Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lolo Pass Biodiversity

A Blog by Will and Rory

In class on Wednesday we learned about the difference between physiography and topography, being the regional surface features and the configuration of landforms respectively. We discussed orographic lift, or the movement of air masses from low to high elevations as they move across rising terrain. The orographic lift results in diabatic heating and/or cooling as the pressure changes due to physiography. Adiabatic heating and/or cooling is the stationary affect of local topographic features, for example the slope of terrain affects moisture levels and the aspect, or relation of the slope relative to the sun, affects light exposure. This frosty Friday morning we set our for our second Conservation Ecology field trip with Andrew Larson. Our goal for the day was to observe species distribution on Route 12 relative to the physiography and topography of the areas.

After our essential coffee stop at Safeway we headed to Blue Mountain on the southern end of Missoula. The hillside was a dry grassland and Ponderosa Pine forest. That location receives approximately 13 inches of precipitation annually, with the hottest months being May and June. The Ponderosa Pine is a drought resistant species capable of thriving in those conditions. Approximately 20 to 30 years ago there was a low intensity ground fire indicated by fire scars on the older trees and the mineral soil layer. The new established younger cohort appeared to be about that age as well. We observed how aspect can affect the diameter and shape of the Ponderosa Pine. The diameter was smaller and self pruning indicated a more dense packed stand in the north facing arroyo. Also in the arroyo we found more bio diversity in tree species which included Douglas Fir, and Western Larch, and had taller grasses and shrubs. We also learned about the history of fire suppression and livestock grazing in the Western United States. With increased fire suppression the amount of course woody debris is higher making fires burn hotter and longer. In some cases the high intensity fires are more likely to be a stand replacing event even for fire resistant species like the Ponderosa Pine. On Blue Mountain we witnessed the spread of the Ponderosa onto formerly grazed grassland, as indicated by younger trees further out.

Our next stop was the Lee Creek Campground. Lee Creek had a notably higher species diversity consisting of larch, Engelmann spruce, grand fir, subalpine fir, Douglass fir, lodgepole pine, and ponderosa pine. There were few ponderosas because of the moisture content. While this was partially due to the fact that this area receives much higher annual rainfall than Blue Mountain, the species diversity can also be attributed to a change in soil composition. The campsite is located on the Idaho Batholith, which is primarily composed of well-drained granitic rock. The mixed-severity fire regime of the area also has an impact on the number and types of species at the site.

One interesting species we observed at Lee Creek was dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium). Arceuthobium is a parasitic species that attaches itself to its host by sending tendrils into the branches to tap into the hosts supply of nutrients and water. It reproduces by explosively discharging its seeds (up to 11 meters at 65mph!) which have a sticky residue that will attach to nearby trees. Because of its highly developed reproductive process Dwarf mistletoe is closely tied into a healthy fire regime. Fire suppression will create dense stands of Douglass fir, so it is much easier for Dwarf Mistletoe to spread from tree to tree with its large “blast range.” Luckily, we only saw a handful of infected trees, which was most likely a result of fire being involved in the site’s history in the recent past. Though the witches broom growths caused by the mistletoe are important habitat for birds and insects and small mammals, and a significant disturbance feature of a forest. Often in forests managed for timber harvests the mistletoe is exterminated because it kills otherwise healthy trees that could harvested.

We made our next stop was Lolo Pass where we all made sure to set our watches to the Pacific Time Zone to limit confusion. There was a similar composition of species in the forest there, but NO ponderosas were present because the yearly precipitation is too high, about 50-60 inches annually. The subalpine fir and Engelman spruce had pronounced spire-like crowns from the heavy snowfall at the pass. While the trees were of a relatively old age, we decided it couldn’t be considered old growth because the canopy was relatively even and there were not enough snags augmenting the structural complexity of the area. Because this spot receives so much precipitation, there was almost no difference caused by the aspects of slopes in the site. We saw some Brown Felt Fungus, or Snow Mold which develops in heavy snow.

Our final stop was in DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove named for Bernard DeVoto a conservationist and historian. This site was where he edited the Lewis and Clark Journals. This area of Idaho hosts the largest trees in the state. The western red cedar can live up to 3,000 years. After lunch the group was sleepy and Andrew Larson seemed to be near his lecture limit so our discussion was brief. Besides the obvious western red cedars there were pacific yew, engelmann spruce, doug fir, western larch, and a few noted ponderosa pines in a prominent south facing aspect, and grand fir was a dominant species. This site was also noted for the shade tolerant and moisture loving understory. Despite the obvious presence of moisture at this site there was also evidence of fire disturbance in the past shown by fire scars on the older cedars.

As a conclusion to the trip we made one final stop where Colt Killed Creek becomes the Lochsa river. We spread out into the woods to search for chanterelle mushrooms before heading back to Montana.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Wild Wilderness Water Bar Extravaganza

A blog by Danny and Janine      

      “I think we can carry four, if not eight per person.” Said Nate Conners as we stood looking at a pile of black plastic water bars. These commonly seen trail structures were deemed unsuitable in a Wilderness area by Wilderness Ranger Kerri Gunderson, who accompanied us on our service trip to the Mission Mountains Wilderness. This weekend was dedicated to removing as many of these deceptively light-looking structures from a trail about 5 miles within the Wilderness’ Eastern boundary.

