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Montana’s Climate Kids Should Adopt Wildlife As Their Mascot
What the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says about carbon, climate and weather (NOAA)
July 23, 2023
Montana’s Climate Kids Should Adopt Wildlife As Their Mascot
Citing the state constitution, young people in Montana sued the state over climate change. Win or lose, wildlife conservation would strengthen their case with the public
In a time like this when premiums are paid for short-term thinking, the Climate Kids want us to consider the long-term consequences of our actions. Is that being radical? Illustration for Mountain Journal courtesy Marshall Cutchin
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something,
build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." —Buckminster Fuller
by Todd Wilkinson
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, then you know that—even after our epic snowfall in the Northern Rockies last winter—“hoot-owl" restrictions have arrived far sooner than expected to many of Montana’s rivers.
Low flows and rising water temperatures result in lower oxygen levels and lower volume of habitat, stressing fish populations and related creatures dwelling in sensitive riparian ecosystems.
Montana Fish and Wildlife and Parks has, for a stretch of recent weeks, been adding hoot-owl status to well-known rivers like the Beaverhead, Big Hole, Bitterroot, Jefferson, Ruby, Sun, Lower Madison and, yes, the mighty Yellowstone (both of the latter also experiencing a large number of recreational floaters).
On those streams above, per hoot-owl regs, fishing is prohibited between 2 pm and midnight because hooking mortality in trout rises during those hours of the day when conditions are warmest. Fish Wildlife and Parks calls its action “drought-related fishing closures…related to environmental conditions.” Most of us when we’re cooling off in the summer, bobbing along in the current, think little about how fish are coping in the underwater realm. These restrictions follow an earlier series of announcements that trout populations on the Big Hole, Ruby, Beaverhead, Jefferson and Clark Fork are in decline and there’s a grassroots campaign called Save Wild Trout to raise money for research to get to the bottom of it. On some rivers, trout numbers are the lowest in human record.
Late in the spring, Guy Alsentzer, executive director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper told a reporter, “The big notable issue this year is the idea that we have no recruitment of what are called young of year. Which is to say the spawning class of the young fish. If we don’t have population recruitment, it means we’re going to have a crashing population number.”
Some brown trout have been caught with a cringe-worthy fungus attached to them. Are such pathogens, which soon may be accompanied by more algae blooms on rivers like the Gallatin, part of a natural cycle of ebbs and flows in fish populations, or is there something more to it?
In recent years, researchers dove into an extensive set of datapoints to compile the Montana Climate Assessment, including examining trends in temperature and precipitation. They have warned that events like these are likely to become more common. Seemingly isolated, they are actually interrelated to broader shifts, most of them subtle and beyond notice of busy humans, but over time they add up.
Fungus among us: A brown trout caught this year in Montana's Big Hole River. What kind of a harbinger might it be? Despite a big snow winter, river flows in the West are already dipping fast, setting off a series of fishing restrictions on many of the region's storied trout streams. Photo by Wade Fellin
Notably, they also form the backdrop for a recent historic court case in Montana that attracted national attention. It involves 16 young people (see their faces, below), ranging from grade school to their early 20s who brought suit against the state.
Dubbed the “Climate Kids,” they argued that land use and other development proposals being approved by state agencies need to consider the amount of carbon dioxide they emit.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which accumulates in a thin layer of atmosphere rimming the planet and helps to trap heat which normally would radiate from Earth’s surface into space. Atmospheric carbon levels have been rising due to human activity, specifically to the burning of fossil fuels.
While climate change generally involves rising average temperatures, there are exceptions to how it is being manifested. Think of it more broadly as a changing climate taking a dramatic shift away from predictable weather that for thousands of years has enabled human existence to flourish.
Predictable weather and climate are what’s behind our seasons. Predictability fosters agriculture which feeds billions. Predictable mountain snowpack delivers clean water in the spring and summer that is important to wildlife, fish and the region’s hunting/fishing economy. Predictable weather provides the basis for all there is to love about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Undergirding all of this are natural processes that have become fine-tuned to weather and climate over time. For example, consider the importance of pollinators and the crucial role they play in servicing native plants and crops at exactly the right moment. One third of every bite of food on your dinner plate is owed to the work of pollinating creatures.
