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Real bears get a helping hand from Hollywood

Ben Long | Apr 17, 2013 10:22 AM

It’s a long way from the cold, rainy valleys of northwestern Montana's Cabinet Mountains to the bright lights of Hollywood. But they are both bear country, in very different ways.

Hollywood is about myths — taking old myths and digging them deeper. Grafting on new, odd branches to existing myths.

Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.
Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.

Hollywood plays to the mythology of bears.  A Hollywood bear did in Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall and menaced Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge. More recently, a Hollywood bear snarled in front of 10 million viewers worldwide, in the opener of Game of Thrones on HBO.

Those Hollywood bears are the product of Doug and Lynn Seus, who have made a career of training grizzly bears for the movies. These bears, with trademarked names like Bart, Honey Bump and Tank, have eaten more Oreo cookies than huckleberries.

The bears of the Cabinet Mountains look similar but act different. They have no sense of at all for the limelight. I’ve been roaming here 25 years and seldom see more than a scratched up tree or tracks in the trail mud. Small wonder, since the grizzly population of that mountain range was probably below 15 bears before conservation measures began taking hold.

This time of year, what’s left of them Cabinet grizzlies leave their dens in the snowy alpine and go to scrounge the sprouting grass and moldering winterkills of the Yaak, Fisher, Kootenai and Bull River valleys.

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Pipeline paradox

Red Lodge | Apr 15, 2013 12:20 PM

Despite many high-profile protests and acts of civil disobedience focused on the adverse effects of extracting and burning the fossil fuels the Keystone XL pipeline would transport, Americans have curious, if not contradictory, views of climate and the pipeline.

The KXL, if constructed by TransCanada, would move up to 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands (which is 20 percent more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional fuel) 875 miles south from Alberta through three states (Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska). It would then link up with the existing Keystone pipeline which transports oil to Gulf Coast refineries. Last month the U.S. State Department released an updated Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for the proposed project (after it was denied a Presidential Permit in November 2011) which shows changes to the route and length of the pipeline (comments on the DSEIS are due by April 22).

KXL route map
The revised, proposed route of the KXL pipeline. Courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of State.

A national survey, conducted from March 13 to 17 by the Pew Research Center asked 1,501 adults what they thought about the KXL. The near even split of Democrats, Independents and Republicans are 66 percent in favor of (only 23 percent opposed it and 11 percent didn’t know) building the pipeline.

The same survey asked, “Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?” Sixty-nine percent of those polled answered yes, and 42 percent agreed that it is “caused mostly by human activity” (23 percent said it is caused mostly by natural patterns in the earth’s environment). A Gallup survey done a week earlier looked at 1,022 adults’ views on global warming, but a little differently. The poll showed that 58 percent of Americans worry “a great deal or a fair amount” about it (up from 51 percent who expressed concern about climate change two years ago). A recent Yale and George Mason universities poll showed that a solid majority of Republicans now believe climate change is happening and support action on it.

Considering that most people agree the earth is warming and a majority actively worry about it, it’s quizzical that many Americans support the pipeline. Researchers believe Alberta’s tar sands contain from 360 to 510 billion tons of carbon; that’s equivalent to adding up billions of cars to our highways, and is more than twice the total oil that’s been burned by humans throughout history.

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Feral vs. wild horses

Monica Gokey | Apr 11, 2013 05:00 AM

The question of whether mustangs in the West are feral versus wild is a controversial one; it’s got a knack for appearing in the comment section of many a mustang story. Mustang advocates are adamant the wild horse is a bona fide North American wildlife species – on par with deer, elk, bison and pronghorn. Scientists, ever the party poopers, beg to differ.

Horse evolution is well documented in North America’s fossil record – first as a small dog-sized animal that walked on five toes over 50 million years ago, on to larger equines that bore their weight on single hooves. Horses went extinct on North America some 12,000 years ago – likely due to some cocktail of climate change and overhunting by man – but not before they migrated over the land bridge into Asia (where they further diversified into asses and zebras).

Despite their extinction on North America, horses guaranteed themselves a permanent spot in history when humans domesticated them some 4,000-5,000 years ago on the Asian steppes (possibly earlier). A partnership was born, and equines became a catalyst for human migration (and war).

Once domesticated, horses carried Gengis Khan’s empire into power. They were painted by Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. They bore the weight of the Crusaders on their backs (nobody said being friends with humans was easy). And 500 years ago, Spanish conquistadors couriered horses back to their evolutionary homeland aboard ships. Some escaped and became the seed stock for what would become a burgeoning wild horse population.

