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Voices: Ted Turner, GYC and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Turner-bison-350x158Back when my professional life revolved around touchdown passes and 3-point baskets in the college arenas of Oregon and the Pacific-10, before there was even a glimmer of a green glint in my blue eyes, a close friend handed me a book.

The Flying D Ranch in SW Montana is one of Ted Turner’s pride and joy. More than 5,000 bison roam this wild landscape, which contains all the wildlife present during the time immediately after the Pleistocene era. Photo courtesy Todd Wilkinson.

“Read it,” he said, without explanation.

Scott had already had his epiphany, having put down his chainsaw after logging thousands of acres of old-growth timber from the rain forests of his home in western Oregon to the Tongass of Alaska. He was awaiting mine.

“Science Under Siege: The Politician’s War On Nature And Truth” by a fellow named Todd Wilkinson lit a fire in my belly that burns today — a spark that landed me on the front lines of conservation more than a decade later as communications director for GYC.

That was in the late 1990s. I read “Science Under Siege” three times while resolving debates about who should start at left tackle for Oregon State, just to keep the flame burning. Each left me more incensed than the last, and I became ever more aware of spotted owls, grizzly bears, wolves and the gradual debasing of our wild landscapes.

So it was no small privilege to move to Montana more than a decade later, help found a magazine called “Montana Quarterly”, and find my words in the same pages as one Todd Wilkinson. And then to discover, upon leaving the sports world, that Todd was the first in a long line of GYC communications directors over 30 years.

Another commonality we share: A deep, abiding respect for Ted Turner, the media magnate who has perhaps done more to prevent human tragedy and our few remaining intact ecosystems than any single person, alive or dead.

Todd’s admiration led to his writing “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet”, a thoroughly readable biography that has humanized Turner for me and is certain to alter perceptions of him in others. Notable in “Last Stand” is Turner’s affection and passion for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Yellowstone bison, and our magnificent landscapes here in the Northern Rockies.

I spent some compelling time recently conducting a Q&A with Todd about “Last Stand”. In it Todd provides insightful commentary about GYC — America’s Voice for a Greater Yellowstone” — and a certain former Board member who has helped in no small way keep the “Great” in Greater Yellowstone.

Take a few moments to catch the interview, and then read “Last Stand.” You’ll be glad you did.

Wildlife: Yellowstone bison on the move

144_BisonCowCalfRub1-233x350So now a handful of Yellowstone bison will be moved to an ancestral home on the

Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana. And it won’t even have to happen under the cover of darkness.

The Montana Supreme Court cleared that hurdle Wednesday when it ruled that a lower court misapplied the law when it prevented the transfer of Yellowstone bison from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Fort Belknap.

This is yet another important victory for free-roaming Yellowstone bison and efforts to relocate them to appropriate landscapes across Montana and the West.

The Fort Belknap story actually begins in quarantine pens north of Yellowstone National Park, along U.S. Highway 89. More than 60 animals had been behind the fortress-like government fencing for five years, had been tested disease-free, and were due to be relocated to the tribes — who have pined for the return of the sacred wild animal to their prairies for years.

On a snowy December night in 2011, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks moved the quarantined bison to Fort Peck. To the sound of drums and chants, the bison thundered onto a prairie on which they had been extinct for a century.

The plan was for about one-fourth of those Yellowstone bison to be moved west to Fort Belknap.

Alas, a day later a snowmobile group based a half day’s drive away in Bozeman — go figure — joined a few area landowners and others on a lawsuit aimed at keeping the bison at Fort Peck. A local judge agreed, and the Fort Belknap bison have been in limbo at Fort Belknap ever since.

Now, with the legal obstacle out of the way, these bison will be on their way again.

Meanwhile, when they depart, Fort Peck will have about as many Yellowstone bison as were initially brought: 14 healthy calves were born this year.

Next up: Clearing the way for Yellowstone bison to roam in five areas outside of the park.