According to scientists who have vigorously tracked temperature, snowpack, stream flows, ice cores, pollen sediments and tree rings in Greater Yellowstone—which offer a view into the past climate record—there’s been a pattern of generally warmer and drier conditions setting up in the interior West and Northern Rockies over the last several decades.
These trends are going to accelerate the deeper we move into this century, the Montana Climate Assessment predicts, and part of a larger trend of average temperatures getting warmer globally, leading scientists say.
As we frogs bathe blithely in our pot of water on the stove, what could be a catalyst for change—or at least sparking reflection on the fact that “adaption” is going to be costly and it could generate far more losers than winners.
Legal actions nationwide brought on behalf of climate litigants to force action have, at best, a mixed record of success. This spring, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of municipalities, and against oil companies, in a lawsuit originally filed to hold major carbon emitters responsible for harm caused to towns and citizens from climate change.
In Montana, a central hook for the Climate Kids is a brief significant passage written into the 1972 state constitution that guarantees citizens the right to having "a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." Hence, activities that jeopardize this right, such as mining huge volumes of coal and burning it in power plants, release carbon that is considered a threat to their wellbeing, they and their adult attorneys argue. That’s the equivalent of turning up the dial on the stove.
In Montana, a central hook for the Climate Kids is a brief significant passage written into the 1972 state constitution that guarantees citizens the right to having "a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." Hence, activities that jeopardize this right, such as mining huge volumes of coal and burning it in power plants, release carbon that is considered a threat to their wellbeing.
Those threats are evident in air quality becoming unhealthy from wildfires that have grown in magnitude in parallel to hotter and drier springs, summers and falls. American downwinders in the Midwest and East now understand keenly what we often deal with in the West, after forest fires started this spring in Canada and smoke wafted southward.
What is the harm of that? Think lung ailments related to higher rates of emphysema and asthma caused by woodsmoke. Think of the difficulty a trout has when it is gasping out of the water.
The hoot-owl restrictions, meanwhile, which could go to full-blown fishing closures, represent another reference point. Think of them as part of water-related challenges that could dramatically affect our daily lives, including the viability of those who grow food and fiber, and disruptions brought to the region’s nature tourism industry which annually is worth billions of dollars.
Threats are present, too, the climate kids argue, in levels of anxiety, causing members of their generations to believe the world they are inheriting will be full of more hardship, violence and uncertainty based on battles over scarce natural resources. In mass, society got a taste of glumness during the Covid shutdown.
Only the most cynical among us would mock the pluck and chutzpah of the Climate Kids speaking the truth of science to power and insisting that the words of the state constitution be held up as sacred, given meaning by providing tangible context. In fact, it’s become apparent that some of the adolescents are better versed in understanding the science of climate than elected officials who hold higher office.
Some in the Montana legislature and the administration of Governor Greg Gianforte, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen, however, are unimpressed. They claim the court action of the Climate Kids is a stunt created by liberals and the organization Our Children's Trust. And they reject the science of climate change. Some of that appears to be simple willfull denial, or because it doesn’t comport with their politics, or maybe it doesn’t jibe with their reading of the Bible. Of course, “science” (and all the things science has done to enhance our modern world) wasn’t even a word when the Bible was written and “climate change” as a concept appears nowhere in the New Testament.
Nonetheless, for all the genuflecting that gets done pertaining to the Second Amendment and Bill of Rights in the US Constitution, apparently such veneration doesn’t apply to Montana’s state version, whose interpretation some in Helena want to keep vague. In recent legislative sessions, attempts have been made to amend or strike the constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” provision.
If the Climate Kids prevail, it’s unclear what it could mean, beyond symbolism, given stiff political resistance to adopting a climate policy at both the state and federal levels. There is no urgency emanating from Governor Gianforte, along with three out of four of Montana’s representatives on Capitol Hill—US Sen. Steve Daines and US Reps Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale, all Republicans.
