageThe hens and chicks are especially at risk while traveling up mountains through degraded and sparse habitat. Our efforts offer some help along their short yet susceptible migration through the sage brush steppes toward the GYE’s Continental Divide in the Centennial mountain range that divides Montana and Idaho.

If you would like more information, please see the following links:

http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/04/24/2549175/sage-grouse-need-habitat-and-solitude.html

http://www.npr.org/2013/07/10/200376654/in-montana-wilds-an-unlikely-alliance-to-save-the-sage-grouse

http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Centrocercus+urophasianus

http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/pressrel/2013/03252013_COT.html

http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/wildlife/?getPage=310

If you would like to volunteer or share thoughts with us on sage grouse protection, please contact the following:

Wyoming.sierraclub.org or WY Chapter of Sierra Club 307-742-0056, 307-733-4557

Montana.sierraclub.org or MT Chapter of Sierra Club  406-582-8365

Idaho.sierraclub.org or ID Chapter of Sierra Club  208-384-1023

The Nature Conservancy, Flat Ranch at  mward@tnc.org

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Is Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population declining?

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

A new study raises serious questions about the health of the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and consequently, whether federal Endangered Species Act protections should be removed.

Federal scientists with U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) studying the bears have long held that the population grew at a rate of 4-7% from 1983-2001. More recently, USFWS scientists have acknowledged that the growth rate has slowed, but assert that it is because the population has met its “carry capacity” i.e. the maximum number of bears that the ecosystem can support. From a low of approximately 150-200 bears when they were placed under ESA protection in 1975, the USFWS now estimates that there are around 700 bears in the ecosystem.

However, new research by Dan Doak of the University of Colorado and Kerry Cutler of UC Berkeley  point out significant flaws in the methods used by federal scientists to estimate the Yellowstone population, and that these errors have led to inflated estimates of the overall growth rate in the past and  how many bears there are on the landscape.  Since the 1980s when USFWS began aerial flights to monitor the bears, the agency has greatly increased ‘observer effort’ i.e. the amount of time they spent looking for bears. If you spend more time looking for bears, chances are you’ll see more bears.  Also, as a result of landscape changes affecting bears’ major food sources like whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout – both of which have steeply declined in the region in the past decade  – bears are now foraging for food in more open spaces, such as moth sites on talus mountain slopes, where they are much more visible. The authors assert that neither of these ‘sightability’ factors was adequately taken into account in USFWS’ past estimates of the population.

Secondly, Doak and Cutler’s research highlight the fact that the USFWS has relied on two flawed assumptions in estimating the number of bears: that all bears live to the age of 30, and that they reproduce at a constant rate during that entire time.  In actuality, many bears don’t live for 30 years, and a 7-year-old bear’s reproductive rate can be very different than a 25 or 30-year-old bear. As the authors note, “there is clear evidence for both reproductive and survival senescence in grizzlies, including the GYE population,” however, inexplicably, senescence has not been taken into account in past and current estimates of the bear population.

When these factors are taken into account, the new study shows that the population may have grown very little over the past decades, and “it is quite likely that the population is now, in fact, declining.”

Based on an apparently inflated growth rate and current estimate of more than 700 bears in the ecosystem, the USFWS is again gearing up to delist the bear in 2014. In light of Doak and Cutler’s research, however, the agency should take a big step back and re-evaluate its flawed methodology – particularly in the face of declining food sources in the ecosystem and a lack of understanding on how those shifts in major food sources will impact the bears’ future. The Yellowstone grizzly is too treasured and plays too important of a role in this ecosystem for guesswork and flawed science.

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Bonnie Rice

Senior Representative, Greater Yellowstone

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Guest Columnist: Bison management out of touch with reality

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s Sunday paper.

By Zack Waterman, Glenn Hockett, Sabina Strauss, and Becky Weed, guest columnists

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Photo of Dome Mountain bull bison courtesy of Jim Klyap, Dome Mountain Ranch manager.

