If you wanted to locate the frontlines for the battle to protect the future of wild nature in the lower-48 states, you could do worse than tuning your Google map to the Swan Range in northwestern Montana. This rugged and remote swath of the Northern Rockies rambles from the border of Glacier National Park southward for nearly 100 miles. Bounded on the west by the Mission Mountains and Flathead Lake and the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness to the west, the valleys, alpine slopes and forests of the Swan Range retain much of the natural character of the Rockies at the time when Lewis and Clark first encountered the Salish people in 1805.
The landscape looks roughly—very roughly, from some vantages—the same. And most of the wildlife the Corps of Discovery saw, described and often shot as they crossed the Continental Divide, is still present, though in greatly reduced numbers. The Swans still harbor populations of wolves, lynx, mountain goats, wolverines, bobcats, moose, elk and grizzlies. In short, the Swan Range is one of the last redoubts of wild America, one of those rare places that still has most, if not all, of its key ecological parts, from the top of the food chain on down to newts and salamanders, forest lichens and glacial wildflowers.
But it is also hotly contested terrain, craved by logging companies, mining operations, resort developers and politicians, like Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who want to carve it up as payback to the corporadoes who finance their campaigns. And hovering over it all is the meta-threat of climate change, already making its menacing presence felt through melting glaciers, disappearing tree species, such as whitebark pines, prolonged droughts and intensified wild fires. It is a region under the gun.
Fortunately, the Swans have a very capable and fearless defender. Arlene Montgomery moved to northwestern Montana in 1987. She and her husband wanted to live closer to the “big wild.” She worked a variety of jobs from bartending to office bookkeeping, eventually settling in the tiny mountain town of Swan Lake, population 250 or so in the busy summer months, not including wayward ballet dancers.
Montgomery was shocked to discover that she had moved into a landscape that was under siege by logging companies, rushing to clearcut the sprawling Flathead National Forest.
“I had lived for many years in western Washington and had witness the butchery of industrial forestry by the likes of Weyerhaeuser,” she told me. “But when we moved to Montana I was shocked to find the same kind of brutal logging taking place on public lands. I was outraged. How could they do this when there are grizzlies here. So I threw myself into the mix.”
The timber beasts on the Flathead Forest would soon live to regret awakening the sleeping giant known as Arlene Montgomery. Over the next dozen years, Arlene made stopping clearcuts on the Flathead a top priority. By the year 2000, largely due to the dogged persistence of Montgomery and her rag-tag band of cohorts, including Keith Hammer and Steve Kelly, the Flathead Forest had been compelled to stop all logging of old-growth groves, one of the most decisive environmental victories in the history of Montana forest politics.
But Montgomery’s most important work, the place where she would make her mark as one of the most creative environmentalists in the country, came not in fighting timber sales but in protecting fish. One fish in particular, a little known salmonid with a rather unalluring name: the Bull Trout. In a region revered for its fly-fishing, the bull trout remains something an outsider. Part of this has to do with the fish’s confusing nomenclature. For decades it was called a Dolly Varden, as if it were a bad Broadway musical. Worse, the region’s fishing elites, the so-called Orvis cabal, despised the bull trout. Why? Because the bull trout is a mean son-of-a-bitch. It doesn’t rise to the bait of elegantly casted dry flies, preferring instead to lurk in cool deep pools and await tastier fare. You see: the bull trout is piscivorous. In other words, it eats other fish. Often the very brook, cutthroat and rainbow trout prized by the hip-wading jet set.
So the Montana anglers paid little attention to the status of the bull trout, either out of indifference or outright loathing. Fortunately, a couple of wildlife biologists in the region had been paying attention and what they learned was very troubling indeed. While doing surveys on the Flathead River, the fish biologists recorded a sobering decline in redd counts for bull trout—redds are essentially trout egg nests on gravel stream bottoms. The data suggested that bull trout were in a state of precipitous decline, their numbers falling by as much as 65 percent in some streams. Neither the Forest Service nor Fish and Wildlife Service showed the slightest interest in this disturbing trend. Recall this was in the early 1990s, during George HW Bush’s presidency, when Manual Lujan ran the Interior Department. Lujan had famously declared that the last thing he wanted to see was “another fucking fish landing on the Endangered Species list.”
Frustrated by the Bush administration’s bureaucratic antipathy toward wildlife, in 1992 the biologists leaked their data to Montana environmentalist Mike Bader, then director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, who used the data to file a petition to list the bull trout as a threatened species. This was a bold move because the bull trout’s habitat stretched from Montana to Puget Sound, Puget Sound to southern Oregon, and Oregon to the Jarbridge River in Nevada. In other words, almost all of Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. The bull trout suddenly rose from obscurity to become a bigger threat to the looting of the West than the northern spotted owl.
Into this contentious mix walked Arlene Montgomery. In 1993, she became director of the Friends of the Wild Swan, a small but militant environmental group based in Bigfork, Montana, and soon made the protection of the bull trout her top priority.
What’s so special about the bull trout? For starters, the bull trout is big, by far the largest and most aggressive trout to be encountered in the streams of the Northern Rockies. One biologist called it the grizzly of the rivers. It’s also wide-ranging, with some bull trout migrating more than 100 miles up and down streams and rivers to spawn. But most crucially bull trout require pristine water to breed. They are highly intolerant of sediment that slides into rivers and streams from logging operations and road–building project. Bull Trout and clearcuts can’t coexist.
“Arlene is a dogged researcher and fearless advocate for wildlife and wildands,” long-time Montana environmentalist Steve Kelly told me. “When she sinks her teeth into an issue she doesn’t let go.”
Bull Trout. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.