That quartet, in fact, has voiced support for trying to revive the prospects of coal. Montana is sitting on huge natural beds of coal still in the ground and neighboring Wyoming has been the largest producer of low-sulfur coal for decades. Daines and Gianforte, by the way, were executives together in a tech company Gianforte and his wife owned, and besides being good friends, they both live in Bozeman. One would assume in light of the fortunes they made from high tech they would put strong faith in peer-reviewed science.
The other federal elected official in Montana, US Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, is a dryland farmer in the north-central part of the state and is well-aware of how fluctuations in weather and climate can challenge his ability, and that of his neighbors, to raise crops.
In his re-election bid in 2024, Tester is likely to face 37-year-old Tim Sheehy, a Minnesota native and former Navy SEAL, who lives in Belgrade (near Bozeman) and is CEO of an aerial firefighting company enlisted by government partners and others to protect homes from wildfires being accelerated by climate change. Note: Sheehy and co-owners of a ranch they own 90 miles northeast of Bozeman near Montana's Little Belt mountains did put thousands of acres into a conservation easement with The Montana Land Reliance.
Watch an interview Sheehy gave about his company and climate change. His business model is bullish. He mentions the wildland-urban interface but does not note that one of the reasons the hazards and costs of wildfire are rapidly increasing is because humans are moving into places at high risk to burning.
In recent days, likely at the advice of his political consultants, Sheehy's "company removed language from its website touting its efforts to combat climate change and support for ESG [rules pertaining to best practices for companies striving to be environmentally responsible], both major fronts in the GOP's grassroots culture wars."
An open pit coal mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin in 2016. When energy providers and the market switched to natural gas, it rocked the coal industry on its heels and resulted in bankruptcies of several companies operating in the West. Some politicians in Montana, who claim climate change isn't a serious threat, would like to have coal deposits in the state unearthed to fuel coal-fired power plants around the world. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Down in Wyoming, the state legislature has been hostile for years to recognizing climate change as being human-caused and increasing in magnitude, except in its support for funding millions of dollars for cloud seeding, and having the US Forest Service spend billions fighting fires which benefit companies like Sheehy’s. Members of Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation also encourage the Forest Service to address the outbreak of mountain pine beetles (a result of climate change/drought weakening trees and fostering large numbers of insects) by removing millions of board feet of timber. In years of drought, this Congressional delegation also supports disaster relief for farmers and ranchers who suffer crop and livestock losses.
A few years ago, a school board meeting in Cody made national news when one board member proposed banning books that teach kids about human-caused climate change because it was deemed offensive to the coal industry. Only after retired US Sen. Alan Simpson rose at the end of the seven-hour meeting and challenged the maneuver did it lose its head of steam. "There is climate change. It is real," the Republican said. "I don't know what the hell it's all about, but I know that man is part of it. And anybody who sends somebody out of this school system and says global climate change is a hoax is goofy."
While a huge percentage of Americans have been exposed to what some call “extreme weather events” beyond the norm, opponents to Montana’s Climate Kids did make a valid point: The issue of how to limit or capture carbon emissions is mind-numbingly obtuse, and with the consequences stretching out toward a distant horizon, it’s difficult to fathom an effective strategy the public can understand.
Kids, who are powerless, are counting on adults in government making ethical and moral decisions that have their best interests in mind. And yet politicians, on a daily basis, demonstrate that despite their altruistic rhetoric, most are unable to think beyond their own re-election cycles.
Many, as their voting records and list of contributors indicate, answer first to the wants of their influential constituents who have a vested interest in having action on climate change continually delayed.
For average Jane and Joe Montanans living day by day, and simply trying to get by without having clarity on what we must do, any talk of confronting climate change, has, to date, been abstract. If you are a fan of President Joe Biden, can you, right now, name the top 5 strategies inherent in the Administration’s 30 X 30 plan as it pertains to climate change?
