Bill Maxwell

The natural world of animals, and man

SHERIDAN, Mont.

I enjoy travel more than anything else.

As a natural-born vagabond who happens to be a journalist, I see travel as an act of discovery. I love waking up in strange places knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about the denizens.

In addition to visiting shops, trying local cuisine and studying architectural landmarks, my mission is to explore the currents of local life. In Big Sky Country, you quickly learn that the people are their physical environment, and the environment is the people.

Out here, people have as much influence on the trees, mountains, valleys, waters and wildlife as these and other physical treasures have on the people. This interplay of human and nonhuman forces in this rugged place is a natural and essential symbiotic relationship.

Travel guidebooks can tell us a lot about our destinations, but another reliable way to grasp the currents of local life is to read local newspapers, especially the long established weeklies. When I drive, I collect the newspapers of every town I pass through.

According to the papers, the land influences every facet of life in Big Sky Country, with the relations between people and wild animals being of special concern.

As I drove north from the Salt Lake City airport on Aug. 12, en route to Sheridan, the first paper I picked up was the Casper Star Tribune in Jackson Hole, where I stayed overnight at the Sundance Inn. On the front page, a photo took up most of the space above the fold. In the photo, a man was writing in a ledger, and a net was spilling tiny fish into a bucket.

In part, the caption read: "Travis Trimble, assistant supervisor of the Dubois Fish Hatchery, measures 6.8 pounds of golden trout … to be stocked in Alpine lakes in the Big Horn Mountains." The article explains that game and fish officials are trying to protect one of Wyoming's lucrative industries: trophy-sized trout for sports fishermen.

Back on the road, I bought copies of the Montana Standard and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in West Yellowstone. I had spent the day in Yellowstone National Park. Following a meal of delicious pan-fried cutthroat trout, I read the papers in my cabin at the Hibernation Station. The big story on the Standard's front page carried this headline: "Wolf hunt still an option."

The article discussed the battle between Montana state wildlife officials who want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant Montana a permit to hunt the gray wolf for research, and environmental groups who believe the federal agency erred by removing Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho.

When I arrived in Sheridan after an interesting day in Virginia City, I checked in at the Rod and Rifle Inn, my home base for the next two weeks. I bought a copy of the Standard and the Madisonian, which bills itself as "Montana's Oldest Publishing Weekly Newspaper, Established 1873." Both papers carried prominent stories and commentary about the status of the wolf.

Many cattle and sheep ranchers see the wolf as a menace. "If you've never witnessed the wolf kill of a baby calf," reads a letter in the Madisonian, "let me tell you it's not something you'd care to see; totally pathetic, what a waste. The reintroduced wolf is indiscriminate in its kill, rips the guts from the tiny calf as the baby struggles for its life, for the killer does not kill the calf first but lets it live and die painfully, slowly as it feasts on the inside of the baby calf and leaves the rest of the body for other predators, while it moves on to his next victim. This is only one baby, one of many the rancher depends on for his livelihood. What is the wolf's value but to prey on helpless victims?"

And then there are the water wars, complete with "water lawyers." When my friends and I went fishing and floating on the Big Hole River, I was told the water was unseasonably low. The Big Hole is a captive of the conflicts among farmers, ranchers and homeowners. In short, the winners divert water away from the river for their use. Area newspapers regularly report on the crisis and its far-reaching impact. I had witnessed firsthand some of that impact, which I had read about in the papers.

The Standard stated a few days ago that the bison population in Yellowstone National Park has grown to 3,900, an increase of 600 animals since last summer. Bison were at home here long before humans arrived. Now, as local editorials and columns frequently argue, humans must ensure the bison's future in Yellowstone.

The natural world of animals, and man 08/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 8:27pm]

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