 

On the morning of Friday, April 12, 2013, a bull bison was several miles north of Yellowstone National Park on the remote Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Unfortunately, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), with assistance from MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks responded to this situation by aggressively pursuing this lone bull and killing him.

After laying waste to the bull under the auspices of disease control, the DOL left the carcass to rot. This situation is particularly troubling given the DOL knows bull bison pose no risk of transmission of brucellosis to domestic cattle, not to mention the fact the Dome Mountain “Wildlife Management Area” was purchased specifically to provide habitat for migrating wildlife in an area that is completely free of cattle. Furthermore, there were no conflicts with private property as the adjacent Dome Mountain Ranch has already made it clear that bison are welcome to use their land just like elk, mule deer, grizzly bears, and other wildlife that live in Greater Yellowstone.

In an effort to justify this extreme response, Department of Livestock chief executive officer Christian MacKay explained the bull had to be lethally removed because he was outside of the bison “tolerance zone.”

When government agencies slaughter a bison in a remote area that was posing no threat whatsoever to livestock, private property, or public safety, it’s time to revisit how we manage migrating bison in Montana.

Let’s begin by abandoning the assumption that all bison that leave the state’s negligibly small “bison tolerance zone” are de facto problems that must be immediately removed. We agree that we do not want cattle to contract brucellosis. But can we also agree to manage bison as valued native Montana wildlife, at least on some public lands owned by all Americans?

The good news is there are many public lands like the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area that are located outside of the state’s arbitrary “bison tolerance zone” that provide critical winter habitat for elk – and they can do the same for bison without harming private property. Each year approximately $3 million of taxpayer dollars are spent to remove migrating bison from public lands in Montana. In an era when Americans are tightening their belts and national debt continues to grow, it’s nonsensical to waste limited taxpayer resources.

Elk from Yellowstone National Park have migrated and wintered in this same area for years. Grizzly bears and wolves also use the same area. Now a lone bull bison found this conflict-free habitat near Dome Mountain and the DOL needlessly intervened and killed it. What gives? It’s time for a new approach that takes meaningful steps towards managing bison as valued native wildlife while respecting both public and private property rights. Let these animals show us the way to a habitat solution rather than continue to harass and slaughter them for crossing an imaginary government line.

Unfortunately, we lost a valuable opportunity to learn from the April 13 Dome Mountain bull bison. Such an opportunity will arise again. If we seize that chance to learn, and begin to explore what it means to consider bison-on-public-lands as an asset rather than a catastrophe for the state of Montana, landowners, hunters, tourists and all Montana citizens will reap the benefits Overwhelming public support exists for managing bison as wildlife on appropriate landscapes in Montana. If we adopt a learn-as-you-go approach and tailor bison management as needed, including public hunting, it will become clear the sky is not falling.

Zack Waterman represents the Sierra Club; Glenn Hockett is volunteer president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association; Sabina Strauss is owner of the Yellowstone Basin Inn in Gardiner; and Becky Weed is owner of Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company. The authors are members of the bison citizens working group, which formed to develop consensus recommendations to improve the management of Greater Yellowstone bison.

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Forever Changed

photo courtesy of the National Park Service

bald eagle chicks, photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Sometimes nature throws us an experience, which gradually alters our paths. These subtle breezes of accumulated exposure to nature’s mysteries can carve your life in unpredictable ways. Here is one such a story, a story that gives me hope in the resilience of nature if we only give it a nudge and open our spirit to its universal truths. Every molecule of DNA on this planet arose and is dependent on the forces exerted on it by other collections of life. We are all bound together by the influences of another creature’s DNA.  Personally nowhere are these relationships and events more glaringly clear and freely experienced than in the wild expanse offered by the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

I was far from Yellowstone the first time I became intrigued by birds, natures little forest embers, lighting up the world with their magical concerts of color, melody and prowess of flight. I had already visited Yellowstone as a kid with my family and carried fond memorable firsts with Yellowstone’s wild creatures. I carried these memories back to our home in Georgia. From the antics of magpies and bison, to the robber gray jays stealing my Cheetos, I recognized the basic cyclic truths my young mind observed.

