Tour Description

Journey to the Flathead Indian Reservation and the majestic Mission Mountains to explore the intersection of traditional culture and natural resource management. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are at the forefront of asserting sovereignty rights over natural resources. Along the People's Highway (aka US 93), check out the ecologically friendly features, including a dramatic wildlife overpass and underpasses that protect extensive wildlife corridors. Stop at the National Bison Range to learn about disagreements over how much authority the tribes should have in managing bison. A swing through the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge may yield sightings of migrating waterfowl, including reintroduced trumpeter swans. Other topics may include water rights negotiations, Flathead Lake and native fire management. Depart at 7:30 a.m., lunch included, $30 fee; Drive time — 3.5 hours. Register Now

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Waterfowl in the Wetlands

Perhaps at no other site that we'll visit tomorrow will the area's hydrology — tied into water rights, irrigation uses, and restoration work — be as important as it is to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. Like the bison range, the refuge lies in the Northwest Montana Wetland Management District. This pothole wetlands area is home to a variety of resident animals and migrating waterfowl. We should have some spotting scopes and have some good viewing opportunities this time of year.

One especially cool thing we'll be talking about is the Trumpeter Swan recovery efforts here, as part of the Rocky Mountain Population. Earlier this year when Joan and I were scouting the region, biologists reported that several dozen Trumpeter Swan hatchlings were counted. These are some pretty birds, so I hope we are lucky enough to spot some while we're there!

Of course, water is crucial to all life here. Following the Ninepipe stop, we'll see how the nearby wildlife corridor provides safe passage to other animals to access the wetlands.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Land Owners, Land Stewards

Like most Indian Reservations in the United States, the Flathead Indian Reservation set aside a specific piece of land with a set of boundary lines. It encompasses 1.3 million acres in the lower Flathead River Basin. About a third is timbered, while wetlands, irrigated farms, ranches, six towns, and managed wildlife areas are spread throughout the area -- a patchwork of Tribal, allotted, state, federal and private fee ownerships.

The reservation was created by the 1865 Hellgate Treaty with the Salish and Kootenai speaking Indians. The 1904 Flathead Allotment Act placed Indians in unfamiliar territory. A few years later, in 1910, the Flathead Reservation was opened up to non-indian settlement.

More recently, however, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been purchasing land that had slipped from tribal ownership. Our tour speaker Clayton Matt will explain the area's land ownership history, which includes how CSKT has been working to purchase back some of those holdings. As we will see on our tour later that afternoon -- visiting the Ninepipe area and river restoration site -- these efforts are helping CSKT to boost their large-scale planning and management goals of the area's natural resource base.

Here are a few links for some supporting information about these perspectives and goals. Although we won't specifically be stopping at any forested sites, I have included some background on those types of issues as well:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bison: Past, Present & Future

Last week's federal court ruling resulted in the immediate leave of 12 CSKT employees at the National Bison Range and facility operations in a state of limbo. Even so, the bison still roam the range and life goes on as those involved figure out what's next. During our visit, we'll explore the role, purpose, and management of the bison range. We'll also talk about the activities that were going on since the agreement between the Annual Funding Agreement (AFA) between the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). For those who are not familiar with the legal issue, the AFA is rooted in the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994. We'll touch on that, as well as its implications for other sites where similar partnerships may exist.

Meanwhile, Joan and I went to a bison documentary film premiere last night called, Facing the Storm. One spot in the film put into focus one point I couldn't quite put my finger on before: the American bison is the one "wild" animal that we (as a general collective) want to keep around but don't allow them to live truly wild. Not only are only a small proportion of their genetics relatively "pure" (many are progeny from cross-breeding with domestic cattle), but we fence and inoculate them. Under these circumstances, some argue, natural selection forces no longer exist to maintain "wild" populations. Discussion of bison genetics and "wildness" will likely be part of our exploration of the range, and also we'll be talking about bison population ownership, including private holdings and efforts by the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. Should be interesting and we hope we'll be out in the field to catch some natives grazing that morning!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Boosting Bull Trout

Obama administration reverses Bush policy on bull trout habitat

Related Article: Rescuing Science from Politics

Oftentimes when people think about fish in the American West, the "charismatic megafauna" of the American West fish world, the Pacific salmon (chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye), is at the top of the list. Without a doubt, they have been the lifeblood of people in this western region for millennia. Even so, in western Montana, it's all about trout. Certainly, it's the fish group that thousands of residents and tourists try to coerce onto their angling hooks every year. Although the native species are off-limits to keep, the natives, such as the bull trout are beautiful fish to see up close and important players in the ecosystem. As the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service explains about Bull Trout, they have the most specific habitat requirements of any Pacific Northwest salmonids, , including the "Four C's": Cold, Clean, Complex, and Connected habitat. A number of factors have led to the bull trout's decline across its historic range -- competition with exotics, hybridization with brook trout, habitat degradation, and water drawn from streams for other uses.

During our tour, we'll be stopping near the state-run Jocko River Fish Hatchery in Arlee to check out a river restoration site. In 1948, a large flood inundated this area, so the river was channelized to protect the hatchery, which was setup in the early 1950s. The hatchery produces rainbow trout eggs, which are used extensively in lakes and reservoirs across Montana. Unfortunately, this doesn't do the bull trout much good. People on our tour will hear about why bull trout aren't suitable for hatchery production, and we'll also get an on-the-ground look at the work being done to restore the channelized river to a more natural state.

