Altered State

In a quest to understand and explain how climate change is affecting Colorado, I rummaged research journals and contacted scientists to delve into the impacts that are already happening and what a carbon-loaded future may look like in the state.


Altered State

Nine signs that Colorado’s environment is heating up.

By Joshua Zaffos

Arapaho Glacier, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, 1898 (top) and 2003 (bottom)

Arapaho Glacier, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, 1898 (top) and 2003 (bottom)

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, February 14, 2008

A high-country freezer-box of a former Colorado mining village, Gothic in winter doesn’t inspire thoughts of global warming. For eight decades, the busted-town site has been the home of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”), an independent, outdoor-research campus. Bustling with scientists and students from around the world during summers, the lab has served as the backdrop for scores of ecological and biological breakthroughs because of its pristine setting — surrounded by public land and eight miles from Crested Butte, up a windy highway and dirt road. But, in the winter, beneath heavy snows and bone-shivering low temperatures, RMBL shuts down.

Billy Barr, the lab’s business manager, has endured winter in Gothic since 1972, a lone cold-season resident who maintains his office and helps with caretaker duties. At night, he watches movies and then posts quirky reviews online.

This winter, Barr says, Gothic has felt particularly cold. It’s one of the snowiest in over three decades, with the ground buried by more than six feet. During the first full week of February, the temperature never rose above freezing, and the average high was just nineteen degrees Fahrenheit. Warming probably sounds like a cozy idea. But only one day this winter has set a new record-low temperature, while six new record highs have occurred on warmer days — hints of climate change and its complexities.

Barr has maintained his own records, observing early signs of spring and the first stirrings of wildlife each year. Yellow-bellied marmots emerge from hibernation with the onset of spring — or at least they used to. The fat and furry critters, sometimes known as whistlepigs or rockchucks, now appear 38 days earlier than they did a quarter-century ago. Scientists believe the earlier emergence is tied to warmer spring temperatures, even though the ground is often still covered with snow, leaving the marmots scrambling for food and perilously vulnerable to coyotes.

Places set aside for ecological preservation, including RMBL and Rocky Mountain National Park, offer opportunities to key into such changes, some of which are occurring on a scale that the region and the planet haven’t experienced in thousands of years.

“This state is enormously complicated climatically,” says Brad Udall, who runs the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It probably has more microclimates than any other state” because of the range of our topography and the convergence of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

This climatic complication means that Colorado has actually had it comparatively easy so far in terms of warming. According to data from the U.S. Historical Climate Network, compiled by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project, the state has warmed an average of 0.39 degrees Celsius in the last half-century, while most other Western states have heated by more than half a degree.

“On the Front Range, the really dramatic changes that we’re seeing around
the West are muted,” says Jill Baron, of the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University, who has studied climate change trends within Rocky Mountain National Park.

But we’re not getting away with anything. Models predict Colorado in 2085 will be seven to nine degrees (Celsius) hotter in summer and five to six degrees warmer in winter. Snowpack, our main source of water, is predicted to drop to half of the current average. Warming will have advantages around Colorado, causing longer growing seasons, wider stretches of some wildlife habitat, and possibly more precipitation in some regions. But signs of stress are already all over the state, and unless we rapidly alter our carbon-dioxide emissions — and encourage China and India to do the same — climate change will trigger even greater chaos on our landscapes and in our lives.

Ice, Ice Maybe

Located in the south end of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Arapaho Glacier is protected as a drinking-water source for the city of Boulder. Arapaho is the largest glacier in Colorado, and it’s shrinking fast.

The glacier has thinned by roughly 120 feet since scientists started taking measurements in 1960. Archival images from 1898 show Arapaho had retreated significantly between then and 1960. Glacial melt in Colorado — as in Glacier National Park in Montana, on the flanks of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and along the Greenland Ice Sheet — is directly tied to global warming. But Arapaho’s transformation is something of an anomaly in the state.

Inside and around Rocky Mountain National Park, Andrew Fountain, of Portland State University, and his colleagues have cataloged smaller glaciers — “glacierets.”

“These little teeny glaciers are not that climatically sensitive,” Fountain says. “This is one of the hidden stories that makes climate change difficult.”

Glaciers around the park are fed by drifts, winds and avalanches that pack them with ice and snow, and Fountain figures that climate conditions haven’t changed enough to affect them yet. Still, his team, taking the first measurements of the park’s ice fields since the 1970s, has concluded that the glacierets began retreating over the last decade, and there are additional signs that significant transformations are afoot. A melting Front Range glacier revealed bison remains that researchers dated at two thousand years old. The preserved state of the remains suggests they haven’t been exposed much since their burial, an indicator that warming is occurring on a scale not seen in millennia.

What to Expect in the Future? The retreat of the little glaciers could be a harbinger of warming temperatures affecting our landscape on a more local scale.

“It looks like we’ve reached a tipping point,” Fountain says of the changes, “but it’s one of those things that we don’t know until we’re past it.” In other words, until it’s too late.

The loss of glaciers probably won’t cause the state’s water fountains to run dry, since most of our water comes from mountain snowpack, not ice fields. But glacial melt
will impact sensitive alpine environments, Fountain says. The ice fields and buried
snow persist as banks of moisture for plants and wildlife during the hottest and driest times — when life needs water the most. The decline of our glaciers could leave rare, alpine critters and vegetation high and dry.

Flipping the Birds – Out

As far as state birds go, Colorado’s specimen isn’t all that flashy. The lark
bunting is a stocky bird with a streaked, grayish-brown body and a short tail that
makes, what birders consider, a distinctive, soft “hoo-ee” call. Generally found among grassland areas, the good news is that Colorado probably won’t need to look for a new state bird anytime soon.

Because of Colorado’s range of elevations, bird species that reside in or migrate through the state should be able to endure climate change by taking wing northward through the state or upward in elevation to find cooler or wetter habitats that suit them.

The geography and birds’ mobility have prevented noticeable changes in migrations, breeding patterns or populations in the state, says Jeff Price, author of a national report on global warming and songbirds for the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation.

One possible indicator of change comes from Billy Barr’s observations at RMBL. American robins now arrive in the high country 
of Gothic two weeks earlier than they did in 1981 and then spend roughly eighteen days scrounging for food until the ground is bare.

Price, formerly of Boulder and now at California State University, Chico, says the example isn’t ideal, because robins are resident birds, not migrating into the state.

Still, the data implies that the birds are following temperature cues to move to higher elevations, even though there isn’t a food source. Robins may be able to improvise over time, but migratory species in need of food to complete their cross-continent journeys, or species with more specialized habitat requirements, are more susceptible. In other cases, some birds that typically head south for the winter are now more likely to stay in the warming climes of Colorado.

What to Expect in the Future? Price’s report projects that nearly half of the bird species observed in Colorado could
 face reduced or disappearing suitable habitat if temperatures warm as predicted. “Birds that live on tundra, mostly ptarmigans and American pippets, have nowhere to go,” Price says. “So as we start losing krummholz” — the high-altitude, timberline zone of stunted trees and tundra — “we’re going to lose the birds.”

Warmer winters have triggered white- tailed ptarmigan populations in Rocky Mountain National Park to hatch earlier and suffer slowed growth rates, according to modeling by researchers from CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and the state Division of Wildlife. Future projections suggest the birds will experience “accelerated declines.”

Snow More Fun?

Colorado’s premier ski resorts — Wolf Creek, Vail and Steamboat Springs — receive nearly 350 inches of snowfall a year on average, earning the state its world-class reputation. Resort managers can’t control when that snow falls, which is why they spend lots of money artificially augmenting the snowpack, creating powder from hoses. It’s obvious what’s at stake for the resorts, and the state, if climate change tweaks the winter weather.

David Clow, of the U.S. Geological Survey, looks at data from 72 remote weather stations, monitored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, that measure the air temperature, depth of snow and its water content throughout the state’s high country. Using radio telemetry, the network of gauges report those values each hour. With nearly thirty years of data, Clow has observed decreases in the total amount of winter precipitation in Colorado. And there are other signs of trouble.

“The main trend we’ve seen is a shift in the time of snowmelt toward earlier in the year,” Clow says.

Overall, snow in Colorado melts two weeks earlier than it did three decades ago, and there are corresponding shifts in the timing of spring runoff. The trends fit with regional patterns observed throughout the West. Another alarming region-wide shift with links to climate change: More winter precipitation now falls as rain instead of snow, particularly at lower elevations, which means less water flows into rivers in the spring to fill reservoirs.

What to Expect in the Future? The earlier onset of spring means a more abrupt end to the ski season, but Colorado resorts could make out in the short term. So far, our state’s slopes have experienced milder changes than the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas.

It’s even possible that our mountains could end up with more total snowfall for 
a while, Brad Udall says, because longer and colder springs could get a few extra snowstorms in place of rain showers. The catch
is that the snow will melt more quickly than it does now. And the long-term prognosis is bleak: Models commissioned by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project predict snowpack in Summit County, home
to Breckenridge and
three other major ski
resorts, will be cut in
 half later this century.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Among the first mountain wildflowers
to open in spring are purple larkspur, which start a colorful parade of meadow and hillside blooms that lasts through the summer. David Inouye, a University of Maryland professor, has worked at RMBL since 1971, studying plots of wildflowers and accounting for the mix and abundance of different species. (He also helped Billy Barr recognize and publish the changing trends among marmots and robins at the lab.)

With 37 summers’ worth of data, Inouye has recognized that many wildflowers are opening sooner in spring — another result of earlier snowmelt — when they are more susceptible to frosts. In his plots, Inouye has seen frost damage snuff out the flower buds of tall larkspur, a favorite of hummingbirds; fleabane daisy, the preferred nectar source of the Mormon Fritillary butterfly; and Aspen sunflowers, an important food for bumblebees.

The consequences extend to other organisms, Inouye adds. Fly larvae feast on the sunflower seedheads, and parasite wasps eat the flies. So, a crash in wildflowers will have consequences for all of the high country’s biological diversity.

“What’s happening with these plants are indicators that climate change is happening and happening quite rapidly,” Inouye says.

What to Expect in the Future? If the trends continue, Inouye half jokes that Crested Butte might need to replace its title as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. And while he is careful to note that climate fluctuations, like El Niño and the North Pacific Oscillation, play a role in the changes on the ground, he believes global warming is at work in the high country, and the long-term impacts are visible at RMBL.

John Harte of the University of California at Berkeley has spent the last eighteen summers at the lab, conducting an experiment into the future. Using heat lamps, Harte melts the snow from a meadow three weeks earlier than nature does and then keeps the soil warmed an extra two degrees Celsius (four degrees Fahrenheit) — “conditions that Colorado will resemble in about thirty years,” Harte says.

The meadows have not turned to barren deserts,
but they contain much
more sagebrush and fewer wildflowers. Warming beckons the uphill creep of sagebrush, drying out meadows and eliminating the cooler and wetter conditions for flowers and their pollinators.

“The even more important result — but it’s not 
visible — is the loss of soil 
carbon,” Harte says, which creates a “positive feedback.” The shift of vegetation causes the ground to store less carbon, which is then released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, causing more warming.

Perhaps Crested Butte will become the Sagebrush Capital.

Wet and Mild

Blue Mesa Dam, near the small Western Slope town of Sapinero, creates Colorado’s largest body of water, along the Gunnison River. Blue Mesa and two other upstream dams inundate part of a deep canyon system; the lower reach is now protected as a national park. Before the dams altered the flows
and temperatures of the river, trout cruised through the canyon’s cold waters and fed on flurries of insect hatches. Downstream from the canyon, native warm-water fish — Jurassic Park-looking beasts like the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker and the humpback chub — used to swim in the river’s warmer waters. Today, introduced trout proliferate below the dams, and the warm-water fish are listed as endangered species, facing extinction throughout the Colorado River system.

The effects of dams and diversions on streams can provide us with a glimpse of the consequences of climate change, says David Merritt, a riparian ecologist with the Forest Service and the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at CSU, who studies stream flows and riparian (streamside) ecosystems in the West. By altering river flows and natural sediment movement along streams, dams affect not just fish but also cottonwood trees, willows and other riparian vegetation, which rely on flooding for regeneration and dependable low flows for maintenance. Instead, drought-tolerant vegetation, including invasive species like Russian olive and tamarisk, can thrive.

Ironically, dams and diversions along the Front Range serve as a natural experiment, Merritt says, where we can look at scenarios of future climate change — like lower or earlier runoff and peak flows — to understand how river systems will respond to warming and decreased flows.

What to Expect in the Future? The transformation of rivers from warming could lead to “terrestrialization,” Merritt says, meaning the encroachment of junipers, ponderosa pines and other flood-intolerant, upland vegetation into former wetlands and riparian areas. Considering that sixty percent of the state’s flora occurs within these areas and eighty percent of wildlife uses them at some stage in their life cycle, reduced stream flows could have noticeable negative effects — not to mention for people who siphon off those flows for cities and farms.

“I don’t think climate change in and of itself will cause the drastic collapse of riparian areas in Colorado over the next century,” Merritt says, sharing his personal assessment. “But the distribution and characteristics of riparian areas will change in predictable ways. Habitat specialists [ranging from neo-tropical migrant songbirds to native cutthroat trout] will be the most immediately affected. These species will either respond by moving to a suitable habitat, or, if they are not well dispersed or if suitable habitat becomes fragmented or scarce, they will become locally or regionally extinct. That’s not an opinion or a sappy, moral statement. That’s a scientific fact.”

As far as actual water in our rivers, the forecasts range widely. Some models show precipitation totals increasing in parts of the state, including the extension of monsoon conditions from the Southwest. On the other hand, there’s a chance that the desert of Arizona will spread north into Colorado as temperatures climb.

Udall says projections for the Colorado River predict its flows will dry up between 5 and 50 percent over the next century. Even in the best-case scenario, Colorado — and the six other Western states that share water rights to the river — will have to get creative and cooperative with their water use, considering the astronomical population-growth trends for the region. Some water managers say the forecast supports storing more water behind new dams, like the proposed Glade Reservoir for the Cache la Poudre River outside Fort Collins. Other researchers say higher evaporation rates and the changes in flows should make the case to not build more dams.

The Butterfly Effect

During her research at RMBL in summer 2002, Carol Boggs noticed a Gillette’s Checkerspot, an orange, black, and white butterfly, far from where the insects usually fluttered about. The butterfly species, although common in the West, had been introduced to the lab decades earlier by another scientist and maintained a small range with no more than 125 individuals. In the midst of a drought, Boggs, a Stanford University biology professor, realized the Checkerspot population had exploded, “by an order of magnitude,” to 3,000 individuals and expanded its range by half a mile. After statistical analysis, Boggs and colleagues believe warmer temperatures are most likely the critical factor triggering the Checkerspot boom.

Boggs has also tracked the lab’s population of the Mormon Fritillary, another common Western meadow butterfly, for 10 years. She realized the species’ success relied on its nectar supply, which is closely tied to the timing of snowmelt. The earlier melt means that flowers bloom earlier, making them more susceptible to late-season frosts that kill the flowers. That leads to decreases in the Mormon Fritillaries, because they have less fuel to survive and reproduce.

What to Expect in the Future? Boggs says butterflies are “the canary in the coalmine” when talking about climate change: “It’s an indicator the whole ecosystem is changing, because butterflies are intimately connected with a number of plant species.”

