Mother Nature Still Calls the Shots

Despite all the political drama as the year draws to a close, it’s pretty clear to those of us living in Montana that Mother Nature still calls the shots. What we got for Christmas this year was a rather astounding jump in temperature from 35 below zero to 45 above in the space of a few days. That’s an 80 degree difference from walking on supercold squeaky snow to perhaps “a chance of rain.”

While headlines proclaim the “deadly cold,” the reality is these temperatures were not particularly considered out of the ordinary in Montana’s past. And despite the inconvenience to our human endeavors, one silver lining in the frigid cloud is the demise of pine bark beetles that have rapidly multiplied in the shorter, warmer winters and early springs.

As reported in a recent article on Canada’s Jasper National Park, Mother Nature has pretty much wiped out the pine beetle populations by sending her Arctic fingers south. Dave Argument, the resource conservation officer for Parks Canada put it this way: “It’s probably been in the last three winters where we’ve had really good winter conditions that have killed those overwintering larvae to the point where now, this year’s survey — no larvae found whatsoever. Not a single living larva was found.”

Human hubris tends to believe we can “manage” our natural resources in ways that suit our current needs but often run counter to eons of Nature’s regimen. Take, for instance, our dams. They store water and produce hydroelectricity, but in doing so they disrupt traditional fishery spawning routes and often, as seen in the lower Madison River, warm our northern rivers well beyond the tolerance level for coldwater fisheries.

The result is easy to see in the bull trout — a majestic fish that has existed in Montana since time immemorial, yet now is on the endangered species list because it needs the cold, clean and connected waters human activities have interrupted, fractured, and polluted. And of course the bull trout is just one of the many species facing extirpation on this beautiful blue ball floating in deep black space.

The question now, in what has been called our “sixth great extinction event,” is whether we can reverse our ever-mounting problems. Unfortunately, it’s not looking all that great for “engineering our way out” in the near future, especially with wild schemes like filtering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with machines when the forests we continue to cut down have done exactly that forever.

The sooner we admit Mother Nature still calls the shots on this planet the better our chance of seeing our children and grandchildren inherit a livable future. In this season of giving and appreciating each other, it’s worth thinking about what we’re giving back to Mother Nature for all she has given us.

While individual actions to conserve more, pollute less, and ease back on consumption, the other inescapable reality is that prudent public policy is our best hope for significant change. In that regard, the upcoming legislative session has many Montanans greatly concerned. Why? Because our incoming legislators have evinced very little respect for Mother Nature.

Montanans have a long-standing reputation for taking care of each other, but at this juncture, it’s time to think about taking better care of the state that has given us so much. Legislators need to know we won’t go back to the abusive extraction policies of the past. Those days are gone and future is in our hands. It’s not too late to craft a livable future — but that depends on respecting, not abusing, our lands, waters, fisheries, and wildlife.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.