Cattle Culture: a feedlot story by Kiki Kane-Owens

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Stuffed with 13 stinky backpackers, our beloved WRFI van, Dolly pulled up to Cody Yeager’s feedlot in Choteau, Montana. Surrounded by gray skies and prairie land on either side of the road, I tumbled out of the van onto an industrial farm-scape. My feet sank into a brown sludge of mud, cow poop and grain as the prairie wind blew and inundated my nostrils with the putrid smell of cow waste.

I began running through the negative assumptions I had made about feedlots, the people who owned them and “factory farming.” I expected to be confronted with a red-faced nationalist wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, a man consumed with making money and advocating for the importance of big business—set on making it even at the expense of the people, landscape, and animals around him.

To the contrary, I was greeted by the good-hearted Cody, a sweet middle-aged man with rough hands, a warm smile and a deep love for animals and people alike—bringing them together with a big ‘ol pile of American raised beef. I encountered cows who were treated humanely, and kept healthy. A business run by a man with an exceptional commitment to community and sustaining community-run business.

After an introduction, we got a tour of the feedlot—a medium sized lot, averaging about 8,000 head of cattle at any given time–that Cody took over about 15 years ago. Cody’s father, originally a rancher, built the feedlot in the late 1970’s in response to an increasing demand for high quantities of beef coupled with the reduction of beef prices that made ranching economically unfeasible for many families in the West. Pressured by a market dictated by efficiency, Cody and his family, were forced to grow or die; and so they grew.

The feedlot buys calves and young cows from grass-fed ranches within the area and generally aims to add between 700 and 1000 pounds to the animal before sending it off to slaughter.  Cody made it clear that a moral tenant of his business was to minimize waste and keep production input as local as possible by sourcing animal feed from local businesses. Each cow is fed a mix of fattening grains, primarily sourced from the agricultural byproducts of other surrounding businesses (such as barley from local breweries). Faced with the pressures of competing with supersized beef production corporations minimizing profit margins and maximizing infrastructure costs, Cody has remained committed to working with his local agricultural community—an effort that has provided both a financial benefit for him and a boost to the Choteau agricultural economy.

To say all of this, of course, is not to make any statement about feedlots as a whole, or to excuse moral or environmental injustices that are often associated with them (and, in many cases, rightly so), but rather to point out that there is a network of good people behind every sweeping assumption made about environmentally questionable practices. It is to point out that any environmental issue—especially those in which people’s economic welfare is involved–is much more nuanced than “feedlots are bad.”  It is an attempt to give a small voice to those often villainized.

While it is easy to criticize every environmentally unfriendly business, especially industrial agriculture, I think it is of paramount importance in solving any issue to understand that the people involved in these systems are doing what they do because they need to financially survive. It is not that they lack a moral compass and disregard environmental or ethical standards, it is that they need to make a living and support their family.

It brings forth the idea that in establishing a land ethic and formulating opinions about human-powered ecological destruction, one must remember to humanize the people behind the larger systems. It becomes important to remember that resistance to moving towards environmentally friendly practices, especially in rural environments, is rarely founded in mal intent, but is rather founded in people’s effort to maintain economic stability. Cody, for example, pointed out that ranchers and feedlot owners alike are often very weary of environmental degradation because they rely on it for their livelihood. And so, the next question is: how do we balance ecological well-being with human welfare when the two are often at odds?

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Gavin Ratliff: Restoring the West in Who’s Image?

Gavin Blog 1From Missoula to the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve read and met with Montanans about what’s valued in an inclusive, working landscape. As our readings and guest speakers have so far indicated, defining the ‘Original West’ is tricky, if not counter-productive. But a question lingers in many of our class discussions and peeks its head around bison herds, burnt conifers, and small western general stores: to continue enjoying and relying on this powerful landscape, what needs to change?

