Wildlife in the West 2017

Final presentation by Boise State University student SARAH KELLER

Photo by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student RYAN DELOGE  

Photo by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student RYAN DELOGE

I’m not normally the type of person who does this kind of stuff – I’m quiet (really) and an introvert, not someone who you would expect to sign up for a college field course that involves living in a converted barn with 14 other students for over a month and traveling all around western Montana. I’ve spent half of my childhood and all of my adult life in Boise—a pocket of southwest Idaho surrounded by both public lands and rural communities that few people outside of the state have ever heard of.

I’ve hiked foothills surrounded by seas of sagebrush, watched invasive cheatgrass spread like wildfire on a burned landscape, and hunted for mushrooms in conifer forests. I’ve eaten beef raised on prairie grass, picked wild berries, and collected gallon buckets of tiny sagebrush seed heads destined to restore damaged habitats. I’ve written papers on human- environmental systems and important environmental legislation, dreamed up neat solutions to wildlife conflicts, and quantified numerous variables into tidy graphs.

I never dreamed that I might just consider management-driven hunting to be sustainable and worthy of respect. I never thought that I would think that the Endangered Species Act did, in fact, need to change. I didn’t know much about how the National Environmental Policy Act or the National Forest Management Act was actually implemented in practice. Very little is as simple as it appears to be on the surface, and wildlife management is no exception.

Until I came to this tiny valley in the Crown of the Continent, I realize now that I had failed to take into account all the nuance and variation in opinions between the two sometimes overpowering extremes. I’ve heard “wildlife management is people management” on numerous occasions, but until I came to Condon I didn’t fully understand it, didn’t “get” it like I do now. Regardless of how we got into this in the first place – few of us would say that we got into this field in order to interact with the public all day, myself included.

Over these past six weeks, I have learned more than I have in the past four years, not just about tracking and field ecology, but about the important human and policy dimensions that sometimes get pushed aside in favor of the more glamorous sides of conservation. I’ve learned how to identify subtle animal signs, distinguish grizzly and black bear tracks, tell a canine track from a feline one, determine gait patterns and speed of travel, and how to tell antler rubs from deer, elk, and moose apart by where they line up on your body in comparison to the tree.

I’ve waded streams and rivers, fished sculpin out of gravel beds, and used water temperature to determine if bull trout could ever call those places home. I’ve seen fox kits curiously watching us on roadsides, crawled inside a wolf natal den, and seen more bones strewn across the landscape than I ever have in my life. I’ve watched a deer skull get aged by the amount of wear on its teeth, and followed crows to possible kill sites while on alert for bears. I can now distinguish between a Douglas fir and a grand fir, and know that ponderosa pine bark looks like a puzzle piece and smells like vanilla.

I can now draw this area from memory, and use a compass, map, and identifying features to find my location in the larger landscape. I’ve seen a Canada lynx track in the mountains, eaten lunch surrounded by wildflowers, and learned how to use a blade of grass to figure out if an electric fence is “hot”. I’ve watched the sunset from a rock face overlooking Flathead Lake. I’ve lost my footing crossing a log and landed in mud up to my waist, and slid on my butt down steep inclines.

I’ve watched game camera videos of wolf pups and their “babysitter” romping and playing at a rendezvous site, and watched footage of a grizzly ripping the camera filming it off of a tree. I’ve learned how many wires to string an electric fence with to keep bears out of chicken coops and vegetable gardens. I’ve seen bear rubs that break small trees, seen side-by- side tracks of a moose and her calf in the mud in Glacier, and seen water turn a spectacular turquoise color from the sediment in glacial runoff. I’ve listened to wolf pups howl in the darkness.

I’ve eaten elk and moose with local families, then listened to their stories about what the tradition and experience of hunting meant to them, and how they hoped to pass on that same love of the hunt to their children. I’ve heard them say that by stalking quietly through a forest, looking and listening for any disturbance or sign, they learned more than they would have with a book and several years of study.

I’ve spent an afternoon with a trapper in the Blackfoot, and listened to him explain that the challenge, the respect he has for the animal, and the matching of wits – his against the wolf’s, are large parts of why he does what he does. I’ve talked with wildlife biologists both inside and outside of this valley, from down into the Blackfoot to across the Bob Marshall on the Rocky Mountain Front. I’ve learned that what at first appears like a small thing—the use of bear spray or bear resistant trash cans, can be key in helping to mitigate bear-human conflicts. I’ve learned that fencing can be built to keep livestock in but let migrating deer and pronghorn out.

I’ve met and lived and studied side-by-side with students from all over the country, all with different opinions and biases, all having been shaped by different life experiences. I’ve
learned that determined residents and nonprofits can come together and preserve large tracts of former timber land that was faced with the threat of development.

I’ve taken classes on biology, ecology, policy, and management over the course of my undergrad, but this six week experience in a small Montana town has been by far the most valuable. I’ve come to learn that you cannot separate the human dimensions from the ecosystem ones – that they must be taken as a whole in order to see the big picture.

I got into this field because I wanted to help preserve what’s left of our last wild places for the species that depend on them, but I realize now that I’m also preserving those places for the people who depend on them as well. I’m preserving these places for families who’ve lived in this valley for four generations, for those who’ve moved here in search of something that you can’t get in a city, for those who want their children to grow up to respect and love these lands like they do.

I’m going into the next stage of my career in conservation with my eyes and my mind more open than ever. I have learned that there are no fixed answers, no one-size-fits-all solutions, and that policy on the ground is much different than policy in the halls of Congress. On these working landscapes, policy and tradition both have important roles to play. Policy must be adaptable, and there must be enough flexibility to allow for new science and changing societal norms to be incorporated.

I will hike the foothills back in Idaho with a new appreciation and eye for detail. I am now thinking about going hunting for the first time ever, or at least starting up fishing again. I will keep an eye out for elk and deer and mountain lion tracks, look for signs of ungulate browse on sagebrush, and think not just about how habitat affects sage grouse, but how sage grouse in turn affect their habitat. I’m going to work to infuse how I live—wherever I end up, with the lessons I’ve learned in this valley from all of you and so many others.