When 34 Yellowstone National Park bison bounded off a trailer into north central Montana this August, their century-long absence from Fort Belknap Reservation ended. The repatriation comes at a time when Montana is making gradual progress towards fostering free-roaming bison herds.
While hundreds of thousands of bison live in Montana, most are commercial stock carrying cattle genes, and none of them range freely like elk, deer and antelope do. Even non-commercial bison, like those owned by the tribes, are fenced-in. In the case of Yellowstone bison, they are confined by state policy that keeps them from freely leaving the park. Since 2011, bison have been allowed to migrate out of the park during winter. But in spring, they are hazed back into Yellowstone, or into holding facilities, even occasionally shot or sent to slaughter, if they venture out of “tolerance zones” into cattle grazing areas.
Thanks to conflicts with cattle grazing, the idea of the state changing its stance to treat bison like wild, free-ranging animals, as opposed to livestock, is perpetually controversial. Even so, Montana is now taking steps towards having more genetically pure bison in the state, and giving them more room to roam. Since 2012, Montana has transferred dozens of bison from Yellowstone National Park’s herd to two Indian reservations in northern Montana, including Fort Belknap. Those bison aren’t free ranging, but the move may reduce hazing and ad hoc killing of errant animals near Yellowstone.
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Last fall, many read Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney – who, according to Reuters, had advocated “ ‘self-deportation,’ … essentially call(ing) on the government to make life so miserable for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Hispanics, that many would leave on their own” – as a sort of mandate to the GOP to rethink its hardline stance on illegal immigration as the nation’s Latino electorate grows in numbers and power.
Since then, in late June, the U.S. Senate actually managed to pass a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform measure, originally crafted by the so-called Gang of Eight, which includes Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, and Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet. Among other measures, the bill would tighten U.S. border security while creating a new Resident Provisional Immigrant program – essentially a conditional path to citizenship for those who have been in the country illegally since Dec. 31, 2011, who don’t have a significant criminal record and who pay applicable fines and fees. Resident Provisional Immigrants would be eligible for a green card after 10 years, and full citizenship after 13; illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and farm workers would both have a quicker path.
“I’m asking you to consider that we have an unacceptable situation as it is today and we need to all work together no matter where we are in the political spectrum to try to resolve this issue,” McCain told 150 people at a Tucson town hall meeting in August.
Despite all the GOP soul-searching, many Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives have been reluctant to budge on the issue of immigration, dismissing the Senate measure as unacceptable amnesty. For every “valedictorian” born to illegal immigrants who would benefit from the measure, there are "another 100 out there … [with] … calves the size of cantaloupes ... hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, reportedly told newsmax.com in July, drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle.
But now, even in the House, a small but growing number of Republicans are beginning to embrace the idea of some kind of legalization, reports the Associated Press:
"There should be a pathway to citizenship — not a special pathway and not no pathway," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told ABC 4 Utah after speaking at a recent town hall meeting in his district. "But there has to be a legal, lawful way to go through this process that works, and right now it doesn't."
Chaffetz’s position is an interesting one. Just a couple of years ago, when I reported on the Utah Compact to redirect the state and national immigration discussion toward a solution that recognizes undocumented workers’ economic and community contributions and their humanity, Utah’s Congressional delegation was studiously keeping its distance. University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless told me then that he expected Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who had sponsored a version of the DREAM Act in the past, would be especially careful about espousing the Compact to avoid being perceived as not conservative enough and thus vulnerable to ultra-conservative Chaffetz should he decide to run against Hatch for the GOP Senate nomination in the 2012 election. (Utah’s primary structure tends to favor extremists; a similar fate befell conservative Utah Sen. Bob Bennett when he was ousted by Tea-Party favorite Mike Lee in 2010.)
But with plans to step down after this Senate term ends, Hatch also appears to be back in conciliatory mode, voting for the Senate measure and even participating in a mid-August roundtable convened in Utah by FWD.us, a group that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (FWD.us has used some controversial tactics to drum up conservative support for reform – which would help broaden the legal talent pool for tech companies like Facebook – including sponsoring ads that promote the Keystone XL.)
