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.

Hailey Moll: Walking in Two Worlds

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Our guide at the Ktunaxa Interpretive Center, Jared, led us down a long hallway that was warmly lit with refurbished wood fixtures and plush Oriental rugs padding the floors. The original bricks from the school were fighting through the dry wall and wallpaper. As he reconstructed what the fully-operative establishment would have looked like in our mental imagery, there was an evident melancholy that seemed to emanate from the architecture.

From 1908 until 1970, the St. Eugene Mission, later remembered as the Red Brick School, would take indigenous children from their Ktunaxa First Nation [too-na-ha] and strip them of their cultural upbringing and heritage through forced religious enculturation. Completely unqualified teachers of the Christian leadership would expel the children’s prior way of life, culture, and language through rigorous academics, familial and gender segregation, and even violence. With each generation, more of the Ktunaxa’s cultural knowledge and beliefs eroded. This ubiquitous assimilation practice across Canada was a means of European settlers gaining complete sovereignty and control of the land. Attendants of the school recall being beaten, separated from siblings, and returning home in the summer unable to speak the same language as their parents.

By the time this tragic establishment had its last students roam its classrooms and dormitories, the Ktunaxa still had an arduous battle to reclaim both the land and their culture. Now, the building is a year-round resort completely owned, managed, and operated by the Ktunaxa people, and Jared says his people are proud of that. However, their culture greatly suffered; their language is considered critically endangered, and their elders are dying along with the traditions and knowledge of their people. Through this relentless cultural genocide, relations between the Canadian government and the indigenous people of Canada are contentious, to say the least. You can still feel that resentment in the grim stories of Ktunaxa people relating their experiences at the Red Brick School. I left the Interpretive Center with a burdened heart and a genuine sense of the infringement of their rights and way of life.

The battle for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights with the Canadian government continues to this day. The area of focus–and the location of our final backpack excursion pivoted around the Jumbo Valley in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. For the past 25 years, there has been an ongoing conflict around the development of a proposed ski resort in the valley. Architect and developer Oberto Oberti and his team envision an enormous island of coffee shops, condos, lifts, and gondola rides. Meanwhile, conservationists, local residents, and the Ktunaxa First Nation are fighting relentlessly to protect this area permanently. To the Ktunaxa, Qat’muk (Jumbo Valley) is sacred to them and the Grizzly Bear Spirit. This reciprocal relationship between the people and the bears is fundamental to Ktunaxa history, and it guides their stewardship principles to the land. I strongly felt the sacrosanct effect of this landscape one evening we hiked up into the smoke-hazen peaks just behind our cabin, and the sheer immensity of the Purcell Mountains commanded my respect and reverence.

As has been the case for hundreds of years, the lack of recognition of indigenous sanctity and culture has threatened their land and way of life. It is difficult for people of a Westernized worldview to try to value a different worldview, and often this difference dictates decisions with ultimate disregard for different ways of knowing. Even as the Western world attempts to understand ‘traditional ecological knowledge,’ we are still doing an injustice to Native people by trying to harness and condense this knowledge using Western-derived concepts, words, and ideas. In order to begin this slow process of healing, we must first try to value Western knowledge and indigenous knowledge equally; these two divergent views should complement one another to better coexist in the same human and natural landscapes. Backpacking through Jumbo made me realize how little I actually know about the area. I respect that I will never be able to view the area in the same lens as the Ktunaxa. Yet, I know that protecting this beautiful valley will help preserve the knowledge about it indefinitely.

Allison Ranusch: Dog Days

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Meeting with author and field ecologist, Cristina Eisenberg, was more than inspiring. Maybe it was her passion for all the research projects she has going on; maybe it was because of all the personal relationships she has created with the people of the Kainai First Nation; or maybe it was because of her knowledge with advanced technologies and western sciences, mixed with traditional ecological knowledge. Whatever it is, she is one bad mamma jamma.

Our day in the field with Dr. Eisenberg consisted of measuring Aspen trees and discovering the complicated web between wolves, elk, fires, bison, aspen, and grasslands intertwining with one another. Although this is a tricky concept, Cristina has figured out how to mesh advanced technologies and Western Science with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (T.E.K.). T.E.K. is a beautiful notion consisting of long-term knowledge, passed down to each generation, filled with detailed information from first nations about the local environment surrounding them. The cool thing about T.E.K. is that although it’s based off traditions from back in the day, new information can be added while old information is modified as the environment is transformed.