Waters: A river crashes through it

Madison-350x222“Let’s go fishing,” my friend Ben said, and I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that I was about to be escorted — sans blindfold, even — to one of his favorite hidey-holes.

We reached the Madison River west of Bozeman at the Black’s Ford takeout and turned south. We passed the fertile waters of Beartrap Canyon, where we’d had epic days landing 17- to 20-inch brown and rainbow trout. We passed the turnout to the dam below Ennis Lake, where we’d had other prolific afternoons and evenings.

We drove through Ennis, ignoring sparkling waters beckoning us to some of the best fishing in the world — a magnet for anglers everywhere.

We passed driftboat after driftboat on the famed “50 Mile Riffle”, the very mention of it eliciting an urge to genuflect, and we passed dozens of waders casting dry flies into the alluring stretch above Three Dollar Bridge.

Ben pointed his Jeep Cherokee toward the Madison River Canyon.

“Wait ’til you see this,” he said.

We ascended the moonscape wrought by the devastating 1959 earthquake that killed 28 people and formed Quake Lake, where the ghostly spires of drowned pines rise out of the clear, cold waters. Ben eased his SUV into the gravel along the road below the Quake Lake spillway, which was punched into the natural rock dam to avert a collapse similar to what happened at Lower Slide Lake in Jackson Hole in 1925.

Far below, still out of sight, I could hear the roar of the river as it tumbled from its unaccustomed heights toward familiar equilibrium at the canyon’s mouth. We hopped over the guardrail, scrambled down the scree with our fly rods, and stood in awe at the sheer force of the river’s frothing fury.

I shot Ben a look of incredulity, as if to say, “We passed all that great water to fish … here?” Ben grinned impishly and nodded toward tiny pools along the rocky shore, some protected by small willows.

“Try there,” he said, and then gave me his best told-you-so look when I quickly hooked and landed a 17-inch rainbow trout — the first of many.

I thought about this extraordinary stretch of the Madison when I learned Friday that a Bozeman company had allowed a permit to construct a diversion tube and power plant expire. GYC had intervened with other groups in vocal opposition to the project, which essentially would have de-watered the stream for more than a half-mile below Quake Lake.

Ben’s hidey-holes would’ve been relegated to little more than boulders large and small, with an occasional trickle.

The uplifting news came on the heels of the same company announcing it was shelving plans for dams on the East and West Rosebud creeks along the breath-taking Beartooth Front near Red Lodge, Mont. Prime cutthroat trout waters would’ve been damaged, which was just one reason that GYC helped Friends of the East Rosebud and the Stillwater Protective Association fight so hard against the projects.

No doubt our fights on behalf of the great waters of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have just begun. Some of the very people who have denied the existence of global warming are now using climate change as a linchpin for proposing new dams under the guise of “storage”.

Included is potentially rebuilding the ill-fated Teton Dam in southeast Idaho, which collapsed in 1976 and sent a powerful wall of water downstream toward Rexburg, killing 11 people and 13,000 cattle. Damage costs went into the billions.

It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.

Like the Madison, the Teton River is now a stronghold for the imperiled native cutthroat, which relies upon cleaner and cooler waters than its non-native brethren, the brown and rainbow. In a time of warming waters, these streams are more vital than ever.

But in the wake of the news about these three hydro projects — along with the rejection of a proposal to build a dam on the last free-flowing stretch of the Bear River in southeast Idaho — we have reason for guarded optimism.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem forms the headwaters of America’s three great river systems: the Missouri, Columbia and Colorado. The Lower 48′s longest undammed river, the Yellowstone, begins here.

Free-flowing rivers are increasingly rare, precious and crucial to the integrity of the GYE. Our goal is to keep them that way.

I’d hate to see that impish twinkle disappear from my friend Ben’s eyes.

Wildlife: The time to be in Yellowstone? It’s spring, baby

Bison-nursing-350x262It was one of those gee-whiz spring days in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park where I wished my head was on a swivel.

In short, typical.