We tend to picture the American West as untouched wilderness before European settlement: fenceless ground with a fully sustainable ecosystem. Our time in the Scapegoat Wilderness gave us a similar impression: the ‘Wilderness’ sign abruptly turned cow prints to deer, and a rustling bush into potential danger. Yet before white settlement, there were millions of people thriving throughout the plains and mountains, draining wetlands and damming rivers. Wilderness areas today are maybe even more ‘wild’ than the land was on the frontier! Do we return the west to a pre-human, pre-European, or pre-vacationer landscape? All three have altered the terrain and culture of Montana to some degree.

The ideal western landscape has bits and pieces from each group who inhabit this place—some benefitting Native Americans, some ranchers, some developers and recreationalists. Despite some isolated efforts to work together on a collaborative landscape, we’ve seen little physical evidence so far on this field course. As we read William Cronon and Aldo Leopold, and meet with a fascinating variety of Westerners, I’ve begun to play with the idea of what the West could look like if interests remain individual; how would fragmented regions perform, splitting these beloved mountains into territories of agriculture, recreation, preserved wilderness?  Traveling through reservations, national parks, and ranch lands we’ve seen these groups at home in their west. But they could each easily belong to different countries the way they avoid coexistence.

Still, these thoughts imply an anthropocentric landscape. Where do the plants and animals come in? Do these taciturn species have no say in the future of the landscape?

Our two weeks on the Rocky Mountain Front and my college years in Colorado, the Tetons, and Bozeman have proven to me that West is as much a mindset as it is a place. The west, in European history, has been a cultural push back against outside authority—stemming from our roots in Manifest Destiny to a country voting red last November. Like the west, the rebels who first journeyed into unknown territory have been romanticized and admired in society. Are environmentalists—and those in favor of restoration—the next wave of western rebellion, challenging the way we live with the land?

For me personally, restoration to an imagined wild past holds the wrong implication. While our journey through Montana so far has certainly shown some of our misuse of the land, to discount the place humans have in this landscape seems detrimental. To remove species and developments critical to a working land’s future would be a step backwards in Western progress. Instead, why not work with our current ecosystem striving for a more unifying and holistic approach to conservation?

Maizie Smith: Why Environmentalists Should be more like Journalists

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WRFI students talk with Hal Herring in Augusta. Photo Credit: Holly Herring 

In this day and age people are increasingly confined to their echo chambers of information. Whether it be the news sources we consume, the people we discuss issues with, or our previous assumptions, we are all suffering from some amount of confirmation bias. Meaning, we seek out information that confirms what we already know or believe and find ways to poke holes in any argument that differs from our framework. While avoiding these biases are important when looking at variety of issues, it is critical to bring this approach when engaging with complex environmental issues that involve a wide variety of stakeholders. Environmental issues are increasingly complicated with many stakeholders involved. These complex issues require creativity and collaboration by many different people to produce effective outcomes. So, as bias crowds out critical and collaborative thinking about environmental issues, both sides of the political aisle are failing to create meaningful change for their communities and ecosystems.

This is why I, as an environmental studies student in a liberal college town, look up to and seek out journalists like Hal Herring. Hal lives in Augusta, Montana, a town on the Rocky Mountain Front with just over 300 residents. He has been a conservation journalist since his mid-thirties. He writes for publications with a more pro-conservation readership like High Country News, as well as publications like Field and Stream, where he is a contributing editor, that have a less environmentally minded readership. Hal has the ability to look at conservation issues with nuance and depth. He waits to form an opinion on issues until he has acquired the facts and talked with a multitude of stakeholders. He prefers to do research on the ground, meeting with and talking to as many people as possible who are involved in these issues in varying degrees.

When I met Hal this fall he was as lively and insightful as ever. His southern accent and big smile couldn’t outshine his wit and attention to detail when discussing conservation in Montana. We talked about Forest Service budgets and conservation projects, as well as the diverse audiences he writes for. He is one of those rare people that enjoys reading the comments on his articles. He noted when writing about conservation for Field and Stream, in the comments he gets called “just about anything but a straight white male.” Beyond the fiery comments, Hal embraces the feedback from online readers and community members he talks with.

