Coal Ash: Both Beneficial and Poisonous?

In big cities, during the first half of the 20th Century, shoveling coal in winter months was a familiar part of middle class life. As a kid growing up in a residential borough of New York City, I'd see the coal truck pulling up periodically in the alley behind our brick row house. A workman would put a big wooden barrel beneath a hopper on the truck and fill the barrel with coal. He would maneuver the loaded barrel, rim-rolling it through our back yard to the concrete steps down to our basement furnace room, upend the barrel and spill the coal down a long steel chute that fed into a wooden coal bin holding a ton or so. The furnace that heated the whole house stood a couple of steps from the bin. Shoveling coal was a family chore. My father, mother and older brothers would alternate the morning and evening tasks, going down to the basement to stoke the furnace and remove coal ash that collected at the bottom, loading that into ash cans for pickup by a collection truck. I never knew and never even wondered where the ash was taken for disposal. By the time I was big enough to shovel coal myself it was no longer necessary because our family had switched to a more convenient gas heating system.

Today, most people don't personally handle much coal, but this whole country still casually manufactures coal ash in jaw-dropping volumes, much of it residue from big coal burning electrical power plants. And most of us have no clue where the ash goes for disposal. A lot is used for what the industry and government officials call "beneficial" purposes, as an ingredient, for example, in making cement and wallboard. But we generate mountains of ash so large that we can't consume it all. So we dump most of it anyplace it is economically feasible and arguably legal to dump it, sometimes in old played-out coal mines, sometimes in ponds near the power plants that burn it, sometimes in pits that are lined to hold the concentrated heavy metals and other toxins coal ash contains. Sometimes they are unlined, allowing toxins to migrate into ground water supplies.

How dangerous is coal ash? -- that's the big question. Physicians for Social Responsibility  (PSR) call it "a toxic stew of heavy metals from arsenic, boron, and chromium to lead, mercury and selenium, and zinc." Carelessly dumped ash is "posing grave risks to human health," says PSR.

Some people long exposed to coal ash, like Debra Trently of Cranberry, Pa, and Merle Wertman of Tamaqua, Pa., are suffering from a rare form of blood cancer. Betty and Lester Kester used to live in Tamaqua, Pa., but are dead now.  And there are others, some with the same blood cancer, known to science as polycythemia vera, and some burdened with other unusual and chronic health problems. They have no doubt that coal ash is the culprit.

In Juliette, Georgia, sits one of the nation's biggest coal-burning power plants. Georgia Power, the operator, dumps the ash in an unlined pond the size of a lake. Polycythemia vera is absent in Juliette, at least so far, but so many other cancers and other significant health problems are showing up that 100 people filed a law suit in 2013 against Georgia Power for damages. The company denied responsibility for the health concerns and the suit was then "appropriately" withdrawn, said company spokesman Brian Green.  

Brian Adams, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit was withdrawn voluntarily "for strategic reasons" and that he continues to believe the company is culpable, and he intends to "reset" the case and re-file the complaint.

We expect corporations and government agencies at the federal and state and local level to protect us from any serious health consequences related to coal ash disposal. Until recently, the federal government has left the details of regulating coal ash largely to state governments where the coal industry has great influence. The prevailing rule is that the ash is considered a non-harmful form of waste, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been pondering the validity of that definition for many years and officials now say they will update their thinking and issue a new rule by Dec. 19, 2014. The coal ash industry expects the feds to continue to classify coal ash as non-harmful. We'll see.

The coal ash industry has successfully resisted attempts to strengthen coal ash regulation, and they almost succeeded in slipping an amendment into Congressional legislation in 2012 that would have stripped EPA of the power to regulate coal ash now and in the future.

That was blocked by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and a handful of other environmentally concerned lawmakers. Three years earlier Boxer said she had to fight the Department of Homeland Security's attempts to prevent her and her staff from publicly disclosing the location of 44 hazardous coal ash sites identified by EPA across the nation.

Now, the EPA faces budget cuts and a reduced workforce.

"Addressing the threat from a changing climate is one of the greatest challenges of this and future generations," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the House Appropriations Committee this year. She said the agency's $7.9 billion budget request for 2015, which is $300 million below the current 2014 budget, "will provide the support we need to move forward by targeting real progress in priority areas: communities, climate change and air quality and chemical safety, and clean water."

