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Mountain High



Our country’s next energy secretary, Sam Bodman, should have no trouble feeling comfortable in his new spot in the Bush Cabinet. With a couple of decades under his belt as head honcho at a Massachusetts-based chemical company and nearly no experience in Washington, his selection has been called a “strategic” move, carefully vetted to avoid competition with the vice president’s vision of an energy policy.

Natural gas is a pillar of the White House’s plan, and Bodman is well versed in the development of this fuel. He’ll also be developing “clean coal” technologies for the administration and looking to convince Congress—and the American people—that drilling in the still-pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for six months’ worth of petroleum is a fair trade for scarring this wildlife-rich plain for the ages.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, “clean coal” developers are facing opposition to filling the Powder River Basin with multiple power plants. Turns out that the Black Hills National Monument and Wind Cave National Park are both downwind, and Congress has granted these national treasures protections from having their air clogged with view-reducing particulates. Interestingly, cities and towns lack this same “Class 1” protection, but at least those lucky enough to live near parks can reap the rewards of clean air.

But there’s “clean” air and then there’s “clean” coal, and the two don’t necessarily mesh.

Keep that in mind as the Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative builds its new $470 million coal-burning plant north of Great Falls next year.

Second-term Rep. Sue Dickenson, D-Great Falls, has already launched pre-emptive plans to require this plant to leave no waste for taxpayers to clean up, and also to reduce the amount of the carcinogen mercury the plant can dump into our air.

Not surprisingly, the Montana Coal Council has indicated it will fight further regulation, even if that means less mercury pooling in Montana’s fish or in our children’s brains.

Speaking of brains, it seems that some folks aren’t using them. In what may be this year’s winner of the Cart before the Horse Award, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is allowing a bison hunt to take place this winter.

Currently, FWP is responsible for managing the wildlife we hunt in our state, and the agency is charged with determining how many, when and where these animals can be harvested. This will change when bison tags are issued, as bison are not currently defined as “wildlife” in Montana, but instead as a “species in need of disease management” regulated by the Department of Livestock (DOL).

In other words, bison aren’t granted any habitat protections in Montana, with the sole exception of a thin strip of Yellowstone NP that lines up in our state. You can’t hunt in national parks, but under the just-introduced plan, bison wandering into the Eagle Creek drainage north of the park in search of winter forage will find as many as 10 lottery-selected hunters lying in wait.

Now don’t get me wrong: Given a chance at a fair-chase hunt I’d gladly put a bison in my freezer—assuming it hasn’t already been plugged with antibiotics by government agents, that is. But Yellowstone’s bison have long been protected, and decades of benign ogling by tourists have caused them to lose much of their fear of humans. Shooting one can be slightly more sporting than shooting your dog, a fact so readily apparent during previous hunts that the state ended the practice more than a decade ago amid massive international outcry.

This may sound like a broken record, but again, the Buffalo Field Campaign will, as they have for years, continue to monitor bison leaving the park. These folks have vowed, again, to bring the full force of their media machine along with these 10 hunters as they go after their kill, and Montana will, again, likely face more opposition to this ill-advised hunt.

The reason for all this weirdness is that many of the bison carry brucellosis, a cattle-introduced disease that can cause cows to abort their firstborn, and this, convolutedly, is why bison are managed by the DOL. But bison aren’t the only animals to carry the bug, and just across the border in Wyoming, where ranchers are still smarting from losing their “brucellosis-free” status, wildlife managers have proposed testing elk for the pesky disease. Elk testing positive will be, in the state’s words, “slaughtered”—although the state is now looking to change the word “slaughtered” to “removed.”

On a lighter note, backcountry skiers can forget for a day about the plight of the bison and instead join Rocky Mountaineer Steve Niday for a trip into the Bitterroots. While Bitterroot SNOTEL sites are reporting snow depths 50–70 percent of normal, skiers with a nose for it can still find good stashes on certain aspects. Call Niday at 721-3790 to get in the game.

As of press time, downhillers should note that Montana Snowbowl is claiming to have 43 percent of its terrain open with a base of 38 inches; Lookout Pass has 46 inches of machine-groomed snow; Big Mountain has some of the best snow around, with 54 inches up top; Lost Trail is claiming a 29-inch base and is scheduled to open Dec. 23; Silver Mountain has a 38-inch base and claims to have received more than 7 feet of snow already this year; and while Blacktail Mountain is claiming a 25-inch base, it’s not enough to open yet, so call before heading up to Lakeside.

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