Unprepared for my first close encounter of the bird kind I was out one spring day in the long leaf pines of Georgia exploring the woods. On this much needed spring excursion I had decided to wear my fall deer hunting camo outfit and see just how close I could get to the resident whitetail that frequented this dense Georgia jungle of a woodlot. I had been sitting motionless for more than an hour listening and watching as three does casually mingled, browsing and on occasion suspiciously looking my way.  The woods were full of bird song, the deer were very close and the pale blooms of ghostly dogwood were peeking through dense greenery on the forest floor.  All in concert  this dawn chorus was a moment of pure perfection. The whistling “peter-peter-peter” of the tufted titmouse, the crimson Northern Cardinals, the raucous Carolina Wren, the cute Carolina Chickadee, the Redtail imitating blue jays, and the echoed caws of a murder of crows all transfixed my senses.

Suddenly, a really heavy leaf landed on my hatless head.  No wait, this was no leaf for it was now ripping at my 1970s length hair. For several minutes this little bird would not give up.  I cold feel his needle sharp claws digging in as he ripped and pulled on my hair in a spring hormone driven frenzy to gather nesting material.  I slowly raised my hand twice to attempt a swift capture.  But this coil of energy and feathers was too quick, flying to the nearest tree a few feet away, it scolded me ferociously.  Only to return for another tug-o-war with my youthful locks. I finally got a look at it, inches from my face this tiny tufted titmouse scolded me once more before flitting away to change my relationship with nature forever.

From that day forward I began my own journey, driven by a voracious appetite to quench this need to experience another intimate encounters with wild creatures of every shape and size. This path of exploration of nature and it’s residents has lead me to want to defend these creatures and their habitat’s which have so enriched my life through many close encounters with natures gifts.  That’s really what it comes down to for me as an advocate for keeping it wild.  Yellowstone offers these gifts to all that visit her bounty, mystery and opportunity of sharing a once in a lifetime experience.  Countless families and visitors to Yellowstone can recount similar experiences as mine, and Yellowstone has been their catalyst to advocacy.  For many those experiences never stop growing and the need for more can only be quenched when they return to Yellowstone country.

Please join us in our efforts to explore and protect, not just the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but your own backyards.  There are a few links that explain the growing understanding of Yellowstone’s birds and how the reintroduction of wolves is helping restore the bird populations again.

http://wyoming.sierraclub.org/ECOLOGICAL%20BENEFITS%20OF%20WOLVES.pdf

http://www.greateryellowstonescience.org/sites/default/files/references/YS_17_3_Baril_et_al_sm.pdf

http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/passerines.htm

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=predators-create-landscape-of-fear

Guest column by Richard Rusnak, rarusnak62@gmail.com.  Rich serves on the the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign steering committee. 

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Tribes, wildlife advocates rally for bison

LAURA LUNDQUIST/CHRONICLE

LAURA LUNDQUIST/CHRONICLE

HELENA – Kill the bills, not the buffalo.

That was the message of many Native American leaders who spoke at the Rally for the Future of Montana’s Buffalo, held Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda.

During this session, legislators have proposed a dozen bills that would affect bison in varying degrees, from allowing people to shoot them on sight if they stepped outside Yellowstone National Park to allowing wardens to tell hunters the location of bison.

Only five bills remain alive, but Montana’s tribal councils said that’s still too many.

“All these bills are going to create conflict between the tribes and the rest of Montana,” said Ken Ryan of the Fort Peck Assiniboine tribe. “But we’re all Montanans and we want peace; we want friendship.”