Of course, a preponderance of scientific experts and political leaders are preoccupied these days over the extent to which coal combustion pushes us deeper into climate change and global warming, thereby posing a grave long-term threat to the health and safety of the entire planet of seven billion humans, a population expected to grow soon to nine billion if nature allows it.
Unfortunately, that distracting controversy makes it possible to overlook consequences already impacting a relatively small number of people who happen to live in communities victimized by side effects of ordinary day-to-day activities of massive coal ash disposal. That's the case even when people in those communities display a cluster of rare cancer cases, as acknowledged in Pennsylvania by federal health authorities. These victims think they are just being discarded as collateral damage, their suffering dismissed as merely an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of maximizing every available power source to continue driving an industrialized multi-trillion-dollar economy. Collateral damage?

"That was exactly my impression too," one closely involved scientist told me recently. Dr. Ronald Hoffman is a Professor at New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who has met some of those victims and who is an expert with 30 years of experience studying Myeloproliferative Disorders, which include polycythemia vera, the particular blood cancer identified in a cluster amid the coal ash dumps of the three adjoining Pennsylvania counties of Schuykill, Carbon and Luzerne.

Dr. Hoffman was invited in 2006 by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to look into the problem and he soon became convinced he was looking at "a possible public health danger to the people of Pennsylvania," as he testified in a Congressional hearing five years ago. He said the cancer cases in question were centered around EPA superfund sites and dumps of waste coal ash plants in the three counties and that his concern for the safety of the people living in the area only grew stronger as he gathered data. That seemed to displease senior officials at ATSDR, who attempted to intimidate him to get him to alter or change his findings that environmental contaminants may play a role in the cancers, Hoffman told the House Committee on Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight in 2009. Hoffman said he began to wonder "if there was some outside constituency who ASTDR was responding to that made them act like they just wanted this whole thing to go away."

Said Hoffman in 2009: "From my point of view, the mission of the Agency is to generate and communicate credible scientific information about the relationship between hazardous substances and adverse public health actions. My experience was, that in the case of polycythemia vera in eastern Pennsylvania, that the ATSDR did not accomplish this goal but only accomplished it eventually with relentless prodding to complete the needed investigations. My sense was if the Agency was left to themselves, they would have preferred to ignore the whole problem. ATSDR seemed to be committed to a course of ignoring and discrediting a mounting body of evidence which suggested the presence of a cluster of polycythemia vera patients in this tri-county area."

Science has limitations and precise answers are not always easy. Medical researchers agree that it is difficult, frequently impossible in fact, to determine with indisputable certainty that one particular form of environmental pollution caused any individual case of cancer, even when persuasive correlations exist between those cancers and exposure to that pollution. But that does not excuse those responsible for the pollution of their greater responsibility to protect people from the consequences.


Miles Benson is a correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus


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Everything You Need to Know About Stand Up Planet


Stand Up Planet host Hasan Minhaj



So what is it?


Stand Up Planet is a documentary TV show and digital series that showcases life in some of the toughest places on Earth through the lens and experiences of stand-up comics. Indian-American, Hollywood based comedian Hasan Minhaj takes you to bustling Mumbai and India to meet up-and-coming comedians. Their humor helps you learn about their homelands in striking ways. It’s equal parts reality TV, documentary and travelogue. Check out the trailer to see Minhaj and other comedians in action:



How can I watch it?


The two-hour Stand Up Planet special premieres Wednesday, May 14 at 7pm ET/PT on Link TV. (The first hour is a documentary following Minhaj as he travels abroad. The second hour is the comedy showcase, hosted by Minhaj and which features a variety of comedians performing at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood.) You can also watch it on KCET -- premiering 9pm on May 14 -- and on Pivot -- premiering at 10pm on May 14. Click here for more airdates.


What comedians does Stand Up Planet feature?


In addition to Hasan Minhaj, you’ll see two Indian comics (Aditi Mittal and Tanmay Bhat), three South African comics (Mpho Popps, Loyiso Gola and Kagiso Lediga). Also expect American stand-ups James Adomian, Nate Bargatze and Michelle Buteau as well as comedy legends Bill Cosby, Norman Lear and Carl Reiner.


Stand Up Planet cast, left to right: Norman Lear, James Adomian, Hassan Minhaj, Carl Reiner, Nate Bargatze, Michelle Buteau, Aditi Mittal and Mpho Popps


What kind of humor are we talking about?


Like any comedians in the US, comedians abroad make light of the stuff they encounter on a day-to-day basis. But what’s interesting about Stand Up Planet is how it helps you understand what constitutes a part of everyday life in India or South Africa. Take Aditi Mittal’s literal take on bathroom humor, for example. Did you know that 40 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to a toilet?



HIV and AIDS are widespread in South Africa. But did you know men can reduce their chance of contracting HIV by 60 perfect just by getting circumcised? That decision isn’t so easy, of course. Listen to Mpho Popps’ take on “going to the mountain.”



So it’s just a comedy show and special?