Contributing to the complex web in Waterton, wolves have been prancing around the grasslands, which have developed a rising fear within the elk. The result of this is creating elk to be more cautious of their surroundings and not allowing them to graze in an area for too long. This creates a harmonious balance within the grasslands. These grasslands are important to the carbon cycle for their sequestration capacity, which is necessary for the health of humans and wildlife. A simple way to solve this issue is bringing bison back into the picture. Historically free ranging, wild bison have enhanced the growth of aspen trees by rubbing their horns through them along with trampling them down. Plus, bison are a significant and cultural symbol of the Native Americans.

Before European settlers came to America, causing the greatest slaughter in history of bison, Native Americans on the plains relied on these bison for food and shelter. They created a link between Native people and the land, along with being a central figure in their ancient culture. These bison acted as bio-engineers in grasslands: shaping plant communities, creating habits for other wildlife, as well as transporting and recycling nutrients. Although many Native Americans still maintain a deep relationship with bison and the land, it’s difficult to express their interconnections because of the absence of bison. That being said, the mutualistic relationship between humans and bison is just one example on how we can all coexist with each other, to live on a happy and healthy planet.

Mikayla Daigle: A Journey of a Lifetime

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What an amazing experience my time with Wild Rockies Field Institute has been so far…I still can’t believe I’m here.  I have been so fortunate in my life to be able to travel to Montana many times and western Montana has a special place in my heart.  I’m so thrilled that this summer with WRFI I’m spending time there and also in Alberta and British Columbia, all part of the Crown of the Continent, learning about the conservation issues that affect this area.  The Crown of the Continent is a large, intact ecosystem containing Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park; it crosses international boundaries, and contains the headwaters to rivers that flow in three directions to the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Hudson Bay.  So far, our travels have brought our group across international boundaries and through a variety of protected lands; here is a taste of the places we have been and how the different types of land management tactics have impacted what we’ve experienced.

The first section of the Summer Semester consisted of time in the front-country in and around Choteau, MT and a nine-day, 52-mile backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  For a first time backpacker, this was a completely immersive experience.  Besides our seven students and two instructors, we saw fewer than 25 other people; some areas of our backpack were more secluded than others as we went three days without seeing a single other person.  The sights in the Bob Marshall Wilderness were amazing.  We travelled through open, burned areas with young plants growing, large mountain valleys and forested areas with an overabundance of Bear Grass, through canyons next to streams, and trekked up and over mountains.  There was a consistent quiet on this backpack trip only broken by our own conversations and laughs and the occasional passing of other people hiking and horse-back riding.  There were no motorized vehicles, bicycles, roads, or sounds of industry which is usually rare; however, in a Wilderness area this is the norm.  Wilderness areas in the United States are the ultimate protection for ecosystems and species; they are untrammeled or unrestrained by humans, nature is at its most “wild” here.  Trails are sometimes managed in order to stay passable, but other than that, human impacts are minimized in Wilderness areas to offer great protection for the species that live there.

During section two, we visited a greater variety of places.  One of the days we spent at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park; it was an incredibly relaxing day lounging on the shore at Paradise Point enjoying the weather and working on academics.  The lake was beautiful with its clear, cool water and mountains surrounding it.  But the experience was much different from that in the Bob Marshall Wilderness; the sights were equally impressive but not as undeveloped in Glacier.  The east end of the lake was developed with a historic lodge-turned souvenir shop, restrooms, and boat tour docks.  We also saw more people in the first ten minutes at Two Medicine Lake than we did in nine days of backpacking.  The experience was different because the National Park Service manages their lands much differently than Wilderness areas do; parks are for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” and to preserve unimpaired land.  While the land and species within them are protected, national parks do see a much greater number of visitors as well as vehicle and bicycle traffic.

The backpacking portion of section two began after crossing into Alberta, Canada and spending a few days near Waterton Lakes National Park.  We began our five-day, 20-mile backpack trip from Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park and continued to Goat Lake.  The trails in Waterton, like in Glacier, were wider and better maintained than in the Wilderness area and had greater foot traffic.  The campsite at Goat Lake was also completely different from the Wilderness area; there were log chairs set up for a kitchen area and a bear hang already set up.  “Backcountry” camping in the National Park was easier than in the Wilderness area where we had to find proper camp sites with trees nearby to hang our food.  After spending a night at Goat Lake, we hiked up and along the stunning Avion Ridge that establishes the boundary between Waterton Lakes National Park and the newly designated Castle Wildland Provincial Park.  Avion Ridge provided a stunning 360 degree view of the wonderful, mountainous lands around us with Waterton to the south and the Castle to the north.  Once we entered the Castle, the trails changed immensely; mainly we walked on old trails previously used for recreation, such as four-wheeling and dirt biking, and forestry but now left to let nature take over.  And take over it did, one day we fought gravity on a steep uphill as well as the growing, tangled mess of Alder trees expanding into the old trail.  Since it is a newly designated protected area, the trails in the Castle Wildlands have not yet been maintained, the trail maps were not fully updated, and we didn’t see other people until we were at Bovin Lake, which is only four miles from the boundary of the Castle.  Now that it is a wildland, the Castle in Alberta will be managed similar to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the species and ecosystems within will be protected from forestry and oil and gas industries that used to fragment the area.