In the foreground, like an image of an old cowboys-and-Indians western, hundreds of bison milled around the floor of the valley, weary cows keeping a wary eye on frisky rust-colored bison. Moving in and out of aspens and pine at the valley’s edge, a grizzly boar sauntered seemingly aimlessly through a small cluster of the bison, eventually eliciting a defiant pose from a few that had finally decided he was close enough. Keeping an eye on the entire scene: A smattering of pronghorns, ready to put their unmatched speed to the test in case the nearby coyotes got too cocky.

Behind us, high on exposed rounded hills to the north, a grizzly sow with two butterball cubs at her heels nosed through the sagebrush and some hearty grasses in search of some grub.

Magpies screeched, eagles soared, and geese honked.

And most surreal of all: the silhouette of a lone wolf atop Specimen Ridge to the south, as if to say “I am the top of the food chain — and I am back.”

Witnesses to this annual marvel were a dozen or so members of a Greater Yellowstone Coalition spring wildlife trip, sometimes known as “the babies trip” — for reasons that are readily apparent.

After all, spring in Yellowstone means babies. Rust-colored bison. Frisky wolf pups. Playoff bear cubs. Pronghorn and deer fawns. And, last but not least, elk calves.

The babies are what separates spring from Yellowstone’s other magnificent seasons. Best of all, they are readily visible because most wildlife remain at lower elevations, waiting for snow to melt and grasses to green in the high country.

The aforementioned scene was from May 2008, an uncommonly good year because wolf numbers were at their highest (pushing 170) and frequenting the valley. The old Slough Creek pack had denned in a draw within easy spotting-scope and even binocular viewing from a variety of angles not far from the road.

The playfulness of pups was so entrancing that the emergence of a large grizzly male, appearing at the top of a nearby hillside and headed for the Slough Creek Campground, evoked little more than a shrug. The line of wolf watchers lifted their heads from their scopes in unison, watched the grizzly for a few seconds, then squinted back into their viewfinders at the pups.

The bear inched closer until it realized there were people in the campground, whereby it stood on its hind legs, sniffed the air briefly, whirled and sprinted back up the hill with speed and grace that would’ve left Usain Bolt in the dust.

Babies evoke some strong maternal instincts, including from humans.

On one excursion into the Lamar, a crowd had gathered on a sage bench next to the road, their binoculars and scopes aimed about 100 yards to the east. In the other direction, cars were stopped along the road a respectful distance from a dense sage thicket where an elk fawn lay bleeding but mobile — its panicked mother bleating from across the road.

Three yipping coyotes circled from both sides of the road, salivating at the prospect of an easy meal flummoxed by the uncomfortable proximity of cars. As they grew closer, a minivan approached and stopped a few feet from where the elk lay.

The calf emerged from the sage and found safety alongside the van. As the coyotes ventured closer, a man and a woman exited the van. He scanned the shoulder for small rocks, gathered a handful and began targeting the coyotes, which niftily dodged each missile.

A crowd of dozens watched, their reaction an instant snapshot of human nature. Half, especially women, wanted to intervene on behalf of the calf, a la the tourists in the van. The other half demanded that nature take its course.

The latter side prevailed. Soon a ranger happened along and sent the couple in the van down the road. They parked and stepped out of the van, the woman passenger screaming at the male driver for not having the backbone to stand up to the ranger.

How the incident concluded remains a mystery. Darkness fell and the crowds dispersed, leaving nature to determine order.

By the next day, the episode was largely forgotten. Wolf pups playing outside dens, bison calves chasing their tails, and grizzly cubs sauntering behind their moms provided a sensory overload.

Such is spring in Yellowstone, where the only thing missing is a swivel for our heads.

Wildlife: Ho hum, just another grizzly bear

Wolf-in-the-valley-251x350From the driver’s seat of his Yellowstone Association bus, our guide John scanned a limited horizon through a set of powerful binoculars and abruptly stopped.

“Bear,” he said.

