Deep Gratitude this Thanksgiving

Everyone at Montana Wildlife Federation is taking time to reflect and recognize that this Thanksgiving holiday has many meanings, and that we must take action to not only give thanks, but remember and continue to learn. We hope you get to spend meaningful time with family and friends, travel safely, perhaps engage in acts of service, take a pause to rest and get out into the wilds of Montana.

MWF staff wanted to share what we are grateful for at this time of year, as well as recognize that the Thanksgiving holiday is known by some of our valued partners in advocating for wildlife, habitat and access as a National Day of Mourning. Out of respect for Indigenous people in Montana and across North America, we believe the day can serve as a reminder of our nation’s difficult history of injustices. We commit to finding ways to right wrongs and do meaningful, informed and positive work by building bridges, trust and relations – to move forward in good ways, and move forward together.

This November we’re reflecting on, recognizing and celebrating Native American Heritage Month and we’re feeling gratitude for the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded and cared for the lands now called Montana, the same lands that we all work, play, hunt and fish on, and advocate for.

From filling our freezers with wild game to accessing public lands to hunt and the memories made and shared in the in-between moments, our gratitude runs deep. Practicing gratitude isn’t just an action to take this week, the week of Thanksgiving, or only in the weeks following, but an action we highly recommend taking the whole year through.

Every time we pull a package of wild game from the freezer, we remember that animal, that hunt, the people we shared the experience with and perhaps even sweat, bled and cried with, and we give thanks, over and over again. That is the beauty of hunting – the experience stays on and sustains us, and our hearts and minds.

We’re hoping you and yours have a wonderful week and however you’re celebrating and remembering, that you enjoy the time. We’re grateful for you and thank you for being a part of the work and advocacy of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

A few reflections on gratitude from our staff:

Sonya Smith, our Communications Director, shared that she’s “thankful for hunting with my family and raising our girls to know they are capable of anything.”

sonya hunting

Morgan Marks, our North-Central Field Representative, shared that she’s “thankful to have gone out on her first solo hunts this season, remembering the hunters in her life who can no longer get out – those walks with her rifle greeting the sunrise were for them.”

ilona thankful

Ilona Wilde, our South-Central Field Representative, shared that she’s “so thankful for the opportunity to spend time outdoors and enjoy the change of the seasons with the ones I love.”

Garrett Titus, our Data Manager, shared that he’s “thankful to have the opportunity to come full circle to take my grandpa and dad hunting with my dog.”

garrett hunting family
As the father of an active duty service member, Executive Director, Frank Szollosi, is grateful for the dedication earlier this month of the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I look forward to visiting and reflecting upon the sacrifices made by Indigenous men and women in military service, defending freedom.”

 

New Guidance from Bureau of Land Management Will Conserve Wildlife Movement and Migration Pathways

The Bureau of Land Management’s new policy to conserve and restore wildlife movement and migration pathways by working collaboratively with state fish and wildlife agencies, Tribal nations, and private landowners will benefit fish and wildlife and is a positive step forward in tackling the nation’s biodiversity crisis. The new Instructional Memorandum provides valuable guidance that directs the agency’s state offices to consider fish and wildlife movements and connectivity pathways in land use planning.

“Wildlife must migrate and move in order to survive, so this new guidance to conserve and restore wildlife pathways will benefit elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and many species of fish,” said David Willms, senior director for Western wildlife and conservation at the National Wildlife Federation. “It is especially heartening to see the emphasis on collaboration with state and Tribal leaders and private landowners to connect and restore wildlife habitat and remove invasive species, which will have tremendous benefits for wildlife and humans alike.” 

Restoration of wildlife movement to maintain healthy animal populations and promote human safety include wildlife-friendly fencing and wildlife crossings, which have both yielded successful results for minimizing wildlife-vehicle collisions as well as restoring wildlife migration pathways connecting across landscapes, especially for pronghorn. 

“More data is needed to identify such movements and wildlife migration routes,” said Naomi Alhadeff, Montana Education Manager at the National Wildlife Federation. “We’ve been working to gather Montanans together to use the app WildlifeXing, as a way to leverage community and citizen science to support gathering data. The data is used to identify hot spots and pinch points along Highway 2 and throughout Montana, where wildlife are seen on roadways, dead or alive.” 