As Hasan embarks on an epic journey of discovery to find some of the funniest stand-up comics in the most unlikely places, he follows their jokes and personal experiences deep into the hard truths and the promise for change in some of the toughest global poverty issues of our time.


Aditi Mittal


Mpho Popps


From rural villages and urban communities in India to the streets of Soweto in South Africa, Stand Up Planet brings you the stories and perspectives of individuals and organizations on the frontlines of social change. Learn more about SUP’s heroes and allies here. And get all the latest information about Stand Up Planet -- the broadcast show as well as the web-original content -- on the show's official website.


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Our Unbalanced Chemical Burden
Chemical safetyThe year 2014 started with a claxon blare of emergency warnings: 300,000 West Virginians were given urgent instructions not to drink or even touch their own tap water. 

But 300 million other Americans could also hear the alarm's sound as the story grabbed nationwide media attention. That was appropriate. Not just because a ruptured storage tank had spilled its toxic contents into public water supplies in Charleston, West Virginia, but because the incident exposed the underlying failure in the safety of all Americans who assume they are protected by vigilant federal state and local agencies supposedly policing environmental threats.

Surprise. We are all living amid constantly increasing exposure to tens of thousands of chemicals in combinations and in doses we would never encounter in nature.

Why? Because of modern science, coupled with the industrial impulse to make money by manufacturing more and more products to make life easier and more enjoyable for more and more people. We call this progress.

Yes, there are laws on the books intended to protect us. Laws with huge loopholes demanded by special interests whose money and influence over lawmakers and lawmaking is hard to overstate. For example, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in the 1970's, some 62,000 chemicals that were already in wide use were granted automatic approval under legislation that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring them to be safety tested unless scientific evidence already existed showing them to be dangerous. And these days the EPA, the big bulldog guarding public health, has also been granting conditional licenses for pesticide makers to introduce new, untested chemical products for food crop treatment under fast-track authority also imbedded in the law. Conditional licenses can last up to 20 years. 

Today 84,000 chemicals are in commercial use in manufacturing and agriculture. The number is growing, and the vast majority have never been tested and evaluated at all for safety by any regulatory authorities. The stuff is in our food and food packaging, cosmetics, in the clothes we wear and in household products of all kinds. So much for toxic substance control.

Cosmetics chemicalsDoctors and scientists are finding many links between chemicals widely in use and increases in leukemia, brain, breast and childhood cancers, asthma and certain birth defects. Chances of developing learning and development disorders, including autism, and endocrine disruption that effects development, metabolism, fertility and intelligence are increased at even extremely low doses. Whether that evidence is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the law is subject to much debate but little or no action. And so it goes.  

This is the way things work, because we believe so much in balancing interests and promoting a vigorous economy. Avoiding over-regulation is an important part of all that, as so many of those serving in elected office believe as they go about passing laws and blocking laws and collecting campaign contributions to help them remain in office. Most people know by now that much of that money comes from chemical companies and manufacturers who use those chemicals in their products and who of course employ many hard-working Americans who want to keep their jobs. Strictures on enforcement actions are in place not only in the EPA but also at the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers For Disease Control, and the Agriculture Department, where targeted budget constraints can cripple enforcement as effectively as can loopholes. And the conflict between public health concerns and private interests is even worse at many state and local agencies.

Since the effects of long term exposure to chemicals is slow and subtle, and because medical science is boosting life expectancy for so many of us, there is no sense of crisis, no emergency alarm. But look around. Not everyone is enjoying a longer life and good health.   

Miles R. Benson had a long career as a political correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper Group. He spent 16 years as a senior Congressional correspondent and 16 years covering the White House. Since 2007, he has served as the special correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus.

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Dispatch from Washington: Vietnam's President Makes Rare US Trip
Truong Tan SangThe Obama administration came into office vowing to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia, and this week's rare visit by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang signals greater cooperation ahead. President Obama met with President Truong at the White House today. Truong's trip to the United States is only the second visit by a Vietnamese president since the two countries resumed relations in 1995. 

On Wednesday, I had the privilege of attending a luncheon in Washington, DC hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in honor of Vietnam's President. I came there not only as a guest, but as a journalist and an immigrant who fled Vietnam in 1975 with my family as Saigon was falling to the communists. 

As Secretary Kerry and President Truong stood next to each other, I was struck by the imagery. It was yet another step in reconciliation. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who once fought against the communist regime represented by President Truong, was now his political ally. Kerry thanked the Vietnamese government for its help in finding the remains of US servicemen. "They voluntarily dug up their rice paddies to help us answer our questions," he said. 

"From conflict to friendship," said Kerry, "Today, when people hear the word Vietnam, they're able to think of a country, not a war." 