His intonation was matter-of-fact, as if announcing that the sky is blue and the forest green. It was Day 2 of GYC’s annual May wildlife-watching trip in Yellowstone National Park, and his modest enthusiasm was telling.

Only 24 hours earlier, not far from the same place in the Lamar Valley, John had looked through the same binoculars and halted equally abruptly.

“Bear!” he had exclaimed then, and our group of 15 scrambled excitedly for spotting scopes packed neatly into the back of the bus. Within minutes we were watching a male Yellowstone grizzly amble across a distant grassy hillside, with no apparent destination in mind.

But that was then — one day and a dozen bears ago.

This time, a few of our guests shuffled out of the bus and watched yet another male griz paw the ground for grubs or other delectable spring cuisine. Most stayed put.

Ho hum, just another Yellowstone grizzly bear. By this time, this group was searching for the proverbial bigger prey — the suddenly elusive gray wolf.

That the vaunted grizzly bear — king of Greater Yellowstone and symbol of our region’s wildness — was eliciting a collective yawn was at once striking and reassuring. After all, only a human generation earlier the grizzly bear was on the brink of extinction in Yellowstone and a sighting — any sighting was cause for celebration.

Today, thanks to the dogged efforts of GYC and other conservation groups, along with the support of our members, the Yellowstone grizzly bear is recovered. They have filled much of the suitable habitat in Greater Yellowstone and they are expanding into regions they haven’t been seen in a century or more.

Over two days, grizzly and black bear sightings were common. One couple who came early to the wildlife trip saw 15 before their arrival at the Log Cabin Cafe in Silver Gate, Mont.

It wasn’t that seeing a grizzly in the wild wasn’t exciting; now they wanted to see a wolf.

This hasn’t been as easy as it once was. The population is half of what it once was, about 75, because of a reduction in the once vastly over-sized elk herd. Nature has been working its magic.

The loss of collared wolves due to hunting outside the park also had thrown some of the most visible packs into disarray and made tracking nearly impossible. Only by sheer luck had our January wildlife-watching group seen the newly formed Junction Butte Pack at Slough Creek.

Alas, it wasn’t to be — at least not for the majority of our guests, who were nevertheless thrilled at the prevalence of Yellowstone bison and their rust-colored young, elk on seemingly every hillside (apparently a mirage or the work of Photoshop, given that wolves are said to have eaten every last one), and the sight of a coyote in futile pursuit of a pronghorn.

Small matter. Good company in magnificent country never disappoints.

And sure enough, for those of us who had fortuitous timing, we saw a young black wolf trotting west to east in the Lamar Valley on get-away Sunday, headed toward a den and pups after feasting on a bison carcass along the river.

We watched for many minutes and several miles as the wolf moved closer to the road and eventually crossed before disappearing up a sage-covered hillside.

Upon our return, we saw movement at the bison carcass. We peered through our binoculars.

Oh.

Just another grizzly.

Voices: Thank you, James Watt

Of all the names synonymous with American conservation — Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey, and Teddy Roosevelt, among others — one towers oddly above the rest in Greater Yellowstone as a signature force behind a generation of astonishing accomplishments.

James Watt.

Yes, that James Watt.

The same James Watt who as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1981-83 quintupled leases for coal mining and boasted about opening more than a billion acres of coastal waters for oil and gas development. The same James Watt who believed the only good tree was a dead tree stacked in a sawmill lumberyard. The same James Watt who sought to de-authorize many national parks.

Oh, and the same James Watt who once said, half-jokingly (I think), “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

All of which explains why, as a conservationist, I owe a lot to Mr. Watt — my employment with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition included.

Hearken back to 1980. Greater Yellowstone’s conservation community had a scant few full-time staffers patrolling the region. The term “ecosystem” had yet to come from the lips of anyone in any official capacity. GYC wasn’t a glint in even the greenest of eyes.

Enter Mr. Watt.