It is incredible to be spending the summer in the Crown of the Continent region and seeing how public protected lands are preserving natural wonders, ecosystems, and species in a variety of ways.  I’ve had an amazing time on the first half of the course and I’m so excited for the things we will learn and see in the second half.  My time with WRFI has been a once in a lifetime experience so far and I’m thrilled for what’s to come!

Sarah Wells: A Different Perspective

IMG_3047-X2Let me paint you a picture: the sun is shining and the air smells of wild flowers. You’re excited for the start of a new adventure. There are eight other people and you’re onto your ninth self-pep talk of the day. Not to mention the backpack the size of a six year old that is grasping onto your shoulders and hips. Exhaustion has now started to take effect after the fifth mile of the day and your gaze has not left the rich, dark soil that makes up the hiking trail for the last half hour. Somehow you obtain the strength to lift your head and take in all of your surroundings and all that is ahead. As far as you can see along the trail is a forest with rich vegetation but all of the older trees are completely burnt and dead. It’s obvious that a wild fire has passed through this area within the last decade. Suddenly this picture perfect moment has turned into a post-disaster scene where organisms are doing their best to move on and replenish the land. But is it really such a disaster?

Throughout human history, wildfires have been given this negative connotation for destroying human homes, disrupting wildlife, and tarnishing landscapes. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is only one of thousands of forests that have been scarred by a relentless flame. Although it seems destructive and horrible for the ecosystem, there are actually quite a few benefits to having intermediate disturbances such as these. Wildfires do a ginormous help in returning nutrients to the soil. If a forest that has wildfires as part of its natural cycle, continues to grow without an intermediate disturbance such as this then the soil will eventually run dry of nutrients. This leads to unhealthy forests where organisms will not be able to get what they need. Not only that, different plant species are all competing for sunlight, water, and nutrients. If all of these species continue to grow and get taller, it will then out compete other species that either aren’t supposed to grow tall or will not be able to due to lack of necessities. Wildfires make it so that this is less likely to happen which in turn betters the ecosystem as a whole.

Forest fires can be thought of as catastrophes in our everyday lives. For this backpacking trip: blisters, falling over logs, and rolling ankles are just a few disasters that we have had to overcome. Although these catastrophes can be devastating in the moment, with time, it can become part of the natural cycle which lead to bigger and better things. Being on this Wild Rockies Field Institute course with a group of eight other fantastic individuals has helped me to realize that these catastrophes can turn into beautiful once in a lifetime moments on top of mountains that have a gorgeous view.

Jack Buchinger: Early Connections

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Jack (second from right) and his classmates and instructors at Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park. 

During the last week and a half we have faced many challenges – but we have faced them as a group. In this group dynamic we have found that when something affects any one of us, it impacts us all either directly or indirectly.  From getting rained on while hiking and cooking, to keeping our pace consistent to match those who may have a minor injury (blisters, man), whatever happens we are connected much like the ecosystems we hiked through.  From fens to forests, and everything in between, we are connected not only to each other, but to those ecosystems.  That same inter-connectivity can be found in nature.  One example of this concept of inter-connectivity is trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade is defined as “reciprocal predator-prey effects that alter the abundance, biomass, or productivity of a population community or trophic level across more than one link in a food web” (Pace et. al., 1999).  Whoa, that’s a dense bit of scientific mumbo-jumbo.  Let me break that one on down to a more digestible bit of information.  Let’s look at the case of wolves in Yellowstone to better understand this concept.  The wolves were removed (killed in mass by scared humans) and as a result the elk population got much too large, as there was no natural check on them.  The elk began overgrazing the aspens until the aspen population dropped off.  The inter-connectivity demonstrated in this case is also demonstrated in our group’s dynamic.  What affects one part of our group impacts our entire group in a very big way.

Whether it’s the struggle to write journals and complete readings after hiking all day, or it’s the joy we share in learning – we are in it together.  A blistered foot on one of us (or most of us) impacts each of us.  We struggle together.  We study together.  We laugh together.  We grow together.  We do this all together because at the end of the day—we are connected by this adventure we’re on.