And since they help pollinate plants and crops, which then pump oxygen into the air for people to live on Earth, they’re pretty essential. The changes at RMBL — one minor and introduced species thrives, another native one declines — are an example of how climate change can shuffle the biological diversity of ecosystems and trigger other changes among the plants the insects pollinate or the birds that eat them.

Bugging Out

Among the perfect storms of the natural world, Colorado’s pine-beetle epidemic is pretty damn perfect.

The combination of drought and reduced precipitation with dense forests of same-aged trees has created prime conditions for pine beetles to conquer lodgepole pine trees. The devastation of Summit and Grand counties is visible, and the beetles have crossed the Continental Divide to Front Range forests.

Early symptoms of climate change favor the pine beetles in two ways. First, milder winters enable the beetle larvae to survive, says Jeff Hicke of the University of Idaho, who has modeled climate-change impacts on pine beetles. Second, warmer summers have likely sped up beetle lifecycles, from two years to one year, facilitating more outbreaks.

What to Expect in the Future? Mountain pine beetles usually only attack lodgepole pines, but, as warming continues, the insects could jump to other species in Colorado forests.

“Now we’re seeing lodgepole pine at very high elevations being attacked, which is unusual, if not unprecedented,” Hicke says.

Like whitebark-pine trees in the northern Rockies, which are currently being attacked by the insects, limber pines and bristlecone pines could both host beetles, but neither may be adapted to them, like lodgepoles, Hicke adds, so they could suffer even more severe declines. Bristlecone pines, widespread around South Park, are the oldest trees in the state — thousands of years old — and some are as tall as 40 feet.

Despite the possible devastation, increased carbon dioxide levels should boost tree growth for some species in some regions. We could see more stands of aspen trees emerge as pines die off and other changes in forest diversity that will create “new” ecosystems, distinct from the wooded landscapes we see now.

Fired Up

Love forlorn, not global warming, could properly be blamed for the ignition of Colorado’s largest recorded wildfire. On June 8, 2002, Forest Service ranger Terry Barton burned a letter from her estranged husband inside a fire ring in the Pike National Forest, southwest of Denver. Arson may have been the cause, but extremely hot temperatures played a key role in the wildfire’s growth.

The Hayman Fire, as it was named, was preceded by four days of 90-plus-degree (Fahrenheit) heat. On June 9, the blaze blew up and spread 60,000 acres, fed by wind gusts and a peak temperature of 95 degrees. It was the hottest June 9 in Colorado in 80 years. On the same day, another wildfire in the Durango area doubled in size in just 40 minutes and then expanded its area six-fold in only three hours. Before Hayman was finally contained, weeks later, it scorched 137,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes.

In 2006, four scientists published the results of a survey of every large Western wildfire dating back to 1970. The conditions for big burns are often tied to a century of fire suppression. The researchers found another correlation.

Starting in the mid-’80s, the number of wildfires spiked in the West. Through statistical analysis, the researchers recognized a strong association between fires and earlier snowmelt and higher spring and summer temperatures. Like other warming trends, the increase is strongest in the northern Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, but Colorado fires, including Hayman, have also responded to the elements.

What to Expect in the Future? Hotter temperatures will mean drier and more fire-prone forests that burn hotter and wider than they would under past conditions. Climate change could also increase storms and their lightning strikes. And fires emit a lot of greenhouse gases, another positive feedback.

Growing “exurban” communities of homes mixed among forests will add to the risks to life and property from more frequent and intense fires, too. Considering the federal fire-prevention budget already exceeds $1 billion a year, wildfires could also burn lots of money.

Prairie-Home Combustion

Just as most residents and tourists shower their love and money on the Rockies, the plains of Eastern Colorado receive less attention from researchers. But the farms and ranches, and the surrounding grasslands, could experience some of the greatest changes from warming.

For five years, Jack Morgan, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his colleagues maintained chambers over grassland areas in Weld County, one of the driest parts of the state, and pumped them full of carbon dioxide, equivalent to levels projected for 2100.

Fringed sage, a small woody shrub, thrived in the experimental plots. Already common among slightly deteriorated, or overgrazed, ranchlands, the plant isn’t very palatable for cattle.

“It signals that native grasslands are moving toward becoming more woody grasslands in the future,” Morgan says, “and most people in ranching would view that as a negative.”

Morgan is now undertaking a similar experiment on the grasslands of southern Wyoming that will test how invasive weeds might do in a warmer and carbon-dioxide-enriched environment.

What to Expect in the Future? The prairies of Eastern Colorado are expected to heat up more than any other region of the West, according to the Colorado College State of the Rockies project. Models are less clear on changes to regional rainfall: “For predictions of precipitation, you might as well flip a coin,” says CSU researcher Bill Parton, who has worked with Morgan.

Parton says precipitation will likely be less consistent from year to year, meaning plants and crops that can handle variability will fare best. One study, by a CSU graduate student, showed that more rainfall variability increases plant productivity on Colorado’s dry plains (although the wetter grasslands of Kansas responded to the same experiment with decreased growth).

Ranchers could gain some benefits, if winters are warm enough to allow cattle to forage on the range for longer periods. Extended growing seasons would be good news for farmers — and higher carbon-dioxide levels could increase plant production and reduce water loss. Parton says winter wheat crops could grow just fine under forecasted climatic shifts, but corn and other summer crops become less viable in hotter times.

Farmers are already fending off growing Front Range cities that want their water. James Pritchett of CSU’s agricultural economics department says climate change could trigger a loss of groundwater if irrigation flows decrease or become less consistent, which could lead to more erosion on the plains.

The U.S. National Assessment on Climate Change, completed in 2000, forecasts that Western farmers may have to increase crop diversity to roll with the changes. Orchards, like those on the Western Slope, will likely require expensive and difficult relocations as crop zones shift northward.

“The climate-change picture in Colorado isn’t as negative as it could be in other places,” Parton says. “There will be winners, and there will be losers.”

Conclusion: Our Stamp on the Environment

Last year, the U.S. Postal Service released a “commemorative” collection of stamps in its “Nature in America” series, detailing the flora and fauna of the Colorado Rockies. The sheet of stamps features yellow-bellied marmots, white-tailed ptarmigans and several butterflies, as well as elk, bighorn sheep and golden eagles. With climate change in motion, the stamps are almost like an early eulogy for the natural environment of our state.

In most cases, it’s nearly impossible to separate the effects of global warming from other climate variations and drought conditions. But the signs of change, on an unprecedented scale, are evident. Each of the cases highlighted above comes from peer-reviewed research, published in accredited journals of science. There are more, and there are also anecdotal observations that hint at the miniscule and massive changes occurring in our state and on our planet.

Clearly, our greatest concern in Colorado and out West will be water resources, but global warming threatens to transform every aspect of our environment. Plants and wildlife respond to different cues to survive and reproduce. Wildflowers now bloom, only to be killed by frost. Birds migrate but find diminished food supplies and habitat. Marmots emerge and get picked off by coyotes. Each of these changes is called a “disjunction,” and they are signs of how climate change is jamming the circuits of our natural world in Colorado.

In a few centuries, our progeny may only have stamps to remind them of the state we now know.

The Why of the Storm

whyofstorm coverMany researchers have concluded that climate change is feeding extreme hurricanes, and amplified concerns could bring about the second coming for weather modification. A computer simulation from a Colorado State University professor could be the future of the field — and the federal government’s contingency plan for looming hurricane disasters.

The feature got a mention on a climate-change blog of the journal Nature, and also earned a third-place award for science reporting from the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.


The Why of the Storm

Could polluted hurricanes save the world?

By Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, June 14, 2007

The year is 2025, and a Category-5 hurricane is barreling toward the Atlantic coast. If the storm continues on its present course, forecasters predict a 15-foot storm surge, flooding houses along the coast from Charleston, South Carolina to Washington, D.C. With just 72 hours until landfall, FEMA doesn’t call for an evacuation: Instead, a fleet of C-130 cargo planes takes off from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and flies into the storm, loaded with a megaton payload of Saharan Desert dust.

Cue Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” as the pilots open the payload doors over the hurricane. As if sprinkling pixie dust, the maneuver tames the weather system: Within a day, the rains diminish, the winds let up, and the storm is downgraded. Tragedy is averted.

“If you could reduce the intensity by 40 knots, you could save billions in reduced damages,” says Bill Cotton, a Colorado State University professor of atmospheric science, who collaborated with University of Illinois researchers to simulate the dirt-dumping scheme using
the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System, or RAMS, a program Cotton developed with CSU professor emeritus Roger Pielke Sr.

Cotton is seeking federal funds to pursue his theory. With strong financial backing, he estimates that field studies of his dust-busting hurricane treatment could start within 10 years.

Almost 60 years after government scientists first began discussing the idea of toying with the weather, the field of weather modification is again in vogue. Western states are considering cloud seeding — loading clouds with silver iodide — to amp up regional precipitation in order to keep shrinking reservoirs full. And Colorado U.S. Rep. Mark Udall plans to reintroduce legislation that would create a federal weather modification bureau.

Many researchers have concluded that climate change is feeding extreme hurricanes, and an amplified fear of more Katrinas could bring about the second coming for weather modification. Cotton’s simulation could be the future of the field — and the federal government’s contingency plan for looming hurricane disasters.

But, then, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should.

Slowing the Skater

Inside the CSU Atmospheric Sciences Building, Stephen Saleeby is at a loss to describe the workings of Cotton’s atmospheric modeling program. RAMS simulates the formations of clouds and storms based on a variety of conditions, such as regional wind speed, relative humidity and temperature. Saleeby, a research associate of Cotton’s, says programming isn’t quite as simple as plugging in a few numbers and then clicking the mouse to see how the simulated weather plays out.

The model consists of tens of thousands of lines of code. Saleeby can run some basic simulations on his desktop computer, but the larger analyses of hurricane pathways or cloud-seeding operations are handled through a cluster of up to 20 processors. One of Saleeby’s projects, studying the development of the Southwest monsoon season, takes the clustered computers three days to process.

RAMS allows Cotton, Saleeby and others to forecast how altering weather systems might affect snowfall, the duration of a drought, or a hurricane’s response to plane-loads of fine dust.

Such modeling has become highly sophisticated since the field of weather modification was born 60 years ago, when General Electric scientists discovered that silver iodide could increase precipitation in clouds. Researchers thought they could boost rain and snowfall and suppress hail and tornadoes.

The federal government began spending millions of dollars on a national weather modification program in 1959, partly motivated by the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s successful space launch of Sputnik two years earlier. The U.S.S.R. might have first dibson outer space, but the U.S. government wanted control of the atmosphere and the weather. From 1967 through 1981, the federal government never spent less than $9.9 million a year on weather modification. The bill topped out at $18.7 million in 1972.

Researchers conducted hurricane reduction experiments under Project Stormfury starting in 1962. Stormfury scientists seeded three hurricanes
in the 1960s but weren’t able to consistently affect the storms. A treatment of Hurricane Debbie in 1969 coincided with a 30 percent drop in the storm’s wind speed, but scientists couldn’t conclude that natural factors didn’t account for the results.

In the case of hurricanes, researchers assumed that dropping silver iodide onto specific storm clouds would cause “supercooled” water droplets to freeze. That process would create latent heat on the storm’s edge and, according to the theory, slow its speed.

“We use the analogy of the spinning skater,” says William Woodley, a federal researcher in Miami during the ’60s and ’70s, who flew into hurricanes to conduct experiments for Project Stormfury.

Whirling ’round and ’round, a figure skater pulls her arms into her body, turning faster and faster. That might help a performer score a few extra tenths of
a point from the judges, but out in the ocean, it’s the type of development that turns a tropical storm into
a hurricane — and then a major hurricane. Weather modification, as attempted through Stormfury and now modeled by Cotton, coaxes the hurricane to stick out her arms and slow down.

“The instrumentation wasn’t all that [in the 1960s]. The modeling was crude,” says Woodley, now a Littleton-based weather modification consultant. Another significant part of the problem was that Stormfury’s theoretical assumptions didn’t pan out.

Cloud-seeding experiments to augment precipitation for farming proved similarly disappointing. When adverse events, like floods or blizzards, coincided with modification projects, citizens blamed the government. People also faulted drought in one region on cloud seeding in an adjacent area. Federal research dollars began to taper in the late ’70s, and the cash flow stopped completely after 1985.

Today, weather modification is strictly a private and/or academic affair, but even without government cash, the improvements in computer modeling have advanced the field.

“What I can do today, I couldn’t even have dreamed of in graduate school,” Cotton says.

In Dust We Trust

Researchers are still trying to slow down the whirling skater, but the simulation, put forth by Cotton and his University of Illinois colleagues, uses a new technique, different from Stormfury’s.

In the simulation, tiny dust particles are dropped onto the storm. Very small raindrops form, which are less likely to collide in the clouds and more likely to evaporate before they fall, cooling the air. The upshot is a tamer storm: Wind speeds decrease 50 knots after the dust particles are introduced in the simulation. In the case of Katrina, a dust drop could have mellowed the storm at its fiercest point from Category-5 to Category-2 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

“[This] is much more powerful than anything that was considered back in the Stormfury days,” Cotton says, sitting in his office, photos of heavy and ominous clouds hanging on the walls.

The theory has natural inspiration: African dust, which can impede the formation of tropical storms before they move across the Atlantic.

“We’ve observed that if a big dust storm comes along [in Africa], that tends to weaken a storm,” Cotton says.

A similar simulation by professor Daniel Rosenfeld and Woodley, also just published this year, produced the same results through the release of “submicron hygroscopic” — extremely minuscule and moisture-attracting — particles. Rosenfeld now has a provisional patent on the process, Woodley says.

Airlifting a desert dust storm sounds like a massive operation. The million-dollar question is, How much dirt are we talking about, and what’s that going to do to a coastal city?

Cotton can’t give a specific amount of dirt. That’s
one of the next steps after
he receives more funding.
But the delivery of the dust specks — each so small that 100 million of them could fit on a penny, Cotton estimates — would be a logistical issue and would require a convoy of cargo aircraft, like the C-130s.

Not to worry, Cotton says. A storm “would rain out the crud before it hits shore.”

In terms of clouding the
sky, the amount of dust is
roughly equivalent to the pollution levels of a major urban city, Cotton adds. It would be
as if a hurricane were to rev through the Atlantic and then pass through downtown St. Louis.

Pollution is the Solution

African dust pollution isn’t the same as the haze that hangs over a city, but the particles in the air act the
same. Cotton and his associates have titled their peer- reviewed article, soon to appear in The Journal of Weather Modification, “Should we consider polluting hurricanes to reduce their intensity?” The title is purposely provocative: According to most climate scientists, manmade pollution is already tinkering with the weather.

Auto exhaust and coal-fired power plant emissions
are already poking and prodding at the figure skater. (In another study, Cotton and graduate students observed that increased urban pollution from vehicles and coal-fired power plants have coincided with — and seemingly caused — decreased precipitation along the Front Range.) The collective impact of this pollution, contributing to melting glaciers and warming oceans, unfortunately, doesn’t deter the hurricanes. In fact, it makes them more persistent.

Scientists have found that warming sea-surface temperatures are causing more ferocious hurricanes, like Katrina and Rita, although that particular correlation isn’t quite as definitive as other impacts of human-caused climate change.

Recent studies by researchers at MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the National Center
for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder have concluded that warming oceans will cause fiercer hurricanes, though not necessarily more storms.

“We think global climate change will cause more intense hurricanes and, in particular, much heavier rainfall,” says Kevin Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section and a lead author on several reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that affirm global warming is occurring.