Citing divine inspiration and obligation, the bald, bespeckled Reagan appointee from Lusk, Wyo., earned instant notoriety for promising, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more.” Leaving few lands and waters un-coveted even in his home state, Watt revealed plans to drill on 350,000 acres in the rugged Washakie Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

Alarm bells rang from sea to still-shining sea.

“It was a scary time,” remembers Rick Reese of Bozeman, Mont., a GYC co-founder. “(Watt) was only secretary for a couple of years, but he came out with both barrels blazing. And he was just getting started.”

As unfathomable as opening wilderness to industry seemed, even more ominous was realizing that such activities would put Yellowstone itself at grave risk. The park’s health, we were beginning to fully understand, is inextricably linked to the health of lands adjacent.

That GYC was formed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the final year of Watt’s brief, ultra-controversial reign is no coincidence.

At the time, the grim future of the grizzly bear — imperiled symbol of America’s rapidly vanishing wildness — was of immediate concern. But it was quickly evident to our founders that preserving the park required protecting a larger landscape, and GYC has been America’s voice for a Greater Yellowstone ever since.

Meanwhile, conservation achievements in the region since Watt exited in disgrace in 1983 have been astounding.

Grizzly bears have more than tripled in numbers and roam places they’ve been absent for generations. With wolves restored, Greater Yellowstone is one of the last largely intact temperate ecosystems on the planet. Wyoming and Montana have since added wilderness.

“Ecosystem” is now part of our everyday lexicon, and at least 200 conservation-oriented non-profit groups have fingers in the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone pie.

As GYC celebrates our 30th anniversary this fall, the region arguably is healthier ecologically and economically than at any time since the park’s creation in 1872.

These accomplishments bode well for our future, too. A comprehensive study by Bozeman’s Headwaters Economics suggests that prosperity in the West will increasingly hinge on immediate proximity to public lands with strong protections.

Many visionaries and their supporters merit a robust “thank you” for the incomparable quality of life we cherish today in Greater Yellowstone. Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt would no doubt approve.

But there is something to be said for the man whose visions of an industrial juggernaut galvanized millions and birthed an entire generation of conservationists.

“If you talk to anybody who was in American conservation at the time, they would tell you Watt did us a huge favor,” Reese says. “There was an explosive growth in organizational capacity, and that was in direct response to Jim Watt.”

Indeed, with enemies like that, who needed friends?

Wildlife: In the eyes of Yellowstone bison

Do the eyes have it? Or don’t they?

Darkness has fallen on Gardiner, Mont., as our burly Sequoia turns north on U.S. 89. With it, a sense of trepidation.

“This,” says Sheamus, one of four passengers on a Cycle Greater Yellowstone route tour, “is the worst time to be on this road.”

The 56 miles north of Yellowstone National Park are a wildlife menagerie — and minefield. Elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and other critters routinely graze and linger along and on two lanes of asphalt.

And in mid-spring, an even more ominous obstacle looms, at least in the Gardiner Basin above Yankee Jim Canyon: Yellowstone bison. Many are still finding nourishment in the greening grasses of the basin, biding their time before joining the rest of the herds back in the park.

They are as dark as the night itself.

“Bison are especially dangerous,” I said, “because their eyes don’t reflect headlights.”

I’d heard this many times, and indeed eased past the giant shadows of Yellowstone bison in the park many times without the slightest hint of a bison-in-the-headlight look. Somebody even explained it to me scientifically, though the details have escaped my memory.

So informed, we left the brightly lit outskirts of Gardiner and past a flashing sign cautioning us of wildlife on the highway ahead — which was a little like letting us know there’s water in the river. My passengers leaned forward, ever alert.

Within minutes we saw our first eyes: Elk. Then deer. And sheep.

Soon we saw more reflections, unlike any I’d ever experienced. Dozens of them.

“Can’t be bison,” I said.

Soon the outlines of giant, shaggy beasts filled our field of vision. Sure enough: Dozens of Yellowstone bison, glaring at us through the darkness, some on the road.

I braked, perplexed and wary at the same time. But, but …

“I’ve got some research to do,” I said as we eased past.