He talks with the people who are most intimately connected with the land, the people who rely on these places for financial and spiritual wellbeing. The people who have lived in these places for centuries and have acquired information, weighed all the pros and cons of an issue, and who are often fighting to be heard. Hal gives a voice to rural people and conservation issues all over the country, and he isn’t catering to anyone but a good story while he shines a truthful light on communities and wildlands. He takes pride in advocating for conservation to an often hard-nosed conservative Field and Stream audience, as well as having realistic, balanced, and place-based assessments when writing to a farther left audience. Hal’s best ally when writing to such varied audiences is telling a good story that is focused on relevant facts and experiences.

Beyond his talent to tell important stories, Hal is a great teacher in his own way. He meets with groups and talks about conservation issues in the west. For me, Hal reminded me that I should make no assumptions before I approach a new environmental issue. They are all unique. I am no journalist, but I am trying to help promote responsible land use, while also trying to meet people where they are at in terms of needing a way of life. I also want to respect and account for human and nonhuman historical knowledge intertwined in any environmental issue. To help guide myself and others in acquiring knowledge, I have a few guiding principles inspired partly by writers like Hal.

  • Avoid echo chambers and confirmation bias
  • Listen to multiple stake holders, seek out their opinions
  • Know that one universal ethical framework cannot be applied to every diverse landscape and environmental issue you encounter

Hal is not trying to get people to act in any way, instead his “passions as a writer and storyteller lie where they always have – in exploring humankind’s evolving relationship to the natural world, and all the failures, successes and deep tensions inherent in that relationship” (Herring). Like Hal, seek information that is as exciting as these landscapes we all want our children to see. Look at multiple sides of an issue before you make judgement, find journalists and publications that incorporate a variety of views, orient yourself to a landscape ecologically and historically, and always seek out a good story.

Emma Thompson: Setbacks and Successes

emmas blog 2Gears grinding under the weight of heavy bags, hearts pounding and breathing heavy, we slowly fought our way up a gradual hill towards the capital city, Helena. Our 36 mile ride from Townsend to Helena wasn’t nearly our longest or hardest in respect to distance or elevation gain, but this particular day was made much more difficult due to the unforgiving headwinds. For us, Helena meant the halfway point of our journey and the prospects of a much needed recess. To say that freedom and a few days of rest was fueling us would be an understatement. We pushed on in silence, the blustering wind making it nearly impossible to converse, our legs heavy from a grueling ride the day before. Yet, as we always do, we eventually prevailed, reaching Helena by the sheer knowledge of the downtime that lay ahead of us.

Once in Helena I was elated to collapse on my friend Sarah’s couch. My excitement led me to ignore the chills that were creeping up along my spine, a knowing warning that sickness might very well be around the corner. Determined to make the most of the time spent with old friends and new, I continued to push the nagging fatigue and discomfort aside, instead savoring live music in the park and the immeasurable feeling of being freshly showered. Unfortunately, as soon as I arrived back at Sarah’s apartment I knew I was about to go down. Hard.

While I’ll spare you the details that I didn’t spare my group, the next few days were spent curled up in a ball with a low grade fever and a dehydration inducing bacterial infection (hence the IV of fluids I required pictured above). I wasn’t the only one who came down with an illness, three of us in total were rendered useless and antibiotic induced. We had it bad enough that by the time we were to leave Helena, we still weren’t well enough to ride. The rest of the group pushed on without us, and we were given another night in Helena to wait for two generous souls to drive us to Augusta where we hoped to be well enough to continue on by bike.

