Today in New West news: thousands of snow geese die in Montana acid pit, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop lobbies for national monument revocations, and nominations open for Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame.
November 28, according to the Washington Post, an enormous flock of snow geese landed in an open body of water in Butte, Montana—thousands died. The geese had the misfortune of landing on the 700-acre Berkeley Pit, an old mine submerged in water “as acidic as distilled vinegar.”
Indeed, the mine, which operated from 1955 to 1982, produced nearly 300 million tons of copper, but mining efforts left behind lethal residues of many other elements—arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, iron, and zinc, among others—that, since the mine was filled, has created a sort of anti-oasis on the Montana landscape. From the Post:
After it was abandoned, the pit became a federally managed Superfund site. It also became a tourist destination, where visitors observe the mine’s toxic, reddish water for an admission fee of $2. And microorganisms able to survive in the pit became an object of scientific study.
But snow geese, unlike extremophilic green slime, cannot tolerate acid water heavy in metallic compounds. Roughly 10,000 geese landed in the Berkeley Pit at the end of November, turning the water “white with birds,” said a mine official with Montana Resources, which jointly manages the pit with the Atlantic Richfield Company, to the Montana Standard. On Tuesday, investigators could not give an exact measure of how high the death toll would go. But a preliminary estimate, via drone and flyover counts, found thousands of dead birds.
“I can’t underscore enough how many birds were in the Butte area that night,” Mark Thompson, a Montana Resources environmental affairs manager, said to the Associated Press. “Numbers beyond anything we’ve ever experienced in our 21 years of monitoring by several orders of magnitude.”
As it happened this November, it has happened before.
Twenty-one years ago, in November 1995, 342 snow goose carcasses were found floating in the mine pit. High Country News reported at the time that the Atlantic Richfield Company initially disputed the water was to blame. The company pointed to a Colorado State University necropsy of two birds, which suggested the animals had died from eating tainted grain.
The grain defense did not stick. “Postmortems conducted under the auspices of the University of Wyoming later revealed what most people immediately suspected: that the geese had succumbed to the water, which is acidic enough to liquefy a motorboat’s steel propeller, and to its poisonous mineral contents, principally copper, cadmium, and arsenic,” wrote Harper’s in 1996. “In each bird autopsied, the oral cavity, trachea, and esophagus, as well as digestive organs like the gizzard and intestines, were lined with burns and festering sores.”
There are a few early theories as to what brought about November’s goose devastation. A storm may have driven birds to look for an unfrozen place to land, and the Berkeley pit was one of the only nearby options.
It is also possible that unseasonably warm weather delayed the southward migration, University of Montana Western ornithologist Jack Kirkley told the Montana Standard. At the same time, snow geese flocks are booming. The overall total population rose from about 3 million animals 30 years ago to 15 million. Driven to find new habitats, birds have been seen in areas where they were historically scarce.
Per the Post, mine operators have had a hazing strategy in place for years to discourage birds from landing in the pit. The efforts appear to have paid off in the past—the Environmental Protection Agency told the Post that only 14 bird fatalities were reported between 2010 and 2013. If found negligent by the EPA, the company will have to pay fines in relation to the snow geese fatalities.
Over in Utah, the prospect of a Bears Ears National Monument has gotten increasing bitter this year, with Native American tribes and environmentalists squaring off against lawmakers. Among the most vocal critics of the Monument proposal is U.S. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), who is spearheading a Public Lands Initiative in Congress (you can read a summary of the House bill here) and is overall critical of both national monuments and federal land management.
Indeed, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Bishop has reportedly petitioned the Trump transition team to potentially undo recent national monument designations—although many legal scholars say that power may not be in the scope of any president:
“Any monument designation that lacks local support, is excessive, or violates the terms of the Antiquities Act will be scrutinized and is easier to abolish. Today’s discussions with the transition team examined options for the incoming administration. The talks were positive and encouraging,” Bishop said in a news release.
In the meeting, Bishop discussed his and others’ misgivings about the controversial proposal by five Indian tribes to designate a 1.9-million-acre national monument in Utah’s San Juan County.
Elected county leaders have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to the proposed Bears Ears monument, arguing it would impede public access and disrupt traditional activities. On the other hand, many tribal officials elected to Navajo government posts support or openly advocate for monument designation because they feel the region’s fragile natural and cultural resources need greater protection.
The Antiquities Act does not explicitly prohibit a president from abolishing a previously designated monument. Legal research and a U.S. Attorney General’s opinion suggest that presidents have limited power to adjust a prior designation, but not to eliminate it.
“No president has ever abolished or revoked a national monument proclamation, so the existence or scope of any such authority has not been tested in courts. However, some legal analyses since at least the 1930s have concluded that the Antiquities Act, by its terms, does not authorize the president to repeal proclamations, and that the president also lacks implied authority to do so,” states an analysis released by the Congressional Research Service last month.
While Congress has a clear privilege to revoke monument proclamations, doing so by presidential decree would lead to “lengthy litigation, paralysis and no certain outcome,” according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a conservation advocacy group.
The WCHF can only consider and induct nominated individuals, so the Board seriously urges each of you to think of the worthy individuals within your acquaintance and do everything possible to make sure they are nominated.
On December 1 nominations opened for the class of 2017; and they will close again on February 28, 2017.
The website link for nomination forms is http://www.wyomingcowboyhalloffame.com/nomination/ Clear instructions for nominating are outlined at the WCHF website, and photos can be submitted along with each nomination.
There are 10 geographic regions within the state, and nominations for each region will be vetted and filtered by local committees after the nominations close, with the top choices moving up the line for consideration by WCHF Board of Directors in the spring.