Round River pushes kids out of their comfort zones and into the field

by Brendon Bosworth

In 1992, four fresh-faced students joined conservationist Jim Tolisano in Colorado's San Juan Mountains in search of grizzly bears. Grizzlies are thought to be extinct in the state, but sighting rumors circulated, and Round River Conservation Studies' founders Dennis Sizemore and Doug Peacock -- who inspired the character Hayduke in Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang -- had combed the mountains for bears the previous two summers. Collecting scat by day and listening to evening campfire lectures, the students were Round River's trial run.

The organization now sends groups of six to 10 students per semester to work on conservation projects in Africa, South America and Canada. Earning credit through Utah State University, they spend 12 weeks doing scientific fieldwork. Their work complements that of the organization's research team, who develop science-based conservation plans for communities and governments around the world.

High Country News recently called Sizemore at his Salt Lake City office to discuss the organization's beginnings and the "sloppy" business of conservation.

High Country News: According to a Rick Bass essay, you and Doug Peacock first talked about the idea of Round River over a bottle of George Dickel Whisky and a strip of antelope tenderloin. Is that how it happened?

Dennis Sizemore: I went and found Dougie in Tucson in 1991, and enticed him with a bottle of No. 12 and a little strap of loin. I first wrote him and asked if I could come down. He sent back a postcard that said, "I ain't no schoolmarm, but I might be able to help."

I got to know Doug years before, when I worked as a grizzly bear biologist at the University of Montana. He was working on the lookout tower up on Huckleberry Mountain in Glacier National Park. … The first time I met him, in the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge, Mont., he told me to "leave the fucking bears alone." He thought the way we were then conducting research -- basically trapping, drugging and following (them) around -- that there might be more ethical ways to accomplish the same outcome. That's something we try to embrace in our organization: We try to be as hands-off as possible.

HCN: Did you have experiences in the West before starting Round River that shaped what the organization does today?

Sizemore: I grew up in Wyoming and northern New Mexico, hiking and fishing with my dad. If we saw anybody else, he was upset and we had to move: "This place is getting run over by all those bastards from Colorado." I learned a way of walking across the landscape as a hunter, and looking for things. (Doug) Peacock always says the places he loves most are where there are animals that can kill and eat him. That elevates the experience: You recognize your appropriate place in the food chain, and that changes how you respond to so many other things in your life.

I always tell the student program staff, "Whatever we're doing out there academically, do not get in the way of the place doing its teaching." The landscape and its inhabitants are the teachers; we're just facilitating that communication.

HCN: From 1994 to 1998, you had students working on Mexican wolf reintroduction in southeastern Arizona. What did they do?

Sizemore: (They) were looking at prey density (in the proposed reintroduction areas), doing vegetation studies, and putting on town meetings in places where it was contentious to have meetings to talk about wolves.

HCN: Ranchers weren't very happy about the wolf reintroduction, right?

Sizemore: We'd have these guys show up at the campfire, and they were trying to pull the students one way. The students kind of went back and forth while they were trying to form their own opinions. At times they'd be far more sympathetic to someone trying to have their livelihood and their cows, and then go back to, "No, it's got to be about the wolves."… In some cases, it has to be either/or, but in most cases it's a little bit of give and take.

HCN: One of your longest-running student programs is with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in northwestern British Columbia. How did you get involved with them?

Sizemore: While we were working on the B.C. Coast (on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign, a collaborative effort to protect the forest from commercial logging), I was at a workshop Greenpeace had put together about working with (First Nations). They had it at an all-vegetarian place on Cortes Island. I walked in and noticed this Indian woman, Joan Jack, off to the side eating a pork chop. I went up to ask her where the hell she got that pork chop because I wanted a pork chop, too.

It was really the Jack family that invited us to the Taku River watershed and to meet their people, the Taku River Tlingit. We got involved in 1999 and students have been there ever since. Very early on, students helped re-open one of the traditional trails from the village down to the Nakina River. Historically, families had walked down to the river in late June and early July, did their fishing, and smoked fish that they would bring back. It was about a 35-mile walk. (A mining company) proposed a 99-mile road across the Taku River, and it would have crossed that trail. That was really where the community's resolve got strengthened, by walking that trail, telling stories.

The Taku River Tlingit took the government (to court), and ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. … (A land-use plan creating protected areas in Taku River Tlingit territory and banning commercial logging in most of it) was finally signed by the premier in 2011. Now, we're in the implementation phase, and are helping them build their own conservation department.

HCN: What does Round River offer students that other conservation or study-abroad programs don't?

Sizemore: It's not a canned summer camp. Sometimes things get sloppy. Sometime governments change, and they tell you to get the fuck (out). You basically always have to renegotiate your memorandum of understanding. We try to expose (students) as much as possible to the complicated dynamics and the amount of time it takes to do quality research.

HCN: Do you remember any particularly challenging situations students have confronted?

Sizemore: We had one group in Namibia, there were horrendous desert winds blowing, which are like a hairdryer in your face, for several days. (The wind) literally blew camp away. Then camp was flooded. (In Namibia there are) these little beetles that show up after big rains and basically land on you and put a little drop of acid on you, which burns a bit. It was kind of like we had pestilence. I remember this one kid was pretty upset. I asked him what was wrong and he said, "We're really behind schedule with the research and we've really got to get going."

Also, we've had students who are wildlife majors and their whole life have been gung-ho about being the next George Schaller, or whatever. And they get out there and go, "God, this is hard -- sweaty, hot. I hate this. There are bugs everywhere, and I want to go back and get a business degree."

HCN: Do others go on to work in conservation?

Sizemore: A great deal do. (But) it's also important to have math or finance majors that are now running banks who have a conservation ethic. In some ways, that's probably more important -- to have people from different backgrounds have a seminal conservation experience. When they vote or do something later, perhaps seeing that grizzly in the Taku, they'll hearken back to that.

HCN: How do you see Round River and its students contributing to conservation in the West in the future?

Sizemore: We had a student called Dan MacNulty who was on our very first student program in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Dan is now (a wildlife ecologist) at Utah State University, and did his Ph.D research in Yellowstone on the reintroduction of the wolf.

Our biggest failure, I believe, is that the majority of our students come from Northeastern and Midwestern schools, and some West Coast schools, primarily because our tuition and fees are high -- it's $15,000 to go to Namibia with us. We have Namibian, Taku River Tlingit and Chilean students, but they're all homegrown and put into the local programs. We have been trying to build up a scholarship fund, but we have not been very good at that. (And) a lot of the universities we get our students from, they're required to study abroad, and going to Wyoming doesn't count.

HCN: Your new program in Wyoming involves studying pine beetle outbreaks and the impacts of climate change on pikas in the Wind River Mountains. Of all the places in the West to work, why there?

Sizemore: We didn't end up doing that program last summer because we couldn't get any students interested in it -- I think because it's not international. (But) we selected the Winds largely because if there are going to be refugia from climate change for things like grizzly bears and whitebark pine, it will be in the Winds.

Note: The Wind River program did run in 2010 and is open for 2013 applications.

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