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.

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Fort Belknap tribes welcome back wild bison

This story was published in the Fort Peck Journal.

It’s early evening on Aug. 22 on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana. A semi-truck sits idle in a pasture. The back gate opens. A female bison walks out, pauses a moment, and then charges out onto the vast prairie. She’s the first wild bison to stand on this ground in 150 years.Fort Belknap bison

Others—34 in all—begin to emerge from the semitrailer and follow, running together toward the horizon.

Mike Fox, a member of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, takes in the scene with moist eyes. “We really wanted to be a part of the solution—the long-term solution—to keep them in the picture,” he says.

Meanwhile, about 100 onlookers, mostly members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, cheer, celebrating a milestone in the slow expansion of genetically pure bison herds on tribal lands in Montana. Continue reading

Audio: Fort Belknap welcomes wild bison

This package aired on National Native News.

On August 22, the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana became home to a new herd of bison originally from Yellowstone National Park. This follows a Montana Supreme Court decision in the spring that allowed the transport of bison between tribal lands. The decision was disputed by local ranchers because of concerns about the spread of brucellosis and past problems with the tribes’ commercial bison herd. Allison Mills has the story.

Tribes float aggressive lake trout management plan

This story was published in Char-Koosta News.

The popular Mack Days fishing derbies pull about 50,000 lake trout from Flathead Lake every year. For a decade the twice-a-year contests have been the primary tool for keeping the non-native fish in check. But Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fishery managers say it’s not enough.

Credit: Shannon Downey, USFWS

Credit: Shannon Downey, USFWS

The more than 1.5 million lake trout in Flathead Lake and surrounding river system have crowded out native bull trout. There are now only about 3,000 adult bull trout, compared to 700,000 adult lake trout, in an ecosystem where the predatory fish, the largest native trout in the Pacific Northwest, once thrived.

Last Thursday, at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, CSKT fishery managers presented their ideas for restoring balance between lake trout and bull trout. The meeting followed the June release of the tribes’ draft Environmental Impact Statement (PDF), which lays out options for culling more lake trout and boosting bull trout numbers. The proposals include bounties, commercial fishing, trap netting and gillnetting, with annual lake trout harvests projected to be between 70,000 to 143,000 fish. Continue reading

Audio: Fort Peck Tribes beckon the Bakken

The Bakken oil boom has redefined the economy and landscape of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. But not on the nearby Fort Peck Reservation. Despite the nearly 600,000 acres of the reservation leased to oil companies, the boom eludes the poverty-stricken people of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. Reporter Kindra McQuillan has more.

CSKT works to restore Has Sandhill Cranes wetland

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

There’s a place between Hot Springs and the Upper Little Bitterroot River, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, called “Has Sandhill Cranes.”

Ten years ago, it had no sandhill cranes.

Water from the river, which had once fed a wetland of native birds and amphibians, was channeled into deep, straight irrigation ditches. Cattle trampled native grasses and shrubs, and birds flew elsewhere.  Some, like the trumpeter swan, were long gone anyway, due to over-hunting.

The northern leopard frog, which the state of Montana has designated a species of concern, is making a comeback on the Flathead Reservation. Photo by Kindra McQuillan

And the frog with the intricate, haloed spots and grinding croak—the northern leopard frog—had disappeared from the reservation altogether, designated as “extirpated” since about 1980.

Today, a wide wetland of native rushes and sedges again spreads across Has Sandhill Cranes.  Trumpeter swans fly overhead, as do ducks, marsh wrens, red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, soras, bitterns, virginia rails, coots, curlews, pied billed grieves, and of course, sandhill cranes. There’s a racket of warbles and screeches—and croaks. Continue reading

Northern Cheyenne contend with the complexities of wildfire

This story was published in the Billings Gazette.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s 30-person planting crew has been in the Black Springs burn this April. Each planter carries a tree bag, hoisting a couple hundred ponderosa pine seedlings on each hip. They walk in lines, slamming hodads into the charred ground, dropping seedlings into the holes, and then covering the roots with soil. On a good day, a single crewmember can plant more than 1,000 baby pines.
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