Wildlife crossings benefit more than just big game species; turtles, rabbits, coyotes, skunks, and myriad other smaller species of wildlife also utilize these crossings. The movement and migration of wildlife in the United States are vital to maintaining healthy animal populations. The continuing fragmentation and disconnection of habitat is resulting in increasingly isolated animal populations; the inability to reach important winter, summer, or breeding habitat; and higher rates of negative wildlife-human interactions. 

“It will take intentional collaboration between federal, state, and Tribal land managers – as well as private landowners – to fully safeguard wildlife movement. We welcome today’s new guidance from the Bureau of Land Management. Now we need help from the public. We’re asking every person to download and input data regarding what they see along Montana roadways,” said Morgan Marks, North-Central Field Representative at the Montana Wildlife Federation. This data will be modeled at the end of 2023 so it’s crucial that as many people as possible serve as citizen scientists before that deadline.”

The National Wildlife Federation and Montana Wildlife Federation applaud the Bureau of Land Management’s new policy and commitment to work with state fish and wildlife agencies and Tribal nations to ensure that connectivity is an integral part of their wildlife management.

 

By MWF North-Central/Eastern Montana Field Coordinator Morgan Marks. 

Feature photo by Director of Wildlife Programs at National Wildlife Federation Kit Fischer.

Land of the Larch: A Deeper Look into Montana’s Golden Conifers

There are few things in this world as glorious as Montana in the fall. The crispness in the air, the bugling wildlife, and the golden hues highlighting the hillsides and high peaks collide to form a season of beauty and bounty. There are multiple species of trees that contribute to the warm glow of autumn colors in Montana, but few are as unique as larch trees. Larch trees, classified in the Larix genus and Pinaceae (Pine) family, are deciduous conifers that lose their needles in the fall. The Larix genus is divided into two groups: three North American species and seven Eurasian Species. 

Subapline Larch 1
Subapline Larch 2

Subalpine larch along a trail in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness (left) and Western Larch dotting the hills around Holland Lake (right). Photos by MWF Staffer Ilona Wilde.

Montana is home to two of the three native North American species of larch: Subalpine larch (Larix lyallii) and Western Larch (Larix occidentalis). Conifers are usually distinguished by their cones, needle-like leaves, and evergreen branches. Larch trees are an outlier in the Conifer family, with their needles turning a bright gold every autumn and dropping to the forest floor. During this process, the tree sequesters nutrients (mostly nitrogen) from its needles for storage. Shedding foliage in the fall not only relieves weight from the larch’s branches but also reduces the surface area of the tree from high winds. Without their summer needles, snow can fall through the branches rather than collect on the tree, reducing the likelihood of branches breaking from the weight of snow or the force of the wind. These deciduous adaptations help larch trees thrive in high elevations and extreme winter conditions.

Subalpine Larch: Larix lyallii

Subapline larch 3
Subapline larch 4

Subalpine larch in the Pintler Mountains. Photos by MWF Staffer, Ilona Wilde.

With both species of larch turning golden in the autumn, the easiest ways to differentiate the species are from their size, habitat, and distribution. Looking closely, alpine larch have wooly hairs covering buds and recent twigs, four sided needles, and usually have broad irregular crowns. They can grow in pure groves, small groups, or as isolated individuals. Alpine larch grow in very cold, snowy, and windy environments, with their record low temperatures near the Continental Divide reaching -50° C (-58° F). These conditions usually stunt the tree’s growth to around 30 to 50 feet tall, but in a wind sheltered basin alpine larch can reach up to 80 feet. These small trees commonly grow near the treeline on slopes covered with granite, quartzite talus (boulders) or in cracks of massive bedrock. Their current range consists of small pockets along the east side of the North Cascades in Washington, and the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana and Canada. Within this distribution, alpine larch is most common in the highest areas of the Bitterroot, Anaconda-Pintler, Whitefish, and Cabinet Ranges of western Montana. Growing between 8,400 and 9,200 feet of elevation in southwestern Montana, alpine larch are usually the dominant trees on high mountain peaks.