The failure of an effective strategy to engage and inspire citizens around common cause obviously doesn’t mean actions aren’t vitally important; it just means that it’s hard to get our heads wrapped around how to mount a game plan at scale in confronting climate change.
Concern For Globally-Iconic Wildlife In Greater Yellowstone
Provides A Hook for Addressing Climate Change
There is, however, a promising way forward, a way that can more unite than divide.
Here's what we do know: Sorting out recyclables from our trash is a good deed but it is not going to halt climate change. Installing solar panels or building new wind farms, by themselves, aren’t sufficient. Nor is eating Vegan or switching to alternative beef patties nor driving a brand new electric Tesla, nor buying carbon credits when you fly in a plane to downhill ski at Jackson Hole or Big Sky, nor engaging in outdoor recreation and righteously believing that you’re helping to lower the global thermostat by driving your electric car 100 miles to a trailhead and then climbing on a $6,000 mountain bike propelled by muscle power.
No amount of righteous virtue signaling, that is not backed by a conscious willingness to generate or consume less stuff at scale, gets us significantly closer to a remedy. It does not mean all of us should live in caves.
What’s a hopeful alternative? We in the wildland West are closer to part of the answer than we realize. It’s right there in our backyards.
Keeping wild places wild, which means keeping landscapes healthy enough to support the native species that live there, can be a game-changing hook for bringing people together in common cause to confront climate change. Few other arguments appeal more to our imaginations, cut across lines that divide us and give us a shared reason to care. It also provides us with a more hopeful alternative, attainable, than staring into a murky future as represented by the image at the top of this story. Note: This is an illustration! MoJo does not promote or condone people of any age approaching and getting too close to wildlife. Illustration for Mountain Journal courtesy Marshall Cutchin
Biden’s 30 X 30 plan does actually provide a framework for thinking about how Nature can be enlisted as an ally and why the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be a useful national focal point. It also gets at some of the arguments made by the Climate Kids.
30 X 30 suggests that 30 percent of America’s remaining undeveloped lands be protected by 2030 in recognition of their ability to absorb carbon, which, in fact, our wild and pastoral lands are already doing. They’re climate change working lands. Safeguarding them doesn’t require a new groundbreaking invention, such as launching a Manhattan Project for alternative energy (which would, in fact, be a great idea).
This involves supporting the maintenance of a priceless system already in place that invisibly pulls carbon from the atmosphere, stores it and also supports the foundation for human life on Earth. And, we can actually see the results because the aesthetic aspects of this system are extraordinarily inspiring. This cause of tackling climate change takes the form of listening to the needs of singing native songbirds, howling wolves, lines of elk silhouetted on undeveloped ridgelines at sunset, and the sight of a grizzly roaming the edge of public lands. It could be a game-changer in how the public thinks about climate change.
This cause of tackling climate change takes the form of listening to the needs of singing native songbirds, howling wolves, lines of elk silhouetted on undeveloped ridgelines at sunset, and the sight of a grizzly roaming the edge of public lands. It could be a game-changer in how the public thinks about climate change.
It’s not inconsequential that Greater Yellowstone is the headwaters of three major American river systems or that it still has a vibrant mosaic of mountains, forests, sagebrush meadows, valleys, and generally clean water.
But here’s the real punchline: Healthy wildlands equal carbon storage—epic amounts of it. Greater Yellowstone’s diversity of non-human animals are perfect barometers for assessing the health of its wildlands and provides a lens for thinking about our ability to confront climate change in ways that extend way beyond our own lives.
Caring about the well-being of wildlife provides a handhold for setting goals on what to do about climate change—goals that otherwise are too elusive for most citizens to comprehend.
Doing what’s right for wildlife in Greater Yellowstone and extending successful strategies to other bioregions is something citizens can grasp and it’s something where the level of enthusiasm is shared across generations.
By every metric, most people love wildlife. Most are sympathetic to its survival. Most people love Yellowstone National Park and the wild-rich ecosystem it’s a part of. Were you to ask kids if they would like to have a future world with places where they can see wildlife on the landscape and play a role in helping to make it happen, I bet most would say yes and feel inspired by the opportunity.
