Mountain High 

In many ways, Yellowstone National Park serves as the showcase gem of America’s National Park system, a bizarre, steaming landscape home to two thirds of the world’s geothermal features as well as massive, diverse animal populations. And with more than 1,100 miles of hiking trails and 200 miles of roads, the park is remarkably accessible, too.

But even with the vast transportation network, the majority of the park is rarely visited—at 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is big—larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined—and few visitors get more than a short distance from the park’s paved routes. And while bountiful eye candy rewards the slower driver in spades, visitors regularly haul a significant amount of ass along the park’s speedy roadways.

According to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (PEER), these hurried motorists are road killing “at least one large animal per day”—including elk, moose, bison and deer. (That number is remarkably similar to the average number of bison that the Park Service, along with various state and federal agencies, has killed in the past decade just for leaving the park, but that’s another story.)

PEER chastises the park for not following the lead of Canada’s National Park system by funding wildlife crossings and animal sensors. Yellowstone is also looking to widen lanes, thereby increasing vehicular speed and increasing the likelihood of auto/animal collisions.

Still, Yellowstone’s deep winter snow will soon close most roadways for the season, turning them into under-patrolled dragstrips for the destination snowmobiling community.

This “traditional use” of the park needs to be protected, says Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, and in a spiting of gas-mask-wearing entrance gate workers, Burns tacked a rider on to last week’s Omnibus Appropriations Bill that will allow 720 machines to motor through the park every day for the next three years. And since the bubblehead debate has been tied up in the courts for years, the move also conveniently bans lawsuits against the plan. Way to listen to the people, Burnsy.

Can’t find enough cold or wind in the Garden City? Then join the New Rocky Mountaineers on Dec. 5 as they snowshoe up the notorious East St. Mary’s Peak, the most recent in a long list of climbs lead by the intrepid Gerald Olbu (549-4769) that tackle a mile or more of vertical. Not to be confused with piece-o-cake St. Mary’s Peak in the Bitterroots, this climb is a truly burly grunt, but provides (weather-permitting) exquisite views of the Southern Missions.

Last summer Missoulian Chris Bangs strapped his skis to his bike and rode west through Idaho, set up camp on Mount Rainier and set his sights on skiing the infamous Liberty Ridge, a route that claimed four lives this year—including two Montanans. Check out Bangs’ slideshow, “Fear, Failure and the Risk,” documenting his adventure at 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at Pipestone Mountaineering.

In the dark about Montana’s vast, subterranean labyrinths? Then drop in at Pipestone Mountaineering Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. when spelunker Joe Oliphant will share his knowledge about caving with the uninitiated. The free presentation takes place during the December Rocky Mountaineers meeting, so call Julie Warner at 543-6508 for details.

Local wildlife biologist, photographer and filmmaker Ryan Patrick Killackey may be young (twentysomething), but he’s got a solid portfolio of wildlife and scenic images that belies his age. Join Killackey for “Life in Peril: Montana’s Amphibians and Reptiles,” a wildlife documentary premiere of Montana’s lesser-known critters. Proceeds from the $5 adults/$4 students/$2 children event fund a film on amphibian declines in South America. Beer and wine are provided for guests, so hit the Roxy Theater on Dec. 3 for the 7:15, 8:15 or 9:15 PM showing.

Lolo Pass has more than a foot of snow, and skis are showing up on cars all over Western Montana. If you’ve always felt like a klutz when you’ve strapped on the cross-country boards, join UM’s Campus Rec for a $21 Beginner X-Country Skiing course on Dec. 5. All equipment, transportation and instruction are provided, so make sure to catch the pre-trip meeting Dec. 2. Bonus: Wildlife biologist Lee Metzgar will join the trip to help participants identify animal tracks while schussing. Call 243-2804 for more information.

With a half-century of birdwatching under his belt, Jim Brown’s experience in the field will likely help any Montana avian ogler cross a couple more species off his/her “I saw it!” list. You can put this veteran to work for you on Dec. 4 when he leads an Audubon Society birdwatching trip into the lower Mission Valley. This trip is dedicated to spotting wintering birds like red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons and other raptors, as well as an “unusual” milieu of gulls, like Thayers, Mew and Glaucous. Meet at the UM Adams Center at 8 a.m., the Ninepipes Lodge at 9 or the Polson Dump at 9:30, but bring a lunch and perhaps a thermos full of warm goodness for this free trip. Contact Larry Weeks at 549-5632 for the inside scoop.

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