       Although Wilderness trails are maintained for human use, managers use natural materials whenever possible to maintain the Wilderness character of an area. These water bars were durable, but jeopardized the “primeval character and influence” outlined in the Wilderness Act.
            In keeping with the Wilderness Act, our class was tasked with hiking out 26 of these water bars. Since mechanical devices are not allowed in Wilderness and we didn’t have any horses, each was carried out by hand. Shoulders chaffed and hips bruised, but creativity flourished as twenty-five-pound plastic bars were pulled, dragged, and man/womanhandled out of the woods. Over the two days of work, the group experienced a range of emotions. When cheers accompanied the final water bars as they emerged from the Wilderness, it was clear everyone had a better understanding of human-powered work.

      During our few hours of hiking, we travelled along the shores of ice crusted mountain lakes, through yellowing foliage, and over snow covered saddles. Whether laughing, talking, or walking in silence, we all had the opportunity to enjoy the Mission Mountains in the midst of fall. The experience raised many questions about the stewardship of Wilderness and what role humans play in these wild places. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Journey Along the Backbone of the World

A blog by Rebecca Boslough and Ellora Duncan

A gust brought the smell of fresh mountain air as we adjusted ourselves on the rocky hilltop that was going to be our desk for the next two hours. The infamous winds of the Rocky Mountain front intermittently calmed, giving way to the warmth of the sun and forcing us to shed our puffy jackets. We were sitting in the middle of the Pine View Swamp Preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy with a view of the mountains on one side of us and the plains on the other. To begin our trip to the Rocky Mountain Front, we met with Nature Conservancy land manager Nathan Birkland.
Nathan manages all the land the Nature Conservancy Owns on the Rocky Mountain Front. As we looked to Owl Mountain, a sacred vision quest site to the Blackfeet, Nathan detailed the ecological diversity and significance of the area. The preserve had fens fed by subsurface waters, riparian areas critical to grizzly movement, winter habitat for large ungulates, and astonishing plant diversity found along the front due to the meeting of the Rocky Mountain Climate and the plains climate. The entirety of the front contains an immense diversity of plants and animals, as well as important habitat.

Nathan explained the Nature Conservancy’s mission to protect land on the Front primarily through purchasing conservation easements and some key pieces of land. Conservation easements are agreed upon by property owners and a land trust, such as the Nature Conservancy, or unit of government. The easement prohibits certain uses on the land, such as subdivision or road building. They can protect specific aspects of the land, such as riparian areas, and  do not usually interfere with livestock management. Once a piece of land has a conservation easement on it, it is applicable to both the present and future owners of the land and is included in the title for the property. This particular aspect of conservation easements makes them a long-lasting solution. According to Nathan, the Nature Conservancy is now looking to the entire Crown of the Continent in its conservation planning.

In addition to easements and land management, Nathan also explained a bit about hydraulic fracturing on the front. He does not share the same concerns as other people because comparatively there are not big oil and gas reserves in the ground like there are in places like the Bakken. Although there are speculators driving up interest and buying leases, the big oil companies are still overlooking the area and do not seem to be interested in investing. It was a perspective on hydraulic fracturing on the front that many of us hadn’t heard before.

Beyond hydraulic fracturing, one of the most interesting aspects of Nathan’s presentation was his explanation of how he works in the community. Living in Choteau since he was 17, he is a local by now.  He works with the community and individuals to achieve conservation. He emphasized finding that solutions that work for people and can even help improve their situation. For example, if the Nature Conservancy buys conservation easements on land next to a family ranch, the value of that land is technically decreased. With that decrease in value a decrease in price follows, which could enable that ranching family to purchase additional land for cattle grazing. In some situations, as Nathan elaborated, this even allowed the ranch to be large enough for multiple generations to own and work the land at the same time as opposed for the younger generation working a different job until the older generation chooses to retire. This sort of approach brought up interesting thoughts and questions about what works and local actions and solutions for conservation. “Everything we do is about relationships,” Nathan pointed out. And it seems that the Nature Conservancy is working to develop those relationships on the Rocky Mountain Front. Meeting with Nathan was a valuable part of our trip, not only because he explained the diversity of the area and shed light on the conflict surrounding hydraulic fracturing, but because he gave us insight into the importance of on-the-ground work in communities and the importance of working with people.

Outside of Browning, MT, we stayed with a Blackfoot woman named Pauline. Everyone agreed that Pauline was an incredibly welcoming and kind host. She invited nineteen wind-blown college kids into her home (which she built herself), made us delicious fry bread, and pasta, and shared many stories and pieces of knowledge. 