But are the horses here today the same animals that left 12,000 years ago? That is, how much did horses change in the 4,000-5,000 years since they were domesticated?

In wild species, nature selects for traits that best equip an animal for survival. But when humans are involved, we select for traits that meet our needs – a practice dubbed selective breeding. A new study in Nature suggests that by domesticating animals (dogs, in this case), we actually cause changes in their genetic hardwiring.

Selective breeding is generally obvious to the naked eye -- no need to zoom-in on genetics. Take a golden retriever for example. Its wild ancestor (by tens of thousands of years) is a wolf. Generation after generation, humans selected for the traits they desired: a caramel-colored coat, a can-do attitude, and an endearing tendency to slobber. Likewise, horses brought to the Americas by Europeans were purposefully sculpted beasts of burden.

Today’s wild horses often exhibit certain breed characteristics: Oregon’s Stinkingwater Herd Management Area (HMA) has a noticeable influence of draft horse; many of Wyoming’s HMAs are notorious for paints. Despite living in the wild, their domestic origins are clear.

One equine geneticist, Dr. Philip Sponenberg of Virginia Tech, points to color as a prominent indicator of mustangs’ domestic origins: wild populations generally have a single color and no white markings, he told me.

In North America, most native fauna are brown (think of deer, elk, bison, etc.). White isn’t an advantageous color in the wild (well, not in North America anyway) – but to humans who adore unique markings, perhaps it’s irresistible. Many mustangs bear white snips, stars or blazes in addition to sporting a variety of coat colors: palomino, sorrel, dun, grulla, chestnut, bay, and so forth.

A lot of mustangs don’t behave entirely like wild animals either (though this varies depending on the HMA). In the Pryor Mountains of Montana, for example, the Bureau of Land Management posts signage asking visitors not to approach the horses – because visitors can approach the horses. That approachability is a non-reversible remnant of domestication.

While science has soundly established that America’s mustangs are feral, not wild – the issue of whether horses are a native species keeps cropping up among mustang advocates.

Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick is one of the few scientists to strike a middle ground on the issue. He calls horses a “reintroduced native species” – but also says that it doesn’t matter which biological category you put them in (feral or wild), their fecundity begs for outside management. Though horses evolved on North America, today their population is no longer naturally controlled. Left alone, modern horse herds can double in size every 4-5 years (where are those darn saber-toothed cats?). Kirkpatrick is a pioneer in wildlife contraception, and has already shown that birth control can be an effective means to control wild horse numbers (read more about his work on Assateague Island).

So does the label really matter?

Some advocates argue it does, feeling that formal designation as a native North American species would entitle mustangs to more stringent protection.

In his HCN feature story, “Nowhere to run,” author Dave Philipps describes mustangs as “technically feral, non-native transplants like hogs or knapweed,” but notes that their relationship to humans and history makes them different than other invasive species.

“Centuries of living alongside people in the West had made [mustangs] an emblem of the wide-open landscapes, and of the grit, defiance and hardiness that Americans still believed defined their nation.”

Even though mustangs are not a native wild species – they are feral – most will agree America’s mustangs are a species of cultural importance, and one that deserves protection as such.

Monica Gokey is finishing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana. She is producing a radio documentary on mustangs in the West, with a focus on the Pryor Mountain mustangs of Montana. In getting to know the horses, Monica has also gotten to know their cohort of people – an equally colorful bunch (she says that fondly).

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.


How can we sustainably fund our national parks?

Red Lodge | Apr 09, 2013 02:30 PM

Given the iconic status of our national parks—the spirited geysers of Yellowstone, striking gravitas of the Statue of Liberty and Kodachrome hollows of the Grand Canyon—it’s hard to imagine a time when their establishment and protection were a hard sell. But a century ago, that’s where park champions found themselves; hawking to Congress and the American people a vision of a network of parks that would safeguard our natural and cultural resources. And sadly, it’s where park supporters find themselves again today.

In the years leading up to the founding of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, its proponents puzzled over how to make parks relevant to ordinary Americans and build congressional support for them. Some of the most fervent characters of the day in business, conservation, politics and journalism came together to promote the radical idea of the parks as a source of national pride, spiritual renewal and, significantly, as an economic engine.

National Parks Portfolio
The National Parks Portfolio. Courtesy of the NPS.

They did this with a massive PR blitz. Scores of articles appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, and more than 350,000 copies of the National Parks Portfolio—filled with romantic depictions, photos and park pamphlets—were sent to libraries and travel bureaus. The strategy was simply to introduce Americans to their land and insist they see it for themselves. And they did. Before 1916, few Americans could name two national parks and, by 1920, visitation exceeded one million (by 1928, it was three million).

