Category Archives: Environmental Issues

The whitebark pine is in trouble. Can it be saved?

Whitebark Pine, Firebrand Pass, Glacier National Park - NPSGood article on the current status of whitebark pine and the efforts to restore the species . . .

Sitting atop the highest slopes in western North America, the whitebark pine has adapted to the continent’s harshest growing conditions. Temperatures in the sub-alpine zone where it thrives are often well below zero, snow is measured in feet and winds often exceed 100 miles an hour. These stout, twisted trees are survivors: The oldest have grown for nearly 13 centuries.

But change has come to this high-elevation redoubt, threatening not only the whitebark pine’s survival but that of a host of creatures — from birds to bears — that rely on this keystone species. Warmer temperatures, a fungal disease called white pine blister rust, and swarms of mountain pine beetles have killed hundreds of millions of whitebark pines across the West. Wildfires are taking an increasing toll, and other conifer species are moving upslope in the rapidly changing environment, outcompeting the whitebark for nutrients and moisture.

In some areas, including regions within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has Glacier National Park at its center, more than 90 percent of whitebark pine trees have died. Across the tree’s range, there are more dead trees than live ones, and high-country skylines in many places are marked by their skeletal remains.

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Montana files notice of intent to sue over wolverine listing

Wolverine in snow - Steve Kroschel
Wolverine in snow – Steve Kroschel

Montana is not happy with the idea of placing the wolverine on the Endangered Species List . . .

Less than two months after federal wildlife officials recommended Endangered Species Act protections for the North American wolverine, whose diminishing alpine habitat scientists have recognized as imperiled by climate change for decades, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) on Friday notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of its intent to challenge the listing in court.

“In Montana, wolverines continue to do well and inhabit much, if not all, of their available habitat,” FWP’s Chief of Conservation Policy Quentin Kujala stated in an agency press release. “We work closely with our neighboring states to ensure the continued conservation of these iconic species. Federal protections in this case will only get in the way of good conservation work.”

Specifically, state wildlife officials took issue with how their federal counterparts’ “switched course” in their listing notice by identifying the lower 48 states as a distinct population segment instead of as connected to Canadian wolverine populations in Canada. The finding came despite protections in Canada and states like Montana to ensure wolverine conservation, according to FWP.

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Improving safety for drivers, wildlife on the road ahead

Good op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle about efforts to establish wildlife crossings along Hwy 89, which bisects Paradise Valley and is the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park…

It is not uncommon to hear Montanans refer to driving certain wildlife-dense sections of highway as “running the gauntlet.” Those of us who have hit wildlife remember the incident each time we pass the location — our stomachs in our throats and our heads on a swivel.

According to a 2017 report, there is a one in 57 probability of hitting a deer on Montana highways. We rank second in the U.S. for reported deer-vehicle collisions, and damage from wildlife collisions costs Montanans $212 million a year. Nationally, the annual cost of wildlife collisions is $8 billion. This includes costs associated with human injuries and fatalities, vehicle repairs, towing, lost hunting value, and more. As more Americans move into rural and suburban areas, and wildlife populations expand, collisions and their associated costs will only increase.

Beyond putting people, property, and individual animals at risk, roads also inhibit wildlife movement. They fragment habitat, isolate populations, and disrupt migrations.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Research shows when crossing structures and appropriate fencing are built in areas frequented by wildlife it reduces wildlife-vehicle collisions by up to 97%. Wildlife crossings work. These projects are expensive, so in 2021 the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated $350 million over five years to fund wildlife crossings. In December, the Federal Highway Administration announced the first round of grant recipients. Two Montana projects were among the 19 selected — one submitted by the Montana Department of Transportation and the other by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

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Extraordinary hope: a conversation with Roger Sullivan

Katy Spence of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) recently published a wonderful interview with Roger Sullivan, who happens to be a board member of both MEIC and our own NFPA. Roger has also been involved with the NFPA from the very beginning.

This piece was originally published in the MEIC’s quarterly Down to Earth publication and is used here with permission. To see the article in full context and with better formatting, you can download the entire newsletter here.

Roger Sullivan questions witnesses at the Held v. State of Montana trial in June. Photo via Roger Sullivan.

MEIC is fortunate to have a number of friends and allies that we can call upon for support, encouragement, or assistance. This year, we feel especially fortunate to know our board member, mentor, and friend Roger Sullivan. Roger has a deep history in Montana environmental law and justice. For more than 35years, Roger has advocated for Montanans and our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. He has successfully represented dozens of Libby residents sickened by exposure to asbestos from the W.R. Grace mining operations. Most recently, Roger was one of the attorneys in the landmark youth climate trial Held v. State of Montana.

Roger has served on MEIC’s board multiple times and has represented MEIC and other public health and environmental groups in innumerable cases. He tirelessly advises and mentors young environmental lawyers in the state, including many of whom have worked with (or still work with) MEIC. Continue reading Extraordinary hope: a conversation with Roger Sullivan

Survey reports growing tolerance for wolves in Montana

Gray Wolf - Adam Messer-Montana FWP
Gray Wolf – Adam Messer-Montana FWP

Folks in Montana seem to be growing more tolerant of wolves . . .

\As wolves gain prominence in the northern Rockies and management policies evolve to keep the populations in check, researchers are tracking the shifting social dynamics surrounding Montanans’ complex attitudes toward a species that is both reviled and revered.