Some of the shift in the House has to do with redistricting and changing demographics, as well as the backing of the business community and intense lobbying by immigrant rights groups, reports the Associated Press. But it’s not clear yet what difference it will make: there’s little chance the House will take up the comprehensive measure, though there has been some momentum building behind addressing reforms through piecemeal bills, with possible floor debates in October and November. Still, most House Republicans are focused on other issues, reports the Los Angeles Times; it’s also uncertain what sort of path to legal status might emerge, or whether it could be reconciled with the Senate’s vision.
Worse, the escalating conflict in Syria has pushed immigration reform efforts so far down on the list of priorities that they face scuttlement by 2014 Congressional election-year politics.
Still, advocates see hope in House Republicans’ weakening opposition. "I think there's a lot of space (for compromise) there," Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza, told the Associated Press. "And that's why I'm optimistic that once they start grappling more with details, that's when things start getting more real."
Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor. Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Rhodes
Winslow, Ariz. has been described as sad, depressed, quiet, dead and creepy. Buildings once housing bustling businesses were abandoned and not even secured, left to the pigeons. A local gas station reportedly had spelled out “God Hates Winslow” on its sign. That’s probably not fair: The reservation border town of 10,000, once the economic and social center of northern Arizona that lies at the low point along the rails between Gallup and Flagstaff, is simply a victim of the vagaries of transport, just another old railroad town bludgeoned by the Interstate and bled dry by the automobile. Were it not for the prison, a community college, the power plant down in Joseph City and the hotel and fast food chains serving I-40 motorists, the place might just blow away.
At least, that’s how it looked 19 years ago, the last time I spent any time in Winslow, an accidental visit that was traumatic enough to cause me to avoid the place ever since. These days you’ll still encounter rundown gas stations, a high unemployment rate, decaying motels and the detritus that tends to pile up in the liminal spaces of the West. But you can also find vast hallways filled with giant, haunting contemporary paintings in the restored La Posada Inn – built in 1929 to serve a slower, more elegant society. In a few of those once-abandoned buildings, a type of art unfettered by market considerations has replaced the pigeons. Later this month, the Station-to-Station art on rails project is stopping in Winslow, featuring Cat Power, Jackson Browne and Ed Ruscha’s cactus omelette. And don’t be too shocked if you encounter an icon of contemporary art a la Ruscha in the restaurant at La Posada, where the food rivals any you might find in Santa Fe.
Combined with a citywide effort to revitalize the town’s streetscapes and economy, Winslow’s in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, two decades in the making, with the help of art. One might even dare to say it’s becoming an art town, though it’s more than that, says Ann-Mary Lutzick, one of the owners of the Snowdrift Art Space and director of the local history museum.
“I don’t think Winslow will become an arts town,” Lutzick says, sitting on a sofa in the Snowdrift, a one-time department store where cozy living spaces are tucked among the huge storehouse of art, “because Winslow isn’t a dying town, really. It needs every diverse kind of growth it can get, including tourism, and that’s all the arts are in a town this size, anyway.”
Most of the people who experience Winslow do so from behind the windshield of their car, zipping past at 70 mph on the Interstate. If the passersby think of it at all, they may think of the Eagles’ song, "Take it Easy," in which a girl in a flatbed Ford slows down to look at the song’s narrator on a corner in Winslow. Some may even pull off to look for said Ford. It’s there, alright, only without the girl. Or they may wonder why on earth someone put a town here, of all places, in this particular non-descript section of desert. The easy answer would be the train – the town was founded by the railroad in the 1880s.
In the spring of 2002, Colorado temperatures were averaging four degrees above normal. Snowpack began disappearing at an alarming rate, and rain was scant. Then the fires started. The Hayman Fire, 215 square miles southwest of Denver, tore through nearly $200 million in firefighting costs alone. “(That summer) was hellacious,” remembers Reagan Waskom, co-chair of the state’s drought task force agricultural team. “So hot, so windy, so dry. It was all just kind of exploding." The 2002 drought, scientists later reported in the state drought plan, was, “based on studies of tree rings and archaeological evidence from aboriginal cultures… arguably the most severe in the recorded history of the state.” And the state was caught off-guard, scrambling to respond to a severe emergency.
Since then, Waskom says, Colorado has learned some lessons. This month, the state’s drought task force will finish revising its Drought Mitigation and Response Plan, which aims to reduce short- and long-term impacts of water shortages by planning ahead in all sectors. Beginning with the first major overhaul, which was in 2010, the massive plan has increasingly focused on proactive mitigation rather than just response. That means more weather forecasting and assessing which state assets and which counties are most vulnerable to future drought. Though there’s still plenty of work to be done, Colorado’s plan has become a model for other states in the region.