Ryan then sang a solemn Assiniboine song that calls the bison. Then he led a peace-pipe ceremony on a bison hide in the center of the rotunda, sharing with nine leaders from the four reservations and five tribes in attendance.

More than 80 observers, around half of which were Native American, watched the smoke curl through the crowd as Ryan sang, offering the pipe to each leader.

Host Thomas Christian of the Fort Peck said the sacred ceremony was appropriate because bison are spiritually symbolic to First Nations people.

The five speakers who followed Ryan also highlighted the spiritual connection with bison as justification for anger over bills that they perceive as being slightly racist.

Fort Belknap Reservation president Tracy King said he believed the anti-bison bills are unconstitutional because they impinge his religious beliefs by restricting his access to wild bison.

“When I face racism, I know it. It’s like a cold wind: You can’t see it, but you can feel it,” King said. “Don’t destroy our culture.”

The Fort Belknap reservation has managed a bison herd for years, but wants more Yellowstone bison, which are most closely related to the historic plains bison.

“These bills almost feel anti-Indian. Let’s find a better way,” said Intertribal Buffalo Council President Ervin Carlson.

After the rally, the tribal elders took their case to Gov. Steve Bullock.

Of the five bills that are still alive, lobbyists expect that two are the most likely to make it to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 305 changes the definition of “wild buffalo” to an animal that has never been in captivity or owned by a person. It will be heard in the House Agriculture committee on March 21.

Some oppose this definition because it would mean that Yellowstone bison held for even a short time would become livestock.

House Bill 396 would require county commission approval before bison could be transplanted into an area. This would affect the tribes because it could eliminate the possibility for augmentation or initiation of their herds.

Elizabeth Azure of the Fort Belknap Reservation said the Blaine County commissioners usually defend farmers’ interests so they probably would block bison transplants.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Azure said. “We have two people on the commission who are trying to help, but when election time comes, it’s hard to say if they’ll still be there.”

HB 396 will be heard in the Senate Fish and Game committee next Tuesday.

Wildlife advocates traveled from around the state to attend the rally, including several Bozeman representatives of the Sierra Club, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and the National Resources Defense Council.

Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Jonathan Proctor said they were mainly showing support.

“This affects the tribes more than anyone,” Proctor said. “Not many legislators came to watch, but I’m sure they heard it.”

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said the 2011 Legislature already hammered out a law to allow Fish, Wildlife & Parks to take a serious look at the potential to have bison on public lands. So bills like HB 396 that would allow other agencies to step in should be tabled, Gevock said.

“The 2013 Legislature should honor that compromise and let it move forward,” Gevock said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.

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Silence is Not the Absence of Sound

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Photo by Phil Knight

When was the last time you sat quietly and just listened to natural sound, without any interruption from human-caused noise? No voices, no barking dogs, no ringing phones, no traffic noise, no jet planes. Such an experience is harder and harder to find.

Yet some of my most profound experiences in nature have involved just sitting and listening. A frog chorus on a Maine summer night, the scrape of beaver teeth on wood echoing across a Vermont pond, the distant rumble of calving glacier in Antarctica, the seething of a volcano in Hawaii, the high moaning wind of an approaching storm in the Wind Rivers, the unforgettable howl of wolves in Yellowstone. I have also heard inexplicable sounds in the deep wilderness, sounds that speak of unsolved mysteries and a wild energy loose in the world. Such experiences leave my soul ringing with a harmony unattainable in any other way.

Hearing is the most difficult sense to block out. You can close your eyes, hold your nose, avoid tasting or touching something. But you have to try pretty hard and use some serious earplugs to block out noise. That indicates to me that hearing may well be our most important sense. We are designed to listen to the natural world, and to take survival cues from it. We also can learn much from, and often take great solace in, the sounds of nature.

Greater Yellowstone, with remote and seldom-visited corners, still offers people a chance of immersion in a natural soundscape, such as the extremely satisfying shush of an erupting geyser and the rowdy roar of a bull bison challenging his rival.

