Mountain High 

In 1973, a seminal piece of legislation was passed (on Richard Nixon’s watch, no less) to ensure the continued existence of America’s full spectrum of animal and plant life. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), created to protect the nonvocal, nonvoting species, has performed yeoman’s duty in keeping our native ecosystems as intact as they are.

But the Bush administration, acting under a new, self-proclaimed “mandate,” is interested in removing some of the three-decades-old provisions that have allowed species like wolves and bald eagles to return in robust numbers from the brink of extinction. But these success stories aside, other, less “charismatic” creatures are having a rough go of things, and the current administration’s push to remove some of the protections of this historic act will likely be taken up by the next legislative session.

Here in Montana, 31 “threatened” grizzly bears living in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem have perished this year, a number that’s got wildlife managers spooked and anxiously looking to reverse the biggest annual death toll in three decades.

At the current average of 20 grizzly deaths per year, the bruins’ future is looking tenuous, but it’s not just grizzlies that make up the intricate web of life the ESA was designed to preserve.

Take, for instance, the greater sage grouse, a sage-dependent bird in rapid population decline due to ongoing habitat destruction. In a finally completed review of the bird’s chance of survival last week, the Department of the Interior determined that the future of sage grouse is not in fact threatened. Who made the call? A wildlife biologist? No, a Bush administration appointee—specifically, an engineer. As with most ESA protections, it’s not so much the protection of the animal that gets developers up in arms but the protections of the animal’s habitat. Sage grouse, for instance, live in sage-covered landscapes in Montana and Wyoming, lands also containing the state’s largest reserves of oil and gas. If this much-photographed bird were to receive ESA-level protection, developers would face what they see as unacceptable restrictions. These concerns have been relayed explicitly to policy makers in Washington, and they’ve fallen on receptive ears.

And while ranchers, loggers, miners and housing developers have claimed lost revenue for the sake of snail darters and spotted owls, raging against the ESA since its inception, Congress has until now been hesitant to weaken the act’s protections. That’s likely to change this session.

This is rather poor timing for salmon, too. Once one of the West’s richest food sources, even hundreds of miles inland, a salmon recovery plan issued last week removed protections from 80 percent of previously “critical habitat” for the embattled salmon and steelhead runs. In other words, only areas currently inhabited by salmon will be protected, not those where they’ve lived historically. That’s a low bar, severely reducing the fish’s likelihood of long-term survival, and specifically moves from protecting as much habitat as possible to protecting the minimum. But still, the main component of salmon recovery is missing—the breaching of four lower Snake River dams. Such action can only be taken by an act of Congress and passed by a president, and the current president has stated unequivocally that the dams will not be removed.

With all this nonsense going on in the Lower 48, the hands-off approach enjoyed by so many Alaskans can be enticing indeed. One thing preventing many of Montana’s males from bolting to the 49th state is, well, babes. Alaska’s male/female ratio of 51.7 males to every 48.3 females easily ranks it as the nation’s premiere sausage state, a fact not lost on Big Sky males making due with a healthy 49.8 percent males to 50.2 percent females.

So when a press release comes to the Indy from—get this—“Babes in the Backcountry,” it’s the duty of Mountain High to highlight the goings-on of mountaineering mamas: in this case, ski and snowboard enthusiasts looking to make the most out of our high country in winter. Jackson Hole Mountain Guides is teaming up with Babes in the Backcountry to provide a three-day, women-only Professional Level I Avalanche Course in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Dec. 17–19. The three-day, $230 course features all-female instructors laying out the beta on analyzing terrain, snow types, weather, snowpack stability, transceiver/rescue strategies and more. Of course it will all be empowering, unintimidating and inspirational, like any good all-women’s clinic. Call Susan Wallwork at (970) 389-4671 or log on to: www.babesinthebackcountry.com for more info.

Join the New Rocky Mountaineers on Dec. 12 as they snowshoe deep into the Missions. First you’ll climb up to the impressive Eagle Pass via trail, and if weather conditions and motivation levels permit, you’ll also bag Mount Calowahcan (9,061’) and score superb views. Avalanche danger exists on this steep and getting deeper climb, so “care in route-finding will be important” states trip leader Gerald Olbu. Count on fourth-class snow and rock climbing on the summit ridge; call Olbu at 549-4769 for more information.

The snow’s been piling up at Lolo Pass, and skiers and snowmobilers have been whooping it up on the extensive trail network for a few weeks now. You can join the Rocky Mountaineers as they hit Lolo Pass’ groomers on Dec. 11, although the route has yet to be determined. Call Lois Crepeau at 728-5321 to get on track.

Montana’s ski areas are waking from their summer slumber and reporting just-as-expected bases: Montana Snowbowl, open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until it’s deep, claims to be 33 percent open with 26 inches up top and $20 tickets. Big Mountain is reporting the “majority” of its terrain open on Montana’s deepest (50-inch) base with $25 tickets. Discovery Basin is open weekends-only on a 12-inch base with $15 tickets. Lookout Pass is open for the season (Thursday through Monday) with 38 inches and $20 tickets, while Blacktail and Lost Trail are still waiting for enough snow to start turning the chairs. Stay tuned…

Send your outdoor schedule and your steep and deep pix to: photo@missoulanews.com.

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