In Augusta us who were sick seemed to be on the up and up, attending a meeting and continuing with coursework. I personally felt that I had recovered post antibiotics and felt that I was cautiously ready to ride. From Augusta, our next destination was Choteau, a non-daunting 27 miles away. It seemed like the perfect ride to wean ourselves back into riding. I felt confident the first few miles, leading the pack with a new fervency after multiple days spent dormant. It was a hot day, but my legs felt strong so I peddled hard. Our first hill approached quickly, seeming to become more and more daunting the closer we came. Mia pulled ahead of me to take GoPro footage and I switched into a lower gear as we started the steep ascent. While not a particularly long hill, the grade was unforgiving and each pedal accentuated the blazing heat being reflected off of the hot asphalt beneath my wheels. Eventually, the top was reached leading to a nice decent. Feeling especially exhausted, I pushed on slowly, my strength from earlier leaving me rapidly. I assumed that as I hit the downhill I would begin to feel better, as it generally does after a steep climb, but to my dismay it only led to lightheadedness and continued fatigue. Other riders began passing me and I felt that I was beginning to wobble unsafely. At this point, I yelled to Matt that I felt dizzy and needed to pull over. I unsteadily dismounted from the bike, feeling dehydrated and defeated. I looked ahead at another long ascent before us, feeling the will drain from me. I determined that I didn’t feel well enough to push on, the effects of the bacterial infection rapidly creeping back up, clearly never completely leaving my body. Luckily, Matt’s friend, Jacob Cowgill, was along for the ride with us that day and had his car back in Choteau.

An hour later, I found myself in the Choteau ER (unfortunately, their walk-in clinic was closed for the day), explaining to a nurse my previous and current situation. A second bacterial infection detected, I left with a new round of antibiotics and a heightened sense of defeat. I returned to the group, uncertainty for the future of the trip on my mind.

The rest of the day was spent trying to focus on coursework, but my mind was being flooded with thoughts of anxiety and fear that I wouldn’t be better for our 4 day push on to Glacier. That evening, after speaking with family and instructors, I made the incredibly difficult decision that it wasn’t in my best interest, or the group’s for that matter, to continue on. It was apparent that my body needed rest and nurturing that I wasn’t able to give it in my current situation. Not wanting to completely abandon the course, I decided to take a few days to go back home to Missoula and then hopefully be well enough to meet back up with the group in West Glacier.

The next day everyone else carried on and I was retrieved in Choteau, relieved in a sense but also extremely upset that I had worked so hard only to have to cut my time short by illness. Determined to return, I spent the next two days in Missoula resting, chugging water and stuffing my face with as many probiotic rich foods I could find. My persistence paid off and by the time the group was heading to West Glacier, I felt well enough to join them for the end of the course. As chance would have it, I was able to hitch a ride with Keri, the director of WRFI, and two TREK employees who would ride with us for a few days in Glacier.

I’m happy to report that I was able to complete our final two longer rides to Going to the Sun Road and Whitefish without any further health setbacks. While the decision to leave was incredibly difficult, I feel especially lucky that I had the opportunity to rejoin my classmates and be welcomed back with open arms. In reflection, this experience has been full of unexpected obstacles as well as opportunities that I would have never been allotted without the structure of this type of course. This has been an unforgettable experience, filled with physical and mental challenges that cannot be recreated in a classroom setting. I have been allowed the ability to not only further my knowledge and passions, but also get to know myself and my strengths on an entirely new level.

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Jumbo: The Grizzly Bear’s home by Isabella Kallfelz

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Envision a pristine, sacred, protected land stretching for miles on end, providing a home for the grizzly bear, an important spiritual site for the Ktunaxa people, and a place for adventurers to seek their own sense of serenity. As our group hiked up to Jumbo cabin in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, our view was filled with mountains and glaciers that would leave you awestruck.

Can you picture this same wild land with a year-round ski resort, 22 lifts, 369 hotel rooms, 240 townhouse units & 974 hotel and condo units? As I sat atop Jumbo pass with my classmates, we stared at the mountain where this project has been proposed for the last 25 years and I thought about how this altered landscape would affect something other than my own experience.

One consequence of the Jumbo Resort would be the encroachment on one of the Ktunaxa peoples’ spiritual places. The grizzly bear holds much significance for the Ktunaxa people.

“For us the grizzly bear holds everything,” states a Ktunaxa tribal member.

The Ktunaxa tell the story of how the bears made room for the Ktunaxa ancestors in this valley. The Ktunaxa declared Qat’muk (upper part of Jumbo Creek Valley) as a refuge for both the grizzly bear & the grizzly bear spirit. The Jumbo Resort would impact the bear’s native habitat, hurt the grizzly bear spirit, and remove the current protection of religious and cultural sites.

The Jumbo Resort would also impact an important corridor for the grizzly bear.