In some ways we’re in a better place than we were 100 years ago; our national park units are world-renowned and have been the backdrops for our school trips and family outings for generations. As a result they are also, at least in theory, a broadly supported concept. But, in other ways, the clock has rewound to the dawn of the NPS. Parks face an uncertain future for several reasons: the recent sequestration cuts, a $12 billion maintenance backlog (due in part to the 15 percent drop in NPS funding over the past decade), declining morale of Service employees and the struggle to link youth and minorities to parks.

Much as they did a century ago, park proponents are now asking: who will fight for the integrity of parks and how will they be funded in a sustainable way?

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Montana's Rep. Steve Daines warms up to conservation

Ben Long | Apr 01, 2013 11:40 AM

When the newly minted Congressman Steve Daines stepped into the press conference he wore cowboy boots, standard issue for Republican Congressmen from Big Sky Country. What set him apart were the words that came out of his mouth.

Daines, a Bozeman businessman elected in November, held the conference to announce his support for the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. The act would prevent hardrock mining, energy development and coal mining in 400,000 acres of the North Fork of the Flathead Valley, immediately adjacent to Glacier National Park. The bill is supported by Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester--both Democrats.

Rep. Steve Daines speaks at a House republican leadership press conference.

Here’s what I found remarkable: It was the first time Montana’s entire congressional delegation — of both parties and both houses — agreed on a piece of public lands legislation in at least 25 years.

“It’s time to put aside the fact we have a D next to our name or an R next to our name and remember we have MT next our name,” Daines said. “Washington could learn a lot about how we do things in Montana.”

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Rants from the Hill: Feral child

Michael Branch | Apr 01, 2013 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, published the first Monday of each month.

Almost ten years ago, after my wife Eryn’s difficult and dangerous 22-hour labor, our first daughter, Hannah Virginia, made her reluctant entrance and began an unbroken run of being a sweet, smart, thoughtful, interesting kid. In the early years of Hannah’s life Eryn and I were in the habit of congratulating each other on what amazing parents we were. What could be wrong with all these other people, whose kids ran around screaming and climbing things, when our daughter’s only idiosyncrasy was her preference for quiet and order? We felt sorry for these exhausted parents, who had to live with so many failed attempts to tame their ungovernable urchins. For us, parenting was a pleasant affirmation that, even in a world of chaos and noise, a rational, intelligent approach could produce a kid who is well-adjusted and delightfully low-maintenance. It was this unchecked hubris that prompted us to have a second child. After all, we were so good at parenting that doubling down seemed an easy call.

But that was before we met Caroline Emerson. Six years ago Caroline was born after a fast and hard labor, and she has been running us ragged ever since. I suppose the middle name we chose for her may have started the trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson is America’s most eloquent exponent of self-reliance—the belief that fierce independence, individuality, and non-conformity are the qualities we should develop in ourselves and value in others. This wild independence is precisely what we got in Caroline, though in her it is braided with an intense physicality—a remarkable strength, coordination, and spontaneous desire for adventure that makes her appear equal parts cute little girl, simian beast, and Hollywood stunt double.caroline monkey bars

At two weeks old Caroline launched herself out of her grandmother’s lap; at ten months she stood up and walked away from us; at four years she insisted that monkey bars should be built instead of sidewalks because she can cover ground faster when “it’s just swinging.” It is a major accomplishment to persuade her to operate occasionally on the horizontal surfaces of the world, and her innate ability to climb is both terrifying and inspiring. Caroline can scramble up anything: trees, fences, walls, and (in one of our best father-daughter party tricks) even me. I stand perfectly still as Caroline jumps onto my chest, momentarily hugging me like an orangutan, after which she wedges her toes into my hipbones and then, reaching for my neck, buries her fingers under my collarbone and leaps up onto my shoulders in a single, graceful motion, like an organ grinder’s monkey hopping onto a pony’s back. Having summited “Daddy Mountain,” Caroline pumps her fists in the air and screams “BOOOYAAAHHH!

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15 years of Mexican gray wolves: celebrate or sob?

DefendersofWildlife | Mar 29, 2013 05:00 AM

Friday, March 29 will be the 15th anniversary of the day U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers braved a blizzard to release the first group of captive bred Mexican gray wolves – also called “lobos” – into the wild. The wolves had been waiting in pens in the Apache National Forest in Arizona, the first of their kind in the wilds of the Southwest in decades. Now, 15 years later, there are 75 wild Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and a handful in Mexico. That’s something to celebrate – part miracle, part Endangered Species Act triumph. An animal that was completely extinct in the wild, with only seven “founder” wolves as breeding stock to save it, is back and howling and having pups and strengthening the natural systems that sustain everything, humans included.