“Most states don’t do a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative analysis on vulnerability. They focus on the response plan, but they don’t tie all the pieces together,” says Taryn Finnessy, climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and lead coordinator of the plan. Filling gaps in climate data for various regions in the state, partnering with NOAA to create new tools to measure precipitation, and possible plans to name a drought “impact czar” are just a few examples of how Colorado has distinguished itself in the drought planning world. The state now also has a “toolbox” of guidelines and resources for municipalities and local water providers to draft their own plans, and a website where individuals can monitor water restrictions in their area.
Around the West, planning for drought has typically been low priority for states because it’s not seen as an emergency, or as the draft plan puts it, drought is “a slow motion disaster.”
Starting Sept. 22, the phrase “Pack it in, pack it out” will have a new meaning to visitors at Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. When nature calls, backcountry campers will no longer be able to simply dig a hole to leave their organic deposit. The park’s remote southeastern Needles District is joining a growing number of Western public lands that require visitors to haul out their own poop.
Human waste, as the literature so gently calls it, has long been a problem at some of the country’s more popular public lands. On the trail, hours or even days from a toilet, what’s a functioning human to do? Leave No Trace, the popular guidelines to minimize backcountry travelers’ impact, suggests digging a hole far from any water source and well off the trail. After defecating in this “cathole,” cover it up so animals or your fellow hikers won’t find it. Another method that has largely fallen out of favor, but once preferred for arid climates, is the smear technique. Spread thin like paint, the feces dry up in the sun and blow away. These techniques can work well over a landscape but in high-traffic areas, things can start to get gross.
Multi-day backcountry hikers in Canyonlands' Needles District are required to camp in designated areas and many don’t wander far to relieve themselves. Over the years, given the approximately 5,000 backcountry permits issued annually, the improvised toilets around the backcountry campsites have built up. “You can’t dig a cathole without hitting (another) cathole,” says Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent at Canyonlands.
It's no surprise that federal officials often end up employed by various think-tanks, nonprofits and trade groups once their stints on Capitol Hill are over. For example, here's where some George W. Bush administration folks have gone: Dale Hall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, is now CEO of Ducks Unlimited. Dave Tenny, who headed the Forest Service, founded the National Alliance of Forest Owners, which lobbies for policies that "advance the economic and environmental benefits of privately-owned forests." And former Interior Secretary Gale Norton started her own consulting firm, Norton Regulatory Strategies, to help energy, mining and other companies navigate "the toughest regulatory challenges."
The latest announcement concerns former Interior deputy secretary Lynn Scarlett, who's going to work for The Nature Conservancy, as managing director for public policy. TNC describes itself as "the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people."
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The San Rafael Swell, the Book Cliffs, Desolation Canyon and the areas around Canyonlands National Park are some of Utah’s most iconic places; yet they lack federal protections. They’ve been land management battlegrounds for decades, pitting wilderness advocates and muscle-powered recreationalists against resource extraction and motor–powered recreationalists.
But as reporter Greg Hanscom described recently in HCN, there’s hope of easing that stalemate as Congressman Rob Bishop, a conservative who's known as being anti-federal lands, is working to broker a big federal land management deal, and find some closure on decades of acrimony over land use.
In spite of the optimism that both Bishop and environmental groups expressed toward the nascent process, there are two new wrinkles in protecting wilderness values in the San Rafael Swell and the Book Cliffs. The Bureau of Land Management and Utah’s school land trust are offering up nearly 236,000 acres of their respective lands for potential oil and gas leasing, making the push for Congressional action to protect red rock country even more urgent.
The area that was once a little-visited blur of rock along I-70 near Green River is now a destination for a whole host of recreationalists, who spill over from Moab and Dominguez-Escalante National Monument to explore the Swell’s inner valleys and canyons. Thanks in part to this increased interest, plus its isolation, fragile desert ecosystem, and its mind-bending rock formations, the Swell has been the subject of about a dozen (failed) proposals for federal protections in the last 50 years.
In the early 1960s, President Kennedy, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and a few other politicians got together and hatched an idea: use money from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation projects and acquire land for all Americans.
The result was the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1965. “It’s helped shape the American West,” says Alan Rowsome, director of government relations for land at The Wilderness Society and co-chair of the national LWCF Coalition. “Iconic national parks like Grand Teton and Yellowstone have had an immense amount of LWCF dollars over the years.”