Whether we know it or not we need these noises of nature. We need, for our basic understanding and connection with the natural world, to take in the interwoven songs of wild things and the music of the living Earth.

Yellowstone River- Photo by Phil Knight

Yellowstone River- Photo by Phil Knight

Natural sound is probably even more important to wild creatures that live in the open world their whole lives. Human-caused noise can cause major problems for their survival.

According to Earth Island Journal, “Montana State University Biologist Scott Creel and his colleagues have published a paper linking enzyme stress levels in elk and wolves in Yellowstone and Voyageurs Parks to the proximity and noise of snowmobiles. Over the period of time that snowmobile traffic increased 25 percent, stress enzyme levels in wolves rose by 28 percent. Conversely, within Voyageurs Park, a 37 percent decline in snowmobile traffic between 1998 and 2000 correlated to an exact drop of the same percentage in stress enzyme levels over the same period. These figures were comparable in elk.” (“The Loss of Natural Soundscapes”, Spring 2002 edition).

These facts seem to get lost in the hubbub over Yellowstone winter use. It’s all about how many machines, how often. Please let the National Park Service know that, as a Yellowstone winter visitor, you desire natural sounds.

The disruption of the natural soundscape can only get worse as human population soars past 7 billion and we race furiously onward. It will take a highly organized effort to protect the sounds of the ancient planet. Go forth and listen, for the sounds of silence await you, if you are observant and patient. Listen well, and you may hear a mysterious call in the deep dark woods…

Guest column by Phil Knight.  Phil is a long time Sierra Club member and local organizer, conservationist, guide, naturalist and author of two books about traveling and living in the backcountry.

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THE BOUNTY OF BEAVERS

My experiences with nature’s master engineers has been wide, and varied. I vaguely understand the importance of beavers presence on the landscape, providing waters for numerous species, yes. But they also have a long history of misplaced villainy. Old stories Imageof damage to farmlands, urban parks are being looked at with new scrutiny.  Today I can think back on many experiences exploring the wilds of America, from the swamps of the deep South to Alaska and the quiet beaver was ever present. The startling sound of their warning tail slaps have always accompanied my canoe and the presence of their distinctive teeth marks have amazed me in desert environs. Anywhere there is flowing waters the scheming mind of a beaver will be motivated to do battle with its riffles and cascades. The meditative effects of a babbling brook that we so enjoy must be like a chalkboard screech to the mind of a beaver, its DNA having been influenced by eons of flowing waters across the continent. It is amazing to ponder on thoughts of what is held within this unassuming creature’s genetic memory, arming it with the skills to engineer an ecosystem. An ability only surpassed by another mammal, human kind.

By the 1872 establishment of YNP the fur trade had decimated the beaver population. The park itself has never been considered prime beaver habitat, due mainly to its lack of abundant aspen. However, there are historic 1800‘s journals indicating beavers existed in YNP, where today they are no longer found. The opening of the American West was built on the economy of beaver pelts, from the earliest multinational corporations to the solitary Imagemountain men beaver fever was the catalyst of decades of exploration, adventure and wealth. The continents precolonial wildlands were resplendent with beaver dams, surely our young nation could not have progressed so quickly without the unassuming beavers ability to build, thus providing a healthy and resilient ecosystem for many species including us.

There is hope and today a need for restoring beavers to their rightful place on the ecosystem. Today science recognizes the possibilities beavers provide as one strategy in turning around an ailing planet. As Aldo Leopold surmised, “keeping every cog in the wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”.