If you live in the Southwest, we have opportunities to celebrate in Flagstaff and Pinetop, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Of course, some people will prefer to sob: there are not enough lobos in the wild; they need to overcome genetic problems; and they are confined to one population in one area of the Southwest. The slow turn of the Mexican gray wolf as it tries to step back from edge of extinction is agonizing to watch. Will the rarest wolf in the world teeter and fall? As someone who lives lobo recovery and politics every day, I can’t just sit around and sob. I need to act, and I need you with me.

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A second century of greatness

Red Lodge | Mar 28, 2013 09:00 AM

Earlier this week President Obama used authority granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate five new national monuments.

Delaware earned its first national park unit, celebrating the state’s inaugural role in ratifying the U.S. Constitution. Maryland’s Underground Railroad National Monument pays tribute to famous conductor Harriet Tubman. Nature and culture are now protected on Washington’s San Juan Islands. And New Mexico scored the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which safeguards abundant wildlife habitat and the archaeology of Archaic-era Indians and Hispanic explorers from the 18th century and beyond.

Buffalo Soldiers
Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite, 1899. Courtesy of the Yosemite Research Library.

The fifth park, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio preserves the home of the U.S. Army soldier and West Point graduate who, prior to the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, served as one of the first superintendents of Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks. Young, as head of a regiment of so-called Buffalo Soldiers, was one of few African-Americans who achieved the rank of officer at the time. He was known for his courage, diplomacy and sheer volume of accomplishments.

A thread linking these monuments is that each pays tribute, in part, to this nation’s immigrants (early Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English settlers founded the colony of Delaware) and/or its current minorities—African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

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Dangerous talk from the Capitol

Mark Trahant | Mar 21, 2013 04:00 PM

Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican, asked a critical question Tuesday. It’s one rarely asked, let alone, answered. The question: Does more government money work?

Specifically, Simpson, the chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, was asking if recent increased funding for the Indian Health Service has made a difference.

Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, director of the IHS, went through the numbers at an oversight hearing. IHS appropriations have increased 29 percent since 2008 which, she said, is “making a substantial difference in the quantity and quality of healthcare we were able to provide to American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
For example: Contract Health Service dollars, money spent to purchase medical services outside of the Indian health system, has been increased by 46 percent since 2008. “Four years ago, most programs were funding only Medical Priority 1, or ‘life or limb’ referrals. Now, Dr. Roubideaux reported, “the increased CHS funding means that almost half (29 out of 66) of Federal CHS programs are now funding referrals beyond Medical Priority 1.”

That means that there is now money, at least some money, for preventative services such as mammograms and colonoscopies. “The increased CHS money also means that the IHS Catastrophic Health Emergency Fund, which used to run out of funding for high cost cases in June, now is able to fund cases through August,” Dr. Roubideaux said.

Simpson said: “You can get sick now up to August?” To which Dr. Roubideaux replied, that the phrase, “Don’t get sick after June,” has been incredibly effective describing the problem of what it means for a health care delivery system to run out of money.

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Towards a greater Canyonlands

Red Lodge | Mar 20, 2013 04:05 PM

This week the U.S. Senate is wading through nearly 100 budget amendments tacked onto the federal spending bill. This continuing resolution—which would prevent a government shutdown and fund federal agencies through the rest of the year—includes some unrelated, politically-charged measures which, while ultimately non-binding, give an interesting peek into political agendas.

According to aides, GOP lawmakers are expected to push for votes on amendments related to ending green energy tax credits, hindering an Environmental Protection Agency rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline, and facilitating drilling on public lands.

Couple this knowledge with efforts to subvert federal control of public lands in a handful of Western states, and one campaign to elevate protection of some of those areas is looking like a particularly hard sell. Given the current fervor in Utah to assert state control, the push to establish the Greater Canyonlands National Monument (GCNM) could lead to all-out political warfare.

Labyrinth Canyon
Labyrinth Canyon. Courtesy of the BLM.

The 1.4 million acres being proposed for protection as the GCNM would comprise the largest roadless area in the lower 48 and are prime red-rock country currently administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The two existing units of Canyonlands National Park (including Horseshoe Canyon) would be the centerpiece and a GCNM as proposed would encompass Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Manti-La Sal National Forest and Natural Bridges National Monument. It was within these mazes where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sought shelter, Thelma and Louise launched their car and themselves into oblivion, and Aron Ralston spent 127 horrific hours.

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