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.

sculp_sketch

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