Updates from the Action Issue

In the summer of 2022, Mountain Outlaw published its first special edition,The Action Issue. In 172 pages, our troupe of writers and photographers told stories of adversity, action and actors from across the West, ending each piece with a call to action for our readers to engage with the issues and solutions of our region. Several months later, we’re bringing you updates from three of the stories as a reminder to stay engaged. The challenges our communities and environment face don’t disappear when the news cycle turns over. Stay active.

-The Editors

Sun sets over the upper Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana. PHOTO BY MICAH ROBIN

Swift Water: Fighting to Protect Montana’s Treasured Rivers

Last summer, Mountain Outlaw contributor and Northern Rockies Director for American Rivers Scott Bosse personified the Gallatin River—first known by native tribes as the Cut-tuh-o’gwa, meaning “swift water”—in a piece by the same name, with a call to action to preserve the iconic Missouri River tributary.

Bosse asked readers to help protect the Gallatin and 19 other Montana rivers by reaching out to Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale and requesting they support the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act. The proposed bill would protect 385 stream miles of 20 rivers by adding them to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers register. The proposed legislation is “truly made in Montana,” according to Bosse.

On June 7, 2022, one day before the The Action Issue hit stands, Daines spoke against the bill at a U.S. Senate hearing, citing letters of opposition from 170 residents and other Montana groups.

Bosse said he never heard Daines oppose the bill before that moment. Despite public support from 80 percent of Montanans, according to Bosse, the bill failed to reach a Senate Energy and National Resources Committee vote.

Bosse and Kristin Gardner, chief executive and science officer of the Gallatin River Task Force, have held weekly strategy meetings since June with a group called Montanans for Healthy Rivers. The group has spoken with many stakeholders opposed to the bill, engaging in productive dialogue to reduce misinformation. Gardner told Mountain Outlaw that she sees broad, bipartisan support and it’s hard to believe it won’t pass in the next congressional session. But without Daines’ support for the bill, it cannot reach a committee vote.

“A small handful of special interest groups have Sen. Daines’ ear on this issue, and that’s very disconcerting for us,” Bosse said. “We’ve done everything we can to build tremendous public support. The fate of this bill is in Sen. Daines’ hands.”

As the 2022 election season will likely push the bill into 2023, Bosse stresses his original call to action: contact the office of Sen. Steve Daines at contact@stevedaines.com.

“When a senator can’t hear what Montanans are saying, Montanans need to speak up a little louder,” Bosse said.

– Jack Reaney

In November of 2022, a series of elk and deer collisions on U.S. Highway 191 prompted public outcry. The stretch of road sees a high volume of commuters between Bozeman and Big Sky and is a major migratory corridor for wildlife. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPEL

Fluid Landscape: Creating Safe Passageways for Southwest Montana Wildlife

Wildlife cannot and does not live exclusively within national parks, wrote Mountain Outlaw contributor Brigid Mander in her Action Issue story “Fluid Landscape,” but many visitors don’t understand just how much land wild animals need. Different herds of different species each need summer range, winter range and a navigable migration corridor between them. Yet in a time of sprawling regional development, human infrastructure such as roads, railroads and fences often pose as deathly barriers to these corridors.

Twenty-four percent of reported accidents on the Montana section of U.S. Highway 191 between Bozeman and West Yellowstone involve wildlife and many more animal collisions go unreported, according to a 2020 Montana Department of Transportation study. In her story, Mander wrote that migration-oriented solutions including overpasses and underpasses can lower roadkill events by 90 percent.

The Center for Large Landscape Conservation is working to plan for safer passageways. In her piece, Mander asked readers to become citizen scientists by recording observations of wildlife, both alive and roadkill. With enough data points, the CLLC has more information it can use to affect change.

In a recent reflection with Mountain Outlaw, Mander said that upgrading migration-friendly roadway infrastructure is a slow-moving, “glacial” process. She sees more urgency for human needs such as bike lanes. That being said, she’s seeing change near Jackson, Wyoming.

“There’s more awareness, and highway departments are slowly but surely responding,” she said.