“Essentially, bears offer a window into a larger, deeper environment of a landscape,” says Bruce Kirby. As an indicator species, the grizzly bear is a sign of how the landscape is functioning. Jumbo Resort is threatening one of the largest contiguous areas where bears still roam today. If the land was developed, the grizzly would have to migrate elsewhere and their habitat would become fragmented which could in turn affect the health of the species.

The views we see today include a breathtaking 360 degree view of the some of the largest glaciers in the Purcell Mountain Range. This may change within our very own generation. Townhouses, ski-lifts, half a million visitors a year, and a 55-kilometer road into the center of the Purcells would surely threaten the wild balance of this place. As British Columbia receives a new Premier, my hopes and the local’s hopes remain high for the continued protection of this spectacular place.

Shane Smith: Cycling Through History

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Everything that arises, decomposes. This is a simple, but overlooked reality of life. At first this may seem like a depressing thought, but when it settles in you realize it’s actually quite freeing. In fact, when you look at it from an ecological perspective it is a beneficial thing.

When we started out on our 35 mile backpacking journey through the Bob Marshall Wilderness we saw large swaths of burnt forest. We noticed that beneath these charred, dead trees were a variety of new plants including fields of strawberry, aspen, armies of young lodgepole pine, and many other low-lying shrubs. An important aspect to this successful forest re-growth was the mosaic the fire had created when it went through about seven years ago. When a fire burns a mosaic pattern, some areas are burned heavily, other areas are burned lightly and some areas are not burned at all. Later, we learned that habitat disturbance and subsequent rejuvenation is called succession and is essential for the continuing health of an ecosystem. Five weeks later, this lesson has come full circle with a reading on “panarchy,” which gives new meaning to the importance of rejuvenation in an ecosystem.

Panarchy is a theory proposed by Buzz Holling that states that all systems go through a phase of growth, a decrease in resiliency, a regrowth period, collapse, and then (hopefully) rejuvenation. This “new” system can be a little bit different, entirely different, or anywhere in between. According to Holling’s observations everything goes through this cycle, from the microscopic bacterial cycles that happen on the microsecond scale to the global climate cycles that happen on an epoch time scale. When these cycles are aligned, collapse events can be lined up, causing the rejuvenation process to become a lot harder.

In the Purcell Mountains, we saw this theory enacted first hand where whitebark pine was heavily infested by the mountain pine beetle. From afar it looked like an extremely hot and devastating fire went through, but as we came closer to the trees infected we could see the excessive sap on the trees that came down in defense and the many demarcations in the bark from successful sabotages. A warming global climate allowed for the mountain pine beetle to expand into whitebark pine habitats with populations that seemed to be growing exponentially. Specifically, the warming climate allowed lodgepole pine, a common attractor of mountain pine beetle, to grow into higher elevations where whitebark pine would normally grow exclusively. The increasingly warmer temperatures allowed for the mountain pine beetles to overwinter when they usually would be killed by frost and extended periods of subzero weather as well, exacerbating the problem. This aligning of “collapse events” is what leads to situations similar to that of the mountain pine beetle and whitebark pine– it makes the destruction a lot stronger and recovery nearly impossible.

Similarly, panarchy systems thinking can be applied to our society’s system of thought. In Western cultures, we often have this incessant drive to take more than we need. If we stay rigid in this thought and practice, we could be aligning collapse event cycles— global warming, deteriorating environments, diminishing energy sources… the list goes on. However, if we change our ways and start respecting the environment by working to give back more than we take from it, then we will have the chance of recovery and revitalization when the winds of collapse blow in. Just like the Bob Marshall forest that was able to rejuvenate because of its fire mosaic, our societal rejuvenation will be manageable if there are pockets of strong, localized, and environmentally thoughtful communities.

Morgan Krakow: On Rivers and Holidays

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Rivers and holidays are hopeful. They’re both loud and big. They draw attention and glee, and on American soil, they represent a proud history. Just as the Missouri River meanders through the continent — its headwaters in Montana so vastly different than where it meets the Mississippi in St. Louis – The Fourth of July too ebbs and shifts depending on who and where it’s celebrated.