“The debate, if any, is the cause [of more intense hurricanes],” Trenberth says, although “the IPCC has very clearly stated that global warming is occurring and anyone who disagrees has their head in the sand.”

Still, there are other researchers who say historical hurricane records can’t be compared with modern monitoring. Also, factors like wind shear — the difference in wind speed at varying heights — and massive deviations of the ocean-atmosphere system, like El Niño, play key roles in hurricane development and intensity. Therefore, we shouldn’t presume that recent hurricane seasons are abnormal or unprecedented, or that climate change is the cause.

Cotton downplays the link between more intense hurricanes and climate change as “a lot of arm waving.”

It’s almost shocking to find that someone who has
dedicated his life to figuring out how to modify the weather, including methods that simulate urban pollution, is unconvinced that we’re unintentionally changing the climate.

Cotton says he is, indeed, a “climate skeptic,” and even calls the projections of the IPCC, put forth by 600 scientists, “back of the envelope numbers.” The skepticism lands him in the company of a more notorious
and outspoken skeptic, CSU’s hurricane- forecasting guru William Gray, whose office is around the corner from Cotton’s.

“I don’t think we can say with scientific confidence that current trends are due to human activity,” Cotton says. “I’m not buying into the warming trend being influenced by humans.”

After years of studying clouds and the atmosphere, and trying to change the weather, Cotton says he hasn’t seen enough evidence that rising global temperatures are anything more than “natural variability” of the planet.

“My involvement with weather modification, I take that skeptical view,” Cotton says. “I’m a modeler by trade, so that makes me very skeptical of models, including my own.”

But Cotton qualifies his uncertainty: On a scale from negative ten (being a staunch climate- change doubter) to ten (being a firm believer), Cotton rates himself as a negative one or a negative two, and Gray as a negative seven.

“I just think the jury’s still out, but I’m trying to find out the other side,” Cotton explains. “But I try to stay away from the personality issues.”

The irony here is that any renewed interest in weather modification, including the possibility of federal funding for the practice, is clearly tied to fears of how climate change might lead to longer droughts, bigger floods and wilder hurricanes. Colorado Congressman Mark Udall has twice introduced legislation
to establish a federal weather modification program that could draw millions of research dollars and put the government back in the cloud-seeding and hurricane-taming business. Udall plans to reintroduce the bill again
this congressional session (Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas has sponsored the same bill in the Senate during past sessions, as well).

The Ethical Storm

We can no longer claim that everyone is talking about the weather, but that no one is doing anything about it. We are doing something, whether we mean to or approve of it.

“Weather modification is a reality,” says Woodley, the former Stormfury scientist in Littleton. “Forget about anything I might do deliberately. We humans are changing the weather [with pollution]. My question is, If we’re doing this inadvertently, why can’t we do this — if we have our wits about it — advertently?”

That’s one of the questions Connie Uliasz has considered carefully over the past few years. Uliasz is completing her master’s thesis, “Ethical Issues in the Use of Weather Modification Technologies,” through CSU’s philosophy department.

“You’re probably talking to the world’s expert on the ethics of weather modification,” she says, half-jokingly.

Uliasz is properly schooled for that title. Her undergraduate background is
in philosophy, and she has studied with well-known CSU bioethicist Bernie Rollin and, to a lesser extent, Colorado State professor Holmes Rolston, “the Father
of Environmental Ethics.” She also has experience in atmospheric sciences, and at CSU, she has worked with Bill Cotton and helped manage professor Scott Denning’s “BioCycle” climate
change research group.

“I spent a long time
trying to understand the
science, years of that,
before I could even start
with the ethics,” Uliasz
 says. Few researchers ever attempt a cross over. “They” — scientists — “don’t even think about ethics,” she charges.

Weather modification is at an ethical disadvantage on several counts, Uliasz says: “There’s some good evidence it actually works, but it’s difficult to prove, and you don’t know what you’re going to get [in terms of experiment results]. And you’re not going to solve questions in the long run.”

Weather modification, Uliasz continues, can “sidetrack people from really making the hard decisions. It’s almost a red herring of a technological fix. And Americans, especially, love their technological fixes.”

Americans also have a Category-5 fear
of hurricanes in the haunting aftermath of Katrina. Our broken-levee blues may be out of proportion compared to our concerns over other risks, like coastal flooding.

A March 2007 Gallup survey shows 49 percent of Americans fear more intense hurricanes from global warming, and we’re more worried about another climate- change-fueled hurricane than drought, flood, an increased prevalence of disease, or a loss of coastal areas.

This year’s hurricane season started before its usual June 1 date, when Subtropical Storm Andrea formed in May. Hurricane forecasters, like CSU’s Gray,
 are projecting that this year could turn
out a lot like 2005, and if another Katrina, or even an Andrew or a Hugo, rocks the Atlantic coast, Congress will only be more inclined to consider a quick fix. But instead of slowing down the skater, maybe we should concentrate on encouraging her not to spin faster.

“It seems like it could be better to spend [federal] money when hurricanes come, instead of trying to disperse them,” Uliasz says, the ethical coin flipping inside her head. “But, then, if Katrina were a Category-2 instead of a 5, we’d still have New Orleans. I don’t know how many more really awful hurricanes we could have before we say, ‘Let’s try anything.’”


Gaggle from Lowry, Denver, Colorado (photo by cooper gary"/   GT Cooper Photography

Gaggle from Lowry, Denver, Colorado (photo by cooper gary”/

Northern Colorado scientists have developed birth control for geese, but hunters have another idea for thinning the flocks

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, May 10, 2007

by Joshua Zaffos

Jim Gammonley walks through goose turds at Warren Park in south Fort Collins, approaching an unflappable gaggle of birds that includes a brood of fuzzy goslings. The bird-research program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife tags geese in Warren Park and other sites annually to track their whereabouts.

The city parks and public and private golf courses of the northern Front Range are prime real estate for Canada geese. For centuries, the geese migrated up and down the continent, summering in the Great North and retreating south to the warm weather for the winter. Resident populations were generally uncommon.

But those patterns began to change 
in the early 20th century. Overzealous, unregulated hunters and habitat destruction nearly exterminated the geese. Wildlife biologists responded by reintroducing captive birds to maintain their stocks. The scientists became so good at the practice that states without resident goose populations soon had them.

Colorado began releasing Canada geese in 1957 at College Lake, which butts against the foothills outside Fort Collins. The plaque at the lake commemorates the practice and honors G.I. “Father Goose” Crawford, the Division of Wildlife official credited with restoring Canada geese to Northern Colorado.

This is where Colorado’s – and, to some extent, the country’s – goose problem started. Millions of geese sit around, root through and poop all over America’s golf courses, city parks, town squares and any other suburban refuge of lawn and water. College Lake isn’t even preferred territory anymore.

“By the 1970s, we had been successful enough with our efforts that we began gathering up our goslings for other states,” Gammonley says. But as other states established their own resident goose populations, Colorado ran out of places to export the birds and their annual hatchlings, many of which remained in the mild and maintained environs of suburbia.

On the other side of the lake, at
the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), scientists may have developed a solution to thin out the masses of resident geese that don’t know, or want, to migrate each year.

The federal researchers
of the NWRC, along with a private entrepreneur from California, have developed birth control for geese. OvoControl-G prevents goose eggs from hatching. It looks kind of like Corn Pops.

“OvoControl is the first wildlife contraceptive ever, so there’s no roadmap out there,” says Erick Wolf of Innolytics, Inc., which partnered with the NWRC to research and develop the bait/ birth control.

The contraceptive could change the way wildlife managers control pesky suburban bird populations, like flocks of pigeons and geese. Its acceptance could also lead to similar control for herds of deer and other animals that are running amok in comfy, suburban and exurban spaces,once their natural habitat. But some hunters and outfitters fear birdie birth control will lead to less birds to shoot, and state wildlife agencies, dependent on hunting license revenues, will have to weigh in on the matter, and possibly figure out how to control that other form of not-so-wild
life: humans.

Planned parenthood

The Front Range’s human population began exploding around the same
time as the goose population. New neighborhoods — and parks, open spaces and golf courses — make cozy goose habitat. Children and seniors feed birds. Today, about 15,000 Canada geese reside year-round along the Front Range between Fort Collins and Pueblo.

Nationally, the numbers are even more staggering: Five million geese call the U.S. home, but only 2 million migrate across the continent.

Another astounding number: A goose excretes 1.5 pounds of feces a day, increasing human health risks of E. coli and Listeria.

Colorado has long since stopped reintroducing Canada geese. As in most states, goose management is now a combination of hunting and harassment, with the latter being preferred in and around cities for safety and humanitarian reasons.

During the spring breeding season, biologists will addle, or shake, eggs to detach the yolk from the membrane wall and keep them from hatching. Some wildlife managers will also puncture shells. In Colorado, the weapon of choice is a corn- oil spray that suffocates the shell pores
and, again, prevents hatching. (Breaking or crushing eggs isn’t all that practical because geese will simply lay a new batch.) But none of these measures really do anything to alter goose behavior.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates all management activities because Canada geese are classified as migratory birds, regardless of whether a population actually flies south for the winter. The Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a special permit from the federal agency to oil eggs. The state then registers and trains homeowners associations, golf course superintendents and parks staff.

Since the state received its permit in 2001, 44 separate entities, mostly around metro Denver, have registered to “treat” eggs or destroy nests. Last year, three permittees signed up in Larimer County and, according to Division of Wildlife stats, destroyed 27 nests and 77 eggs. Across Colorado, trained managers destroyed 442 nests and 2,555 eggs.

Dozens of other hazing measures do not require a permit. They recall a string of plot devices from Road Runner cartoons and are seemingly as successful.

“We have a guy that goes out every morning and chases away the geese
that have flown in overnight,” says Scott Robbins, superintendent for Ptarmigan Golf Course, located between Fort Collins and Windsor off Highway 392. The course has received a state permit to oil eggs, but the greens crew uses hazing tactics more frequently.

Robbins bought a remote-control boat to chase off geese on the course’s lake. His staff uses flash tape that reflects into the sky to discourage birds from landing, as well as scare balloons, inflated balls with bull’s eyes that are supposed to look like a predator’s steely pupils. “It kind of works on the migratory geese, but the resident ones, they’ve seen everything,” Robbins says. “The geese will not even generally move for a golf cart.”

At Fort Collins’ city 
golf courses, manager 
Jerry P. Brown has tried
 scaring off resident birds
 using everything from 
inflatable alligators to
 goose carcasses. Dogs, 
which will chase geese
 but won’t kill them, are
 his “best weapon of 
harassment,” and the city courses also have state permits to oil eggs. (Depending on a city’s laws, some parks or golf courses fire blank cracker shells to frighten the geese into moving elsewhere.)

“We do it simply because geese are
a big nuisance to our customers and to us,” Brown says, “and they’re a nuisance because of the pooping. A golf course is a smorgasbord to a goose.”

The kibble contraceptive

Neither Robbins nor Brown keep track 
of how much time and labor are spent fighting back the geese that stick around all year, but both say that if the gaggles grow, birth control is worth consideration.

“You’re basically swapping technology for labor,” says Wolf, of his product’s benefits.

Unlike Bill Murray’s gopher-hating character in Caddyshack, all a golf-course superintendent would need to take care of his winged annoyances
is a pan of OvoControl,
served every morning
over the two-month
breeding season.

“After about two
days, the geese are
standing in the parking
space,” waiting for
the bait, Wolf says. “It
looks like dog-food
kibbles and it tastes
like bread.” He speaks
from firsthand experience, having sampled the semi-soft morsels himself during the testing phases.

OvoControl doesn’t prevent birds from laying eggs, but it greatly reduces egg hatchability by breaking down the wall between the membrane and the yolk. The active ingredient is nicarbazin, a compound developed by Merck & Co. about 50 years ago to stave off a parasite disease in chickens.

“This is one of the compounds that provided the poultry industry the means to grow chicken at a large scale,” Wolf says.

Roughly a decade ago, Wolf was working for a company that was manufacturing for Merck when he realized nicarbazin prevented some chicken eggs from hatching. His boss saw the realization as an opportunity, and Wolf began studying how the compound could be used to produce the same result with resident geese. Soon his quest led him to contact the staff at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins.

Bait and glitch

The NWRC serves as the research arm for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Wildlife Services branch (formerly known as Animal Damage Control).

For many decades, the department dealt with varmints and problem animals by killing them as efficiently as possible. But as environmental values have changed, so has the mindset of wildlife managers. Today, NWRC scientists spend lots of time working on humane control solutions for prairie dogs, wolves and coyotes, as well as aggressive strategies for knocking back exotic species, like feral pigs, Gambian rats, nutria and brown tree snakes, which prey upon or displace native animals.

The center was experimenting
with its own contraceptive when Wolf approached them, says NWRC Product Development Research Manager Kathleen Fagerstone.

As many as 15 NWRC biologists, chemists and other researchers teamed with Wolf starting in 1998. A first round of tests on Japanese quail showed the contraceptive was working.

In 2000, Congress allocated $2 million over four years for the NWRC to continue its experiments. NWRC scientists knew how nicarbazin worked, so the major challenge was tinkering for the proper dosage, then making the bait palatable.

“We went through several years of just trying to get the geese to eat it,” Fagerstone says.

The center kept geese in feeding pens on its campus, and the scientists finally mixed a wheat-based recipe that the birds wanted to gobble. Next, they had to figure out if the dosage was right, since geese won’t lay eggs in captivity.

After years of research, OvoControl was ready for a battery of tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The bureau studied the bait’s toxicity, how it breaks down in the environment and its potential consequences on other birds and wildlife, before approving it
in late 2005. (OvoControl could affect other birds’ hatchability, although songbirds don’t breed at the same time as geese.)

“This is the first contraceptive that EPA has registered — for anything,” Fagerstone says. “It has been a learning experience for researchers and regulators, and now it will be one for the managers.”

Hunters fire back

The Humane Society and PETA have praised the animal-friendly breakthrough of OvoControl. The product also has
a thumbs-up from the American Bird Conservancy, a national nonprofit group that advocates to protect threatened
and endangered bird species. Michael Fry, the group’s pesticides and birds director, says he had some initial concerns
over potential birth deformities from OvoControl to those goslings that do hatch, but he is satisfied with the testing.

Despite the endorsements, only eleven sites in three states — Oregon, Rhode Island and California — are trailblazing into the realm of birth control for geese. They include a U.S. Navy military installation, several golf courses, and private homeowners associations and municipal lands.

Because OvoControl is the first product of its kind, the federal government is overseeing its use in the same way
as lethal measures. States are patching together rules to allow — or reject — its application.

City parks districts and a condo development in Illinois also approached Wolf to set up treatment sites, but he says those got tossed after the state Department of Natural Resources ruled that use of OvoControl, as a chemical, is illegal. The contraceptive was classified with poisons and explosives. The motivation wasn’t scientific, Wolf claims, but the result of pressure from hunting groups, which contribute a big chunk to the Department of Natural Resources’ budget through the purchase of hunting licenses.

“The way they view this thing is, if you contracept a goose, that’s one less goose to kill,” Wolf says. “Our take is that resident geese are rarely shot.”