President Truong did not talk about the war. He spoke of the US as a valuable military partner in a region that feels threatened by the growing dominance of China. "Vietnam wants to be a responsible partner with the international community," he said. Vietnam has pledged to participate in UN peacekeeping operations in 2014. It's also seeking to boost economic relations. Trade between Vietnam and the US has grown to US$26 billion since a trade deal was signed in 2001. 

President Truong barely touched on the thorny issue of human rights, saying simply "Vietnam has been continually making progress on human rights." 

Thuy Vu and Truong Tan SangThose who feel Vietnam has not done enough on the issue have heavily criticized his visit. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam is jailing a growing number of dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders for crimes such as "conducting propaganda" and "disrupting the unity of the state." The visit leaves a bitter taste for many Vietnamese Americans who have lingering resentment over losing their homeland to a regime that they view as abusive.

For me, it's sometimes a challenge to report on Vietnamese issues because I straddle two worlds -- journalism and the Vietnamese American community. As an immigrant, many Vietnamese Americans expect me to side with them in my reporting. I have to remind them that my role as a journalist is to be fair, not to advocate. Sometimes I win them over.  Other times I don't. As a Vietnamese American, I will always face expectations from my own community that aren't leveled at other journalists.

I understand their pain. Communists took my grandfather away for being a landowner. My uncle fought against communist forces during the Vietnam war. My brother was jailed by the communist regime. It is part of the Vietnamese American experience: struggle, heartache, survival. This is our story. 

My duty as a journalist, though, is to tell all stories with balance and insight. It's my own journey of reconciliation between my professional obligations and perceptions in the Vietnamese American community. That journey is still unfinished.

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'The Power of Two' and the Power of Documentaries


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Organ Donation: It Takes a Village


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The Naked Truth About Nuclear Accident Insurance

Going without insurance is described as "going naked" in insurance industry lingo. Going without insurance for the worst hazards in the nuclear power industry is business as usual.

One need not look back very far to see the problem. In March 2011, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, triggered by an earthquake followed by a tsunami that overwhelmed all of Japan's safeguards, melted down three reactors, displaced 160,000 people and caused an estimated $250 billion in damages and other still-unfolding economic consequences.

Naked AmericaToday, in the United States, we have 104 operating nuclear plants producing electricity. The owners, operators, and government regulators who oversee them say an event like Fukushima will not happen here. And even if it did, they insist, there is enough liability insurance in place to cover the damages. The actual amount of that insurance coverage: just $12.6 billion.

You don't need an advanced degree in calculus or risk analysis to see that something doesn't add up, and to start feeling a bit...naked. But when it comes to nuclear insurance, naked is the fashion designed for the American public.

A catastrophic accident in the US could cost way more than $12.6 billion. A worst-case scenario study in 1997 by the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a major accident could cost $566 billion in damages and cause 143,000 possible deaths. Another such study, by Sandia National Laboratories in 1982, calculated the possible costs at $314 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would put both estimates close to the trillion dollar range today. So $12.6 billion wouldn't cover much.

After Fukushima, which was only the second worst such accident behind the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its staff scrambled to reappraise the adequacy of their own safety regimens for nuclear power plants. And they re-examined the sufficiency of the limited insurance available to indemnify the American people against property damage, loss of life and other economic consequences of nuclear accidents. Then the NRC hastened to publish the "lessons learned" from the Japanese catastrophe to show they were on top of things. Though the previously existing US system had been described as virtually fail-safe, federal regulators found that improvements were possible after all and ordered that they be made. 

But one not so small thing remained unchanged, post-Fukushima: the tightly capped insurance system. Of course, raising the amount of insurance required to operate nuclear plants would be expensive. The nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of all of the country's electrical power, is not eager to incur additional expenses like higher insurance premiums for more coverage. Oh, but the nuclear power industry doesn't actually pay premiums on most of the insurance coverage that supposedly is available (more about that later.) 

Three Mile IslandFirst, a little history. After solving the scientific and technological issues of splitting the atom, the biggest problem the nuclear industry faced in its infancy was obtaining accident insurance coverage. Without insurance, investors were unwilling to provide start-up capital. But the insurance industry was nervous. After all, this was back in the 1950s, and who knew then how safe -- or dangerous -- this new power source might turn out to be? So insurers were refusing to assume unlimited levels of liability.

