Outdoor Philosophy

Harnessing the power of adventure to inspire environmental action

27 July 2006

Another carbon dilemma. Give up on the chance of meeting someone who we’d learn a huge amount from, or use an engine?! We went the engine route, hired a car and drove back to Yellowstone to catch up with jim halfpenny who I’d missed on the way through, skimming back over miles it had taken me hours and hours to cycle. Catching up on each other’s adventures. Chris’s had included ricocheting bullets when a lad at the back of the greyhound from Vancouver to Missoula opened fire (for no apparent reason) on the driver (who was encased in bullet-proof glass) . . . Welcome to America!!

Jim halfpenny, early 60’s? bearded, took us to dinner in gardiner at “the only restaurant that serves salad” and told us about his work. Jim is known for his extraordinary skill in tracking, and as a wolf and bear ecologist, amongst other things. And for years he worked on the 2nd longest running climate study in the world, on the slopes of the Colorado rockies. Yes, there is evidence of climate change, he told us. During the 30 years he worked on the project, the climate changed beyond any natural parameters since the last ice-age. In parallel, they observed changes in, for example, the migration and nesting dates of birds, emergence of butterflies and pollinating insects, bears hibernating and emerging from dens, flowering and berrying in plants. And they saw changes in the distribution of species in relation to altitude – trees higher up the slopes and the high alpine flora more marginalised on summits. Jim is convinced that climate change is underway and of its impact on other species. But he is pessimistic about our response to it. From the national parks point of view, for example, he thinks it is seen as just one issue amongst many, with no special priority. Climate change is lumped in with other special interests, such as brucellosis in the buffalo or the reduction in elk numbers. “fewer elk can make a difference between the kids of a hunter going to college or spending that semester working in the gas station . . .”

Jim took us back to the headquarters of “a naturalist’s world” where he runs courses on animal tracking and ecology. A feast of a place, drawer after drawer of plaster of paris hoof , paw and foot print casts, photographs and wonderful series of stills from videos of bears and wolves. Upstairs, a teaching area, tables, computers and two small dorms. Outside, a balcony from which we watched a vivid sliver of moon and a single planet. We fantasised about coming back for a winter wolf-ecology course, tracking wolves on skis, steam rising over snow amongst the Yellowstone geezers. Jim was very much involved with the wolf re-introduction in Yellowstone. The wolves came from Canada rather than America because they were more suited behaviourally – similar prey species to the ones they’d find in Yellowstone. They released 13 wolves in two packs in 1975/76 and now there are around 200 wolves…. A wonderful success story. For jim, the wolf is the ultimate wild animal and he loves the fact that they are back, on aesthetic grounds as much as anything else. And he thinks there are strong ethical reasons for replacing a creature we humans exterminated from this area. Not everyone agrees of course. Some ranchers and hunters blame the wolves for reduction in elk numbers and there is still a lot of misunderstanding about their alleged ferocity. If you want to see wolves, he said, go up towards dunraven pass. Look out for the wolf-watchers by the side of the road. They’ll be there early. 5am start would be good . . .