Wolf says he’s encountered resistance from fish and game agencies and hunters in other states, too. Since no one has formally applied to use OvoControl in Colorado, Wolf isn’t sure how the state and local hunters will respond. Boulder County Parks and LongmontParks both made initial inquiries about using the contraceptive, but Wolf says they started looking too late in the season to receive treatments. Brown, the Fort Collins Manager of Golf, says he would “absolutely” try out OvoControl, but isn’t familiar with the product.

“There’s no reason for us not to permit it,” says Gammonley of the state’s wildlife division. “If we’re going to start using OvoControl, in some ways, it’s probably less controversial.”

The birth control is undoubtedly less controversial to city- park birdwatchers and animal-rights types, who are against destroying eggs and nests and harassing geese. But the hunting community’s reaction isn’t clear, and bird hunters in Colorado have clout with the Division of Wildlife.

Based on division estimates, Colorado has sold an annual average of 15,843 licenses to goose hunters since 1999. Goose hunters spend about $1 million a year in license fees that go directly to the state Division of Wildlife. That doesn’t include guide services, gun and ammo purchases, hotels, food and orange vests.

“Goose hunting is really good in Colorado,” Gammonley says. “This is
an important resource for the state. And, believe it or not, a good number of these [resident] geese do wander to ag fields and get shot.”

Through his banding efforts along
the Front Range, Gammonley can track when a hunter kills a resident goose on the Eastern Plains. Along the northern Front Range, of every five Canada geese chomping and honking and pooping along a Loveland golf course or a Fort Collins bike trail, one is eventually pumped full of buckshot.

Most of those birds are shot during a short, early hunting season, which usually lasts one to two weeks in October.

Jim Roth, co-owner of Greeley-
based Waterfowl Haven Outfitters, isn’t familiar with OvoControl, but he worries that it could hurt his business, which serves about 900 hunters a year — many from out of state — at $200 a pop.

“I don’t think you have any idea
of what would happen” to population numbers, he says. “I’d be against it. All they have to do is lengthen the season if they wanted to get [kill] more birds.”

Tad Stout is a goose-hunting guide in Severance, and he calls the early season “an integral part of our business.” But he isn’t worried about OvoControl ruining his livelihood.

“It’s not a concern at all,” says Stout, who graduated from Colorado State University with a fisheries and biology degree and first started guiding with his father, known as “Mister Goose” (notto be confused with “Father Goose” Crawford at College Lake).

“My skepticism is [over] the effectiveness,” Stout adds. “It would take a pretty aggressive, pretty extensive program to put a dent in Canada geese, and we’ve created pretty good habitat for them.”

Habitat for humanity

Wolf is now waiting for EPA registration of a new form of OvoControl aimed at pigeons. With no hunting constituency for the urban pests, he expects less opposition and hopes that acceptance of pigeon contraceptives could wear down resistance to the goose control.

In the meantime, Northern Coloradans continue to create “pretty good habitat” for resident geese. With thousands
of new homes to be constructed and dozens of new golf courses and malls
to follow, developers typically won’t
pay much attention to how their water features or landscaping might attract birds, Gammonley says. But they want a quick fix when goose poop is littering the fairway on the fourteenth hole.

Gammonley and other wildlife managers know there is no silver bullet or bait or radio-controlled boat that will override or eliminate the habits of resident geese. The same axiom holds for educating people and informing our land use as we convert farms, wetlands and rural stopovers for migratory
geese into subdivisions, office parks and suburban sanctuaries for resident geese. Which ever-growing group of residents will be easier to train to take the bait?

“That’s kind of the problem,” Gammonley says. “People and geese like the same things.”


Snow Job


Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, DATE (also published in Colorado Springs Independent, DATE)
By Joshua Zaffos

Heading through Blue Sky Basin at Vail Mountain on a recent powder day, the snow at the country’s most popular ski resort seems fluffier and fresher than that on other mountains.

For the past three decades, the largest single-mountain ski area in North America has been polishing its claim that “There’s no comparison” when it comes to skiing and riding Vail. And the resort managers aren’t above using a little atmospheric alchemy to earn that edge.

On days when the storm clouds are heavy and high, Vail Mountain ensures its runs stay stacked with deep snow by seeding the clouds with silver iodide to, supposedly, squeeze more water from the skies. According to some atmospheric scientists, cloud seeding can increase snowfall by 10 to 15 percent in a season, and Vail credits it among the reasons for its world-class reputation.


A ground-based iodide generator used for cloud seeding.

Vail seeds clouds to “make sure they have the premier ski area and snowpack in the state,” says Larry Hjermstad of Durango-based Western Weather Consultants, which has run Vail’s cloud-seeding operation for 29 years.

“Granted, Vail was never intended to be [scientific] research,” says Hjermstad, who holds a master’s degree in atmospheric science from Colorado State University. Still, he says, “we’ve definitely been able to find consistent results” for increased snowpack at Vail.

Ski resort officials aren’t the only parties expressing interest in cloud seeding. As more people flood into Colorado and the West stretching demand for water during the longest drought in centuries and an era of unintentional weather modification, thanks to global warming scientists and Western water managers want to explore whether cloud seeding could help slake the region’s thirst.

Not everyone is convinced of the merits of cloud seeding, however. A 2003 expert-panel report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts.”

In the absence of definitive statistical evidence, cloud seeding often is considered hi-tech weather voodoo.

Meteorological panacea

Scientists at a General Electric laboratory stumbled upon the concept of cloud seeding in 1946, in Schenectady, N.Y. They discovered that dry ice shavings caused supercooled water droplets which remain liquid even at freezing temperatures to solidify into tiny ice crystals. More droplets attach to the frozen crystals until they get big enough to fall as rain and snow. The process augments precipitation, but can’t conjure a storm.

Between 1949 and 1951, the U.S. military, fueled by the brainpower of the GE researchers, carried out Project Cirrus, seeding dry ice pellets into clouds around the country. When a storm from clouds seeded during the experiments covered one-fourth of New Mexico, one GE scientist concluded that the odds were “millions to one” that nature, not man, was responsible.

By the close of Project Cirrus, 30 countries around the globe had weather modification programs. The United States’ Department of Defense, Weather Bureau and Bureau of Reclamation all supported millions of dollars in research and operations.

For the next few decades, researchers focused on how seeding might increase or decrease rain and snow, dissipate fog or suppress hail. Military scientists, convinced they could slow the storms or change their courses, even seeded hurricanes through Project Stormfury. Supporters billed cloud seeding as a meteorological panacea.

“I went through grad school at a time [in the 1960s] when, if you wanted to do research on clouds and storms, it had to have a flavor of weather mod,” says William Cotton, a professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science.

While Cotton was completing his graduate and doctoral work, Colorado State professor Lewis Grant was performing a groundbreaking cloud-seeding project in Climax, Colo., a mining town near Copper Mountain Ski Resort.

Grant’s research during the first half of the 1960s provided some data suggesting that seeding wintertime mountain clouds actually could increase precipitation by at least 10 percent. Grant used silver iodide, which is nearly identical in size and shape to the cloud crystals frozen by dry ice, but easier to produce and send into the atmosphere.

Based on those studies, the Bureau of Reclamation bankrolled Grant to design the five-year-long Colorado River Basin Pilot Project in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado in the early ’70s. By then, the federal government was pouring $20 million a year into weather modification research, and the bureau hoped results would prove that cloud seeding could keep its reservoirs full. An estimated 10 percent increase ofsnow for southwestern Colorado would add enough water to support roughly 800,000 more people in both the Rio Grande and Colorado river basins.

Larry Hjermstad, Vail’s cloud-seeding guru, was one of Grant’s graduate students at CSU. After graduation, he was the contractor in charge of forecasting and seeding for the Basin Pilot Project.

The official statistical analysis of the five years’ worth of research was a disappointment. Government scientists found no real difference inprecipitation between seeded and unseeded days. But after Hjermstad took a second look at the numbers, he found a “very significant result” that supported Grant’s findings from Climax.

Convinced that wintertime cloud seeding could predictably enhance snowfall, Hjermstad went into business in 1976 as Western Weather Consultants and began seeding the clouds above Vail.

Tickling the clouds

When the forecast calls for snow, Hjermstad calls from his office in Durango a group of Vail-area landowners who host 17 cloud-seeding generators on their properties. The machines look like file cabinets or hot-water heaters with rocket boosters attached to the tops.

After Hjermstad gives the word, a landowner walks outside and flips the generator’s switch, triggering a propane tank to evaporate a solution of silver iodide. A plume of white smoke then percolates into the air, where it re-forms into ice crystals that “tickle” the storm clouds in hopes of increasing snowfall to the slopes below.

Based on dispersal patterns, Hjermstad spaces the generators five to seven miles apart, anywhere from 15 to 30 miles around Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, both owned by Vail Resorts. From November through January, Hjermstad seeds about 20 to 30 times.

For operating the generators, the landowners earn between $1,200 and $2,500 per season. Vail doesn’t disclose the full cost of seeding, but Hjermstad says it’s just a fraction of the money the resort spends on snow-making.

Vail is among a small class of steady cloud-seeding clients interested in reaping wintertime powder or springtime snowmelt.

Vail spokeswoman Jen Brown writes via e-mail that based on an analysis of statewide snowfall records a few years ago, “we reached the conclusion that Vail and Beaver Creek … were receiving 8 to 25 percent more snow in any cycle that we were seeding than the average [of] other resorts.”

But even while Vail’s informal snowpack measurements hint at the benefits of cloud seeding, definitive evidence is in short supply. After decades of trials, nobody is claiming with almighty statistical confidence that cloud seeding increases precipitation, or even how it attempts to do so.

Even Vail spokeswoman Brown confesses, “There’s no way to determine if snowfall amounts would be the same without cloud seeding.”

The downhill decline

The year Hjermstad opened shop 1976 Colorado suffered an infamously dry winter. Facing a brutal drought the following summer, the state Legislature passed an emergency cloud-seeding program that then-Governor Richard Lamm called “a roll of the dice.”

Vail was among the ski hills, irrigation districts, power companies and water providers from every corner of the state that invested in cloud seeding.

Hjermstad and other contractors began releasing the silver iodide into the Rocky Mountain highs and made rough estimates of the effects. But because research typically costs about five times as much as seeding itself, few studies were coordinated to determine if the programs really were working.

When a series of wet years swelled the Colorado River and the West in the late ’70s and early ’80s, cloud seeding went out of favor, and was looked upon as pseudo-science. With statistical proof lagging and Reaganomics squeezing the federal budget, multimillion-dollar research packages disappeared. Overall federal funding for weather modification research since has dried up to about $500,000 a year.

Leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “came to the conclusion that they really didn’t understand enough about rain and how it happened, so they really didn’t feel comfortable modifying it,” says Andrea Ray, a research scientist at the NOAA Climate Diagnostics Center in Boulder.

Most ski resorts turned to more expensive but proven snow-making techniques. Farmers saved their money for crop insurance and irrigation equipment. Atmospheric scientists turned their attention to other experiments.

The 2003 report of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed every research-based weather modification assessment since the Academy’s first analysis in 1964. The expert panel concluded “scientific proof of the effectiveness of cloud seeding was lacking (with a few notable exceptions, such as the dispersion of cold fog).”

Hjermstad recalls that just a few decades ago, CSU’s Lewis Grant regularly received more than $1 million from the government for each seeding project. “Now, $100,000 is a big research program if you can find it,” he says.

Who’ll fund the rain?

William Cotton is one of those researchers forwarding the study of weather modification $100,000 at a time. The CSU professor of atmospheric science wrote, with fellow department member Roger Pielke, Human Impacts on Weather and Climate, a book on cloud seeding. Cotton also has developed the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System, a computer simulation program for predicting and studying the effects of cloud seeding.

The Bureau of Reclamation gave Cotton $100,000 to use RAMS on behalf of Denver Water’s cloud-seeding program during winter 2003-04. The money wasn’t nearly enough, says Cotton, and the results were inconclusive.

Cotton and other cloud physics researchers face a cart-before-the-horse dilemma. Vail, utility companies and the occasional band of ranchers are ponying up the dough for cloud seeding, but no one is investing in research.

A new project in Wyoming might prove an initial step toward integrating the seeding and the research. The Equality State’s Legislature has devoted $8.8 million to a five-year project to seed clouds over the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre mountains west of Laramie.

“It does actually incorporate an experiment that is designed to be evaluated, as compared to one that is just operational,” says Dan Breed, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, which is designing and overseeing the project.

Breed, another CSU atmospheric science department alum, says the project really isn’t all that different from experiments done 30 or 40 years ago. But new technology and modeling could help deliver better results.

NCAR scientists hope to identify when to seed based on the distribution of the supercooled water droplets in the clouds and how to ensure that silver iodide released from the ground reaches the sky. The research team now is fine-tuning project specs, obtaining federal permits to place generators on government land, and experimenting with aerial seeding. The project officially will begin next winter, says Breed.

If the seeding yields the anticipated 10 percent increase in snowpack, Wyoming will reap precipitation at a cost of about $8 per acre-foot of water. Compared to reservoir construction or well development, which typically cost hundreds of dollars per acre-foot, seeding could provide a windfall of one of the arid region’s most valued resources.

Wyoming’s potential to invest in cloud seeding is unique, because the state is rolling in oil and gas royalties and severance taxes from mineral extraction. Meanwhile, states like Colorado weather tough economic times and tight budgets; Colorado now is thinking about a establishing a fund of just $75,000 for weather modification.

But the tide of federal funding for weather modification again might be turning. In the wake of 2005’s biblical slew of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and drought, Congress is considering bills, introduced in each chamber by Colorado Rep. Mark Udall and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, to create a federal weather modification research program and allocate up to $10 million a year for a decade.

Proof in the powder?

At least 66 cloud-seeding programs in 10 states west of the Mississippi are aimed at suppressing hail or increasing precipitation.

“It’s clear that water is scarce in the West,” says NCAR’s Breed. Cloud seeding should be “one of the pieces in the watershed management tool-chest.”

Breed adds that projects like the one in Wyoming could convince Arizona, Nevada and California to invest in large-scale cloud seeding in upstream states, to the benefit of everyone who relies on the Colorado River for water.

Colorado State professor William Cotton says a regional seeding program could increase precipitation 8 to 10 percent throughout the river basin, but he admits that’s “just a guess.”

“The question is, just how much can cloud seeding do to enhance snowpack?” says Cotton, sitting in his office on Colorado State’s Foothills Campus. “I don’t know the answer to that, as a scientist.”

The uncertainty looms like a thunderhead for environmentalists and others. Critics worry about the environmental and health effects of silver iodide falling from the sky and trickling into the reservoirs. They wonder whether cloud seeding boosts one location’s precipitation while depriving another.

“If you’re cloud seeding in one area, does that mean you’re taking away from another area?” asks Andrea Ray of NOAA.

Jennifer Pitt, a scientist with Environmental Defense in Boulder, says expectations that seeding will prevent drought and cultivate new development in the West are disturbing. She says research has demonstrated only that weather modification might shift where rain or snow falls, not increase the available moisture.

“I’m somewhat concerned that [cloud seeding has] become a basin-wide approach,” says Pitt. “By focusing on this, rather than a more practical approach of conserving water, [the states of the Colorado River Basin] are shifting emphasis on this critical issue.”

Cotton insists that seeding hasn’t been linked to any adverse health effects, and he calls major shifts in precipitation between a target seeding location and a downstream area “unlikely.” Lewis Grant says he’s even seen weather modification cause “spillover” effects of greater precipitation in downstream places.

