Frontal Assault

Grizzlies and other wildlife may well bear the brunt of plans to tap into the resources of the untamed Rocky Mountain Front

  • Joel Connelly
  • Aug 01, 2004

OF THE WILD NORTH AMERICA traveled by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark two centuries ago, one place remains that they would still recognize: the Rocky Mountain Front.

When he first spied the Rockies, Lewis wrote of his "joy" and "secret pleasure," but shuddered in anticipation of the "sufferings and hardships" his party would encounter there. Today, the Front remains wild, ruggedly beautiful country, rising abruptly from the Montana plains—a mountain rampart of sharp, barren peaks that stretches from the Canadian border 100 miles south to Helena. Heading west from Great Falls, a visitor can step back in time to an American West not yet drilled, clear-cut or subdivided. But all that will pass away if plans for oil and gas drilling on public lands throughout the Front get under way.

The Front ranks in the top 1 percent of U.S. wildlife habitat, according to Mike Aderhold, a regional supervisor for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It holds the last intact viable assemblage of large carnivores in the Lower 48 as well as viable populations of 10 native big game animals. Seven of Montana’s 14 threatened and endangered species inhabit the Front, along with 21 species of breeding raptors, tens of thousands of migrating snow geese and a third of the plants known in Montana, including 18 sensitive plant species.


Gasoholic Nation

The United States burns 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas yearly. The Rocky Mountain Front might yield as much as 106 billion cubic feet, not even a two-day supply.

"It is an area truly unique for the diversity of its wildlife," says Nathan Birkeland of the Montana Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate that serves as an umbrella group for 25 hunting, fishing and outdoor clubs in the Big Sky State. "It is home to 290 species, the country’s second-largest elk herd and its biggest population of bighorn sheep. Nowhere else does the grizzly bear roam on the plains. All of these species are able to stay where they have been for millennia. In the mountains you have wilderness. At the edge of the plains you have large ranches and not a lot of subdivision."

The Front’s 3,000 elk share the region with at least as many deer, and the area is one of the last places below Canada where bighorn graze on the plains. More than 100 grizzly bears and 300 to 400 black bears roam the Front. Virtually exterminated in the region early in the last century, wolves have recolonized the Front, coming south from Canada without human intervention. The mountain lion population is thriving there, as are wolverines and Canada lynx.

MORE THAN 100 grizzlies like this young bear (right) roam Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, along with up to 400 black bears. Rancher Karl Rappold (left) says he and his family respect local bears, but he’s not sure the energy industry will do so.

But for many of these animals, parts of the Rocky Mountain Front soon may cease to provide a pristine home. The Bush administration is concocting plans to remodel the Front, putting oil and gas wells on thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service lands—in most cases, sensitive slopes and benches where mountains give way to plains. And the administration wants quick action: It has directed federal managers to remove regulatory obstacles to oil and gas development along the Front, speeding up the authorization of wells. Managers have been told that any delays in drilling will have to be justified specifically. Concern for wildlife and its habitat is no longer a priority.

During the 2000 campaign, vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney liked to lecture reporters on new techniques for recovering natural gas. He boasted of the "tiny footprint" being left on the land by new wells in his native Wyoming. Lately, reassuring words like his have come from BLM director Kathleen Clark: "Our overall objective is to ensure the timely development of these critical energy resources in an environmentally sound manner." Gail Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, has made a similar pitch, recently telling The Washington Post, "We aren’t going to screw up the land. The grizzly bears and elk will be there with natural gas production. It is not one or the other. We will have both."

Conservative, largely Republican rural residents along the Front aren’t buying the administration line. They have seen how pipelines and roads and seismic lines have made southwest Alberta "look like a fishnet," according to Barrie Gilbert, wildlife biologist and senior scientist at Utah State University. Gilbert has studied gas drilling and its consequences extensively. "Roads go out to all the well sites," says Gilbert. "Power is needed, and the lines often don’t follow the road path. You need pumps, collectors. If a well is successful, a pipeline is needed to take gas from the site. It will connect to another pipeline. All these lines of access are vulnerable to off-road vehicles, which in turn means poaching."