But President Dwight D. Eisenhower was determined to develop "Atoms for Peace," and he worked with a cooperative Congress to remove all roadblocks. Their solution to the insurance obstacle was a new federal law, the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, which simply imposed federally-decreed limits on liability from accidents at non-military nuclear facilities. The law, amended several times since then, allowed the creation of insurance pools to cover accidents. Today the plan has two tiers. The first tier is a $375 million insurance policy for which each nuclear plant must pay premiums ranging between $500,000 and $2 million a year, depending on plant size and other factors. If a plant has an accident and $375 million is not sufficient to cover resulting damages the second tier kicks in and all the other plant operators around the country must chip in up to $111 million each to indemnify victims until the $12.6 billion cap is reached.

By the way, if you live near a nuclear plant, or even many miles away, you cannot buy your own private insurance policy to protect your home against nuclear accidents, thanks to the Price-Anderson law.

The nuclear industry and the insurance industry both understood the hard realities of the risk. In testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 24, 2001, John L. Quattrocchi, then senior vice president for underwriting at the American Nuclear Insurers pool, put it bluntly: "The simple fact is there is always a limit on liability -- that limit equal to the assets of the company at fault." 
Meanwhile, corporations that own nuclear plants have devised spin-off schemes, erecting legal firewalls to protect the parent company if their limited-liability subsidiary actually operating the plant goes under as the result of an accident. US Nuclear Reactor

Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown in March, 1979. Victor Gilinsky was the senior sitting member on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when that accident happened. According to Gilinsky, now retired, "There is no insurance for an extreme event."   
Now, as scientists warn of climate change, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and a host of other environmental threats related to global warming it might not be unreasonable to re-examine protections afforded the public. Small-scale accidents at nuclear plants continue to happen. A big one, like Fukushima or worse, may have a low probability level. But it isn't impossible. 

True, nuclear plants contribute little or no greenhouse gas emissions to the overburdened atmosphere compared to the coal-fired plants that add so much to global warming. But there is another factor to consider when weighing the nuclear option. Originally licensed for 40 years of operational life, most US nuclear plants are approaching or have already exceeded that period. So far, 73 such plants have been given 20-year extensions, and with retrofitting and extensive upgrades, some are expected to function to an age of 80 years.  Lets all keep our fingers crossed.




Miles Benson is a correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus. He has a distinguished career as a daily print journalist. From 1969 till his retirement in 2005, was a correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper group, which included 30 daily newspapers. He covered the US Congress for 15 years and then the White House for 16 years, wrote a weekly political column and covered national politics and public policy.


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Living with Cystic Fibrosis: The Importance of Community


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A Childhood Dream Come True: Raising Awareness of Illness

For more info about The Power of Two and to find out how you can become an organ donor, visit