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As any Yellowstone advocate knows, the influence of wolves on the landscape is working wonders to repair riparian habitat across the GYE. Many historically abundant Yellowstone aspen stands, denuded by 80 plus years of overly abundant elk herds are regrowing and strongly on the rebound. In the case of the beaver, build it and they will come. And by build it, I am referring to Aspen stands, courtesy of Canis lupus. This is my hope for beavers across the wider ecosystem where wolves are driving the ecology of fear.  As far as the need for beavers, here is where we must consider the runaway effects of climate change. Insert the weather extremes of climate change across the planet, the spine of the continent and the GYE and the advocate can see the utility of rehabbing natures other master builder. Science recognizes the dire effects of accelerating cycles of droughts and floods, which require an urgent solution for stabilizing headwaters, via the beaver’s readily available and frugal engineering of America’s watershed storage and distribution.

Here’s a brief list of the positive effects of a healthy beaver population on the landscape:

  1. Increases the water table, and water storage
  2. Redistributes and invigorates riparian growth through seed redistribution from the mud/soils beavers move.
  3. Lowers water temperatures downstream of dams via groundwater seepage
  4. Buffers against flash flooding events
  5. Filters and decreases sediment loads
  6. Increases late season water supply and stream flows
  7. Provides habitat for many species, migratory and resident birds and their predators
  8. Improves spawning and rearing of fish stocks

For More Info:http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/upload/ys16(3)_part1.pdf

http://www.landscouncil.org/beaversolution/

Guest column by Richard Rusnak, rarusnak62@gmail.com.  Rich serves on the the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign steering committee. 
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Taking Care of the GYE in a Warming World

Stream - Bonnie Rice

The afternoon was hot, but the water of the North Fork flowed cool around my legs, so I wasn’t sweating. The cutthroat trout were biting and I had netted several, admiring the colorful slash that gives them their name as I released them back into the stream to fin away under a bank to recover. Later, a cold beer slaked my thirst and I smiled, remembering the easy fishing on the uncrowded stream outside Yellowstone National Park. The year was 1978 and I was a college student on vacation with my then girlfriend who turned out to be my partner all these years hence.

The memory of the abundant trout and cool water flowing from its source deep in Yellowstone National Park has stuck with me all these years later. Will it be possible to conjure a similar memory for others in 2028, some 50 years later? That depends on how we take care of the Greater Yellowstone in the face of a changing climate.

I suspect you readers know the predictions quite well: hotter, drier summers and falls; less winter snow; and more winter rain. Rather than dwelling on the changes I prefer to look for solutions. What can we do to make it as possible for another youth to have that same experience in the years to come? That is the question that intrigues me.

A report by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition does a nice job of outlining what we need to do:

1. Restore habitat by modifying grazing practices, removing un-needed logging roads, keeping motorized vehicles out of streams, enhancing streamside plants, stabilizing banks and allowing streams to course naturally through the landscape.
2. Improve fish passage through culvert removal/replacement and fish screens on irrigation canals.
3. Keep water in the rivers in the driest parts of the year through water right leasing/purchase and increasing irrigation efficiency/conservation practices and technoloty.
4. Restore water quality through removing sources of sedimentation and pollution.
5. Protect wildlands.
6. Support reintroduction of beaver and protect and restore native populations of genetically pure trout species.

If we do these things we have the best chance that others can enjoy the bounty of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as I did that day. To me, it is a chance for a priceless memory.

-Len Broberg, Sierra Club member, Missoula, MT

Len has been a Montana Sierra Club member since 1995 and has served as the Chair of the Bitterroot-Mission Group and Montana Chapter executive committee. He is currently a member of the Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone Campaign’s Delivery Team and the Wildlands and Wilderness Activist Team. Len directs the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana.

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Happy New Year to the Hoback!

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Great news! Thanks to many supporters like you, the Wyoming Range’s spectacular Upper Hoback basin has been permanently protected from destructive fracking! Just days ago, The Trust for Public Lands secured the final portion of the $8.75 million needed by December 31st to buy out drilling leases owned by a Houston-based oil and gas company. Over the past several years Sierra Club and our conservation partners have fought to protect the Upper Hoback from development of 136 natural gas wells, 17 well pads and miles of new roads, which would have destroyed this important wildlife migration corridor in the Bridger-Teton National Forest just 35 miles from Jackson. The leases will be permanently retired under the provisions of the 2009 Wyoming Range Legacy Act and can never be sold again.  

