Like Butte, Montana, an old dog hangs on

 

(Note: a longer version of this essay is here.)

On the dust-blown fringe of Butte, Mont., at the core of one of the nation's largest Superfund sites, lives an amazing paradox. Its genus is Canus, but its species would have to be called extraordinarius. I doubt there's another mutt like this on the planet.

The mysterious, mostly wild mongrel has survived for 16 years in a 5,000-acre moonscape, the acidic, heavy metals-laden confines of the Berkeley Pit and the town's only remaining active mine. Ironically, the dog's only help in hanging on has come from the compassion of active and retired miners.

"He really is a neat dog," says Steve Walsh, operations president of Montana Resources, whose employees have adopted the dog as their mascot -- as much as the dog will allow, anyway.

For years, workers on the night shift have put out food and water for the dog whenever he's shown up. They've also installed a shanty doghouse at the base of an enormous hill of waste rock. Feeding time, around 7 p.m., is the only occasion when the dog can be expected to appear in all his unsightly glory. Most of the time, he's an elusive creature roaming the wasteland.

"God only knows what he does all day," says Ron Benton of Montana Resources. "You've got to wonder why an animal would choose a place so forlorn."

Not a single blade of grass, nary a tree, shrub or weed can survive on the sickly yellow and burnt-orange crust that dominates the dog's home. This is the kind of soil that eats men's boots, let alone the paws of any normal dog. The water in the Berkeley Pit can dissolve metal, and it kills most forms of life. That was proven dramatically seven years ago, when 342 migrating snow geese landed in the pit and died before they could take off.

"It's unbelievable how (a dog) could live in a place that's supposed to be so toxic," says veterinarian Ed Peretti, who has tried and failed to track the mutt. With the same admiration the miners show, the vet says, "He's one tough dog."

The miners have a name for the dreadlocked dog. They call him fondly "The Auditor," because he seems to show up when they least expect it. They have proudly placed numerous snapshots of The Auditor in a glass display case in the company's main office, alongside ore samples and award plaques.

But The Auditor is getting old, over 100 in dog years. So the miners add baby aspirin to the dog food, trying to ease his arthritic limp. Somehow he hangs on. Perhaps this perseverance comes from his origins in the gritty town from which he likely wandered. Mining began here in 1864, and went through many booms and busts, with the last big bust in the 1980s, when the historic Uptown District and the Berkeley Pit were declared a Superfund site. The Superfund designation extends fully 130 miles downstream, where tailings settled all along the Clark Fork River.

Today, things feel tenuous in Butte, which sits atop what is said to be the most intensively mined ground on the planet, riddled with thousands of miles of abandoned tunnels, stopes and shafts. Butte's population of about 35,000 is less than half what it was in the heyday. Many of the old brick buildings are vacant or underused.

The mining workforce alone once totaled 15,000, but now just a couple of dozen miners hang on, capping tailings, doing some revegetation and water treatment at the pit. With just the skeleton crew of miners on duty, concern has grown that some day there will be no one to work with The Auditor.

The dog won't let anyone pet him. His fur is matted and hangs down, and only his snout is visible. The miners believe all that insulation helps, especially during the brutal winters, and anyway, they can't get close enough to trim the fur. One miner was able to earn enough trust to shear the dog's bangs, to help it see. The miners say, if you have the chance to take a close look, the dog has beautiful eyes.

It's the same with Butte. Just as the dog has adapted, the town has adapted, living amid a toxic landscape, building a new economy on the money brought by a Superfund cleanup. If you can look past the town's ugliness, it's become a beautiful place, defined in a way few people understand, astride the Continental Divide, decorated by the old headframes.

Both the town and the dog keep showing up against the odds.

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Matt Vincent is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a reclamation specialist for Butte-Bow County, Montana, and a part-time reporter for the Montana Standard in Butte.