Quantifying is difficult, but Brian Horejsi of Western Wildlife Environmental Consulting in Calgary, who has written extensively about impacts on wildlife, estimates that each new well requires at least a mile or two of new road. Shell Oil once promised that only a single pipeline would cross a ranch adjoining the company’s plant in Pincher Creek, near Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. "You now see 10 separate pipelines on the property," Horejsi says.

The plant—set amidst lands still largely rural and publicly owned—has caused chills among Montanans fearful that similar industrialization is headed their way. It sends toxic pollutants into the atmosphere, has a high volume of truck traffic and a sizeable workforce. "The place is totally a mess, totally out of hand," says Roy Jacobs, a taxidermist in Choteau.

R.L. "Stoney" Burk, a lawyer who has practiced for 21 years in Choteau, is a decorated former fighter pilot, avid hunter and core conservative in his suspicion of government power. The fight over the Front has, in Burk’s words, turned him into "a very angry ex-Republican." Not only does Burk look north to the roads and pipelines coming out of Alberta canyons, but he also gazes over the Rockies to the mining wastes and Superfund cleanup sites in western Montana. Industrial development has left a terrible legacy across the state, from contaminated soils over a 5-square-mile site in Butte (and lead dust in local attics) to contaminated groundwater in Anaconda. Asbestos contamination continues to claim the lives of workers and family members at the shut-down W.R. Grace vermiculite mine in Libby.

Special Place

Where Eagles Soar

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is the best place in the nation to see migrating golden eagles as the birds fly between Mexico and Alaska in spring and fall. From a blind in Helena National Forest, Rob Domenech, founder of the Wildlife Research Institute’s Rogers Pass raptor project, has tallied nearly 1,000 goldens in a single season, with a one-day high of 175.

The Front provides golden eagles with both a major thoroughfare of uplifting mountain winds and a smorgasbord of rich grasslands replete with small mammals. "A very large portion of northern-nesting eagles use this unique region for migration, wintering and foraging," Domenech says. Riding the winds, they sail along as fast as 200 miles a day.

Energy development on the Front could jeopardize the eagles’ prime hunting terrain by removing jackrabbit and ground squirrel habitat, and human activity may disturb nestings.

The place to watch migrating eagles is along Highway 200 about 64 miles southwest of Great Falls at the Rocky Mountain Front Eagle Migration Area in Helena National Forest. A sign on the highway east of Rogers Pass marks the pullout where visitors might see dozens of eagles funneling together. They disperse north and south of Rogers Pass.

"Time after time, in today’s world, the mining companies have stepped on our faces and left us with multimillion-dollar cleanups," Burk says. "They’ve done it to Montana again and again. I fear the same with gas development. If they hit [gas], they walk away with millions of dollars. What do we get? Scars on the land, and a very short-term economic benefit. We get potential toxification of our water supplies. We get roads built, which opens the potential for poaching. The reason you have all these animals here is that it is so wild. They can come out to forage when snows up in the Bob [Marshall Wilderness Area] get so deep. A lot of people have worked to keep it that way."

One target for gas drilling is the 133,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine Roadless Area, which includes the headwaters of two rivers as well as land sacred to the Blackfeet Indians. A remote corner of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Badger-Two Medicine is bounded on the west by 2 million acres of national forest wilderness and on the north by Glacier National Park. The Badger-Two Medicine seemed safe in 1997, when National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora barred new oil and gas leases after ruling that the Front deserved "special attention." Although the ban has not been rescinded, three companies with pre-existing leases now have applied to extract gas there from eight wells.

It is impossible to know how many more wells will follow if the land becomes productive. However, a comparison can be made with the heavily developed mountain-front lands in Alberta. "We’ve got about 260 wells in an area that covers only a fraction of what is still unspoiled in Montana," Horejsi says.