While we celebrate this huge victory for the Upper Hoback, we must be vigilant in protecting another critical piece of the Wyoming Range. Just south of the Upper Hoback, an area known as the “44K” is threatened by another highly controversial drilling project. The “44K” is designated critical habitat for the threatened Canada lynx and an important migration corridor for mule deer and other species, and it provides outstanding recreational opportunities on its 44,700 acres.

Like the Hoback, the 44K is one of the few remaining unprotected areas left in the Wyoming Range that was authorized for drilling before passage in 2009 of the Legacy Act, which protects 1.2 million acres from oil and gas drilling. But unlike the Hoback, in which a private drilling company owned valid leases that were grandfathered in when the Legacy Act was passed, the Forest Service has the authority to decide whether or not to cancel the leases in the 44K. The 44K leases were either suspended or not issued as a result of an appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals several years ago, so no one holds a current valid lease.

Largely because of the sensitivity of this area for wildlife, in 2011 Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) Supervisor Jacque Buchanan canceled all drilling leases on the 44K, noting “After considering all the alternatives, and the environmental impacts associated with each, I have determined this is the best course of action.”  However, subsequent outcry from industry and politicians resulted in withdrawal of that decision, and agreement by the BTNF to undertake further analysis of the project.  The analysis will include impacts of the proposed project on air quality and wildlife, including lynx. Sierra Club believes that this additional analysis will provide even more justification that drilling should not be allowed.

Later this year, Forest Supervisor Buchanan will again decide whether or not to allow drilling, and will take public comment on her decision. Please stay tuned  —  we’ll need your voice to help ensure that the 44K remains off-limits to drilling forever!

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Bonnie Rice, Greater Yellowstone Campaign

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Why Wild Matters

Sunshine on the ridge atop Garnet Mountain.  Photo by Zack Waterman

Sunshine on the ridge atop Garnet Mountain. Photo by Zack Waterman

The wind ripped across the summit of Garnet Mountain with such intensity that the single-pane glass windows in the fire lookout tower were humming in vibration.  I pulled on my boots and stepped onto the balcony, gripping the icy railing of the fire lookout tower with my mittens as I leaned into the single digit temperatures and windswept snow.  Peering into the Gallatin Canyon bottom thousands of feet below, I could see tiny dots of light moving along highway 191.  While the cars were traveling at 60 mph, from my vantage point they appeared to barely be moving at all.

Photo by Zack Waterman

Photo by Zack Waterman

At 8,245 feet, it no longer felt as if the stars and crescent moon were suspended in the night sky.  Rather, they seemed to swirl endlessly before my level gaze as if they were bobbing in dark ocean—one more daunting and mysterious than those ever traversed by human ships.

Old Man Winter was in one of his fierce moods, again.  He seemed intent on seeing my lookout tower tumble to the bottom of the icy canyon.

Feeling alive once again, I stepped back into the toasty lookout tower warmed by the glow of a wood fire.  Thanks to the National Forest Service cabin rental system, I knew I had a safe place to spend the night, and plenty of wood to keep the cast iron stove roaring.

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Dusk sets in above Garnet Mountain Lookout. Photo by Zack Waterman

While most have visited a National Forest campground, few have taken full advantage of the vast array of Forest Service recreation cabin rentals offered to the public at unbelievable prices.  (My lookout costs $30 per night and comes with all the seasoned wood you can possibly stuff into the stove).

The Gallatin National Forest alone has 24 different rental cabins.  Some are accessible by car and have running water and electricity.  Others (such as my lookout) are located in remote wilderness areas that take some serious dedication to access.  Recreation cabins are fun any time of year, but they’re a particularly awesome amenity during the harsh winter months where tent camping can be miserable and downright dangerous.