Western Larch: Larix occidentalis

Golden western larch trees surrounded by evergreen conifers. Photo by Alec Underwood

Golden western larch trees surrounded by evergreen conifers. Photo by MWF Staffer, Alec Underwood.

Western Larch, Larix occidentalis, is the largest of the larch genus and grows up to 150 feet tall and can live over 700 years. The world’s largest recorded larch tree can be found near the western shore of Seeley lake, Montana; a 163 feet tall western larch revered locally as “Gus”. Other than size, western larch can also be identified by their three sided needles and cones connecting to the branch on short stalks. In comparison to alpine larch, this species has a much larger distribution across Montana and surrounding areas. Western larches span from the Cascades in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon to the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, northern Idaho, and Western Montana. Found in moist to wet forests, western larch thrive in cool slopes and valleys to lower subalpine terrain. Unlike alpine larch, which can be solitary, western larches are dependent on growing alongside other tree species, like Douglas-fir and Lodgepole Pine. 

Illona trees

Written by MWF’s Western Field Representative Ilona Wilde, featured above in a grove of subalpine larch.

Chronic Wasting Disease

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is that weird animal ailment you have almost certainly heard of even if you aren’t entirely sure what it is. For the uninitiated, CWD is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects all cervids (deer, elk, moose). The disease is caused by a prion (pronounced “pre-on” NOT “pry-on”) which is essentially, an infectious misfolded protein. Prions are not cells, they do not have a genome, they cannot reproduce in the way a virus or bacterium can, they are not alive. Instead, a prion seems to cause other proteins that it comes into contact with to also become misshapen, these defective proteins then accumulate in the nervous tissue, eventually destroying healthy tissue and killing the infected animal. Chronic wasting disease is in the same family as mad cow (bovine), scrapie (sheep), and Creutzfeldt-Jakob (human) disease. The CWD prion is transmitted cervid-to-cervid via direct contact with body fluids like saliva, blood, or urine, as well as contaminated soil, water, or food; in a sense, through anything, a cervid may come into contact with. And the fact that a prion is not a living organism with biological processes means they cannot be treated or prevented with antibiotics or vaccines. Additionally, the prion’s ability to remain in the environment for years makes it an incredibly difficult disease to combat.

To date, infected animals have been found in 30 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces. Within Montana, we have found 805 CWD-positive samples out of 27,717 animals that have been tested since sampling began in 2017. Most of the research focuses on deer; this prion is typically known to infect more does than bucks yet infected bucks are more likely die1, 2. There is mixed data on whitetail versus mule deer susceptibility though the most recent data in Montana show similar rates of infection for whitetail and mule deer where their populations overlap3. That said, 5% of the whitetail deer sampled in Montana have tested positive for CWD, that is right at the threshold at which control of spread becomes difficult and more significant control methods may be needed4.

CWD 1

As far as we know CWD doesn’t infect anything except cervids. Even when cattle have been penned with infected deer for 10 years, they do not contract CWD5. And while there was one unpublished study that suggested macaques (a non-human primate) could get CWD from eating infected meat6 a second 13-year study found no evidence of CWD infection in exposed animals making it difficult to draw any conclusion about a species barrier and whether humans could contract this disease by eating an infected animal7.

So why is any of this important if the prion is generally located in nervous tissues which most of us don’t eat and there isn’t any evidence that we can get sick from it?

One reason this is important is that we don’t know what we don’t know. There have been relatively few studies about CWD transmissibility to humans or other species. This is due in part to the long incubation period of CWD, symptoms may not appear for years in an infected animal. And since there is no treatment or cure for CWD and it is highly transmissible among cervids only a select number of labs have the facilities to work with it properly and safely, further limiting the number of studies that can be done. So, while the risk appears low from what we currently know, best practice would be to not consume meat from a CWD-positive animal.