Just because studies haven’t shown statistical evidence of increased precipitation, says Cotton, that doesn’t mean seeding is impractical. Critics determined to discredit cloud seeding might as well deny global warming, too, he charges, noting that the same physics are behind both weather modifications.

He points to a study he recently completed with CSU’s Israel Jirak that reveals a 30 percent decline in precipitation over the past 50 years in areas downwind of urban Denver ostensibly due to air pollution while more pristine parts of the Front Range haven’t seen any reduction.

“For some reason, the scientists involved with weather modification and research are demanding an exceptionally high level of proof,” says Larry Hjermstad. “They don’t even require that level of proof for global warming.”

And besides, can the 1.5 million riders and skiers raving about Vail’s snowpack every year be so wrong?






One hundred and forty-one years after a tragic massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians are reconnecting with their heritage and history in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, December 8, 2005 (republished in Indian Education Today, February 2006)

By Joshua Zaffos

Allen Joe Black Wolf and Steve Brady listen to a soundtrack of traditional Indian songs—known as “49s”—as they drive a rental car southbound on Colorado Highway 71 through the heart of their ancestral homeland. Voices cry and sing, and hands slap and beat drums in the car’s speakers, and the Northern Cheyenne men look out at bundles of hay, small herds of cattle and their tribe’s former territory, which appears to extend forever across the plains beneath stretched-out clouds and the setting sun.

Otto Braided Hair steers a rented minivan just ahead on the highway, and fellow Northern Cheyenne LaForce “Lee” Lone Bear and Floyd “Bucky” Glenmore ride along. The remains of a final member of the tribe—one of about 150 victims murdered at the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864—rest in a cedar box in the cargo space of  the van. The Northern Cheyenne are on a journey from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, to La Junta, Colorado. In between, they traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect their displaced relative in order to return the remains to the banks of Sand Creek.

Many historians consider the Sand Creek Massacre the most brutal and deliberate attack on an Indian village in American history, and the raid initiated almost three decades of brutal warfare up and down the Great Plains between the United States Army and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The massacre also marked the onset of the tribes’ cultural decline.

“Our people never did recover from that. [The massacre] completely fractured, broke down the traditional government of the Cheyenne tribe,” says Brady, who occasionally chants with the recorded 49s between sentences. “[By 1890,] it was about to the point where our own people were nearly exterminated.”

One hundred and forty-one years after Sand Creek, the northern and southern bands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho are scattered between reservations and other lands in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma. They are physically and spiritually  separated from the territory and traditions of their relatives, and trying to reconnect with their history and maintain their identity.

The Massacre

In the dawn light of November 29, 1864, 700 Colorado soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho camp along Sand Creek, about twenty miles outside the present-day small town of Eads.

Chivington was a Methodist minister turned Civil War hero, and he had no tolerance for or interest in the tribes. His troops were mostly volunteers who had signed on for 100 days of service specifically to kill Indians. A few weeks earlier, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had followed Chivington’s orders and left the area around a military fort on the Arkansas River, camped along Sand Creek and flew an American flag over their village as a sign of peace.

That November morning, many of the tribe’s warriors were hunting for game — under the instruction of the U.S. military— leaving about 500 mainly Cheyenne women and children in the encampment. As the militia approached, an American flag waved over the lodge of Black Kettle, one of the Cheyenne chiefs.

Black Kettle believed the flag would spare the lives of his people, and he encouraged them to gather around his lodge as he also raised a white banner of truce. The militia fired indiscriminately on the Indians, and the chief and the others fled for their lives along the creek.

“My great-grandparents were still in bed, and they woke up to the sounds of guns and howitzers raining down on them,” says Brady, a former high school teacher on the rez who chairs the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project Committee.

His great-grandfather, Braided Hair, was one of the few warriors in the village, and he lassoed a stampeding horse for his pregnant wife and got her to safety.

The American soldiers slaughtered without mercy. They hacked off limbs with hatchets, and scalped the wounded without killing them. Defenseless groups of women and children who burrowed into pits along the stream banks were raped and shot. One pregnant Indian woman was cut open and her unborn child left lying beside her.

“Squaws’ snatches were cut out for trophies,” wrote Silas Soule, a captain under Chivington who refused to participate in the massacre and positioned his division to prevent more deaths. “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth.”

About 150 Indians, mostly women and children, died at the Sand Creek Massacre. Black Kettle and his wife, who survived nine bullets, managed to escape up the creek, but many other tribal leaders did not.

White Antelope, another Cheyenne chief, stepped out of his lodge when the soldiers first approached the camp and yelled, “Stop! Stop!” in English. Chivington’s troops shot the unarmed 75-year-old man. One soldier then scalped White Antelope, cut off his nose, ears and genitals, and boasted that he would make a tobacco pouch of the chief’s scrotum—as he still lay dying.

In those final moments of White Antelope’s life, surrounded by the dead and wounded of his band, the old chief repeated the words of a tribal “journey song” over  and over — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever.”

The Repatriation

The soldiers of Chivington’s regiment left Sand Creek with scalps, bones and gruesome tobacco pouches. They paraded through Denver as heroes when they returned. A few days before Christmas 1864, the Rocky Mountain News reported, “Cheyenne scalps are getting thick here as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one, and is anxious to get another to send east.”

Army surgeons returned to Sand Creek in 1867 to gather bones—usually the skulls—for ballistics studies and an “Indian cranial study” in the name of the pseudo-science of phrenology. Those samples ended up in the Smithsonian museum, which eventually housed about 18,500 Native American remains including 4,500 skulls.

This status as souvenirs and specimens has represented a tragic fate for the remains, which the government, museums and tribes have begun to address only in the last fifteen years. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law established a formal process to catalog and return certain cultural items, including human remains, to affiliated tribes and descendants. Museums across the country have since repatriated, or returned, such artifacts to tribes.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes know of seven human remains from Sand Creek held by the federal government and state museums. The Colorado Historical Society repatriated a scalp lock to the tribes in 1997 through NAGPRA. Representatives of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes took custody of the individual this past October. The widow of Major Jacob Downing, who fought under Chivington at Sand Creek, originally donated the long lock of hair to the state in 1911.

On this trip, the Northern Cheyenne have picked up a skull fragment of a Sand Creek victim from the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. The museum knows the cranium was donated in 1927 but not much else: A staff member accidentally discovered it in a drawer with some old paper money.

“I think it’s certainly one of the most important [repatriations] because of the historical interest” in Sand Creek, says Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. “Every time we have one of these repatriations, it brings back a lot of history. It’s a very emotional experience, I think, for everyone involved.”

The Northern Cheyenne have brought the skull fragment to Denver where the Colorado Historical Society has stored it for the night. The next morning, before driving down Highway 71 to La Junta, the Indians meet with historical society officials, who invite the men to a basement vault to view a table of artifacts claimed from Sand Creek. There’s a bow and two arrows, a warrior’s buckskin shirt colored with yellow ochre and decorated with beads and scalp locks like tassels. Two war bonnets, lost in the chaos. A single buckskin moccasin.

The Historic Site

The two vehicles arrive at Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta—a National Park Service historic site where Sand Creek remains are being held. This past August, President Bush signed a law officially creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Previous laws approved a study to confirm the location of the massacre and O.K.’d the acquisition of private lands for the site. To date, the federal government and the tribes have purchased almost 2,400 acres along Sand Creek, which the Park Service will manage once the massacre site is finalized.

Park Service Superintendent Alexa Roberts says Sand Creek will be the first unit in the National Park system recognized as a “massacre” site. The agency and tribes are now considering a visitors center and interpretive trails and the placement of a cemetery for the repatriated remains before opening the area to the public.

Steve Brady says he’d like to see a simple monument inscribed with the message of White Antelope’s journey song. Roberts and the Northern Cheyenne representatives envision very little development, and hope visitors will recognize the site as a place of life and activity, and not just a historic relic.

The day after the Indians arrive in southeastern Colorado, they head out to the massacre site with Roberts and other Park Service staff, and the connection between past and present is evident in the prayers of Lee Lone Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.

Like the others who have made this journey from Lame Deer, Lone Bear is a direct descendant of Sand Creek victims. His paternal grandfather married a daughter of White Antelope. His great-grandfather was Lone Bear, or One-Eye, a chief who also died at Sand Creek.

On this November afternoon, Lee Lone Bear is leading a prayer on a bluff overlooking the cottonwoods and dry creek bed of the massacre site. He chants in the Cheyenne language, and Allen Joe Black Wolf, who is learning the spiritual ceremonies from Lone Bear, stands at his side.

Lone Bear later explains that his words are part of an ongoing invocation that began before he left Lame Deer.

“I started the prayer at home and told them [the ancestors whose remains will be repatriated] we were coming and asked them for a good trip,” says Lone Bear. “At Lincoln, I prayed and said, ‘I’m taking you to Denver and La Junta, and we’ll bring you to where you’ve fallen.’”

His prayers include words for the young people of the tribe, and those in the Armed Forces fighting in Iraq. “We even pray for our president, President Bush. We pray that he makes the right decisions, even though he’s not well liked anymore,” continues Lone Bear. (“I even asked the Creator to watch over you,” he tells this journalist, “to make a good report and get it right.”)

“And I asked the spirit world for good health for the tribe and families, and to get a cemetery and reparations.”

The Reparations

Thirteen years before Sand Creek, the United States government and the tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, establishing the first reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The territory encompassed 51 million acres across four present-day states, including 27 million acres in Colorado. The Indians retained rights to hunt, fish, travel and live on the land, and the tribes and the U.S. both agreed “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.”

The peace lasted about seven years until the 1858 Pike’s Peak gold rush, when 140,000 prospectors flooded into Colorado. Conflict erupted, ultimately leading to Chivington’s aggression at Sand Creek in 1864. One year after the massacre, still reeling from the devastation and violence, some Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a new treaty on the Little Arkansas River in Kansas, surrendering claims and rights to Colorado Territory.

But the U.S. government also accepted blame for Sand Creek. Article 6 of the treaty recognized “the gross and wanton outrages perpetrated” that day, and the government agreed to pay reparations in the form of land grants and “securities, animals, goods, provisions, or such other useful articles” to the survivors and victims’ families.

Fast-forward a century when the U.S. Indian Claims Commission negotiated land-claims settlements with Indians whose territory was taken without compensation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes gave up any outstanding claims in exchange for just $15 million. But Sand Creek descendants still retained the right to unpaid reparations.

For the 5,000 Northern Cheyenne members who live on the reservation in Eastern Montana, per-capita income is less than $5,000 and unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Similar to other reservations, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and other poverty-related problems cast a dark shadow over the tribe’s future.

“This is where we [the Northern Cheyenne] always wanted to live,” says Norma Wolfchief Gourneau, over a cup of coffee at her home on the rez. A huge home theater TV towers over the living room, and a litter of kittens bounce around her back porch amid rows of old cars and trucks.

“But there’s not a lot of opportunities for jobs here,” continues Gourneau, a descendant of chief Black Kettle and a former tribal vice president. She now works for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, an hour’s drive away.

The Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma face similar challenges. The tribes don’t have a reservation; instead, the 11,400 members live within “service areas” in the panhandle, where they’re eligible for government services. Per-capita income is less than $9,000, and the unemployment rate is around 60 percent.

Any compensation or reparations could make a huge difference in the lives of these people, which may be why Steve Hillard, CEO of the Golden-based investment firm Council Tree Communications, approached the tribes in 2003 with a proposition for a casino in Colorado—in the name of retribution.

“It was a departure from what we normally do,” says Hillard, a Colorado State University graduate, whose company has worked mostly with Alaskan tribes on telecommunications deals. “We just did it because we believed it was the right thing to do for the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”

Hillard struck an agreement with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho and then unveiled his proposal to Colorado in December 2003: The Indians wanted to open a casino on 500 acres outside Denver International Airport and, in exchange, would abandon any claims to the 27 million acres of Colorado—40 percent of the state—under the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The supporters of the “Homecoming Project,” as the $150 million casino complex was named, suggested the gaming revenue could serve as reparations. Backers estimated a metro Denver casino would create 10,000 jobs and bring in up to $500 million a year for the tribes, plus $100 million in taxes for Colorado.

Despite the economic potential, Sand Creek descendants among the tribes took offense.

“We don’t care if you build a hundred casinos,” says Gourneau. “But we say, ‘Don’t use Sand Creek to get your casino and don’t use Sand Creek as a hammer [to hold] over the state of Colorado.’”

“When they first came out with the offer, they included Sand Creek as a bargaining chip,” says Joe Big Medicine, a Southern Cheyenne Sand Creek descendant. “When we met with Council Tree, we demanded that Sand Creek be left out.”

Hillard relented on the association, but he still tried to talk about “genocide” when the Homecoming Project got a hearing from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September 2004. But after a chilly reception from Congress and continued opposition from Gov. Bill Owens and the northern tribes, the investors regrouped and targeted the city of Pueblo for the casino site. The project received approval from county commissioners this August before the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal council ultimately rejected the land exchange a month later.

Hillard says the casino is “at best, on hold,” but adds that the swing in support among southern tribe members “reflects honest and very deep divisions.”

Still, Hillard’s venture created confusion—over the creation of a Park Service unit and the tribal casino proposal—and stalled the legislation to designate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Hillard “sidetracked us enough as it was. It almost completely derailed us,” says Steve Brady, who adds that Congress, not a casino developer, should move ahead and finally pay reparations for Sand Creek descendants.

The Run

Braided Hair — the great-grandfather of brothers Steve Brady and Otto Braided Hair — was hurt during the Sand Creek massacre but escaped that morning. He found his pregnant wife alive and riding the same horse for warmth a few days later.

“[Braided Hair] was among those delegated to go back and look for survivors and horses,” says Brady, who has kept the Anglicized name Indian Affairs later gave his family while his brother uses his ancestor’s given name. “He went back to the village and…unbelievable carnage, mutilated bodies, the whole village burned. So, they were left totally destitute. My great-grandfather never forgave the white people for that.”

Braided Hair lived to be 102 years old, dying in 1934. By then, most of the old ways of life had disappeared.

In the years following the massacre, bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho alternately pushed for peace and war with the United States, losing either way. By 1890, the government had relegated the northern and southern tribes to scrawny reservations, scraps of their once-expansive dominion.

Members of the tribes needed permission from the government Indian agent to leave a reservation. Elders were discouraged from sharing their heritage, and many chose to suppress stories of the past. Children learned little about their native language, culture and history. Few residents of the Northern Cheyenne reservation have ever journeyed to Sand Creek, and the tribes had even lost track of exactly where their ancestors had camped and been attacked.

“I didn’t learn about Sand Creek in elementary school or high school,” says Otto Braided Hair, coordinator of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project.

“For us, everything is healing. The repatriations. This [the massacre site] becoming a national historic site,” says Braided Hair, as he walks around Sand Creek and speaks of the role of the tribe’s prayers in their accomplishments. “Everything seemed almost impossible [in 1999]. Even the healing run.”

Since 1999, a group of runners, children and adults, commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre every year by jogging from the site to Denver during the week of Thanksgiving—and the anniversary of the attack.

Lee Lone Bear, the spiritual adviser, conceived of the healing run as another way to actively remember and reconnect with the history of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Both northern and southern tribes say the run is a centerpiece for education for their members and the American public, and it’s even helping them to connect with each other.

