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A Climate for DEATH
Penny Ward Moser
March 13, 1989
The drought and extreme weather conditions that have afflicted much of the nation for the past year continue to wreak havoc on wildlife, including the sandhill crane (left), elk and buffalo. In many of these areas, snow and bitter cold have only served to worsen the damage to the environment
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March 13, 1989

A Climate For Death

The drought and extreme weather conditions that have afflicted much of the nation for the past year continue to wreak havoc on wildlife, including the sandhill crane (left), elk and buffalo. In many of these areas, snow and bitter cold have only served to worsen the damage to the environment

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Scientists will probably argue about the causes of last year's drought for years to come. Global warming, deforestation, localized changing of ocean temperatures, holes in the ozone layer and unusual sunspot activity may all play roles. What is known is that North America has experienced other unprecedented weather extremes in the last year. In September, for example, as Hurricane Gilbert rampaged across the Caribbean, an alltime barometric low of 26.13 was recorded. Less than five months later, a fierce Alaskan pressure system produced a record barometric high of 31.85. That high, followed by a series of bitter cold fronts, spelled disaster for many animals in the upper tier of the Lower 48.

Along Idaho's Henrys Fork, a tributary of the Snake River, wildlife rescuers resorted to taking trumpeter swans home to their bathtubs when the river, which is usually kept open by warm springs, froze over for a week. Water in the Henrys Fork is at an alltime low. In Idaho and Minnesota, trumpeters have died from lead poisoning because low-water levels have allowed the long-necked birds to pick up lead shot from pond bottoms as they feed.

There have been other wrenching scenes in the Northern Rockies, particularly in Idaho and in the Yellowstone National Park region of Wyoming and Montana. Starving moose have wandered through downtown Idaho Falls, bolting or breaking fences to feed on shrubs. In other areas of the state, wardens have erected paneling around farmers' haystacks to prevent looting by hungry antelope, deer, elk, moose and even a few notoriously people-shy bighorn sheep.

For each of the last seven years Yellowstone Park had enjoyed mild winters. As a result, the elk and buffalo herds became unusually large. Then the region experienced early, unrelenting snowfalls last autumn and subzero temperatures this winter. Those factors, coupled with the park's worst drought in a century, have forced elk and buffalo outside the park boundaries in search of food. When that happened, agony and death plagued Yellowstone's perimeters.

"It was a sad spectacle to see these magnificent creatures shivering along the roads and dying up in people's yards trying to find food," says Tim Egan, who covers the Pacific Northwest for The New York Times. "These, some of our largest mammals, are so desperate that they've lost their cautionary instincts." Egan adds that near Gardiner, Mont., one of the northern entrances to Yellowstone, at least one elk a day is being hit by a car.

The buffalo know nothing of park boundaries, nor of a Montana law that requires buffalo found outside the park to be killed because they might be carrying brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort. So park rangers can only watch as state-licensed hunters line up along Yellowstone's boundaries—sometimes only 10 to 20 feet from the buffalo—and blast away the instant the animals step off park property. "These are park buffalo," says Egan. "They don't know about hunting. Thus, even if they see their mates being shot on either side of them, they just stand there and look at the hunters." More than 500 buffalo (19% of the Yellowstone population) and some 2,300 (or 7%) of the park's elk have been shot.

Nothing can be done to bring water from the sky, and where water dwindles, a mad political race is on to see who gets what. When an Alaskan high sent record cold tumbling over Idaho earlier this winter, it dealt a death blow to thousands of trout in the Snake River. It's feared the cold also killed the young trout in the Henrys Fork. Irrigation dams upstream had caused the water level in those famed fly-fishing streams to drop to 25% to 50% of normal. And the Nevada Waterfowl Association—backed by an unlikely coalition of hunters, trappers, bird-watchers and the Nevada Humane Society—has been frantically raising money to buy water, at $750 an acre, for the Stillwater Refuge, a federal wetlands that has no freshwater rights.

Last year 20,000 birds at Stillwater died of botulism, in large part because of overcrowding and contamination caused by low water conditions. The refuge is now waiting for $1.2 million in federal funds to obtain water. The money can't come soon enough. Last Friday, Stillwater biologist Steve Thompson picked up a dead golden eagle, a barn owl and 56 ducks—all victims, he thinks, of low-water stress.

Stillwater may get the money it needs, but in most scrambles for water, wildlife usually ends up last in line. Fish, birds and mammals have no vote. Says Grover, surrounded by the dry marshlands at Cheyenne Bottoms, "When it comes down to who's going to get that last glass of water, it isn't going to be us."

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