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Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves
Reviled by ranchers and fawned over by conservationists, the gray wolf has cut a controversial wake in the American landscape ever since it was reintroduced from Canada in 1995. UK investigative journalist Jim Wickens journeys into the heart of the American wolf debate today. Read his full-length report here, which accopmanies the exclusive Earth Focus report of the same name, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
Photo by Jim Wickens
The elk carcass glints in the overhead sun, its ribs picked clean, poking out of a tangled mess that lies buried beneath the blood-stained snow. It is a wolf kill, a bloody spectacle that is playing out with growing regularity across the Rockies, and dividing Americans in its wake. 
We are on a Yellowstone park patrol crunching over fresh packed snow with Dr. Dan Stahler, a leading wildlife biologist and renowned wolf expert employed by the National Park Service, who has been following their introduction since 41 wolves were introduced into Yellowstone in 1995-6.
Wolf kill sites in Yellowstone are regularly analyzed, providing the park with data that is helping to decipher the ecosystem impacts caused by the reintroduction of a predator into the Rocky Mountain landscape. Clutching the jawbone of the fallen elk, Dan explains the role that wolves are having on the park ecosystem.
"To me wolves mean wildness and wild nature... I think that what we see here in Yellowstone with the presence of wolves now, is a leaner, meaner elk population... The elk out here in the landscape, there's fewer of them and there's less competition between the elk for resources such as good forage. And so I think we have a a healthier elk population now..."
Many in Montana, however, disagree. From an initial recovery plan of 300 individuals and ten breeding pairs across each state of the Rocky Mountain range, today over 1500 wolves call it their home, thanks to prohibitions on hunting and an ample supply of game and ranch animals to devour. 
The wolf reintroduction program is a conservationist success story, but one that has alienated many.  
Photo by Jim Wickens
Hunting under threat
Mike Mullinix is a prize-winning taxidermist based in Montana, and like many he is dependent on a healthy hunting industry for his income. We meet in the quiet of his workshop, a cornucopia of half-painted moose heads, trophy elk antlers, and a snarling bear that hangs off the wall.
"Hunting is a big part of our economy out here and it's gradually gotten bad. Well the intake I'm doing locally around here on my animals has probably dropped over fifty percent. Everyone has noticed the big drop. I think it's down almost seventy-five percent from what it was back in the eighties... and it doesn't take common sense to figure out what's happening here with the animals," he says.
Mike talks while he delicately paints the finishing touches to the side of a moose jaw.
"I am competing with them and they need to be regulated just like every other animal. It's gotten way out of control. Our wolf season should have started ten years ago... Everybody across the country's complaining about our wolf seasons out here, but we've got to live with what's happening, they don't."
In the archery range outside of the state capital Helena, I track down Joelle Silk, president of the Montana Bowhunters Association to put these questions to her.
A sharp intake of breath. The bow tightens. A momentary silence and then a whip-like crack as she lets slip a silicon-tipped arrow, hammering into a tree trunk 30 meters distant with a determined thud. Joelle eases her bow.
"Montana falls at the bottom of the median-income scale in the nation. So hunting is a very important way in which to put food on the table for many families. A good-sized elk can feed a family of four throughout the year, so it's very important... a very economical and simple way to feed the family," she says." Wolves have had an interesting impact to the prey and predator relationship in Montana. I hear ordinary people saying, "we used to have tons of elk on our doorstep to go and hunt. Now there are fewer. It's almost like there's a localized impact but statewide there may not have been much overall reduction in population."
Photo by Jim WickensIn 2011 wolves were finally delisted from the Endangered Species Act, quietly pushed through the halls of power in Washington by a democratic senator facing re-election in a marginal Montanan seat. "Wolves were definitely thrown under the bus for political reasons," says Mike Leahy from Defenders of Wildlife, a powerful conservation advocacy group that strongly opposes the delisting of wolves." I think the Obama administration responded to the politics of the situation. Never before had a Secretary of the Interior taken a step to undermine the Endangered Species Act like this... the democratic leadership in the Obama administration all went along with that. We were really disappointed in how the politics played out there."
Delisted and now fair game, 220 wolves in Montana alone can now be shot, trapped, or bow-hunted each year. 
For Joelle and many hunters like her in Montana however, the delisting of wolves is viewed positively. "People felt outside the management picture as long as they remained listed, and so that did create tension within Montana certainly... Since the hunts have started up, we've regained that sense of empowerment, self-sufficiency, involvement in the process... that's really important for us as a state that has the hunting traditions that we have," says Joelle.
Yellowstone wolves in the firing line
In recent months the wolf hunt has been dramatically thrust once again into the limelight, this time with the high-profile killing of a particular wolf that spent much of her life within the protected confines of Yellowstone Park. Known as 832F, the Lamar Valley pack alpha female was known to tourists the world over. "She was extraordinary... she was one of the best hunters we've ever seen... the American public and the whole world was drawn to her," says Dan Stahler, the biologist who painstakingly followed her radio-tracked movements for six years, before she was shot dead 15 miles outside of the park this winter.
Photo by Jim WickensThe loss of 832F was felt around the world, but also, surprisingly, in the midst of Montana itself. Nathan Varley and his wife, Linda, are a couple whose economic survival is intricately intertwined with that of the wolves. But unlike those in the elk hunting industry, Nathan and Linda need wolves alive. Growing up within the park community Nathan knows Yellowstone better than most, working first as a wolf biologist and then seven years ago setting up a wolf watching eco-tourism company, one of several to have sprouted up in the wake of growing national and international interest after wolves were reintroduced. Today Nathan and Linda take small groups of tourists on foot into the park, relying on expert knowledge and careful reading of conditions to guide paying members of the public to witness the spectacle of wolves in the wild. 