A second reason is that if we don’t work to limit the spread of CWD we are going to wind up with a lot more sick animals on the landscape. This will impact peoples’ desire to eat their harvested animals and it will change the age structure of the animals that are hunted. Because CWD takes several years for symptoms set in, an infected doe can reproduce for several years before she dies of the disease. However, the chances of those fawns being infected will be high as they will be in very close contact with their mother. The more fawns that are infected will mean more deer dying at a younger age from CWD which will ultimately lead to a loss of that older age class buck and the bigger antler set that comes with them. For most Montanans, pulling a moose tag is already a once-in-a-lifetime event and to see positivity rates of 2% already is alarming, especially for an animal facing many other disease and parasite challenges nationwide. And as Montana has been seeing a lot of recent controversy around elk management, a point not often mentioned is that if we continue to see large herds congregating on private land creating an easy avenue for group transmission, we will likely see a rise in CWD cases among those animals as well.

Given the transmission dynamics of CWD, its persistence in the environment, ease of transmission and difficulty to destroy, it is likely a disease that is going to be with us forever. So, what can we do to help? A relatively easy action is to call your representatives and urge them to support the CWD Research bill that is being presented at the federal level. This bill would provide the dedicated source of research and mitigation funds to understand how the CWD prion works and what we can do to control its spread. This disease is a nationwide issue and needs a nationwide program to address it. This prion has a lot of avenues to get around this country, infected animals migrate, predators that eat these cervids move, and hunters that travel to hunt are another potential avenue to transport CWD to new regions. This bill will hopefully fund more robust research into how this prion causes disease, how it’s transmitted, expanding testing capacity, and what best management practices are.

In the meantime, Montana could expand access to CWD check stations. The resources of FWP are spread thin but a program that “deputizes” regional businesses to collect samples could be a great way to get us to the level of access we would need for mandatory testing of all harvested cervids. For instance, FWP could provide a financial incentive for strategically located gas stations, sporting goods shops, and the like to have employees trained to retrieve lymph nodes and mail them to the appropriate facility. Alternatively, for better data acquisition FWP could send collection kits to anyone with an elk, deer, or moose license. A simple kit could include an easy visual guide to collect the harvest, plastic bags, and a paid-postage envelope. Making testing easy and free will ensure that we get the most data from hunters who are acting as citizen scientists by collecting these specimens.

The simplest act is to be responsible when you’re handling cervids, hunter or otherwise; dispose of carcasses in a dumpster that is taken to a landfill, especially if you are moving your animal out of the region it was harvested from. Montana FWP no longer requires you to leave the remains where you harvested an animal if you’re in a CWD priority zone, but they do require it to be disposed of in a landfill. When you dump your carcass remains outside, at trailheads, in ditches, you’re not only contributing to the poor image of hunters to nonhunters but also potentially contaminating a new site with CWD and aiding the spread of this disease.

CWD is a big issue and there is so much more to discuss than can be squeezed into an article here. If we are to effectively manage this disease and its impacts on cervid populations and the downstream ecological effects, it will take a nationwide concerted effort to effectively manage. Be responsible with your animal carcasses, talk to your fellow hunters, and let your representatives know that we need the CWD Research bill.

CWD1

If you really want to dig in further on the issue of CWD there is a great 5-part series called the CWD Chronicles on the NWF Podcast in collaboration with Artemis Sportswomen.

  1. Edmunds, D. R., et al. Chronic Wasting Disease Drives Population Decline of White-Tailed Deer. PLoS One. 11(8): e0161127. (2016). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161127.
  2. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Surveillance Update: October 1, 2021. https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-updates.aspx Accessed: 18 May 2022.
  3. CWD Annual Report from 2020. https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/chronic-wasting-disease/management. Accessed 18 May 2022.
  4. Colorado Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan. https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/About-CWD-in-Colorado.aspx. Accessed 18 May 2022.
  5. Williams, E. S., et al. Inoculation Challenge or Ten Years’ Natural Exposure in Contaminated Environments. of Wildlife Diseases. 54(3): 460-470. (2018). https://doi.org/10.7589/2017-12-299.
  6. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). https://www.cdc.gov/prions/cwd/transmission.html Accessed: 18 May 2022.
  7. Race, B., et al. Lack of Transmission of Chronic Wasting Disease to Cynomolgus Macaques. of Virol. (2018). doi: 10.1128/JVI.00550-18.