More than 7 million acres — including urban parks, neighborhood soccer fields and rural hunting grounds — have been acquired through LWCF money. But the Fund has always been at the mercy of political arm-wrestling, and it now faces the most severe funding threats in its history. Meanwhile, the backlog of unfunded projects has reached $17 billion — up from $2 billion in 1998 and $10 billion in 2005 — and the whole kit n'caboodle is about to expire for the first time in 50 years.
The days are getting shorter as autumn approaches, and volunteers around the country are getting their bug nets in order, preparing for the brief season when monarch butterflies will be migrating through their communities. Arguably the most recognized butterfly species in the world, monarchs captivate our imaginations with their big, colorful wings and long migrations – the longest of any insect. Most monarch populations east of the Rockies fly to central Mexico, while the Western populations generally fly to several groves along the California coast.
Both monarch populations are in trouble, though. The Mexican government reported last March that the overwintering population in Mexico has experienced a dramatic decline. Scientists have speculated that this decline is due in part to loss of milkweed, which is the sole food source for monarch caterpillars, in the Midwestern corn belt as well as deforestation in the monarch’s overwintering sites. Chip Taylor, an entomologist at the University of Kansas, says the reason for declines in the Western populations likewise include habitat loss, but that drought and increased summer heat also create unfavorable conditions for the monarch.
To help scientists understand how monarch populations are changing, volunteer butterfly enthusiasts around the country join the Monarch Watch, a University of Kansas education and research program, to tag migrating monarchs. The data that volunteers have collected over the last two decades has helped scientists develop a more nuanced understanding of both Eastern and Western monarch migration patterns, and may help answer some outstanding questions, such as where, exactly, the Western populations migrate from in the fall, and what is causing the decline in numbers.
Since Monarch Watch started in 1992, volunteers have tagged roughly 1 million monarchs. Of those, about 17,000 have been found later, or “recovered.” That’s just over 1 percent, which Taylor says is a fairly high rate. Those 17,000 recoveries have already helped scientists better understand butterfly migration, but to draw conclusions about trends, they need to gather a lot more data. “Once you get into the millions of recoveries, you have something extremely useful,” says Taylor. Monarch tagging programs in the west are growing through programs like Arizona’s Southwest Monarch Study and The Nature Conservancy’s program in Nevada, and with more volunteers, recovery rates will likely go up as well.
Before Glen Canyon Dam tamed it in 1963, the Colorado River flowed red with mud, and the seasons ruled its temperature and flow. Today, the river is a vastly different ecosystem. Now, it's the color of a tropical ocean because the dam holds back sediment, withering the beaches that river travelers love for camping. And the river now hovers at an unnaturally cool 46 degrees Fahrenheit year round, thanks to cold water that pours out of the dam from deep in Lake Powell. Four of the river’s native fish species are gone, and one, the humpback chub, is endangered.
In 1996, the first of four experimental floods surged from Lake Powell, amid hopes that the burst of water would churn up sediment that would fatten sandbars and provide fish habitat. The floods did restore sandbars for a time, and the experimental surges became an official part of dam operations in 2012. But flushing out the canyon has yet to benefit native fish – particularly the endangered humpback chub – as researchers and managers hoped.
In a recent study, ecologists teased apart some of the reasons why. They looked at how the river’s food webs are impacted by floods, and found that a large artificial flood in 2008 changed the simple food webs of introduced rainbow trout near the dam, increasing the blackflies and midges that the trout feed on, which boosted the non-native population -- a potentially troublesome development for native fish since trout compete with them for food, and sometimes prey on their young. Further complicating things, the flood had little impact on the more complex food webs of the native humpback chub, flannelmouth sucker, or bluehead sucker, which live further downstream in the Grand Canyon.
“The conservation implications are that we’ve got to be careful about these huge management actions, because what benefits one resource (like rainbow trout) may not benefit another (like the chub),” says Wyatt Cross, an aquatic ecologist from Montana State University involved in the study.
Now, managers are trying to balance the need for beach-restoring floods, which increase non-native trout numbers upstream, with the need to maintain chub habitat in the Grand Canyon. That left some researchers asking the question: If big, artificial floods didn’t help humpback chub as expected, what are the root causes of their low numbers, and what will help them thrive?
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