"We do look at the livelihood debate a little differently because we do feel like there is such a big economy based around the wolf. So it is not just the livestock producer's livelihood or the elk hunting outfitter's livelihood that we are talking about in this Western wolf debate. There are a lot of tourism livelihoods at stake here too."
Nathan quotes Montana University economist data which suggests that visitors who come to see wolves, are spending somewhere on the order of $35 million every year in the communities around Yellowstone.
"The main things people want to see are wolves... A lot of the big fans of Yellowstone wolves are following the lives of the actual individuals. They are the attraction. These become the stars of the show... and to have them hunted is even harder for our guests to understand... If that individual is important enough and so many people care about it, then it does have an influence on whether they want to come back to Yellowstone and it could influence their decision to visit the park in the future." he says. 
The iconic value of individual wolves versus the indiscriminate nature of the Rocky Mountain wolf hunt quota is a conundrum that Montanan authorities are yet to settle on. Fearful of a PR backlash at home and abroad, it has put outgoing Montana Governor Schweitzer in an awkward position.
"How do we run a hunt in Montana and Idaho and Wyoming and say to people 'well you have a license to shoot a wolf in order to control the population at a sustainable level... Then say to that same hunter, unless you see that pretty girl that often times lives in Lamar Valley and so many tourists love seeing her around, and she even has a name.' How's the hunter going to deal with that? It is called wildlife. These are not pets. Just because somebody recognizes one of these wolves does not make it a pet," he laments.
"I get thousands of emails per year castigating me as a terrible human being, because we allow hunting of wolves in Montana. Many of these emails are from Europe or Latin America or Asia. People who have never come to Montana and who will probably never come to Montana and what they need to understand it that there are only a few places on the planet that have made accommodations for wolves, and we are one of them. We are actually getting the job done," he says.
Trial by media
Carter Niemeyer is a veteran wildlife service trapper, wolf expert and best selling author, who played a central role in the early struggles around wolf reintroduction. We meet on a windy mountainside on the edges of the state capital Helena, to hear his expert views on how the wolf issue has become so divisive in recent years. 
"The media is definitely guilty of keeping it polarized, because killing wolves whether we are hunting them, trapping them, or removing a problem wolf periodically, it really shouldn't be news anymore. We don't announce every time someone shoots a coyote or someone kills a mountain lion or a bear. Wolves are not weapons of mass destruction."
As the government-sanctioned necropsy expert in the Rocky Mountains, for many years Carter's job was to inspect suspected wolf kills on livestock, so that ranchers could pocket compensation that they were entitled to if their animals had been lost to wolves. Using forensic tools and methods unused in the past, Carter made a startling discovery that has earned him few friends from the ranching community he knows so well. "In the early years maybe five out of every hundred livestock that I looked at were actually killed by wolves.
"Once the media started putting out the information that wolves were in the landscape, nearly all the reports coming in were assumed to be wolf damage and so the assumption was that wolves were causing a lot of problems... But there are many things that killed them besides wolves; you have disease and birthing problems and a multitude of things that kill livestock. I would say death loss by wolves on sheep and cattle, it is well under 1%, I think you are talking a quarter of 1% at the current kill rates that we are looking at... there has been a dislike in the whole concept of putting wolves back on the Rocky Mountain landscape, so part of the problem I think to having wolves back were that people anticipated and almost wanted them to be a problem."
To an outsider driving through the vast snowy uplands of Montana, the scale of this sparsely populated landscape drowns the senses. A state the size of France with just two million residents, Montana's enormity is in itself an obstacle to discussion, a barrier that restricts face-to-face communication around the wolf; further heightening the acute power of the mass media in determining the narrative around wolves.
Watched from afar through news columns and evening news bulletins, the complexity of the Rocky Mountain wolf debate seems to have been reduced to bite-sized chunks of polarized hysteria. Wolf haters vs Wolf lovers, 'crazies' the lot of them. But it is a position that frustrates many in Montana who belong to neither camp; individuals who are quietly seeking to build bridges within the entrenched battleground over the rightful place and number of Rocky Mountain wolves. 
Steve Primm is a biologist and predator consultant who works with ranchers who are keen to mitigate potential wolf problems with livestock. "Why aren't the middle ground voices heard? I think that's a good question... I think there's a lot of drama associated with the conflict... The stories we have to tell about trying to live with wolves is far more complicated than one about do not kill any wolves or kill all of the wolves. I think it comes down to us not having tidy sound bytes."
Rancher Becky Weed agrees. "It's incredibly frustrating because there really isn't any very good data on what the grass roots individual ranchers feel. All we read about in the newspapers is what the mouth pieces say to the media and I think it's a gross oversimplification of what's really happening out on the landscape," she says in her ranch outside Bozeman, talking as she busily spins out a roll of hay for her sheep from the back of a tractor.
An enormous dog sits close to Becky's feet; 'Max' a cross of several European breeds that she uses to protect her flock from predation. He is part of a new method of ranching that enables her to sell 'predator friendly' certified wool to markets at home and abroad. 