Leveled: Some citizens were shocked when this grove of old-growth cottonwoods lay toppled after developers were given the green light by the Bozeman City Commission. The high-end residential development in northeast Bozeman near Story Mill Road brings more concrete and asphalt to a corner of the city not far from where two creeks important to wildlife converge. The morning the trees were cut citizens saw a mother moose with calf passing through the cottonwoods and they found dying baby flickers jettisoned out of their nest as the trees fell. Bozeman is currently in the midst of assembling an expensive "sensitive lands study" but a growing number of citizens are skeptical the city will do more to protect natural areas so important to Bozeman's sense of place. Moreover, they say, while the city claims it is doing all it can to confront climate change, allowing cottonwoods with high wildlife values to be supplanted by development does not make sense. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Meanwhile, a concerned Bozeman resident in another part of town worries about the fate of another forested area in southwest Bozeman that was just annexed into the city and which could be razed to accommodate a rapidly expanding transportation network into Gallatin County which will only fuel more growth. In June, Mountain Journal met with citizens from several different Bozeman neighborhoods who are critical of how the city is allowing growth to explode without much thought given to its impact on natural areas and the species that live there. That, they say, runs counter to the city's alleged pledge to be a leader in addressing climate change. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
This is a tangible catalyst; it’s not obscure and it’s identifiable right now, in these uncertain moments in which we live. It’s not merely aspirational and vague in how it fits into a bigger picture as the climate strategies for Bozeman, Big Sky and Jackson, Wyoming are. There's lots of high-minded verbiage in Bozeman's climate plan but its lacking in details and coherency.
The word "wildlife" isn't mentioned in its multi-pronged strategy, not once. The Bozeman City Commission recently voted against putting a proposed $102 million new community center on the ballot, knowing that its residents are furious about rising taxes caused by soaring growth costs, and, meanwhile, neither the city nor Gallatin County have ever set aside funds to create a single staff ecologist position, held by a skilled professional, who could advise them on planning decisions.
Wildlife, scientists say, doesn't care if the trophy homes displacing it are made of car tires, fire-resistant tin roofs or are Platinum level LEED certified and operating off the grid. Healthy wildlife habitat, it could be noted, sucks far more carbon out of the air than dwellings "save" in energy costs and in striving to be "carbon neutral." What if Bozeman succeeds in achieving carbon neutrality but becomes a maze of dysfunctional and obliterated wildlife habitat where animals only exist on the names of quaint street signs? This is what happens when a wild moose wanders into the rapidly expanding gauntlet of sprawl in Bozeman.
Practically, what does modeling a game plan for confronting climate change based on protecting wildlife mean?
It means not toppling carbon-sequestering old growth forests under the dubious guise that “massive thinning” will save them from climate change. Trees and grasses on the forest floor (which need tending even after they’ve been thinned) are burning not based upon the spacing between them but because they are drying out and dying and getting weakened in the arid West by a deepening precip deficit during certain months of the year.
It means not entombing some of the best carbon sequestering winter range for wildlife, and soils for farming and ranching, beneath asphalt and concrete subdivisions aka sprawl. It means not building homes and tony gated communities in forests which are prone to burn and which then requires that carbon-sequestering forests be eviscerated further to protect the structures; it means honestly providing scrutiny on things that fragment sensitive habitats, like natural gas drilling in the Upper Green River that has caused huge impacts on mule deer, pronghorn, Greater Sage-grouse and it produces more greenhouse gases; and it means the outdoor recreation industry, which appears to have no limit for how much wild country it is willing to take to sell more product, admitting that outdoor recreation does not by itself equate to wildlife conservation nor enhance it.
Only deliberate wildlife conservation results in wildlife conservation and gauging the health of wildlife populations provides a way to measure how well a community is doing in confronting climate change.
When you protect for wildlife and the habitat it needs, you are also preserving watersheds—and the forests and soils and water that absorb lots of carbon. See the list of studies at the end of this.