As this awareness spreads, Mander hopes more realtors and developers will sell the importance of minimizing human impact on wildlife, steering buyers away from private fences and encouraging native sagebrush instead of turf landscaping.

“We have proven solutions. It’s just about putting them in play,” Mander said.

The very citizen science Mander asked readers to engage in is also helping protect wildlife crossing the highly dangerous Montana Highway 64 and U.S. Highway 191 near Big Sky. The CLLC launched a wildlife reporting app in spring 2021.

“It was slow to start,” said CLLC road ecologist Elizabeth Fairbank. “But it’s getting more traction. We are super thankful for all the citizens that contributed to that dataset.”

In October of 2022, Fairbank and the CLLC formed a committee including Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute; a biologist; a Montana Department of Transportation engineer; a transportation liaison with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the U.S. Forest Service; and the National Park Service.

With hundreds of citizen reports and other animal data including aquatic life, the committee is creating recommendations for this pair of Montana highways, which intersect the fluid landscape of Yellowstone migration corridors.

The full report will be available in early 2023, and Fairbank said it might be the first time such a holistic dataset has been used to inform a traffic study the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To learn more and get involved, visit largelandscapes.org.

– Jack Reaney

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River sits in the remote and rugged mountains and rivers of Central Idaho. The river’s Chinook salmon population is one of only a few remaining populations in the United States that have not been genetically altered by hatchery fish. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Graceful Endurance: Political Hesitation Behind Fighting Salmon Extinction

In the Action Issue story “Graceful Endurance,” Mountain Outlaw Steven Hawley wrote that wild Chinook salmon are circling the extinction drain. A salmon’s natural pilgrimage to the ocean used to take two weeks, but now due to barriers including a 500-mile-long series of dams and reservoirs, their migration takes two months as they navigate the Columbia River Basin across Idaho, Washington and Oregon where the Salmon River meets the Snake River. During that extended time, fish are vulnerable to predators and expend more energy without natural river flow.

“There is no economic activity that involves a dammed river that cannot be accomplished another way,” Hawley wrote. “Wild Chinook salmon in the Middle Fork, by contrast, have only one way.” He called for readers to send an email with comments to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Since March 2022, the council has held a dedicated inbox for comments on the Columbia River Basin.

Kyle Smith, Snake River director with American Rivers, spoke with Mountain Outlaw about an August 2022 report released by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington Sen. Patty Murray.

The Murray-Inslee Report laid out an estimated cost between $10.7 billion and $33 billion to remove dams from the lower Snake River and replace the services they provide. The report does in fact recommend removing dams including Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite, but only if the benefits of those dams—including hydroelectric energy and irrigation supply—can be replaced.

“[$10.7 to $33 billion] is a lot, but there’s also a lot of money spent maintaining the dams,” Smith said, pointing to nearly $20 billion spent on a 40-year salmon recovery program which has not made significant progress on recovering Snake River Basin populations.

Hawley spoke with Mountain Outlaw in November of 2022 and commented on the Murray-Inslee Report.

“That report can’t really be characterized by anything other than a disappointment,” Hawley said. “It did what politicians in the region have been doing for 40 years, by saying, ‘we have to figure this out—but not right now.’”

Hawley believes the report is shy for political reasons; the only way to motivate action, he suggests, is for voters in Washington, Idaho and Oregon to demonstrate overwhelming support for dam removal, which “provides cover” for politicians against the risk of taking action that could hurt their favorability, according to Hawley.

The Snake River makes up roughly one-third of the total water of the Columbia River Basin but represents about half of the fish due to “incredible habitat quality,” Smith said. He added the Snake River provides the best chance for salmon recovery in the lower 48.

If the dams are not removed, though, Smith expects to see only two more generations of wild salmon, lasting five years each. To recover population, four young salmon need to return from their migration to the ocean for every spawning adult. The current smolt-to-adult ratio is less than one, a stat that points to a predicted salmon extinction around 2030.

To get involved, contact the Idaho State Legislature at legislature.idaho.gov/senate.

– Jack Reaney

Jack Reaney is the Staff Writer for Explore Big Sky.