"He's unbelievable, he's our main tool... We also use pasture management strategies, we don't just let the sheep wander all love the place... so it's really a matter of vigilance and adaptability. If there's anything consistent in this whole carnivore game, it's that it changes from year to year... Wolves to me are really one part of a much larger package and I tend to feel somewhat allergic to this oohing and aahing over a single species... Wolf predation is not the biggest problem that ranching in Montana is facing right now."
The Blackfoot challenge
It's 4am and a siren on the coal train screams as it races by, a thundering percussion of endless carriages brimming with Montanan coal on a passage west to Pacific ports and then on to the power stations of China. Our home for the night is Drummond, 'population 338'. Across the road from the motel a ghostly specter of a giant longhorn skull lights up in passing headlamps; it is a used cow lot, last port of call for ranch animals sold for a steal, that await the butcher's knife. 
Ranching is everything here, modest family farms form a patchwork of fencing amidst the forests and mountain peaks that surround the town. And today 50 wolves have made their home around this 800,000 valley known as the Blackfoot, a mixture of Canadian, Idaho and Yellowstone-descended wolves thriving in these elk and livestock rich lands. But where the wolves go, so do the problems. The chuckling fondness with which a resident regales how a wolf was shot dead and strategically hanged under a stop sign on the highway here, speaks volumes about the recent history of wolf relations in these parts.
Photo by Jim WickensBut what makes this places special is the way in which ranchers have grouped together to learn to live with wolves. This is the Blackfoot challenge, a community-centered initiative using science, sound management and a healthy dose of common sense, to help ranchers co-exist as best they can with grizzles, and in recent years, with the wolf.  
Tracey Manly points wearily to the ditches on the edge of his ranch. "Most of the time they come right down these draws... they won't just come charging right in... they're going to wait until one kind of chooses itself by being behind the rest of the herd and that's the one they'll get. One will grab the top of the back and the other one will grab the throat... once they have it down, it's done pretty much," he says, describing the premature fate that has befallen many of his cattle over the last decade.
"You were helpless. Your hands were tied and there was a lot of shoot, shovel, and shut up type deals because you are talking about your livelihood," he says, describing the frustration felt by many ranchers at not being able to shoot problem wolves for so many years. 
There is little doubt that the steadfast refusal of both the Federal Government and great swathes of the conservation movement, to accept delisting for so many years -- the wolf reintroduction program reaches it's official target figure of 300 wolves over a decade earlier in 2002 - has pitched ranchers even more strongly against wolves and Washington; a prickly libertarian-flavored backlash that strikes a fertile chord in this heartland state.
Since the Blackfoot began to quietly offer innovative solutions to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts however, attitudes have dramatically changed for Tracey and his neighboring ranchers.
"It's definitely thawed," says Tracey. "Even if your just damn the wolf, and they make you mad or whatever... that doesn't get anything accomplished. Your still losing livestock, so why not try to build a corral or build an electric fence around your lots and see what works... just banging your head against the wall saying 'kill them all' isn't going to happen", he says, a markedly different tone to the situation several years ago.
Photo by Jim WickensJim Stoner, rancher and Blackfoot Challenge Founder, crouches down on the hill side, furiously hammering away at the frozen earth to anchor in another pole with which to suspend the fladdry he has just unrolled from the back of his RV; handkerchief-sized pieces of red fabric flapping off a single electronically charged wire. "If a neighboring ranch has a problem with wolves we can load this machine up and go down and we can deploy a mile or two of this product in short of an hour... you know it's a new product and people kind of look at it and go wow that's kind of crazy... but we've seen it work ourselves. We've seen wolves on one side of it and our cows on the other," he says grinning.
Fladdry systems are part of a wider package of measures that the Blackfoot ranchers have taken in close co-operation with government agencies, including range riders who track wolves to keep ranchers up to date and carcass removal schemes that remove the welcome mat for wolves from ranches before they even get there. 
Seth Wilson is a conservation biologist who helps to co-ordinate the Blackfoot Project. "By employing these non-lethal measures we have been able to keep livestock losses fairly minimized. From 2006-12 we have documented 14 confirmed losses. When we got to other valleys we have has as many as 20 livestock killed over a two year period by comparison, and many, many wolves removed; these are the sort of collisions between livestock production and wildlife that we want to avoid," he says. He cautions against quick-fix solutions however. "This stuff takes time, and community-based conservation, building trust, earning the respect of the livestock producing community in Montana, that takes time... we act as the forum for bringing people together who normally would not potentially even talk to one another... that is the key to our success, communication in these ways that are respectful."
Jim Stoner reflects upon his handiwork with the Fladdry, dozens of pieces of red fabric tied to the wire in an impromptu fence line and blowing in the breeze. "Really when it comes down to it, it's about people, about bringing communities together. Wolves," he ponders, "mean opportunity."
After a week on the road in Montana, meeting, listening and probing discussions around wolves with people from all walks of life, it's clear that the polarized hyperbole published so often in the media either for or against wolves, is a gross distortion of reality for those who live and labor on the ground in Montana. Whilst court cases continue to rage in Washington around the fate of the Gray wolf, it is perhaps the quiet and courageous voices from communities in Montana who need to be heard the most. If the black and white can finally be replaced by a shade of gray, Rocky Mountain people may just find a way to live in balance alongside wolves for generations to come.
Watch the Earth Focus report Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves:

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