In the early morning of the run that first year, Lone Bear held a pipe ceremony along the creek with Braided Hair and a private landowner. Lone Bear says the men heard a woman crying, only to realize it was a chorus of coyotes circling them. The landowner later said that deer and elk—long absent from the area—returned after the ceremony.

The Future

A few weeks after the repatriation, both Braided Hair and Lone Bear return to Colorado for the seventh annual healing run.

The night after Thanksgiving and the run at Sand Creek, members of the northern and southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Denver Art Museum. There are about 40 people at “the Wheel,” an outdoor art exhibit of a circle of ten forked “trees” painted red with messages of history and hope for Native Americans.

Lone Bear recounts the story of White Antelope chanting his journey song as he died at Sand Creek, and then begins to sing those words in Cheyenne — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever” — with Braided Hair and others. Braided Hair follows with a long yelp that gives chills even on a 30-degree night.

The massacre site is on the verge of becoming a national historic site run by the federal government. The healing run is bringing attention, and receiving support from the city of Denver. The Colorado Historical Society is planning a major exhibit on the state’s Native American inhabitants. The Cheyenne and Arapaho are learning how to make sure their heritage and their stories live forever with the rocks.

“In our writings, we say it is our tribal history,” Braided Hair tells the group at the vigil, “but it is not. It is the history of the land.”

Tancredo’s Crash Course

Tom Tancredo

Tom Tancredo

From the Border to the Oval Office

Tom Tancredo drops the bomb—that he’s testing the waters for a run at the White House.

By Joshua Zaffos
Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 28, 2005

Tom Tancredo is running for president.

No, that’s not a promise…it’s a threat.

The four-term Republican congressman from Colorado’s Sixth District is traveling the country talking about locking down our national borders and kicking out the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. And if other would-be 2008 presidential candidates don’t start following his lead, he’s ready to carry the anti-immigration banner on his own run for the White House.

“I want to see what they’ll promise to do to control the border, what they’ll promise to do to enforce the law internally in the United States against [businesses] who are hiring people who are here illegally,” says Tancredo, who lives in Littleton. “My purpose is to instigate that kind of discussion.”

The congressman certainly knows how to instigate. Most recently, his comments on a Florida talk-radio show on July 15 that an “ultimate response” to a terrorist nuclear attack on the United States could include bombing Mecca and other Islamic holy sites invoked worldwide scorn. In Colorado, 150 people gathered at the State Capitol on July 26 to say they’re embarrassed Tancredo represents the state.

He isn’t apologizing. Instead, Tancredo’s unabashedly touring the nation to ensure the “ultimate immigration reform guy”—perhaps himself—gets heard during the next presidential election. His explosive presence will be hard for contenders for the Oval Office to dodge.

In February and June, Tancredo stopped by New Hampshire, which holds the earliest state primary each presidential election. In mid-July, he swung through Iowa, home of the first party caucus, to meet with Christian Coalition members who gave him a rock-star reception. He’s also visited South Carolina, another early primary state, and will return in August.

“I commend him for what he’s doing,” says Fred Elbel, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform and a Tancredo supporter. “The immigration problem is a symptom that our government is no longer responsible to our people and the rule of law.”

Pundits say there’s a good reason most politicians don’t talk about immigration.

“It’s another one of the hot-button issues that people feel passionately about on both sides,” says John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor.

In other words, most candidates treat immigration, like abortion, as a topic that will cost them votes instead of winning them support. As Tancredo beats the drum for immigration control, Straayer believes he’s effectively pressuring colleagues to talk about the subject and take a stance.

“From a citizen standpoint, it’s never a bad thing to elevate a critical issue,” adds Straayer.

From a party standpoint, it’s another thing. President Bush has introduced a guest-worker plan that would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants already working in the U.S.— as long as they leave after five years and then reapply for legal entry. Tancredo’s own guest-worker proposal would make every illegal immigrant a felon and boost law enforcement along the borders. He says Bush’s legislation is among the spoils for corporations who contribute big money to the GOP and rely on low-cost immigrant labor.

“When you try to equivocate on [immigration policy] because you think you’ve got big donors who are going to get mad at you,” says Tancredo, “you take a hit, and it’s both a political and moral failing.”

Statements like this win standing ovations and teary hugs from “values” voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina who appreciate his combination of John McCain-style honesty and Pat Buchanan-style conservatism. But those words also bring rebukes from Republican heavyweights at the national level.

In 2002, Bush’s political guru Karl Rove called Tancredo a “traitor” who was “never again to darken the door of the White House.” That ominous caveat came after the congressman told the Washington Times, “Unless we do something significant to control our borders, we’re going to have another event with someone waltzing across the borders. Then the blood of the people killed will be on this administration and this Congress.”

Last year, during the primary season, Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told Tancredo he was “kaput.”

“You cannot think of making a career in this place [Congress],” DeLay warned.

Tancredo earned that scolding after his Team America political action committee—which he co-founded with Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister—gave money to party candidates running against incumbent GOP colleagues with pro-immigration voting records.

Ongoing scandals over the ethics of both Rove and DeLay now make Tancredo look squeaky-clean and righteous in these exchanges, which is why he believes Republicans—and Democrats—won’t be able to duck the issue in 2008.

“I think the smart political money is on the side that takes up this issue, Republican or Democrat,” says Tancredo. “Why do you think you see people like Hillary Clinton addressing it? I mean it isn’t because she believes it. It’s because she figures she’s got to win some of those red-state votes.”

Gabriela Flora agrees with Tom Tancredo that “the immigration system is broken.” But the regional organizer in Colorado for the national social justice group American Friends Service Committee is not convinced that Tancredo’s plan—to line the borders with soldiers and deport every single undocumented worker in the U.S.—is the solution. She says an increase in border troops since the 1990s has led to more deaths among immigrants sneaking into the country but failed to decrease immigration rates.

Tancredo argues that securing the borders isn’t just a matter of restricting the entry of undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, but also one of homeland security.

“I think that those are both legitimate issues that revolve around the whole immigration debate,” says Tancredo. “Last fiscal year, we interdicted almost 30,000 people from what we call ‘countries of interest.’ So, you say to yourself, ‘Who would be being smuggled in here for somewhere up to $50,000 a head?’ It’s not someone who’s just going to work for 7-Eleven. So, there’s got to be another reason that they’re coming in, and it’s probably not a very good one.”

Responds Flora, “I think the war on terror is a very convenient way to conflate the issue. We need to talk about [immigration], not from a place of fear, but from a place of freedom and liberty.”

Tancredo clearly wants to do both. Even before he began “throwing out some ideas” about bombing Mecca, he warned a crowd in New Hampshire this June that illegal immigrants are  “coming here to kill you and you and me and my grandchildren.”

“If it gets to the point that his commentary is so continuous and explosive,” says Straayer, the political science professor, “his side suffers.”

But as long as immigration is being discussed, Tancredo acts like he’s winning—even if it triggers a political chasm within the Republican Party or a backlash against the U.S.

“I think, frankly, I won’t have to run for president,” says Tancredo.

Politicians are “almost as afraid now of running away [from the immigration issue] as they were in the past of embracing it,” he continues. “So, probably, we’re going to get one or more people fighting to see who can out-Tom-Tancredo each other, and so that would be good.”

If that’s what Americans end up voting on in 2008, will anybody be able to out-Tom-Tancredo the man himself?

Flare Up

Health problems. Environmental degradation. A billion-dollar business with ties to the White House. Landowners on the West Slope are fighting back against the oil and gas industry.

By Bethany Kohoutek and Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

Laura Amos wakes up in the middle of the night and shuffles from the bedroom of her log home to her computer desk upstairs. She looks in on her 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, as she sleeps, and then sits down at the keyboard to read through technical reports from government commissions and energy corporations. Sitting in front of a glowing computer screen at three in the morning isn’t how Laura expected to spend her nights when she moved to Silt, Colorado, in 1992 to help her husband run his hunting and fishing guide service, Winterhawk Outfitters.

She steps away to her backdoor and stares off at the glowing bulbs of gas wells that surround her and drown out the stars. These aren’t the lights Laura pictured filling the night sky around her 30-acre ranchette. Less than 100 yards away, a compound of six gas wells flares and lets out fumes. She turns to see the 10,000-gallon tank that looks like an industrial dumpster and holds her family’s drinking water. Laura thinks of her sleeping daughter and goes back to the computer.

The water well on the Amos’ property became mysteriously contaminated four years ago, at the same time the gas industry was setting off mini-explosions of pressurized water, sand and toxic chemicals to get at natural gas beneath her neighbor’s land. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or frac’ing (pronounced “fracking”), increases the amount of recoverable oil or gas.

While in Kansas visiting Laura’s parents with their new baby, the Amoses got an unexpected call. A metal cap had blown off the water well after it erupted like a geyser. They returned home to find their tap water undrinkable.

“The water bubbled like 7Up, and it was a goopy gray,” remembers Laura, as she sits inside Winterhawk’s office on Grand Avenue in the small town of Silt. “After a few days, it had this much sediment”—she holds her forefinger and thumb an inch apart and refers to a glass of water—“and an oily sheen on top.”

A large banner proclaiming “Support Our Troops” hangs in the office window, and the walls are decorated with photos of clients and their trophy kills. A picture of Laura hugging a cougar she killed with a crossbow greets visitors when they walk through the door.

The fizzy and noxious water flowing from her faucets turned out to be saturated with methane gas. The gas industry denied any connection between Laura’s undrinkable water and the well explosion. And it wasn’t until four years later that the state regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, finally linked frac’ing to the water contamination.

“We felt abandoned by the commission,” says Laura, “and abused by the industry.”

Immediately after the contamination, EnCana, the oil corporation performing the frac’ing, provided fresh drinking water in giant tanks for Laura’s family. But that stopped after a few months, and the Amoses had to seek out potable H20 on their own.

In January, after four years, the company resumed its weekly water deliveries. A few months later, the oil and gas commission finally issued a violation to EnCana. By then, Laura had developed an even more critical problem. Two years after the water well blew its top, Laura became curiously yet critically sick. Her doctor eventually diagnosed her with a rare adrenal tumor, which was removed in July 2003. She’s convinced the illness was linked to the frac’ing chemicals she ingested.

“And what was my daughter exposed to?” Laura asks now. It’s one of those questions that keep her awake at night.

Laura isn’t alone among obsessive insomniac landowners living in Garfield County these days. Landowners around the towns of Silt, Parachute and Rifle all can gaze at well pads and drill rigs from their property. Most locals hold only the deed to the land on top while oil and gas companies own the minerals below. The arrangement gives the energy industry the upper hand to build roads and erect gas wells, visibly—and some say, permanently—altering the West Slope’s landscape and environment.

Laura Amos and her neighbors are finding out it’s not a bargain. Frustrated by a no-holds-barred industry backed by a presidential administration that many locals have supported at the polls, these landowners are rising as a new, unlikely class of environmentalists ready to fight back. And they’re quickly learning what they’re up against. After all, Halliburton Services, where Vice President Dick Cheney was once CEO, pioneered frac’ing, and the Veep’s 2001 energy task force pushed to exempt the process from any governmental regulation.

“Billion-dollar industry,” says Laura of the oil and gas companies. “Million-dollar lobbyists, connections to the White House.”

Garfield County is currently home to 2,500 active gas wells—more than any other county in the state. And with 1,000 new drilling permits expected by year’s end, it seems the region’s energy boom is just beginning.

Oil companies are now extracting more than a billion dollars’ worth of oil and gas from beneath the soil of Garfield County each year. And much of that is tapped from private land, like Laura Amos’.

Because Colorado’s Western Slope, particularly Garfield County, has been handpicked by the Bush administration for rapid oil and gas development, the gate to the county has been thrown wide for the petroleum industry. The sheer density of drilling activity in Garfield County is greater than anywhere else in the world; oil producers are authorized to bore wells twenty acres apart—and they’re pressing for an even-tighter ten-acre density allowance.

Before a company can drill a new well, a qualified geologist must suspect that oil or gas is lurking below the surface, says Ken Wonstolen, general counsel for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, an industry trade group. Once that’s established, industry workers (most of whom are out-of-towners; employees are rarely hired locally) raze a two- to four-acre “pad.” The company then erects a drilling rig that augers deep into the earth—anywhere fron 2,000 to 15,000 feet deep—to reach the prized resource.

The towering rigs, which protrude conspicuously from Garfield County’s rugged landscape, competing with the expansive mountain vistas, are the most visible and ubiquitous reminder of the oil industry’s footprint on the region. Of all the extraction machinery, rigs are the noisiest, and their lights cast an orangish light into the night sky—“like a carnival,” as one local activist put it.

While the rigs are an annoyance to the Amoses and other local landowners, it isn’t the tower itself that makes them lose sleep. It’s the next step in the process.

After the hole is dug, hydraulic fracturing fluids, or “frac’ing fluids”—essentially, water laced with chemicals—are injected into the well to force the earth’s natural faults and creases to expand, making it easier for the gas to flow to the surface. These additives can include, among others, benzene, diesel and 2-BE, the frac’ing chemical that Laura Amos believes caused her tumor.

Wonstolen says frac’ing is “essential” in the West, because of the nonporous nature of the tightly packed, sandy soil. EnCana utilizes the process in 100 percent of its well operations within the county, says Florence Murphy, a company spokeswoman.

And both Wonstolen and Murphy maintain that the practice is perfectly safe. In fact, Wonstolen says allegations of contamination, like the Amoses’, amount to a “phony issue.”

Wonstolen contends that 2-BE is found in Windex and other household cleaners; what’s more, only “tiny, tiny” amounts of such chemicals are pumped into the ground, he adds. Otherwise, frac’ing doesn’t involve anything worse than water, sand and gelling agents like guar gum, which is a natural plant derivative. One industry official likes to point out that guar gum is an ingredient in Snickers bars.

And the Environmental Protection Agency backs him up.

In June 2004, the EPA released a rule stating that frac’ing fluids pose “little or no threat” to drinking water. A provision in President Bush’s energy bill, which is working its way through Congress, would permanently exempt frac’ing from any regulation, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This particular exemption is plucked from the wish list of the 2001 energy task force convened by Vice President Cheney, who has collected more than $500,000 in deferred salary from the energy giant Halliburton since taking office. The Supreme Court allowed Cheney to keep the task force’s proceedings secret, but the Los Angeles Times retrieved confidential records that hint otherwise.

Cheney’s office, a resulting Times article shows, pressured the EPA to portray frac’ing as a benign process, and to suppress concerns from EPA scientists over the accuracy of the June 2004 regulations.

When asked whether EnCana would support increased regulation and reporting of the frac’ing process, Murphy says the EPA is a “sound regulator.”

Over the past year, several independent organizations have taken the EPA to task over its rule. The Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project produced its own report. “We found that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health,” it reads, “and that the Agency did not include information that suggest fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed.”

Carol Bell is standing in an unfinished room that will one day become her writing studio—she hopes. She and her husband, Orlyn, have lived on this rugged and rural acreage outside of Silt for the past 24 years, raising kids and horses, and farming hay.

The couple planned to construct their dream home on their land and retire here, and the new building is already half-completed. That was before EnCana installed four wells on the Bells’ 110 acres, before they endured three explosions on or near their land—one that coated their field in paraffin wax spiked with hydrocarbons, another that spilled 2,000 gallons of diesel, and another that leaked frac’ing fluids onto the well pad—and before they watched their road morph from a quiet country drive to a heavily traveled EnCana thoroughfare (“We counted 22 trucks in one hour’s time,” Bell says).