Pauline is a gifted herbalist and makes healing products and teas for her self-created company, The Real People medicine.   Pauline grew up with 16 brothers and sisters, and throughout her life she has depended on the land. She told us that the earth always took care of her, and she is very intentional about gratitude towards the land which continues to give us all so much. Pauline emphasized the importance of this gratitude to the land, and she talked about her ritual when she collects plants– praying to the plant, offering the plant a gift of some of her tobacco, thanking the plant, and never throwing away any part of it. 

Pauline told us about the traditional tobacco ceremony, and how there used to be 288 songs which were part of the ritual. The traditional ceremony and songs have been largely lost because they, like many other traditions and ceremonies, became illegal, and had to go underground. A lot of traditional plant knowledge has been lost for the same reason, but there have always been streams of knowledge which have survived, and Pauline humbly shared bits of this knowledge with us.   Pauline collects and grows the vast majority of the plants she uses, both for her business and personal use. When we first went into her house there was a huge pile of nettles and sage drying on her counter.   She told us about how calcium-rich nettles are, and that many Indian people are lactose-intolerant because they were never exposed to cow milk. She said she has never had a glass of milk in her life, but the nettles have twice as much calcium.  The sage on her counter was Wormwood Sage, a very medicinal plant with many traditional uses. She told us how sage plant species are usually divided into “women’s sage” and “man sage,” because certain plants are particularly important for women or men.  When we went on a walk with Pauline she pointed out both woman sage and man sage, which is the sage brush common to the plains.

We were also introduced Pauline’s friend, a botanist, ecologist, activist, and self-titled “student of the land.” She spoke to us about activism, fen-ecosystem ecology, and gas and oil leasing on the Rocky Mountain front.
She was very passionate about the issues she discussed with us, and emphasized how important it is to never underestimate our ability to make change. She told us about the petition that Pauline threw together in 24 hours in order to slow the process of land leasing for oil and gas on the front. She talked about how important it is to educate people on the issues at hand, and to “move people from apathy to action.” 

The botanist told us about the distinctive fen ecosystem on the reservation. A fen is a wet-land fed by a source of sub-surface water. The Blackfeet reservation has over 57,000 acres of wetland, 20,000 acres of lakes, and 4 substantial watersheds. The area contains 50 percent of the vascular plant species of Montana, 85 percent of the native mammals of Montana, 75 percent of all fish in Montana, 50 percent of its reptiles and 60 percent of its amphibians. The area has incredible biological diversity, and is provides very unique and important habitat, due to its proximity to the mountains. The Aspen Parkland belt is one of the last in-tact Aspen belts in North America, and contains many culturally important plant species, and is crucial bird habitat. 

People mentioned that there is consideration to remove Grizzly bears from the endangered species list. This could be detrimental because Grizzlies are “umbrella species” and subsequently protect a whole host of other species.
One speaker talked with us about the potential environmental effects of oil and gas on the front, damaging air and water quality, and human health as well. She told us about how current regulation dealing with extraction waste is incredibly lax, and that holding ponds for the waste are not properly regulated or fenced. 

The leasing process on the reservation varies according to whether the land is trust land, allotted land, or fee-land.  Most of the oil/gas leasing is proposed on trust land, which follows BLM regulation, which our speakers described as entirely inadequate. 
Because the reservation is so economically feeble, oil and gas leasing is an alluring subject on the reservation. Everyone wants to see an economic boost, but not at the cost of ecological and human vitality.   

After talking with us for an hour or so, we went on a walk with Pauline to a fen and an aspen grove. Later in the day we hiked several miles on forest service land, looking into the edge of the east side of Glacier National Park. 

We ended our trip with a hike into the Badger Two Medicine with Lou Bruno. His emotional presentation the day before about his experiences with the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) and the need for more conservation action in Montana had set a good tone for the hike. All his work with the Glacier Two Medicine Alliance and MWA was incredible to hear about. Lou, Pauline, local ecologists, and Nathan are all local leaders coming from different backgrounds and working in different ways. It was interesting to see how they approached issues and what they were most passionate about.

The adventure into the Badger Two Medicine started long before we got out of the car. The road in took us an hour to drive and required some serious four wheel drive. Janine surprised us all as she blazed through one particularly intimidated mud hole. By the time we got to the trailhead we were excited and ready to hike. Lou led us to a beautiful stream where most of the group went for a quick (and cold) swim. After that, we hike to the top of a small mountain with quite a view into the valley. The Badger Two Medicine was striking. Many of us seemed to connect with the place. 

This week we learned about and experienced the ecology, history, native tradition, and current issues on the Rocky Mountain front. We spent three days in a breath-taking location in the autumn sun, exploring fen ecosystems, climbing peaks, looking into river valleys at the changing Aspen trees, learned about medicinal herbs, saw moose and a bear, jumped in a freezing river, and bounced along dirt roads like we were in a jeep commercial.  This was an entirely unique opportunity to get to stay on the reservation, and hear from such a wide range of unique, passionate and educated speakers. 
This week was eye opening to the reality of the vulnerability of Montana's land, and the economic and environmental issues on the reservation.  We were convinced time and time again that a place as ecologically and culturally unique and rich as these are unconditionally worth protecting.