Turns out that Yellowstone bison eyes DO reflect light. Where they got their reputation is in their utter disregard for passing vehicles. While elk and deer in particular are prone to looking at oncoming lights, bison usually go about their business.

Many of these just happened to be looking our way: Thankfully.

It was a lesson learned, fortunately not the hard way — and a reminder to be extra cautious when driving in Greater Yellowstone in the spring, when so much wildlife is still in the low country, filling up on the first green-up.

30 for 30

14-Jerry-Descending-350x216We were 150 miles south of the official starting point, and yet the location — a small room at the Teton Science Schools in Jackson — seemed so appropriate.

For it was in just such a room, at the Teton Science Schools’ old Kelly Campus, that the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was launched 30 years ago.

On this Wednesday night in mid-March, the event was yet another ground-breaking moment: The launching of Cycle Greater Yellowstone, the latest out-of-the-box effort to educate and inspire the world about the incomparable wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The week-long, fully supported event is the first of its kind, both for the region and for a conservation advocacy group, but why not? For it was here in 1872 that the world was introduced to the idea of a national park. And it was here in the early 1980s that the concept of an ecosystem was birthed.

That the launching of Cycle Greater Yellowstone took place at the Teton Science Schools’ new, modernized Jackson Campus seemed fitting as well. After all, the August bicycle tour from West Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Mont., is in its own right a modern form of conservation advocacy.

The theory is this: Bring 1,000 cyclists from around the globe to Greater Yellowstone, along with their families and a supporting cast of more than 100. Let them discover the region’s magnificence from the saddle of a bicycle. Inspire them with positive messages about the successes and challenges facing the ecosystem.

And then invite them to participate in the protection of Greater Yellowstone’s lands, waters, wildlife and quality of life.

Along the way, the cyclists, communities and GYC forge a bond and start a dialogue that enables all of us to bridge our differences. By bringing diverse cultures together, we will discover that we all love this place — and that we aren’t so different in our values after all. We just need to find a more productive way to resolve our differences.

Cycling creates a positive energy that’s difficult to match. That was evident on March 20 in Jackson, when more than 40 people showed up despite a classic early-spring snowstorm. We answered questions, showed slides from our smoky

September pre-ride, and brainstormed about the 2014 ride coming to Jackson.

For many, it was also the first exposure to GYC — America’s Voice For A Greater Yellowstone for the past 30 years. They learned about the remarkable achievements of the conservation community in just one generation, and that by participating in Cycle Greater Yellowstone they are supporting the protection of one of the last largely intact temperate ecosystems on the planet.

If all goes as we anticipate, it won’t be the last time they attend a CGY function.

Or invest in GYC.

And the loser is …

Answer: Yellowstone bison.

Question: Longest-running unsettled Yellowstone National Park issue.

Well, not officially. But in the battles of Yellowstone issues that would never end, it appears at long last that one finally is.

Winter use.

For two decades it’s seemed as if two contentious topics would linger like a bad cough: Yellowstone bison and winter use.

Both have been the conservation equivalent of a five-overtime basketball game, with the lead changing as often as the seasons. Snowmobiles … snowmobiles not. Bison … bison not. Snowmobiles … snowmobiles not. Bison … bison not.

Now, after Friday’s announcement establishing a flawed-but-workable winter-use plan for Yellowstone, we are at long last the cusp of putting this issue to bed.

The Park Service’s new plan, which calls for a limited number of “transportation events” during the winter season, isn’t perfect. For example, it allows for the continued use of howitzers at avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass above the East Entrance, a dangerous and expensive undertaking that runs counter to the park’s mission and serves only to preserve a precious few special interests.

Nevertheless, the plan shows just how far we’ve come from the days when the whine of snowmobiles speeding willy-nilly across the park, pinballing with Yellowstone bison and leaving noxious fumes in their wake, echoed off the mountains. Images of park employees wearing gas masks at the West Entrance heightened awareness of a challenge that even the most ardent snowmobiles in West Yellowstone acknowledged as a problem.

