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Column: Heard Around the West

by Betsy MarstonHigh Country News
| June 25, 2009 12:00 AM

MONTANA

Who knew bears, elk, bobcats, owls and even river otters were so adaptable? But give them an opportunity to avoid fast-moving trucks and cars, and they’ll choose to travel through a manmade underpass.

To reduce deadly wildlife-car collisions, the Montana Department of Transportation placed 42 underpasses underneath a 55-mile stretch of Highway 93, from Evola, north of Missoula, to Polson, on the southern tip of Flathead Lake. The culverts range in size from four feet in diameter to 22-foot-wide tunnels, reports the Missoulian, and most have infrared digital cameras that take pictures as soon as something moves.

Biologist Whisper Camel of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes says she’s counted up to 150 “animal occurrences” a month in the passages. She was especially pleased to see a cow elk, because elk tend to be “skittish … around new features.”

The underpass may have saved the elk’s life, since animals on the road are a major – and expensive – hazard for drivers.

“An elk collision packs a bill of $17,500,” estimates the Western Transportation Institute.

Camel is convinced that the concept of road ecology is catching on, though the Highway 93 system is probably still the most extensive in the country.

Coming up – underpasses for the highway south of Missoula, and, close to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, “a few turtle-sized pipes.”

ALASKA

What a surprise: It’s usually assumed that global climate change will melt most glaciers, with the newly released water flooding the coastlines and eventually drowning cities around the world.

But not, apparently, in Alaska, where global warming is causing the land to rise and the sea to fall back, reports The New York Times.

Morgan DeBoer, the owner of a nine-hole golf course in Glacier Bay, says that 50 years ago, his driving range area was under water. Now, however, “it just keeps rising.”

Here’s the skinny: Once the ice melts, the land rises much like a “cushion regains its shape after someone gets up from a couch.”

You can really see the effects in Juneau, “where most glaciers are retreating 30 feet a year or more.” There’s a downside as water tables fall, channels dry up, salmon have nowhere to spawn, and property owners find they have new and different property boundaries to argue about.

For DeBoer, though, who owns the fastest-rising place in America, the big question is what to do with all his new property. His high tide line, for example, is now almost a mile out to sea. Recently, he’s begun talking to The Nature Conservancy about preserving some of the newfound land.

OREGON

California is overrun with as many as a million feral pigs that do tremendous damage to native wildlife such as ground-nesting birds, and Oregon does not want to follow suit.

If a bill now in the state Legislature passes, landowners in Oregon will be legally required to trap or kill any wild pig roaming their land.

That could put 32-year-old Jody Cyr in a bind. He’s been trying for three years to kill a single wily pig on his land in Powers, in rural southwestern Oregon, but nothing so far has worked, reports the Houston Chronicle.

“Spotlight it. Bait it. You name it, and I’ve tried it,” he said. “I really want to kill him.”

Cyr says he’s considering penning up a sow to lure the big pig into a trap. It’s a little extreme, he says, “but I’m not above it.”

COLORADO

At first, the sign on a building in Basalt, a small town within the exorbitant orbit of Aspen, seemed almost unthinkable: It offered free rent for a 967-square-foot commercial space.

There’s a predictable reason: The owner told the Aspen Times that the corner store had been empty for about a year. The lucky tenant, however, would still be required to pay utilities and other charges, which amount to $1,200 per month.

 (Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo.)