On this past Fourth of July, our wheels turned into Dupuyer, Montana, population: 86. The town approached after a long stretch of hills and watching the Rocky Mountain Front come into view. We had spent the last week understanding policy, voting and the advocacy side of energy in Helena. We met with journalists, lawyers and government workers all putting in time for a sustainable future.

After leaving the capital, we turned toward the Missouri River and camped at its banks and beside Holter dam, cycling its length at sunset. We watched the algal side turn golden as the evening’s fading light dipped and the mountains turned a deep purple.

Around the fourth of July last year I also spent some time at the banks of the Missouri River. It was muddier, dirtier, lacked the jolly fly fishers and horses across the way. I wasn’t frying up camp stove falafels or nursing the tail-end of a shoulder singe. And I was not very close to the headwaters. Rather, I was states and miles away, close to the end of the Missouri, in my hometown of Kansas City.

On this year’s American Birthday, I’ve found myself reflecting on the role I play as a citizen. Just in the last week we had witnessed democracy in the making. We came to understand the crucial roles of the Department of Environmental Quality. We learned how journalists like Hal Herring can change minds and only report the truth.

From the banks of one side of the Missouri to the other, 12 months have passed and I’ve continually reassessed my personal citizenship. I have found myself asking what it means to be an American and how I fit into the complex mix of individuals who make up the country. I spent much of the last year feeling embarrassed and disappointed in the nation. But it would be a stretch to say that these feelings were only from a vulgar election cycle.

As I finished my second year of college I took the time to study the nation from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. As the immigration ban occurred, I was in a class on development in the Middle East and learned from my peers what it was like to feel fear about visas being revoked, or the cold uncertainty of not knowing if it would be possible to return home.

I spent time in a class on American nationalism, reading history books from different eras that veiled slavery and violence against Native American populations as small unmentionable blips that might tarnish an otherwise pristine historical record. In the last 12 months, I have read more than I have in the rest of my life. As my friends were out marching and protesting, echoing off of each other, I was reading and writing – soaking in the absurdity of rhetoric and trying to contextualize the present day with the historical American past.

After all of the months spent researching and contemplating, I felt bad about the country on my passport. It felt like democracy had broken – that people were more interested in flinging Internet insults, in telling me that my academic setting was too politically correct and sheltered, that xenophobia and bigotry had scored both free throws at the end of the second half. It felt like things were failing.

And then I got on a bike in Montana. I hesitate to brand this trip as a cure-all for my patriotic problems. We’ve witnessed incredible oversights when it comes to both people and pollution. We have come face-to-face with those who disregard climate change theories in favor of a less scientific approach. We’ve experienced the strangest and most sexist of side comments about women on a long bike trip. America has reared its underbelly all along our route, harassing words from R.V. drivers and the effects of an oil spill along the Yellowstone River won’t leave my brain anytime soon.

But something about the landscape, the way a bike flies down a pass, the way we cook and eat together, respectfully disagreeing and engaging with all those whom we come in contact with – it makes me feel proud to be in such a big country. We have beautiful places but we also have beautiful people and ideas, despite the present’s nasty tone. And local government is still functions. City council meetings are still happening every week. NGO’s are playing the crucial role of oversight and ordinary citizens are making their own efforts, from organic farming to organizing neighbors against coal companies.

I just needed to get out of my filter bubble, turn off my notifications and actually start talking to folks in America to start believing in my citizenship. I understand the terrifying and disgusting past that this nation has often engaged with, but that understanding has propelled me further to help change, shift and write about these places for the greater good.

I wasn’t ever much of a flag waver, and fireworks make me nervous, but on this fourth of July, while I didn’t necessarily feel a sense of incredible pride, I held a better sense of where I stand on this Earth and where I stand in this country. In a few weeks I’ll be back at a more familiar stretch of the Missouri, much closer to where it meets up with the Mississippi. I won’t be near to the Rockies anymore. I will still hold onto the complexity and scope of this country, just the way a river can flow and change as it runs through so many places, so can the people and individuals who live along it. Just as rivers and mountains, the nation is not a static place.