Late last month, three students from the University of Montana spent nine hours surveying bird populations on UM's main campus, UM's golf course and the Mount Jumbo Saddle. They'd recently heard of the university's push to establish a South Campus at the golf coursebeginning with a new Missoula College facilityand were curious how such a development might affect the existing ecosystem.
What they found was a dramatically higher proportion of invasive bird species on the main campus, and a parity between the golf course and Mount Jumbo regarding the prevalence of native birds. The scope of the project was admittedly too small to drive the current debate over the South Campus expansion, says Ryan Milling, one of the students involved. Professor John Roach, who advised the project, cautions that a one-semester-long study, no matter how well executed, is far from conclusive. But he says the effects of development on bird communities would be "an interesting question to examine in more detail."
"It just serves to say that maybe there's more we could be doing to look at the actual impact this change could have," Milling says, adding that the trio isn't necessarily against the expansion itself.
Critics of the South Campus plan have been pressuring the university to conduct a full environmental impact statement for years. Quentin Rhoades, the attorney retained by opposition group Advocates for Missoula's Future, recently cited the lack of an EIS as a major legal concern.
"Until there is one, and a period of time for the public to study and comment upon it," Rhoades wrote in a May 5 letter to the Montana Board of Regents, "the Missoula College cannot be developed, as currently proposed, in compliance with Montana law." Rhoades went on to suggest that, unless the Regents reconsider their decision to construct Missoula College at the golf course, litigation will be imminent.
UM did release the results of an environmental assessment done by consultants with PBS&J back in 2007. The document's findings regarding impacts on terrestrial, avian and aquatic species were brief, concluding that "these species have shown to be very tolerant of development and would continue to use the planning area and vicinity for cover and/or forage."
While Milling and his project partners, Karyn Greenwood and Elliott Conrad, have developed a keener interest in the South Campus issue in the wake of their study, they hardly feel they're in a position to influence the debate in any meaningful way. The most the trio can hope to do, Greenwood says, "is raise more questions."