I was in need of a winter wilderness adventure, so when I saw that the lookout was available for Saturday night, I gave a ring to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center to chat about snow conditions.

“Avalanche risk is moderate,” the ranger said.  “But if you stay near the trees most of the time you should be fine.  Wouldn’t stop me from going.”

“Thanks”, I said as I hung up the phone.

Less than 24 hours later, I was several hundred feet below the summit of Garnet Mountain.  Struggling just to lift one foot in front of the other, I

Garnet Mountain Lookout.  Photo by Zack Waterman

Garnet Mountain Lookout. Photo by Zack Waterman

trudged uphill through deep snow. While it’s only 4 miles from the trailhead to the summit, the trail gains nearly 3,000 feet of elevation.  Add December in Montana to the equation and this would-be strenuous summertime hike turns into a serious winter expedition.

After a full day of travel, I finally stumbled into the lookout, dropped my snow crusted backpack on the floor with a thud, and collapsed onto a

wooden chair.  Recognizing that I had less than an hour of daylight left, I took in the sweeping 360 degree view of mountain wilderness.  From inside the lookout I could see three different major mountain ranges of the Northern Rockies including the Bridger, Madison, and Gallatin Ranges.   As I took in the enormous scale of the landscape around me, I wondered where the wolves that had survived Montana’s hunting and trapping season were denning.

As dusk crept over the 45th parallel, the Rockies disappeared beneath a sea of stars.  I sat next to the crackling fire and recognized I was living a childhood dream.  As kid who learned to love nature from rambling around old tobacco irrigation ponds in eastern North Carolina, I dreamed of one day having adventures in great western mountain ranges.   Here I was, on top of the world, and living in the browning pages of the Jack London novels that captured my imagination as a child.

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Ascent of Garnet Mountain on snowshoes. Photo by Zack Waterman

We need places like this to exist, even if we’re never fortunate or adventurous enough to set foot into them.  The fact that there are still places that echo with the hoof beats of great bison and elk herds (where you can escape the chatter of our wired, fast paced, suburban lives) remind us of an Old World— a time when our survival was more intimately interwoven with the lands around us.  Untamed wilderness reminds us of our place in this world and our dependence upon her sustenance.   The wild awakens our spirits and imaginations, and it encourages us to dream like children.

Looking south over the Gallatin Range, I hoped that my grandkids would one day have the opportunity to stand on top of Garnet Mountain and look out over the wild Rockies, and wonder where the  last grizzly bears chose to hibernate through the dark Montana winter .  I recognized, though, that there is much work to be done to make sure this opportunity exists for future generations.

The Gallatin Range before me, extending from Yellowstone National Park to the foothills of Bozeman, serves as a key wildlife corridor for some of the healthiest wildlife populations of any temperate ecosystem on Earth.  The Gallatin Range helps connect Greater Yellowstone with the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and this connectivity between large swaths of undeveloped land is why Greater Yellowstone is one of the last places in the United States where all of the top predator species present before European exploration still roam free.

However, the future of this wild artery and the ecosystem that depends upon it remains tenuous.   Gallatin County, home to Bozeman, Big Sky, and West Yellowstone is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States.  Booming development and ever increasing recreational pressure present serious threats to the Gallatin Range.  Meanwhile, rapidly changing national politics threaten to undo current but inadequate protections.

Standing on top of Garnet Mountain, I felt thankful that conservation groups like the Sierra Club are working to secure permanent Wilderness protection for the Gallatin Range.  We must recognize, though, that conservation groups cannot do it alone.  If we are to be successful, we need the help of passionate and engaged citizens who are willing to step up to the plate.

With your help we can make sure that the Gallatin Range remains forever wild.  To find out more about volunteering with Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign, contact Zack Waterman (zack.waterman@sierraclub.org) or Bonnie Rice (bonnie.rice@sierraclub.org).

Post by Zack Waterman

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