Fishing in the gene pool

Conservation genetics yields new sculpin species in Montana and Idaho

This story was published by High Country News, National Geographic’s Water Currents blog, and the Missoula Independent.


The cedar sculpin, or Cottus schitsuumsh, named by the Coeur D’Alene Tribe. Schitsu’Umsh (pronounced s-CHEET-sue-umsh) refers to the tribe itself and means “Those who were found here.” Illustration by Emily Harrington.

One day last summer, Michael LeMoine, a Ph.D. candidate in fisheries biology at the University of Montana, carried a nondescript cardboard box into the Missoula FedEx office. Inside it was a jar of ethanol containing a single specimen of a new species of sculpin.

The woman at the counter asked LeMoine for the value of the contents. He hesitated, considering. “My trouble, ma’am,” he remembers answering, “is that you don’t know this, but this is a new species in this box, and I really have no idea what the value of it is.”

So LeMoine hazarded $10,000, an amount that didn’t include the value of the months of field and lab work it took to identify the fish. Nor could he begin to answer the unspoken philosophical question: What is the value of a species?

FedEx charged $5 to insure the package.

“Five bucks to insure a new species,” LeMoine says. “If only that would work in the real world.” Continue reading

The damage done

The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes brace for the next oil boom while still dealing with the devastating effects of the last one

This story was published in the Fort Peck Journal.

It started with rust. In the toilet. On the shower stall. Helen Ricker saw the orange stains and wondered what was causing them. Her water came from a well, from an aquifer that had always been good. So she drank the water anyway. Beneath the ground, the diluted edges of a large groundwater contamination were seeping by in a slow, gravity-fed progression. Little by little, Ricker’s water got worse.pumpjack

The water stained her white sheets when she washed them and turned her white socks orange. Every time she filled the sink to do dishes, the water’s surface shimmered with an iridescent sheen. Residual grease covered her plates long after soap washed away the night’s meal. Then the water started to stink. A sulfurous stench rose from the toilet in the bathroom and cascaded out of her faucets. Ricker stopped drinking her water.

Ricker lives on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation three miles north of the town of Poplar, on the desolate BIA Road 75. Her home lies two miles southwest of the East Poplar oilfields, a large expanse crisscrossed with rutted dirt roads and spotted with blue, yellow and black oil pumps bobbing up and down like plastic drinking birds from a novelty store. The oilfield is not as productive as it used to be. But that soon may change.

Continue reading

What’s killing Montana moose?

This story was published in the Ravalli Republic and Char-Koosta News.

On a November morning, it’s snowy in the Big Hole Valley.

Bouncing along ranch roads in a Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks truck, biologist Nick DeCesare circles and crisscrosses the valley, listening for beeps.

FWP biologist Nick DeCesare uses an antenna to locate a moose with a radio collar.

FWP biologist Nick DeCesare uses an antenna to locate a moose with a radio collar.

Ten moose in the valley wear radio collars that emit signals and allow DeCesare to find them using a radio and an antenna.

Loud beeps mean a moose is near. DeCesare pulls over, climbs into the bed of the truck, and aims the antenna in all directions.

He points to a ravine, a dip in the evergreens, to the west of the truck. “Right in there somewhere,” he says sagely. He hardly needs the equipment. After tracking her for a year, DeCesare knows this moose, her haunts and habits.

Today he’s worried about the animal.

Nearby ranchers have reported seeing a blind collared moose. He’s guessed by the locations of the sightings which moose it is, and he now prepares to approach her, to see for himself. Continue reading

Dispatch from India: Watching for the greenish warbler

Every winter, waves of migrating birds flock to India. Millions are drawn to the Western Ghats, one of the world’s premier biodiversity hot spots. Some birds, like Siberian cranes and bar-headed geese, actually fly over the Himalayas on their epic journey. Black redstarts and blue rock thrushes leave for warmer climes. Wagtails, godwits and sandpipers follow water. Pied cuckoos, ospreys, bee eaters and drongos head south.

Photo courtesy Migrant Watch

Photo courtesy Migrant Watch

And then there’s the greenish warbler.

They flit among tree canopies on their southward migration, heard rather than seen. The tiny leaf-warbler’s incessant chiswee chirp has the repetitive lulling of a generic meditation soundtrack.

Getting a photograph of them is out of the question, and even in a picture, the paradise flycatcher would steal the show anyway. Most birders would just pass by the warblers’ tree, searching for more aesthetically interesting species.

But warbler counts are an essential part of tracking long-term trends. The commonness of greenish warblers makes them a great candidate for bird counts. With larger numbers, statistical anomalies can be minimized and it’s easier to tease apart different factors affecting the population. Common birds can be illuminating indicator species that reflect the health of other species and ecosystems. Yet barely a handful of short-term studies have been done on the greenish warbler and its leaf-loving kin. Continue reading

Audio: Montana researchers listen for clues to conserve threatened bats

This package aired on Montana Public Radio and the Northern Ag Network.

Millions of bats are dying from a poorly understood disease called white nose syndrome. The disease is heading West and scientists fear it could devastate Montana’s bat populations. That would have big consequences ecologically, and also economically, since bats help farmers and ranchers by eating pest insects. A study published in Science estimates that bats in North America are worth at least 3.7 billion dollars per year to the agriculture industry. But little is known about Montana’s bats. Reporter Allison Mills of Science Source took to the field with researchers who are learning more about the nocturnal critters by listening closely to their ultrasonic sounds.

Icons of change: Glacier Park’s namesakes retreating rapidly

This story was published in the Flathead Beacon, Missoula Independentand Char-Koosta News.

In the center of Glacier National Park, Mount Gould’s rounded ridge cradles Grinnell Glacier. On a September afternoon, Dan Fagre walks over a smooth patch of bedrock toward the ancient slab of ice. Below it, newly splintered icebergs fill an opaque blue lake.

In Glacier National Park, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre treks toward the melting margin of iconic Grinnell Glacier.

In Glacier National Park, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre treks toward the melting margin of iconic Grinnell Glacier.

The U.S. Geological Survey research scientist, who studies the retreat of the park’s namesakes, stops at a small boulder and taps it with his trekking pole.

“You can tell that this was only recently uncovered by the retreating ice,” Fagre says, pointing out the dusty rock flour left behind by the slow grinding of the glacier. He’s likely the first person to ever touch the boulder.

Fagre moves forward, climbing up four-foot rock ledges like stairs, making his way to Grinnell Glacier’s melting margin. The glacier and its brethren are the park’s most iconic features. They’re also, Fagre says, “icons of change.”

“The fact that they’re disappearing suggests that even the nastiest weather pockets in Glacier are becoming more benign, they’re warming up,” he says. Continue reading

Video: In Montana, the cascading effects of early snowmelt

Earlier this year, University of Montana scientists, including Regents Professor of Ecology Steve Running, published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society on satellite-based drought monitoring (PDF). The scientists showed that they can measure global drought severity using remotely sensed data from NASA satellites, which gauge the greenness and productivity of vegetation — a key indicator of drought conditions.  It could prove to be an important tool in Montana, where early snow-melts are leading to longer drought and fire seasons, as Dr. Running explains.