 

 

By MWF Ambassador DeAnna Bublitz

Montanans need to review east Crazies land exchange proposal

Much has been said and written about the east Crazy Mountain-Big Sky land exchange proposal, which has just been released by the U.S. Forest Service for public comment. For decades, solutions to unlocking public land access between checkerboarded private landholdings within the Custer Gallatin National Forest which surround the Crazy Mountains have proven elusive to scores of good faith efforts. Our interests include protecting critical elk, mountain lion, and black bear habitat – among other species – and enhancing public access. We respect property rights, agriculture and ranching, and the sacred significance of these lands to the Apsáalooke (Crow).

Two years ago, members of Montana Wildlife Federation’s Board of Directors thoroughly debated our engagement with the Crazy Mountains Working Group – a locally led collaboration of hunters, ranchers, recreationists, and other community members. One of our Board members, John Salazar, a Livingston hunter, and longtime conservation leader, joined the group and has kept us in the wildlife federation plugged into the discussion. He’s done great work building relationships while seeking solutions to an intractable public land impasse.

In 2020, MWF issued a letter that spelled out conditions for our organizational support of any land exchange.  We asked then that “any proposal to accomplish this trade move forward administratively by the Forest Service to give the public the opportunity to review and comment on it.”  We stand by that as 2022 draws to a close, and as the Forest Service rolls out the proposal for its 45-day public comment period. That official period will be followed by a Forest Service draft decision notice, and then an additional 45-day objection period. We believe there continues to be time for the collaboration, dialogue, and advocacy that is necessary to strengthen the conservation values of the proposal. We look forward to reviewing all aspects of the proposal and how it aligns with our access goals and conservation vision across the east Crazies landscape.

During this critical period, we recommit to working together with willing participants. We’ll encourage our members and Affiliates and the general public to read the proposal for themselves and be part of the Forest Service administrative process. We’ll show up and listen at the public meetings that are being organized from Big Timber to Big Sky. And we ourselves will continue to listen to and meaningfully evaluate the many spirited arguments about these extraordinary lands.

Last year, we provided the working group with additional detailed concerns, such as limiting the use of so-called “e-bikes” and other mechanized uses that demonstrably disrupt wildlife, and, to further long-term habitat and access goals, we seek a “first right of refusal” that would give public land agencies an opportunity to purchase any future private land that would one day be listed for sale. Our vision, as relayed to the Forest Service, is a “consolidated land pattern in public ownership that would ensure key wildlife habitat and important corridors are protected, provide for public access and recreation, and also allow multiple use opportunities where appropriate.”

We were encouraged by our recent meeting with the Forest Service where they reminded us that the new Custer Gallatin Forest Plan, along with a new federal Backcountry designation, prohibits new road construction, mining, wind farms, heli-skiing, and other disruptive activities, as well buildings and infrastructure on public land, while allowing for public land grazing that is of critical importance to local ranchers and rural communities like Big Timber.

Finally, this past fall I had an amazing opportunity to participate in a flyover of the Crazy Mountains with local landowners, a tribal researcher, and fellow conservationists.  From the single-propeller Cessna, I could see high alpine lakes teeming with native fish, a herd of elk, and eagle nests; I learned of ancient Crow vision quest sites at the summits.  Ranching operations appeared to be woven into the landscape neatly, and the potential for a harmonious outcome actually became easier to see from that perspective. The risks of not finding a hard-earned, negotiated solution after so many years seem even more urgent as real estate and population growth both rapidly escalate in the communities that surround the Crazy Mountains.

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Crazies eco-flight with Rob Sisson, Erica Lighthiser, Francine Spang-Willis, Frank Szollosi and Charlie Rein. Photos by EcoFlight. 

 

 

By Montana Wildlife Federation  Executive Director Frank Szollosi

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Alec Underwood

Senior Policy & evelopment Director

Alec is responsible for developing and implementing MWF’s federal conservation advocacy and policy campaigns to protect Montana’s fish and wildlife. He spends most of his free time hunting big game and fly fishing Montana’s cherished trout rivers. He also enjoys backpacking, skiing, photography, and woodworking. 

alec@mtwf.org