Today, Carol Bell throws open the giant picture windows of their new home, affording grand panoramas of the mountain ranges that wrap the horizon. She points to them in succession: “The Bookcliffs—and just beyond that, we can almost see the Roan Plateau—the Hogbacks, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, White River National Forest.”

The room smells of sawdust and freshly mown hay. But don’t be fooled, she warns.

She takes a few steps out of the building and toward the drilling rig just past her barnyard, and the usual farm aromas turn rancid.

“Methane,” she says. “Can you smell it?”

With two dogs trotting close at her heels, the petite woman with cerulean eyes and suntanned shoulders heads toward the rig. She stops and rubs her forehead. Late last night, she admits, she broke down and cried.

“The last three nights, the odor was terrible. Oryln woke up with a splitting headache. It’s so awful. We can’t sleep. We’ve had it,” she says. “But no one will buy this place. … [Drilling] just takes your property value to zero.

“It’s sad, and I hate to [move], but Orlyn just turned 60 and…” she trails off.

In early 2004, EnCana approached the Bells about drilling on their property. Already,rigs were sprouting up on the land adjacent to their farm, and they’d heard inklings of other families’ struggles with the oil industry. They immediately hired a lawyer.

When Carol and Oryln Bell bought the ranch a quarter-century ago, they purchased only the surface rights, not the claim to the resources underneath; the previous owner refused to sell the mineral rights. At that time, no one knew that this pristine and remote swath of Western land would later become the epicenter for a battle over oil and gas.

Under Colorado’s “split-estate” laws, oil companies are permitted to drill on private land, as long as they give the surface owner a 30-day notice. If the company and the landowner fail to reach an agreement about compensation and well placement, the company can post a one-time bond of $2,000 for dry land, or $5,000 for irrigated land.

Unlike the Bells, some Garfield County residents own both the surface and the mineral rights to their land. While they have an advantage over surface-only owners (mineral deed-holders receive monthly royalty checks from the oil companies), they, too, have little say in where wells and roads are situated, or how they’re cared for.

Often, “They just bond on and bring the bulldozers over,” Carol says.

Some state lawmakers are determined to level the playing field. Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison, attempted to restore balance to the split-estate conundrum when she introduced House Bill 1219 this session.

The measure would have required companies to work with property owners to determine a fair compensation for any damages incurred by drilling.

It also took a harder line on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Many West Slope landowners charge that the commission is tangled in ties to the industry and takes a soft stance on violation enforcement.

“They [the commission] rely too heavily on staff,” says Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, an environmental activist group that has been outspoken in its criticism of the oil industry. “We believe the staff leans almost always toward industry. We are the outsiders in this equation, because we’re rocking the boat.”

But it was the industry that made waves over Curry’s bill, and HB-1219 eventually was defeated in committee.

EnCana opposed the legislation, spokeswoman Murphy says.

“The thinking behind the bill—and we applauded and recognized the need for improvement in the way the industry dealt as a whole with private landowners—was that there already are regulations in place, and we’re not certain that putting another level of regulations in place would be the solution.”

Landowners in other states, however, have been more successful. Wyoming recently passed a tougher split-estate law, and lawmakers in New Mexico and Montana are crafting comparable legislation. And U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat, has expressed interest in introducing a similar measure at the federal level.

After battling EnCana for nine months over specifics like where to place the wells and pipelines so they wouldn’t interrupt the ditch irrigation system or the horse-grazing pastures, the Bells finally signed “out of duress.” Carol Bell says: “It was hell.”

The couple eventually received a one-time payment that Carol Bell deems “minimal.” She estimates EnCana siphons millions of dollars’ worth of oil from their property alone.

The experience has changed their lives, she says, as well as their political outlook. From the window, she points out at Orlyn, perched atop a tractor, mowing the hay fields. Before their experience with EnCana, he declared himself a staunch Republican. While he hasn’t joined his wife on the roster of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, he’s much warier of the Bush administration and how its energy policies are playing out in his backyard.

And there’s more like him, conservative ranchers, shop owners, outfitters, construction workers who’ve watched their fields, their air quality, their property values—and some believe, their health—sacrificed to a tidal wave of drilling and extraction. In the midst of a red county that selected Bush as its choice for the country’s highest office in 2004, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance’s membership has climbed from 75 two years ago to more than 300 today.

“When an industry takes $1.3 million of value from under our feet, we’re not going to take it,” Cox says. “People here are angry—very angry.”

Carol Bell is well aware of the national imperative to beef up oil and gas reserves. She understands that the issue casts tentacles into domestic security, foreign policy, the Iraq war, and the price she pays at the pump. She just wants some balance—and some assurance that the land she’s tended for 24 years won’t be permanently marred when the oil has dried up and the companies move on.

“[EnCana] has a right to be there, they absolutely have a right,” Bell says. “But I think property rights should be equal to mineral rights. … They don’t have the right to come out here and destroy our clean water and air. They’ve taken everything this property is about, and everything we love about this property.”

“We tried to say, ‘We can live with this. We can handle this,’” she says. “But now, I just don’t know.”

Laura Amos doesn’t know what not to do. One morning, she drives off to Denver to sit in on an industry conference on frac’ing, and then cruises back home to attend an evening meeting of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. A day later, the woman who’s informally been deemed the “Erin Brockovich of the West” spends her morning showing the area to reporters; the following day she meets with Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar’s Western Colorado aide. Every night, insomnia rouses her prematurely, and she works at her computer.

In April, Laura visited Washington, D.C., and spoke with Congressional aides and representatives from across the country, including the offices of Sen. Salazar, Democratic Rep. John Salazar and Rep. Udall, from Colorado. Her trip paid off two weeks later when Sen. Jim Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont, introduced legislation to require the EPA to regulate frac’ing chemicals through the Safe Drinking Water Act. Sen. Salazar is considering signing on.

While Amos’ story clearly had an impact in Washington, she isn’t the only one making sure her voice is heard in the Beltway.

Last October, Weston Wilson, a 30-year-veteran environmental engineer in the EPA’s Denver regional office, raised a series of questions about frac’ing. In an eighteen-page letter to the agency’s Inspector General and members of Congress, Wilson claimed the EPA’s rule failed to consider studies that showed frac’ing fluids could indeed contaminate underground drinking water. He also raised concerns that industry reps, including a technical advisor from Halliburton, dominated the scientific review panel.

The EPA is still looking into Wilson’s charges, but the whistleblower was recently sent from Colorado to Africa, where he was temporarily assigned to work on a project unrelated to the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, new EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson spoke at the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association in Breckenridge this June and said, “Rather than the EPA being a stumbling block for energy development, I want it to be a catalyst for energy development while protecting the environment.”

Conservation groups concerned that environmental protection has become a secondary priority to energy development for the EPA are finding some new grassroots allies among the landowners of rural Garfield County.

“It’s the rape of our American West by the oil companies, with absolutely no focus on conservation,” says Cox of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. “And the Bush administration’s response to the problem is to drill more wells. We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it.”

Industry analysts recently predicted that Garfield County will be pocked with more than 10,000 wells by the end of the decade. It’s news like this that reinforces a unique bond that has developed between camps more accustomed to being at odds with one another.

“What an alliance this is creating,” marvels Carol Bell. “Environmentalists and ranchers are teaming up together.”

The Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and its members say they’ll continue to fight for regulations on frac’ing, monitoring of groundwater quality and evenhanded contracts between surface-rights and mineral-rights owners. The Bells have decided to dig in their heels and win some concessions from the industry rather than surrender their retirement plans just yet. The Amoses, on the other hand, are ready to get out and relocate—even if it means turning over their property to the mortgage company.

“We have an unusable, unsafe piece of property that is un-sellable,” Laura Amos says. “That’s the situation the state and industry has put us in.”

In October, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold a hearing to determine the fine against EnCana for the ongoing contamination of the Amoses’ water.

EnCana’s Murphy says the reason for the hearing is “so that everybody can put their facts on the table.”

But Laura is quick to point out that the commission is not addressing the safety of frac’ing fluids, only the undisputable fact that her well was tainted. And it won’t appease her in her quest to get to the bottom of what happened. She isn’t taking anyone’s word that Windex and Snickers are responsible for her contaminated water and her battle with cancer.

“We probably wouldn’t be so bitter if they just became accountable and said ‘Yeah, we f’d up,’” says Laura. “But all’s they do is lie and deny.”

Wardrobe Malfunction

Wardrobe Malfunction

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

By Joshua Zaffos

It can hardly be considered a coincidence that West Nile virus swarmed America, and then the insect-repellent garment industry had a breakthrough. Just imagine a group of investors, outdoorsmen, scientists and fashionistas assembled in the late ’90s to outfit the “swat team,” as Colorado health officials have dubbed citizens wary of disease-bearing mosquitoes. In 2001, a limited liability company formed in Greensboro, North Carolina, to manufacture and sell BUZZ OFF Insect Shield apparel.

Asian tiger mosquito, a vector of West Nile virus (photo via US CDC)

Now, L.L. Bean, Orvis and Ex Officio offer shirts, shorts, hats, pants and socks “impregnated” with bug-repelling, patent-pending technology. Fort Collins residents can buy BUZZ OFF clothes at Jax and REI.

This sounds like a godsend for Coloradans and all Americans. West Nile virus landed in the U.S. in 1999 and arrived in Colorado two summers ago. That year, 2,947 people in Colorado reported West Nile symptoms and 63 died. In Larimer and Weld counties, 948 citizens were diagnosed with the virus and fifteen of them died. Last Wednesday, the counties confirmed the first two cases of West Nile for the year statewide.

Mosquitoes spread West Nile by biting infected birds and picking up the disease. Then, one little vampire flies off, sinks her proboscis into a fleshy elbow, penetrates a blood vessel and leaves behind the virus. Symptoms include fever and body aches, but can progress to convulsions, encephalitis or meningitis—which both involve inflammation of parts of the brain—and even death.

The stats and symptoms escalate that buzzing by your ear from annoying to perilous. Sweat, induced by the heat and fear, increases your chance of infection since mosquitoes are attracted by scent. The burning sting on the back of your neck becomes exacerbated by an itchy paranoia over imminent brain swelling.

Why wouldn’t a person run out and buy BUZZ OFF clothing? A wardrobe that wards off mosquitoes bearing West Nile virus and ticks with Lyme Disease could save humanity. “How does it work?” you wonder, as you stand in line at the register of your favorite outdoor clothing store. According to the tags, “BUZZ OFF Insect Shield builds into your clothes a manmade version of a centuries-old insect repellent made from chrysanthemums.”

That kinda sounds like the campy ’70s commercial when the Asian laundry man credits an “ancient Chinese secret” for getting clothes clean, but it turns out to be the detergent additive Calgon.

Chrysanthemums do produce a natural chemical called pyrethrin. You can make it at home by crushing the dried flowers. But BUZZ OFF uses a synthetic pyrethroid called permethrin, which was engineered to be much more toxic than flower power.

Permethrin is a neurotoxin that’s applied as an industrial crop pesticide—and has been sprayed over Fort Collins in previous summers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the chemical as a possible cancer-causing agent, which is why BUZZ OFF is the first line of clothing ever registered with the government agency. Studies reviewed by the World Health Organization show an increase in lung and liver tumors in mice exposed to permethrin. Further, some experts believe permethrin is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can monkey around with the hormones that cue our growth and development.

An alarming example could be the 30,000 cases of Gulf War Syndrome among soldiers who fought in Iraq the first time around. The illness causes chronic muscle and joint pain, memory loss and general neurological damage. Research from Duke University suggests that Gulf War Syndrome may be linked to the use of permethrin-impregnated clothing in combination with anti-nerve gas drugs and DEET, the most popular toxic bug spray.

“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”

None of these health risks is on the labels for BUZZ OFF. The tags sewn on the neurotoxin-laden clothing don’t even mention permethrin. The manufacturers do, however, tell consumers to wash BUZZ OFF clothing separate from the rest of the laundry and that its repellent powers wear off after 25 washings. Field data already prove that permethrin from agricultural use builds up in rivers where it’s lethal to the fish and critters that live in the waters.

Government health departments concede that West Nile virus is rare, and most infected people won’t even know they have it. Officials say the peak in transmission occurs the second year after the virus shows up, meaning Colorado and most of the country has already seen the worst of it. Last year, there were fewer than 300 cases and only four deaths in the entire state. Our counties had just 25 cases; everyone survived.

There are plenty of truly natural insect repellents, including citronella, lemongrass and tea tree oil. Public health and consumer groups are pushing for the clothing tags on BUZZ OFF to fully disclose the dangers of permethrin. But as with so many other toxic chemicals, this is probably another experiment where we’ll learn the results the hard way.

And that’s enough to sting us with a really painful dose of paranoia.
Staff reporter Joshua Zaffos uses a combo of lemongrass and B.O. to ward off the skeeters.

Buffalo Soldiers

buffhazeActivists and government agents battle over where America’s last wild buffalo will roam.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, April 2005 (Also published via AlterNet, May 2005)
By Joshua Zaffos

It’s early April and I’m bedded down, embedded if you will, along the floodplain of the Madison River in Montana. Crouching next to me in the willows and late spring snow, Justine Sanchez has the volume on her two-way radio turned down low so as not to reveal our whereabouts to the Gallatin County deputy sheriff parked on the shoulder above us.

A distant hootin’ and hollerin’ of men on horseback, the crisp blast of blank rifle rounds, or “crackers,” and the approaching buzz of snowmobiles signal a looming clash. This area comprising and surrounding Yellowstone National Park has been a battleground since white men showed up (how many environmental stories start this way?) and the American buffalo, icon of the West, stands at the center of the conflict.

With her worn wool sweater, hand-knit hat and long dreadlocks, Sanchez is a warrior-activist with the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), “the only group working in the field, every day, to stop the slaughter and harassment of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo.” Most of the year, she lives in the Colorado mountain town of Ward, where she leads yoga classes, works at a spa and raises her 8-year-old son, Japhy, with her husband, Roman, a bilingual elementary education teacher. But each winter since 2000, the Sanchez family has joined hundreds of volunteers protecting the buffalo on the western boundary of Yellowstone.

Some of the bison carry a disease called brucellosis, which they contracted from cattle almost 90 years ago. Brucellosis causes reduced fertility, lesions in females’ reproductive tracts and abortion of the first pregnancy after exposure. Now, Montana and its cattle are certified as brucellosis-free and ranchers fear the buffalo will infect their livestock. Although such a transmission has never occurred, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) persecutes buffalo that leave Yellowstone: Agents round up and force, or haze, roaming herds back to the national park, capturing and testing animals for brucellosis and killing those that are infected. This is the battle that BFC volunteers enlist to fight.

Hazing the Herd

The week before my arrival here, nearly 300 buffalo wandered seven miles outside the national park along the Madison River to Horse Butte, where pregnant females migrate every spring to give birth. Even though no cattle graze the area this time of year and only a few do so in the summer–after risk of infection has virtually disappeared–the DOL captured 24 bison and killed eight that tested positive for brucellosis. State agents hazed the remaining herd back inside Yellowstone, like a postmodern cattle drive with snowmobiles and “crackers.” Bison have already returned to Horse Butte.

A crackle and a voice come over the airwaves of Sanchez’s radio. I barely make out the words although the message is immediately clear. She springs into action and I follow, scampering up the slope from the river to the road, just in time to see about two dozen bison jog in an unnaturally tight formation from the other side of U.S. Highway 191, then hop the guardrail and cross toward us.

