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The New West: A Big Sky musher thinks of his kids



And then leads a climate march

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Jason Matthews makes his living on snow and ice.

During winter, he purveys dogsled rides to tourists who come from around the world to experience mountain adventure in Big Sky, Montana. During summer, he guides clients down the Yellowstone River on float trips.

In recent years, Matthews and those employed by his family business have watched the mushing season—and revenues derived from it— shrink. Last August, because of warmer temperatures causing snowpack to melt out earlier with reduced summer rain not making up the difference, he saw the state of Montana close down the Yellowstone to all recreational and commercial users.

The cause of the latter? An outbreak of a rare infectious fish disease, linked to low, warmer water, that left thousands of whitefish in the Yellowstone dead. Later, the same pathogen turned up in rivers throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The closure of the Yellowstone alone, which extended into fall, cost millions of dollars in damage as a human-caused natural disaster.

For those who claim that climate change isn’t happening, Matthews has numerous bottom-line data points to prove otherwise. Last Saturday, he mentioned them in front of a couple of hundred people in Bozeman, adding that he’s also come face to face with hungry polar bears in the Arctic, forced to scrounge for food in native villages because disappearing pack ice in the ocean is severely impairing the big white bruins’ ability to hunt for seals.

But you don’t have to go far, he says, to experience effects. The changing climate has compelled Matthews to move from being merely an ardent conservationist to marching for political action. For him, it’s not only about feeding his family and sending kids to college; it’s about being able to look his offspring in the eye a quarter-century or more in the future when they ask him if he did all he could to make a difference.

One week following a large community Earth Day march in support of science, and three months after 10,000 Montanans descended upon their capital city of Helena for a Women’s March (held the morning after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president and his selection of Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency), Bozemanites went back to the street again on April 29.

This time they took part in a climate march organized by Matthews. The crowd was left fired up by a wide range of speakers, including acclaimed science writer David Quammen; Vietnam Green Beret medic turned grizzly bear activist Doug Peacock; as well as a downhill skiing/snowboard outfitter, a solar power entrepreneur, a cattle rancher, a food-growing vegan and others.

Designed to coincide with hundreds of other People’s Climate Marches held across the country, the Bozeman event was greeted by a noisy, affirming clamor of honking motorists as citizens made their way down Main Street toward the city’s version of a downtown square.

It was also met by the noxious fumes of men in pickup trucks—vehicles in obvious need of new mufflers—showing their disapproval by revving engines to drown out chants and saluting marchers with middle fingers.

Argue if you want, but no doubt these counter-protestors will be bypassing Democrat Rob Quist and voting for Montana’s GOP Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, both hoping to win the House seat vacated when Ryan Zinke became Donald Trump’s new Interior Secretary.

While Mr. Gianforte is a successful high-tech entrepreneur, he and his wife donated a large sum of money to help build a Creationist-focused natural history museum in Montana, whose exhibits teach that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that dinosaurs accompanied other animals in climbing aboard Noah’s ark.

Gianforte claims the science of climate change is unclear and vows to fight to resurrect America’s dying coal industry. A few weeks ago, he intended to take Donald Trump Jr. out for an afternoon of recreational prairie dog shooting but apparently they settled for fly fishing—on streams where cold-water trout species already have been affected by the deepening insidious impacts of climate change.

One thing Matthews said at the People’s Climate March struck many. Even though Bozeman, like Jackson Hole, has one of the highest per capita concentrations of professional (paid) conservationists in the U.S., not one mainstream group stepped forward to make the march happen. Matthews did so out of frustration and his cause resonated with many. Quammen spoke about climate change impacting species and helping to spread diseases dangerous to humans.

“There are two main things we can do: scream bloody murder, which is what we’re doing today,” the writer said. “The other thing that’s important is to look in the mirror. Every plane we take, every mile we drive and child we have increases our impact on the Earth. So how can we dial back those impacts? Look ourselves in the mirror.”

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years and his column the New West has been widely read in the Greater Yellowstone region for nearly as long. He writes his column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks. You can also read and get signed copies of his latest book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” a story about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 featuring photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.


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