The fight over the Front boils down to this: Not since James Watt as Interior secretary in the early 1980s was trying to give away public lands as part of the Reagan Revolution has the oil and gas industry had so good a chance to develop even the most sensitive areas of the West. And yet the tradeoff is hardly worthwhile to anyone outside the oil industry. BLM, in an estimate released in 2003, pegged the amount of gas that can be recovered along the Front at 14 billion to 106 billion cubic feet. The United States burns 22 trillion cubic feet of gas yearly. "We’re talking about a two-day supply of America’s gas from the Badger-Two Medicine," Birkeland says.

TIME FOR BACK scratching, bull elk style. The Front is home to some 3,000 elk, the largest U.S. population outside Yellowstone National Park. Area residents fear that energy development in the Front will jeopardize such creatures. "The reason you have all these animals here is that it is so wild," says Montana lawyer R.L. "Stoney" Burk of Choteau.

Opinion in Montana is running against development. Many local residents work for wildlife and make sacrifices on its behalf. Private efforts to preserve land at the base of the mountains, adjoining Forest Service and BLM holdings, are a major reason that wildlife is either flourishing or recovering. For example, rancher Karl Rappold has put part of his own ranch, which borders the Bob Marshall Wilderness, under conservation easement. The land can never be subdivided and cannot be mined. He works with the advice of a bear biologist, scattering deer and elk carcasses each year when the grizzlies come out of hibernation. "We’ve learned to respect the bears," says the third-generation rancher, whose family has owned the land since 1876. His concern is that the energy industry has not yet learned that lesson. "The absence of roads is why predators and prey have collected in this particular area," Rappold says. "If you have access roads and pipelines crisscrossing, the grizzly bears are going to have to pack up and move somewhere else—but they have no place to go."

A Kalispell newspaper, The Daily Inter Lake, recently cited a 1997 poll in which 60 percent of Montanans objected to oil and gas leasing on the Front. Only 30 percent were in favor, with 10 percent undecided. And the tradeoff for drilling is not good for locals. The newspaper recently concluded that energy development would create only a very few temporary jobs at the expense of land that "is a mecca for hunters and anglers and others."

Mary Sexton, a Teton County commissioner, watched a brief boom in gas exploration in the early 1980s. "Long-term, it was negligible for our economy," she says. Due to changes in how oil and gas development is taxed, the county would get substantially less money if drilling were to resume. "My estimate is what we would get as a county would barely offset what we would have to spend on roads and services," she says. "It would be a wash if there is gas production. If the wells don’t produce, it would end up costing us money."

Montana senator Max Baucus has mounted a fight in Congress to keep drilling rigs and gas wells out of the Badger-Two Medicine. His goal is to legislate a three-year moratorium on drilling, during which the Interior Department would be instructed to buy out gas leases or exchange them for leases in less sensitive areas. But the Senate—bowing to Montana’s pro-drilling senator, Conrad Burns—refused to include Baucus’s modest proposal in a recent energy bill.

Opponents of gas drilling vow they will bow to no one. Chuck Blixrud, owner of the Seven Lazy P and Deep Canyon guest ranches, has lived for 44 years on the north fork of the Teton River, taking hunting and horse parties into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He has a long memory. In the Watt years of the 1980s, Blixrud traveled the state promoting public protest against oil-industry plans to set off explosions in the 1-million-acre wilderness as part of a seismic exploration scheme. A nationwide upsurge of resistance forced the oilmen—and the Reagan administration—to back off.

Sitting on his porch, recalling past floods and blizzards, Blixrud reflects on how proposed gas drilling would be plunked down right in the middle of choice winter wildlife habitat. "This area, and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, are two of the wildest places in the United States," he says. "If they are allowed to drill here, it means they will be able to go everywhere."

Joel Connelly, who writes the "In the Northwest" column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has written extensively about land use battles in the Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska.

NWF Takes Action

Saving the Front

In the 1990s, NWF initiated a dialogue with oil and gas companies that resulted in several leases being abandoned and also supported efforts to close the Front to further oil and gas leasing. NWF currently is working to establish a corridor of protected lands that will keep the Rocky Mountain Front permanently linked to wild lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Yukon.

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