According to a new survey conducted cooperatively by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the University of Montana, attitudes and beliefs about wolves and wolf management have generally grown more tolerant. Distributed three times – in 2012, 2017 and 2023 – the survey is aimed at providing insights to wildlife managers and officials tasked with making decisions on wolf management.

“We know people have complicated views and values on wolves, which is reflected in the results of the survey and the trends we see,” Quentin Kujala, FWP chief of conservation policy, stated in a press release announcing the latest survey’s findings. “It’s important for us and our partners at the University to continue research like this because how stakeholders feel about wildlife and its management is a critical awareness for FWP to have.”

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Montana Supreme Court revokes Rosebud Coal Mine Expansion

NFPA board member Roger Sullivan was involved in this case . . .

The Montana Supreme Court has halted an expansion of a Westmoreland-operated mine that supplies the Colstrip power plant with coal. The court’s decision vacated an 8-year-old permit that allowed Westmoreland to pull 12 million tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine located in southeastern Montana.

The environmental concern at issue related to water quality impacts to the East Fork of Armells Creek, an intermittent stream that flows into the Yellowstone River. The Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club argued that allowing strip-mining operations in AM4, a  49-acre parcel in Area B of the mine, would result in material damage to the waterway by increasing the creek’s salinity to the detriment of one of its established beneficial uses: the support of aquatic life.

The order, authored by Chief Justice Mike McGrath and signed by the court’s six other justices, largely affirmed a lower court’s ruling. It nullifies the AM4 permit, disallowing mining in that area. Prior to arriving at the Montana Supreme Court, DEQ’s decision in 2015 to approve the expansion had been weighed by the Board of Environmental Review (a quasi-judicial, governor-appointed body) and the Sixteenth Judicial District Court.

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(A tip of the hat to Debo Powers for spotting this one.)

Tribes set end-of-year ultimatum for U.S. and Canada to address transboundary mining crisis in Elk-Kootenai drainage

Lake Koocanusa
Lake Koocanusa

Their patience has run out . . .

When Rich Janssen flips through the 2023 calendar, he sees months of missed opportunities to tackle a multi-national environmental crisis that has united tribal and First Nation governments spanning the U.S.-Canada border as few causes have before.

Last year’s calendar isn’t much different. Neither is the year before that.

For decades, open-pit coal mines located in the Elk Valley of southeast British Columbia (B.C.) have leached selenium, nitrate, and sulphate into the Elk and Kootenai rivers. Since 2012, Indigenous leaders from the Ktunaxa Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI) have been urging Canada and the U.S. to address the water quality crisis.

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Wolverines to receive federal protection

Wolverine in snow - Steve Kroschel
Wolverine in snow – Steve Kroschel

Well, now. Here’s some good news . . .

The North American wolverine will receive long-delayed federal protections under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday in response to scientists warning that climate change will likely melt away the rare species’ snowy mountain refuges.

Across most of the U.S., wolverines were wiped out by the early 1900s from unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. About 300 surviving animals in the contiguous U.S. live in fragmented, isolated groups at high elevations in the northern Rocky Mountains.

In the coming decades, warming temperatures are expected to shrink the mountain snowpack wolverines rely on to dig dens where they birth and raise their young.

The decision Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of disputes over the risks of climate change, and threats to the long-term survival of the elusive species. Officials wrote in the proposal that protections under the Endangered Species Act were needed “due primarily to the ongoing and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation.”

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Court limits wolf trapping season over threat to grizzlies

Gray wolf - John and Karen Hollingsworth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Gray wolf – John and Karen Hollingsworth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Wolf trapping in Montana got curtailed in those areas with grizzly bear populations . . .

A federal judge in Missoula issued an order late Tuesday afternoon that will limit Montana’s wolf trapping season to Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 next year in hunting Regions 1 through 5 and three counties along the north-central border, citing the possibility that threatened grizzly bears get caught in wolf traps or snares.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy’s order granting a preliminary injunction in the case came less than 30 hours after he heard arguments from the plaintiffs – the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizens Task Force and WildEarth Guardians – and the state over whether he should grant the injunction. The State of Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Lesley Robinson are the named defendants in the suit.

In his order, he sided with the plaintiffs on most of the points raised at Monday’s hourlong hearing, saying the traps could indeed injure a grizzly, that any capture of a grizzly is considered an illegal “take” under the Endangered Species Act, and that limiting the wolf trapping season to those six weeks would also limit the potential for any grizzlies to be caught in traps.

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Flathead Forest invites public comment on winter recreation special use permit proposals

Flathead National Forest
Flathead National Forest

Tristan Scott at the Flathead Beacon posted an excellent write-up on this winter’s set of special use permit proposals for the Flathead National Forest.

Details of these proposals can be found here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/flathead/?project=65150 . . .

The Flathead National Forest is processing a flurry of requests for outfitting and shuttle services this winter, with proposals ranging from guided snow-bike, snowmobiling, skiing and snow-shoe tours to therapeutic “forest bathing.”

Officials with the Flathead National Forest (FNF) are soliciting public input on requests for nine temporary special-use permits authorizing outfitting and guiding activities from approximately Dec. 1, 2023, through May 15, 2024. According to a news release announcing the proposals, each request meets the criteria to receive a special-use permit under a categorical exclusion, which is the least-intensive form of environmental review.

Eight of the proposed special uses have been approved for one-year permits in the past; however, each proposal requires approval on an annual basis. One new proposal by Glacier Nordic Club is also under review.

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