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Montana's Cracked Snow Globe

Updated on December 8, 2016
A flock of snow geese take flight at Freezeout Lake, in Montana
A flock of snow geese take flight at Freezeout Lake, in Montana
An adult snow goose in white plumage
An adult snow goose in white plumage

“Wake up, wake up, they are here, overhead, whoa boy, there’s a lotta ‘em” someone’s voice calls out across C camp-the local name for ranger headquarters in Denali National Park. It is August, the time of year when change comes quickly this part of Alaska. I am 19 years old, straight from Detroit, Michigan, daughter of the rust belt, flung into the wilds of Alaska thanks to an internship opportunity and a good friend.

My eyes are blurry as we stayed up late watching the Northern Lights the night before, but as I start to focus, I see it-a large, dark cloud that shimmers in grey and white light, changing shapes like a group of ballet dancers on a sky blue stage. These are snow geese, sometimes called blue geese, Chen hyberboreus, which means, “from beyond the north” flying south for the winter. Each flying flock numbers into the thousands, when they land, bird hunters call it a swirl because the geese will fly around in circles before landing en masse. The name “snow” seems fitting when they land, as if a small storm is settling across the barren, autumn ground. When watching them land, it is like standing in the middle of a snow globe, the air disturbed by thousands of small, white and black wings of change.

The snow geese migrations are not only celebrated here in our tiny campground in Denali National Park, but all along the geese flyway from their northern, summer grounds along the Arctic Ocean to the southern states of the US and Mexico where they will spend the winters. These huge flocks also represent family groups, as snow geese will stay with parents for up to two or three years, similar to the length of time that grizzly bears will spend rearing their cubs. The migration events are celebrated in places like Freezeout Lake, Montana, where small communities in central Montana look forward to the migrations, and the bird watchers who come to their communities during their own seasonal migrations.

Snow geese are intrepid explorers, like a Patagonia athlete who gets 15,000 likes a day on Instagram, they do amazing feats of physical greatness. They can walk up to 50 miles within a few weeks of hatching from eggs. During migrations, they can fly for up to 11 weeks between summer and wintering areas. They will reside at elevations between 750 and 3500 feet in elevation in flight. They will dodge hunters while they are flying, predators while they are resting, and massive winter storms while they are trying to manage their internal reserves before they rest for the winter.

But sometimes, even a species with a collective memory strong enough to remember where they are born, returning to the exact, same nesting grounds each year, even these species can make mistakes. Last week, thousands of snow geese wrongly assumed that a large lake in the middle of Butte, Montana, known to locals here in Montana as the “Berkeley Pitt” was a safe landing area, a rest stop, a place to sleep and drink and find food. The Berkeley Pitt is a beautiful, blue-green colored lake, almost two-thousand feet deep, like one of our larger freshwater lakes in the state. However, the color is deceiving. The water is acidic, like pickling vinegar, the leftover mine waste of the legacy of non-evironmentally regulated mining activities that governed the state of Montana well into the 20th century. The Berkeley Pitt remains a testament to both gluttony for resources, and the lack of accountability of corporations to clean up their messes after they have finished getting what they want out of a place and a people. The Berkeley Pitt was once designated as the largest Superfund site in the United States, meaning, it was the dirtiest place in the whole country. Now, that name has been bestowed upon other, larger areas in distress, but the Pitt remains open. It’s a huge lake that cannot be used for anything other than a tourist attraction, and occasionally, becomes a deadly trap for migrating snow geese, Canada geese, and potentially any other species traveling through Montana that needs to rest on water. Water is a scarce resource in this part of the country, so any open water looks inviting. It’s unfortunate we cannot just put a cap on this one and tell the geese to go elsewhere.

In the coming days, the media will talk about how many birds have died (currently in the thousands). They will talk about the dead birds in the WalMart parking lot, on the side walks in Butte. They will follow up with ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Oil Company) which has been part of the BP corporation since 2000. But in the end, the snow geese will be dead and the Berkeley Pitt will remain open, face up, towards the sky, inviting but deadly, like a Venus Fly Trap.

I came south like the snow geese, and Montana landscapes trapped me, too. The beautiful blue skies, the open plains, the Rocky Mountain glaciers. But like the geese, I was tricked also. I couldn’t see the mine tailings in the hills south of the Pintler wilderness, where nothing grows on barren ground. I couldn’t tell that some of the water had the acidity of battery acid, or that fish kills would close some of my favorite fly fishing spots during the height of the season. In Ecology, we call these areas “ecological traps” or places that look good on the surface, but can actually lead to a species’ demise if he/she chooses to reside in the place for any length of time. For the snow geese, Berkeley Pitt was an ecological trap. For us, the impression that the west, the wild landscapes of Lewis and Clark, remain wild and unsettled, are traps.

But, as we stumble over and around the dead bodies of geese in our streets, it is important to remember that the conversation continues. Traps can be dismantled, covered up, and removed. Conversations are ongoing about how to clean up Butte, Montana. Downstream, along the Clark Fork river, restoration efforts continue to improve fish habitats. Unlike the snow geese, we, as humans, have choices to make regarding what kind of ponds we would like to land on during migration season, where we would like to locate our nests, and how far we want our young to have to walk to find food. We also have the choice to make these decisions for other species we share our world with, species that enrich our lives, that pull us out of bed in the early morning cold skies of November so we can watch them move across the landscape in ways we could never imagine-the freedom of flight. We can choose to support these freedoms, the most basic freedoms, so that we can reside in this snow globe. Or, we can choose to throw the snow globe on the ground, watching the glass crack and the water leak out a million speckles of glitter to the ground, a final display of beauty before nothing but fragments remain.

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