A herd this size took refuge in the heart of Yellowstone 120 years ago, following a campaign by American pioneers to vanquish the buffalo and Native American economies centered around the species. That herd spawned the 4,200 or so wild bison that exist in the region today.

“We love you,” Sanchez calls out to the beasts.

On the heels of the animals are six “bubbles,” as the BFC volunteers identify snowmobiles over their radios. The machines skid across the highway asphalt and then onto the dirt of the shoulder as the buffalo exhaustedly trot down to the Madison and across the imaginary line that means they’re back inside the national park.

The county sheriff’s deputy, Rob Burns, drives toward us to reprimand Sanchez for getting so close to the animals. Other BFC volunteers–more than a dozen of them–emerge from other surveillance posts, seemingly materializing from the woods and earth. They converge not 50 feet from the agents, ready to conduct their own haze of sorts, harassing the government employees who are harassing the buffalo they’re here to defend.

“We don’t really get this close to these guys in this capacity,” Sanchez admits to me after the deputy walks off. For a moment, I wonder if she’s talking about the massive buffalo or the government agents, but it’s obvious which ones she thinks are more dangerous.

Psychological Warfare

“Y’all should get a real job,” shouts Stephany Seay, who along with Sanchez is one of two media coordinators for the campaign. She’s wearing a silver buffalo pendant around her neck, a green military jacket and a brown wool skullcap. Her eyes are a fierce blue. Like several other volunteers, she has a camcorder tightly trained on the government officials as she wages psychological warfare on them.

“Where’s all your cows, livestock inspectors?” demands Seay, who then goes into a mocking redneck drawl. “‘Let’s go chase the buffalo, guh.'” Her comrades snicker and keep the cameras rolling.

The officials, who actually represent a variety of government agencies including the DOL; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the U.S. Forest Service; and the National Park Service, don’t respond. They gather with the county deputy and look under the hoods of a few of the snowmobiles, the motors apparently overworked from skidding through the dirt.

Together, these agencies implement the Interagency Bison Management Plan, a cooperative scheme finalized in 2000. The plan upholds the DOL’s right to control and kill wandering buffalo in the name of disease control for cattle, yet also outlines steps for increasing tolerance for bison roaming along rivers outside the park.

Steve Torbit, a Boulder-based senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, calls the plan a “small but significant step” because, without the agreement, any bison that left the park would be killed on sight.

“On the other hand,” says Torbit, “Montana still continues to harass bison on the western side of the park where there are no cattle.”

Five years into the plan, tolerance for the buffalo hasn’t increased much. Animals that leave the park are still hazed, captured and slaughtered. Buffalo calves are sometimes vaccinated for brucellosis and quarantined for up to four years, although the vaccine isn’t entirely successful and the effects of enclosed isolation on the animals’ natural behavior are unclear. The BFC and other critics argue that the engine driving the management plan isn’t working properly either.

Deputy Burns now approaches the BFC volunteers, mostly twenty-something-year-old kids with unruly beards, bandannas tied around their heads and faces, and ragtag clothing. My nose is stuffed, but one of my newspaper colleagues tells me they have “enough hippie B.O. to choke a horse.” Here’s a band of eco-Zapatistas and, as the cop approaches, the mountain air stings even through my clogged nasal passages like a riot might erupt.

Buffalo on the Badge

“Sir, I’m going to need to talk to you about a federal investigation about assaulting an officer,” Deputy Burns says to Roman Sanchez, Justine’s husband. A black fleece ski mask covers most of Roman’s head; wraparound sunglasses hide his eyes.

Burns corrals the defiant Roman a few yards away to question him. The other BFC volunteers keep the camcorders locked in, pushing closer to the officials. Their jeers escalate toward a hostile antagonism, including shouts of “liars” and “racists.” Apparently, one of the agents called Roman a “nigger” yesterday; today, they’re claiming that Roman threw a snowball at one of the federal agents.

“Is this why you joined the Park Service?” Seay snarls at a law enforcement official, sticking her camera in his face. “To harass the last wild buffalo and support racist behavior? Buffalo on the badge and everything.”

He says nothing.

Mike Mease, one of the BFC’s cofounders, later details where this aggression is coming from. “In the last three weeks, we’ve had some of the worst violence aimed at us that I’ve ever seen.”

Last week, a pickup truck fired off paintballs at volunteers stationed along the road. Before that, someone loosened the lugnuts on a BFC car and a tire fell off the vehicle when a volunteer started driving. Combined with the onslaught of this year’s hazing and killing, passions and tempers are running high.

Justine Sanchez stands behind the others, a soothing voice amid the rage. “Montana should be celebrating that the last wild buffalo have chosen to live here,” she keeps repeating.

Eventually, Deputy Burns finishes his talk with Roman. Both sides simmer and disperse. The government agents hop on their snowmobiles and disappear back across the road. The BFC volunteers return to their posts. The buffalo are already out of sight but will inevitably migrate along the Madison to Horse Butte again.

Tom, an older volunteer with Native American ancestry and a long, white beard, leans over to me and speaks with a grin. “Welcome to our world.”

Central Command

The world of the Buffalo Field Campaign physically exists in a setting that most of us only know through postcards and Robert Redford movies. When not spread out in the field along the Madison River and its tributaries, the group shacks up along the shore of Hebgen Lake, ten miles from the national park tourist trap of West Yellowstone, Montana, a town of 1,100 people that caters to summer RVs and winter snowmobiles.

A few days before my arrival, Seay emails directions to the BFC compound: “We are out on [Highway] 287 right by the Square Deal Bar–you’ll see the large cabin and tipis, and you’ll know that’s us.”

The cabin and a few other outbuildings are actually remnants of a previous high-country commune. Not much has changed since the BFC set up shop eight years ago. The log cabin houses anywhere from twenty to 60 volunteers, depending on the week. The rooms and lofts are mostly packed with tight bunks. A side room nicknamed Siberia–in a region where winter temps drop to 60 below zero–is lined with dry goods and activist paraphernalia like banners and papier mâché effigies of Park Service employees. One outbuilding functions as the media center, filled with recording equipment and computers; another serves as Central Command for the wild-haired field crew.

A handful of paid staffers, including Sanchez, Seay and Mease, live in yurts and tipis scattered around the cabins. Mease has a large bison painted on his tipi. Some Native Americans decorated their tipis with animals or other images to invoke their powers, and there was no symbol more potent than the bison.

Mease is the godfatherly bull of this herd of activists. He originally came with a few others to the Yellowstone region in 1990 to videotape the slaughter of the buffalo. The dedicated corps grew each year and drew the attention of allies, including members of the American Indian Movement and other Native American activists.

The catalyzing episode occurred during the severe winter of 1996-1997 when the Department of Livestock killed 1,083 buffalo. Mease videotaped the massacre, and the activists officially formed the Buffalo Field Campaign in the aftermath. By the following winter, they were set up on Hebgen Lake, a worldwide call for volunteers was out, and the BFC was shining a macabre spotlight on the grisly work of the State of Montana.

Field Work

Now, the group’s annual field season runs from November until May or June, coinciding with the buffalo’s migration from their territory inside the national park to the river bottoms beyond where they give birth to their calves in the spring. Volunteers mainly monitor and document the movement of the buffalo and the DOL, often enduring long, cold shifts in the field.

But the group also uses methods similar to those employed by the eco-activists who treesit 150 feet above the ground in California redwoods, in protest of logging. Last spring, a BFC volunteer named Akiva constructed a “mono-pod”–a 30-foot-high platform on a pole–blocking the door to the state’s bison trap. He camped atop the structure for a week, effectively halting the capture and slaughter of buffalo.

“I think it’s good we have a lot of different tactics,” says Justine Sanchez. “Some honey, some vinegar.”

She and Seay send out weekly emails to supporters detailing the DOL’s actions, how many bison are killed each season–98 this year, as of May 19–and post video of hazing and capture operations.

“They’re keeping the issue alive,” says Torbit of the National Wildlife Federation. “We’ve worked with BFC over the years and I have tremendous respect for Mike Mease.”

“They certainly help balance the issue,” says Rick Wallen of the National Park Service, “because the people on the other end of the spectrum”–those with the snowmobiles, the guns and the power–“have their own biases, too.”

The strategy and goals of the field campaign have drawn financial support from media mogul Ted Turner, who has his own reintroduced buffalo herd north of the park; clothing donations from manufacturer Patagonia; and a van from musician Jackson Browne. U.S. Representative and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich visited the group last year and even spoke up in Congress for the BFC and the federal legislation it’s pushing in conjunction with the National Parks Conservation Association, the Humane Society and other environmental and animal-rights organizations.

Known as the Yellowstone Buffalo Preservation Act, the bill would scrap the Interagency Bison Management Plan and allow buffalo to range over Horse Butte and other public lands neighboring the park without threat of slaughter. The act would also shift most decision-making authority from Montana to the Park Service and dismantle a testing and slaughtering pen inside Yellowstone’s northern boundary. More than 100 Congressional representatives, mostly Democrats, cosponsored the legislation during the last session. But it’s still a long way from passing and has yet to be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.

A Political Issue

At the state level, environmental groups are optimistic following last November’s election of Democrat Brian Schweitzer as Montana’s governor. Schweitzer, a cattle rancher, cancelled the first planned buffalo hunt in the state in 15 years this January, a move applauded by the BFC and animal-rights groups. Steve Torbit and the National Wildlife Federation, which supports bison hunting as a long-term management tool, also opposed the hunt because the DOL, not the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would have had political authority for wildlife management.

“The reality is that this is a political issue,” says Tim Stevens, Yellowstone Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Stevens is encouraged by the governor’s interest but says it’s not entirely clear how things will play out.

Schweitzer has talked about paying Montana ranchers to remove cattle from potential bison range–a tool used by the National Wildlife Federation to buy out most of the cattle grazing on Horse Butte. But the new governor has also suggested rounding up the entire Yellowstone herd to test and vaccinate all 4,200 buffalo.

The BFC says the idea threatens the wild behavior of the bison herd, similar to the current quarantine of some buffalo calves.

Stevens believes the plan is “impractical,” and beside the point. “It’s a false specter of disease transmission.”

Not a Threat

The fact that bison have never infected a single cow with brucellosis, says DOL spokeswoman Karen Cooper, proves the interagency management plan is working. Tests show that 40 to 50 percent of Yellowstone bison carry the disease, enough for Cooper to call them “a chronically infected herd.” She says since the state spent 50 years and $30 million to make sure ranchers’ cattle are brucellosis-free, wandering bison pose an economic threat. Once the herd’s infection rate drops, the animals will be freer to roam outside the park.

Rick Wallen, a wildlife biologist who heads Yellowstone National Park’s bison ecology program, confirms that about half of the herd has been infected with brucellosis. But half of those animals now carry only antibodies to the disease, Wallen explains, meaning they’re “probably not a threat to shedding the bacteria.”

Meanwhile, elk in Yellowstone also carry brucellosis.

“The probability of elk co-mingling with cattle is higher than the probability of bison co-mingling” due to seasonal migration patterns, says Wallen.

But the probability of infection for elk is only 1 to 4 percent, so they aren’t harassed or slaughtered.

“There are some philosophical questions we debate,” Wallen says, “and [Montana] state managers have to account for.”

Wallen is referring to acceptable levels of risk, but there are other questions, too: Should bison be allowed to roam freely like other wildlife, such as elk, and should they be hunted? Should an agency dedicated to a single special interest have a controlling stake in a public resource like wildlife? Should politics trump science in the management of a species once on the brink of extermination?

The BFC thinks the answers to these philosophical queries shouldn’t come from government agents looking out for Montana’s livestock industry.

“Our presence here,” says Darrell Geist, a campaign cofounder and board member, “is a rhetorical question to the American people: What vision do you have for the last wild buffalo?”

Roadside Ruckus

It’s Goth night back at the cabin, meaning loud punk-metal blares from a stereo in the kitchen and the night’s cooks are dressed in black. One volunteer has the pelvis of some animal tied to his face. Dinner is a white bean casserole with a thick crust of nutritional yeast, salad and bread. Darrell Geist, Mike Mease, Roman Sanchez and a few others are talking through their strategy for dealing with the deputy’s allegations of assault by a snowball. They’ve already phoned the group’s attorney and the governor’s office.

The campaign holds a nightly meeting at which the next day’s field shifts and chores are divvied out. Warren, a 23-year old volunteer with a nest of curly hair on his head, is running tonight’s session. He left behind a post as a U.S. Navy nuclear engineer a year ago to hitchhike around the country before landing here for the winter. He opens the meeting by asking if any staff or volunteers have an “agenda.”

Jen refreshes folks on protocol for speaking on the two-way radios, and Drew alerts the others that a pickup truck swerved at him this afternoon. Dan reminds volunteers to go fishing only after their patrol shift ends. Bobcat asks his comrades not to use the back door anymore.

Mike Mease then speaks about today’s roadside ruckus, concluding with a caveat: “Every time you take it out on the DOL, they take it out on the buffalo.”

“Next time, let’s try something different,” offers Tom, the bearded, older volunteer, wearing a green shirt, red suspenders and a long blue stocking cap. “Let’s just be quiet and watch ’em and film ’em. And if that doesn’t work,” he concludes with the joking grin I saw earlier, “we’ll throw rocks.”

Silence and rocks, slurs and snowballs, “crackers” and bullets, honey and vinegar. The Buffalo Field Campaign readies for bed and another long day tomorrow of whatever it takes until America’s wild buffalo can roam freely beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park.

Sprawl of the Wild

In 2005, I moved to Colorado’s Front Range to work for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an independent weekly in Fort Collins.

My first article for the Bullhorn — and one of my favorite pieces that I penned for the newspaper — covered illegal poaching of elk in Estes Park, outside Rocky Mountain National Park, and the proliferation of elk in the region due to a lack of natural controls (read: wolves and predators).

Years later, poaching remains a problem, wolf reintroduction and hunting in the national park remains controversial, and wildlife management remains a general enigma in the Estes Valley.


Sprawl of the Wild

As their population surges, elk in Estes Park become easy targets for poachers.

By Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, January 27, 2005

If ever an elk was a martyr, his name was Samson. A hulking 1,000-pound, eight-by-nine-point bull, Samson probably could have run for mayor of Estes Park in the mid ’90s he was so popular. Tourists and locals visited him at his hangout at the YMCA of the Rockies, south of town near Mary’s Lake, and just about everyone found joy in snapping his photo and feeding him treats.

“Samson would stop right in the road for you to give him an apple,” recalls Bryan Michener, a long-time resident and a member of the Estes Valley Improvement Association, a nonprofit valley citizens’ group. One time, a couple even tried to saddle their 2-year old on Samson’s shoulders for a Christmas photo.

“Like he was in Santa’s herd,” Michener says, as he sips coffee with some friends at the Notchtop Bakery and Café in Estes Park. Still, Samson was a (relatively) wild animal, and Michener says the handouts and human contact amounted to “a death warrant.”

On the night of November 11, 1995, Randal Francis, a resident of Lakewood, illegally killed Samson on the lawn of the YMCA with a crossbow. During Francis’ trial for the wildlife poaching crime, one YMCA staff worker told the court that the bull elk “was so trusting of people that [Francis] could have walked up to Samson and slit his throat. There was no sport in the killing.”

The incident brought nationwide attention to Estes Park and raised awareness of wildlife poaching to a new level. Continue reading