But our discussion will certainly go well beyond this single site. Craig Barfoot, the CSKT fisheries biologist who will join us there, will explain the restoration work and discuss how the bull trout is by nature far-ranging. Efforts at this site plus others like the recently opened fish ladder at the Thompson Falls Dam together help boost this fishery in at least some of its historic range.

Patrick Saffel, a fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, will talk to us about the work that the state is also doing for the bull trout. For example, he told me recently, just this year the state purchased about 25,000 acres in the nearby Clearwater River drainage. Saffel says this will especially help in their efforts to restore spawning areas for the bull trout. For more information on the "big picture", see the page featuring the Bull Trout Proposed Critical Habitat Revision, 2010 at the USFWS website.

Of course, you can't have a healthy fishery without water. Hydrology is a key component of this landscape -- not only for bull trout and the other aquatic species here, but also for the Ninepipe wetlands we'll also visit, as well as for the people who live here. Looking at the Mission Mountains on the east side of the valley, you might never know that a large irrigation canal that runs along the base of the range. In fact, I have lived in the Missoula area for more than 20 years, and had no idea this was the case until Whisper Camel pointed it out during our scouting trip. Water Rights Negotiations have been going on, and some may wish to check out the Preliminary Report on Groundwater Assessments for the Flathead Indian Reservation (PDF) that includes some maps, models, etc. that provides some background on the hydrology of the area.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Passages for Wildlife

We're all familiar with roadkill, but can you imagine hitting a grizzly bear with your car? Along Highway 93, a busy stretch that runs from Missoula to Glacier National Park, four grizzlies (among other species) have been killed in this area on the Flathead Reservation since 1998.

This situation was recognized as a problem, so The People's Way was conceived and constructed here. With its 42 wildlife corridor structures, no doubt the 56 miles of upgraded highway has saved some potential casualties. On our tour, we'll get to buzz under one of the corridors that span aboveground en route northward from Missoula, but we'll spend a good chunk of on-site time underground at one of the six corridor sites that includes a critter cam. These motion-activated cameras have captured a wealth of information about what animals travel through this area, between the forested wilderness areas in the Mission Mountains on the east to the wetland expanse and grasslands in the west.

Whisper Camel is an Associate Biologist with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), who tour participants will get to know as she explains the work done and being done at this site and connecting areas. Whisper was instrumental in getting these cameras installed to monitor the wildlife that use the corridors. Originally, the construction plan was to include sand beds to simply survey animal tracks. But, while Whisper was away at graduate school, oops -- the sand beds were not installed. Thanks to Whisper's insistence and persistence, the six cameras were perhaps even better for accurate identification and collecting more information about these travelers. The site we'll visit, in fact, is the only one of the six with cameras where grizzly bears have been photographed using the corridors. It's no wonder, perhaps, that it's been at this location.

The site our tour will visit, however, is not just a cool tunnel for wildlife. It especially shows the "bigger picture" of what the CSKT and its partners have been doing for implement a ecologically, wholistic management plan. Tourists driving through on Highway 93 might never suspect that at the base of the awe-inspiring Mission Mountains lies an irrigation ditch. For years, this ditch has diverted water that would have normally drained into the wetlands. Worse, natural springs located on private property also were captured for other uses. Whisper will tell the story of how CSKT has been restoring these areas to more natural conditions. Not only are they getting more water back into the system, but they are also taking steps such as replacing non-native trees and shrubs with natives, such as serviceberry, chokecherry, rose and aspen.

There are many more stories to see here for yourselves. Sign-up for our tour and check back at this blog next week for another report about what we'll look at during our tour, which will include the National Bison Range, Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, river restoration for improving bull trout populations, and delving into land ownership changes on the Reservation which have helped to shape opportunities for improving natural resource management.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Getting Out to Scout

Following a few months of preliminary phone calls and emails to potential speakers for our all-day tour, I'm getting pumped for our on-the-ground scouting trek next week. I always love a good road trip, but along the Mission Mountains is particularly special. When I first moved to Missoula and drove up this way to get familiar with my new home, the concentration of wildlife was clearly evident. Not only is the Flathead Indian Reservation home to rich, intensively managed wildlife complexes — including the bison range, the reservoirs, and the refuges — but its expansive landscape also supports a variety of wild habitats and natural corridors. However, like most places where wildness intersects with human communities, the management challenges are nearly as diverse as the habitats themselves. Nowhere, perhaps, is that more true than in Indian Country, where traditional and progressive Native cultures, non-native residents, state interests, and federal entities must come together in order to move forward for mixed use and conservation of these resources, as well as preservation of this region's special nature.

Next tuesday, Joan and I will have a full schedule as we begin to solidify the route and topics we'll share with everyone who joins us in October. Our first stop will be at the National Bison Range near Moiese. From there, we'll travel along Highway 212 and get back on to Highway 93 near the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. Heading north, we'll stop in Pablo, where the main Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe (CSKT) offices are. Up in Polson, we'll talk to some of the key natural resource managers on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and tour a few of the wildlife corridors along this highway. I especially hope we get a chance to see a variety of waterfowl at the Ninepipe refuge on our way back to Missoula.

After our scouting trip, I'll be highlighting on this blog the places, people and issues that our SEJ tour group will explore with us in October. Look for photos, speaker information, topic/issue teasers, and links to related news articles and research sources every couple of weeks leading up to the tour date of October 14, 2010. Become a blog follower or join the SEJ listserv to keep up with new developments!