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.

Beijing

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

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

Western native plant societies urge USDA to ban exotics

This story was published by the Idaho Statesman and Missoula Independent.

Forage kochia is a small shrub, a bouquet of stems with narrow, light-green leaves. It appears unremarkable, belying its utility. Forage kochia grows in alkaline and salty soils, provides forage for livestock and wildlife, creates effective firebreaks and competes with cheat grass. Its usefulness explains why it’s been seeded on between 400,000 and 700,000 acres of public rangelands around the West since 1984.

Researcher Erin Gray studying forage kochia in southern Idaho

Researcher Erin Gray studying forage kochia in southern Idaho

“After watching rangelands sit for year after year with nothing but cheat grass and seeing how forage kochia can help there, it does seem to be a miracle plant in some cases,” says Blair Waldron, a research geneticist in the USDA Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Utah.

But forage kochia is an exotic species, one that evolved in the steppes of Central Asia, and a coalition of native plant societies from around the West, lead by Montana’s, are trying to halt its planting.

In early August, native plant societies in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada sent a letter (PDF) to the USDA encouraging the agency to stop seeding introduced species, such as forage kochia and Canada bluegrass, and use native plants instead. 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.