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DEQ oversees animal composting sites. There's an incentive to create them because they take a significant load off traditional landfills, and there's a lot of roadkill to dispose of. MDT spokeswoman Lori Ryan says oftentimes collisions aren't reported and MDT divisions across the state can use different methodology when tallying numbers, meaning it can be tough to get a handle on the total number of animals in Montana killed by vehicle collisions. According to the "MDT Carcass Database," the department picked up 6,395 animals last year. Mule and whitetail deer accounted for 5,906 of those. Of the remainder, 161 were elk, 62 were antelope and there were six grizzly bears, 32 black bears, 30 moose, six mountain lions and 66 classified as "unknown."
According to the Western Transportation Institute, a Montana State University-based research organization, there are about 1.5 million collisions between vehicles and large mammals nationally each year.
Reesman estimates that MDT retrieves about 650 animals annually on Highway 93 between Lost Trail Pass and Victor. Today, he gets back into his truck after loading a flattened carcass and asks this reporter, "So, do you still think it's a dirty job?"
Forget "West Wing"
by Erika Fredrickson
Government is one of those easily romanticized realms"West Wing," anyone? As it turns out, it can be a thankless job. In the West especially, where counties span large tracts of land, the elected position of county commissioner has historically entailed organizing services among sparse populations with an unreliable budget.
That's one challenge for Ravalli County's five commissioners, who work full-time for between $50,000 and $55,000 a year. There are many others. Hamilton, the county seat and largest town, has only about 4,400 of the people who live in the county. The rest of the 40,300 residents are scattered among loosely linked pockets. The spread means higher costs for roads, power lines, water and other public services. Making that even more difficult is that 73 percent of the county is Forest Service land, which means it's not taxable. Instead, the county gets a good chunk of its funds from state government. Last year, those funds were renewed with a bipartisan bill. But if you have to pass a bill to pay your bills, it's not like getting a steady paycheck. Meanwhile, the county's budget is still being eaten away each year, and it's the county commissioners who have to decide, "Hmmm, who or what will get less money now?"
Let's throw another ingredient into the mix. Ravalli is a politically polarized county. Rural Montana attracts all sorts—from anti-government recluses to back-to-the land hippies and artists—and so the population is an interesting combination of fiscal Republicans, Tea Partiers, libertarians, Democrats and far-left liberals. That means that no matter who's in the county commissioners office, somebody's mad about it.
In fact, most constituents are well to the right of center, and recently, since the rise of last year's kooky state legislature (you know, the one that tried to instill a Code of the West and stamp out medical marijuana against voters' wishes and that came up with all kinds of climate-change-denial and anti-women's health legislation), there's been even more extremism among Ravalli County residents.
What do you have to deal with as a Ravalli County commissioner? For one thing: Parents who refuse vaccinations for their children under all circumstances. Last year, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services reported that only 53.8 percent of children in Ravalli County ages 24 to 35 months are up to date with their immunizations, which compares to the national average of 76 percent. A recent outbreak of whooping cough in Ravalli County might not be a coincidence. The outbreak is statewide, but the 48 cases in Ravalli County give it the highest tally of any county in the state.
Religion and fears of ties to autism are a part of the aversion to vaccines, but so is skepticism of government. That kind of skepticism seeps into several areas of policy, such as the wolf issue. Anti-wolf sentiment is high in the valley, and Little Red Riding Hood reports of wolves' eyes glowing from the darkness of the forest and of wolves killing livestock (and what if they were babies?) have gone from a kind of citizen science to anger and rumbling hysteria. The wolf, which was reintroduced to the West by the feds, of course, has been the scapegoat for low elk numbers, even though other factors—more hunting, an inflated elk population in previous years and development encroaching on elk habitat—contribute to their decline.
County commissioners aren't tasked with these issues, but the anti-government, anti-taxes sentiment does seep into the commissioners' realm. Supporting an education system and health services when a vocal majority doesn't feel they should have to fund it with tax dollars can't be easy.
Here's the rub. Currently, the five Ravalli County commissioners seem to share the anti-wolf and, ironically, anti-government sentiment. They've expressed recently that they'd like a "seat at the table" with Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the way the agency manages wolves, despite the fact that the commissioners aren't trained to make policy decisions based on science. In March, the commission adopted a large predator control policy that calls for larger quotas and longer wolf hunting seasons. Last August, the commission added fuel to the fire by having an "emergency wolf meeting." Also, earlier this year, the commissioners asked for a "seat at the table" with the Forest Service to make policy about forest management—another role that theoretically requires forest science and policy training.
So, is being a county commissioner such a tough role if you, your colleagues and many of your constituents are all of the same mindset?
Maybe not. But if you were a newbie commissioner who understood, say, that wildlife management shouldn't be based on citizen anecdotes, it sure could be.
Dave Smith, a Democrat running for county commissioner this year, could have the difficulty of battling a commission that doesn't have faith in FWP or any other government agency. Smith has already said that no matter what his views on forests and wolves, it's not the role of the commission to decide such matters. It might be a long road ahead.
Not easy being POTUM
by Alex Sakariassen
The past two years have been anything but kind to the University of Montana's administration. If it isn't homeowners renewing concerns about moving the College of Technology to the UM golf course, it's environmentalists highlighting problems with the university's biomass boiler proposal. The Grizzlies debated whether to stay in the Big Sky Conference (they did). Officials discussed expelling Daniel Thew, last fall's football streaker (they didn't).