It was so bad that the Clinton administration banned snowmobiles altogether in the 1990s — only to be overturned by the Bush administration.

Today, thanks to tighter regulations pushed by GYC and other conservation groups, snowmobiles are cleaner, quieter and restricted to roadways. The popularity of snowcoaches has further reduced impacts of motorized transportation.

All in all, it’s a credible plan. We will work with the Park Service during the upcoming 60-day comment period to iron out its flaws, and soon will need your voice in the process.

On this almost all who have waged this war will agree: it’ll be good to have this issue off the books. Gateway communities can enter each winter season knowing the only unknown will be the weather. Conservation groups can focus energies and resources on such pressing topics as climate change and landscape protections.

And Yellowstone bison.

For awhile, as we opened more lands for Yellowstone bison outside the park, it appeared that winter use would be the last Yellowstone issue standing.

Thanks to Montana’s Legislature, which is intent on rolling back the clock 150 years on management of this symbol of the American West, Yellowstone bison appear destined to linger as the longest-running unsettled issue.

Good news for wolverines

Following is a press release regarding the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to propose Endangered Species Act protections for the wolverine, which is threatened in the Greater Yellowstone region by the effects of climate change and trapping in Montana:

Bozeman, Mont. –The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today its proposal to list the wolverine in the lower-48 states as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). If finalized, the move will focus new resources on wolverine recovery and take steps to help the species survive the impacts of climate change. Included in the proposal are provisions to establish an experimental population in the southern Rockies that will help pave the way for possible wolverine reintroductions.

The proposal resulted from more than a decade of consistent pressure from several conservation groups, including three separate legal actions taken to secure an ESA listing.

“This proposal at long last gives the wolverine a fighting chance at survival in the lower-48 states,” said Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso, who represented conservationists in court. “The most immediate need is to stop the threats to the species that we can control, including direct killing of wolverines through trapping.”

Wolverines are rare, wide-ranging members of the weasel family that exist in high-altitude ‘islands’ of mountain ranges. Biologists estimate there are fewer than 300 wolverines in the contiguous United States, primarily in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and north-central Washington. A couple of lone dispersing individuals have been detected recently in Colorado and California as well.

Wolverines are likely becoming increasingly isolated in their mountain strongholds in part due to climate change and increasing human development. Protecting wolverines from other losses such as trapping is key to allowing them to persist in their scattered habitats and helping them move safely across the landscape.

“For wolverines to survive over the long run, they need to be able to reclaim habitat they once occupied,” said Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Federal protection should provide resources to help ensure that wolverine populations can expand, remain connected, and are resilient enough to overcome the looming impacts of climate change as well as other threats.”

Female wolverines require deep snow that persists through mid-spring for raising their young, but wolverines may lose up to two-thirds of suitable habitat by the end of this century. Researchers estimate that the extent of areas in the western U.S. with persistent spring snowpack is likely to recede 33% by 2045 and 63% by 2099 as a result of climate change.

“We see the impacts of a changing climate all around us,” said Chris Colligan of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “The best buffer against these species impacts are large intact ecosystems and we see the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as being a stronghold for wolverines.”

# # # # #

Background: Today’s proposal to protect the species marks the culmination of a lengthy advocacy campaign by conservationists that spanned three presidential administrations. That campaign began in 2000 with a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting a listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act. When the Service refused to act, conservationists successfully went to federal court to put the agency on a schedule for the listing process. Then, when the Service in 2003 issued a preliminary negative finding on the listing petition, conservationists won in court again, this time eliciting a 2005 opinion from a federal judge that the Service ignored “substantial scientific information” demonstrating threats to the species. That ruling sent the Service back to the drawing board, but the agency returned in 2008 with yet another negative listing finding for the wolverine. Conservationists returned to court, this time yielding a settlement by which the Service agreed to reconsider its finding. In 2010, the Service determined that wolverines warranted federal protection, but further action was delayed because of other priorities.