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

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.

Audio: Glacier Park’s shrinking glaciers a visible barometer of climate change

This package aired on Montana Public Radio.

The melting of Glacier National Park’s namesakes stand out as a very tangible effect of global climate change. When the park was created, in 1910, there were 150 glaciers. Today, there are only 25, and scientists predict the 7,000-year-old slabs of ice will disappear entirely within a few decades. Reporter Allison Mills recently hiked to the retreating margin of one of the park’s most iconic glaciers, Grinnell, with U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre and his crew.

Pioneer Mountains contribute to worldwide climate study

This story was published in the Montana Standard.

Standing near the wind-whipped summit of Mount Keokirk, at 9,787 feet, Martha Apple lays a one-meter wooden grid over the vegetation at her feet.

Jarle Inge Holten, left, and Montana Tech geophysicist Xiaobing Zhou near the summit of Mount Keokirk

Jarle Inge Holten, left, and Montana Tech geophysicist Xiaobing Zhou near the summit of Mount Keokirk

The Montana Tech biology professor makes sure the grid is placed in the exact spot as on prior visits here. Then she goes about examining the plants within, such as Siberian aster and legumes flowering in the late summer.

Once a year Apple drives about an hour on a dirt road and hikes the last steep miles to reach this point in the Pioneer Mountains, southwest of Butte. She comes to see how climate change is affecting plants in this high-mountain ecosystem. It’s one among 116 alpine sites around the world, from the Pioneers to Nepal, monitored by scientists as part of a project called GLORIA, or the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments.

“Plants live where they live because they can,” Apple says. If the plants require colder temperatures, “the seeds that have landed upslope will live and the ones that are downslope, where it’s warmer, may not. (Plants) may move upslope in response to climate change.” Continue reading

U.S. can export coal, but not the pollution, Chinese activist warns

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

Particulate matter is the bane of Missoula skies. On smoky days, like those of September 2012, tiny airborne particulates can reach levels higher than 200 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, particulates in U.S. airport smoking lounges hover around 190 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That would be a nice day in Beijing, China: Last January, the city’s pollution peaked at 886 micrograms per cubic meter.


China’s air pollution problem, as seen here in Beijing, has led the country to ban new coal-fired power plants in Beijing and two other cities.

The main culprit is burning coal.

On September 12, the Chinese government announced an action plan to improve what it called the country’s “grim” air pollution problem, which has “harmed people’s health and affected social harmony and stability.” The plan will ban new coal-fired power plants in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and reduce the percentage of the country’s energy derived from burning coal.

On the same day, almost 50 people gathered at the University of Montana in Missoula to testify against a controversial coal export terminal in Longview, Wash. It and another proposed dock near Bellingham, Wash., would together ship upwards of a million tons of coal—mostly from mines in Montana and Wyoming—to Asia each year. Washington state’s environmental review of the proposed ports will consider carbon dioxide emitted by burning the coal and the effects of trains carrying coal from faraway mines, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided in June that it will not consider such cumulative impacts.

But it’s those cumulative impacts that worry Lifeng Fang, an environmental activist from Beijing who spoke at the gathering in Missoula last Thursday. “Air pollution knows no boundaries,” Fang said, referring to the jet stream that carries pollution from China across the Pacific to the U.S. When coal is shipped to and burned in Asia, Fang said the pollution “just floats back.” Continue reading