When the Fish and Wildlife Service sat listlessly on Bader’s bull trout petition, Montgomery sprang into action. She hauled her own copying machine to the Fish & Wildlife Service’s regional offices in Portland and began printing out reams of documents on the status of the imperiled trout. What Montgomery uncovered became the basis for one of the longest-running legal battles in American history.
Over the course of the next 22 years, Montgomery, working closely with Missoula-based attorney Jack Tuholske, waged a relentless war against the intransigence of federal and state wildlife agencies. These lawsuits had one common result: Montgomery’s team won them all. First, there were the three victorious lawsuits forcing the feds to list the trout as a threatened species, with the ultimate victories coming in 1998 and 1999. Then there was another decade long legal fight to secure critical habitat designations for the trout, a battle which pitted Montgomery against Julie McDonald, one of the most corrupt and venal members of George W. Bush’s hatchet team at the Interior Department. Montgomery prevailed in 2010 when the agency was forced to designate vast areas of the Northwest as critical habitat for the trout, including 19,729 miles streams and rivers across five states, 754 miles of marine shoreline in Puget Sound and 488,000 acres of ponds and lakes. Equally important, this total included many miles and acres of currently unoccupied bull trout habitat to be protected as migratory corridors and ecological connectors between distinct populations.
But the battle for the future of the bull trout wasn’t over. The Obama administration soon revealed itself to be just as obstructive as the Bush administration. “The Endangered Species Act is a three-legged stool,” Montgomery said. “It requires the listing of a species, the identification of critical habitat for the species and a recovery plan for saving the species from extinction. If even one leg is missing or hollow, the whole thing falls apart.”
What has been missing from the Obama administration is a recovery plan that makes any kind of positive strides toward saving the Bull Trout from extinction. According to Montgomery, the draft recovery plan, released in September 2014, has a number of fatal flaws, most glaringly the it allows for the existing Bull Trout population to fall by another 25 percent and still be considered “recovered.” That’s right. The plan of the man the Sierra Club dubbed the “greatest environmental president in history” will consider the bull trout to be thriving if its population plunges 25 percent below the level that caused the fish listed as being threatened with extinction.
Expect Montgomery to be back in court and expect her to win—win big.
Mount Aeneas, Swan Range, Flathead National Forest.
Swan Lake is a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business. For many years, the Post Office was located in the General Store, where Montgomery would regularly run into her neighbors. Most weren’t too pleased by her environmental activism and the more lawsuits she won, the more intense local feelings became. “I wasn’t the most popular person in town,” Montgomery said. “But occasionally some of the people in town would pat me on the back and say ‘good work.’ A few even joined Friends of the Wild Swan.”
A very few. Friends of the Wild Swan has fewer members than the summer population of Swan Lake—about 200 or so and many of them don’t pay their dues all that regularly. The group’s annual budget is about $46,000 a year—or about a third of the salary for the CEO of a big time environmental outfit like the National Wildlife Federation. Yet this tiny group based in a small seasonal town hidden in the Northern Rockies has won more decisive legal victories for wildlife and wildlands than the National Wildlife Federation (annual budget $88 million), National Audubon Society (annual budget $90 million)and Defenders of Wildlife (annual budget $30 million) combined.
And the bull trout saga is only the crown jewel on Montgomery’s resume. Over the last 20 or so years, Montgomery has helped block road-building on 36,700 acres of grizzly bear habitat, moved to block a logging in another 500,000 acres of grizzly occupied forest, sued to force a recovery plan for lynx, filed legal challenges against the feds’ failure to list both the Fisher and Wolverine as threatened species, won a major Clean Water Act case forcing the clean up hundreds of miles of “impaired waters” across Montana, forced Montana to implement its first forest management plans for state forests and to adopt rules for management of old-growth forests and advocated tirelessly for the passage of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), a visionary piece of legislation that would protect most remaining wildland in the region as designated wilderness and connect big blocks of wilderness and national parks through ecological corridors.
“Arlene is the go-to activist for protection of forest carnivores, including pine marten, fisher, wolverine, lynx, and grizzly bear,” says Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition in Kalispell. “She has worked tirelessly to help insure that, as roads are closed to protect grizzly bear habitat, culverts are removed to protect water quality and fish from their inevitable blow-outs. And she remains at the forefront to stop logging that removes trees standing, dead and fallen that forest carnivores call home. As an anecdote, when local Roadless Area hearings were held in Kalispell in the early phases of what became Clinton’s Roadless Rule, Arlene and her testimony received the loudest and most rowdy boos of anyone testifying in front of the ‘wise-use’ dominated crowd wherein Sheriff’s deputies were posted to keep the peace. She’s one tough cookie and an honor to work with!”
By any standard, this is a dazzling record of accomplishment, a stunning string of victories won against long odds versus hostile bureaucracies in an embattled region where the stakes are as high as they get. In decades to come, Arlene Montgomery may come to be known as the Rachel Carson of the Rockies. But not just yet. She has much more work to do.
Arlene Montgomery and the Friends of the Wild Swan are doing this important work with financial support from the Fund for Wild Nature. The Fund for Wild Nature was created by grassroots activists to help fund the boldest grassroots groups, knowing how difficult it can be for these groups to get assistance from large foundations, and also recognizing how even a small amount of money for these groups can lead to big results. I’m proud to serve on the board.
Unlike other foundations, the Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on donations from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots biodiversity protection groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. The Fund is honored to offer the award this year to Arlene Montgomery. Through her decisive victories in defense of wildlands and wildlife with the Friends of the Wild Swan, Arlene demonstrates the power and effectiveness of bold grassroots environmental activism. The award will be presented to Montgomery on Friday at the Public Interest and Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Montgomery will speak on a panel of forest and wildlife activists for 10:15 AM to 11:30 AM in Room 184 of the Law School.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: email@example.com.