When you are safeguarding habitat and consciously perpetuating the survival of grizzly bears, for example, you are simultaneously taking actions that benefit hundreds of other wild native species—a level of biodiversity as deserving of our awe and respect as human diversity. When you protect for native plants, you also are maintaining healthy rangelands and that benefits the keepers of open space. Read this scientific study, which appeared in the journal Wildlife Biology in 2012 featuring several prominent co-authors from the Greater Yellowstone region on the impacts of rural development on grizzlies and other wildlife, mentioning specifically Big Sky-Moonlight Basin, Henrys Lake in Idaho, Jackson Hole and the North and South Forks of the Shoshone River near Cody. That was more than a decade ago, and development has exploded since then.
The thing that sets Greater Yellowstone apart is that it still has all of the original mammals and birds present in 1491, the year before Columbus arrived. When you protect wildlife you safeguard a multi-billion dollar sustainable nature-tourism economy. When you take into account what wildlife needs, you also have more resilient landscapes, which is the crucial buzzword.
Yellowstone National Park, and the larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, has all of the original mammals and birds there 500 years ago. And scientists say making smarter decisions to keep this kind of biodiversity intact (unmatched in the Lower 48) can serve as a compelling, easy to understand reference point for how the public can approach climate change.
Resiliency is another word that most climate plans do not spell out. In this context it means bettering the chances for humans—and wildlife— to be able to confront and withstand climate-related disruptions involving water, forests, air, soil, consequential things like the spread of noxious weeds, and outbreaks of old and emerging diseases. It means preserving the lands wildlife will need to endure climate related changes in habitat—changes that will shrink the current carrying capacity and force them to range wider.
The wildlands of Greater Yellowstone naturally absorb more carbon than any expensive scheme humans in our part of the West could invent. The only thing we need to do is not allow this machine to become broken because this Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again.
This carbon capture system is priceless and it doesn’t cost hardly anything to “maintain.” When we manage for favorable outcomes for wildlife, we get all of these benefits and then some.
While that wasn’t the uplifting closing argument in the Climate Kids' case, it easily could have been. Even if “climate change” did not exist, protecting the function of an ecosystem is the foundation of being guaranteed "a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations" and it's never been the wrong thing to do.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below are links to some scientific studies and reports on how healthy forests, soils, grasslands and waterways naturally sequester carbon. Many appeared in the widely respected scientific journal Nature. The source of where they appeared is in parentheses.
Saved By Sequestration? Carbon Capture And Storage Could Be The Only Way of Managing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels Responsibly. But it is by no means clear that it will work (Nature)
Soil Carbon Storage: Soil carbon storage is a vital ecosystem service, resulting from interactions of ecological processes. Human activities affecting these processes can lead to carbon loss or improved storage (Nature)
The Global Carbon Sink Potential Of Terrestrial Vegetation Can Be Increased Substantially By Optimal Land Management (Nature)
The Global Carbon Sink Potential Of Terrestrial Vegetation Can Be Increased Substantially By Optimal Land Management (Nature)
Trees Are Climate Change, Carbon Storage Heroes (US Forest Service)
What the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says about carbon, climate and weather (NOAA)
The Role Of Carbon Sequestration In Enhancing Human Relience In Tackling Global Crises Including Pandemics (paper featured in journal Science Direct)
Read the multi-part Montana Climate Assessment, based on the best available science and nationally-acclaimed for explaining what rising temperatures mean for the health of humans, agriculture, forests, water supply and the future of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Big Sky, Montana: A New West Mountain Town Primed For Its Own 'Big Burn'? (Mountain Journal/Joseph T. O'Connor)
Are Western Mountain Towns Ready For The Coming Flames? See if your mountain community in the West is mentioned in being at high risk by the Forest Service. (Mountain Journal/Todd Wilkinson)
'Unbroken Wilderness:' Big Sky And The Human Appetite For Consuming Wildness (Mountain Journal/Todd Wilkinson)