Military veterans log clues, time outdoors
By David Tucker Sierra Club Mission Outdoors
“I never thought picking up s*** could be this fun,” Tim Williams said, laughing as he wrapped a scat sample in a plastic baggy and recorded the date, our location, and elevation on a small white envelope. Williams is a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, but on this weekend in September he was a grizzly bear biologist conducting field research in southwest Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains.
With support from the Sierra Club’s Military Families and Veterans Initiative, Williams and I, along with 14 other outdoor enthusiasts, half of whom were service members, spent the weekend of Sept. 21 collecting what may be the first evidence of grizzlies in the Tobacco Roots for the first time since the 1930s.
The study was being conducted by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and according to Gregg Treinish, Executive Director and Founder of ASC, our work will “make a tremendous difference in the viability of [ASC’s] data and greatly help the forest service in managing for grizzly bears.”
To mask my own reservations about camping in bear country (I’m from New York City where there are definitely no grizzlies), I chatted with the other team members. After dinner at camp, we waited for the moon to set behind the mountains in anticipation of Treinish’s stargazing lesson.
Morning brought with it a sound familiar to Montanans in the fall, but one wholly foreign to a city kid: elk bugling. After making certain I was safe from bodily harm, I roused myself from my tent and joined the chow line. Our guides introduced us to basic data collection, and after a brief GPS tutorial, we were off, our large group broken into three smaller teams with different agendas with one common goal: finding evidence of grizzlies.
My team was made up of our local guide Eric, an ASC staff member, and a couple from New Hampshire who recently moved to the Bozeman area. As a representative from the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program, I was inspired to see our initiative in action and our support for programs like ASC developing positive partnerships.
That afternoon we found what appeared to be signs of grizzly bears along the trail. Back at camp, the day’s shared experience provided ample debate. Was the furry tail one team found from a snowshoe hare? What killed that bird, then plucked its feathers so delicately? Had we really found evidence of grizzly bears?
None of us had all the answers, but we possessed new enthusiasm for details previously unnoticed. The forest contained a story we hadn’t been able to read, and now we couldn’t put the book down.
It’s precisely this enthusiasm and wonder that drives our work at the Sierra Club. Our goal is to ensure that all Americans are accessing the outdoors. We believe connecting with nature is fundamental to a healthy life and is an American right – especially for those who’ve sacrificed so much to protect it.
By supporting programs such as ASC, we hope to encourage more people like Tim Williams to get involved. We hope that by taking some extra time on the trail to notice a critter’s home or the remnants of its meal, our connection to wild places and their inhabitants will strengthen, and so will our resolve to protect them.
Editor’s note: Data collected during this trip will be DNA tested in October, and the results will become public knowledge in early 2013. Evidence of grizzlies in the Tobacco Roots is not yet proven. “While we’re hopeful that this turns out to be grizzly DNA, only a lab can confirm that,” Treinish said.
David Tucker is the Programming and Operations Coordinator for Mission Outdoors at the Sierra Club. He is from New York City, but spends as much time as possible in the Bozeman area. He now lives in San Francisco. For more information about the Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors and the Military Families and Veterans Initiative, visit sierraclub.org/missionoutdoors.