Place and Purpose: My Summer with NRDC in Montana

A trail in the Bridger Mountains

Guest blog post written by Emma Fisher.

As a nature-loving girl raised just outside of Chicago, the thought of moving to the mountains and immersing myself in environmental issues through a Western lens always seemed both fascinating and fun. This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to join the NRDC Land and Wildlife team in Montana and do just that.

With a preexisting interest in climate and energy and an eye towards social justice, I came into the summer excited to learn about opportunities for “Just Transition” away from fossil fuel dependence in Western coal communities. To the other side of my work – the wildlife side – I came in completely blind. Three months ago, I had no familiarity with wildlife issues – only curiosity and readiness to dive in. Wildlife work became my primary focus this summer, and it was eye-opening on many levels. I am so very grateful for the perspective and knowledge I gained.

My main project this summer was researching and writing a report about the impacts of livestock production on U.S. wildlife – especially native carnivores like wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears in the American West, where the majority of cattle and sheep graze. While many other environmental impacts of the livestock industry (like greenhouse gas and water intensity, pollution, antibiotic use, etc.) are well-publicized, the wildlife impacts are often overlooked. I am convinced that they are just as profound, and I hope that my report will be a first step in filling that void.

Much of my work this summer was place-based, making it feel grounded in a way I had never experienced before. As I familiarized myself with the Northern Rockies’ environmental landscape, it felt fitting that I was able to simultaneously explore its literal landscape. I filled my free time romping around Bozeman’s beautiful mountains, taking in the incredible scenery and thinking about the animals both in and out of sight – grateful to be part of a team that was fighting for them.

Hyalite Lake and Hyalite Peak in the Gallatin Mountains

This theme of “place” continued one weekend, when my roommate and I road-tripped to an old mining town. The air we breathed was thick with pride for the mining tradition. It was a sobering experience, as I was acutely aware that my mission as an environmentalist was viewed as a threat by the humble and welcoming people we met here.

As environmentalists, we ask a lot of people to change their beliefs and lifestyles. Change is hard, but I think we would all agree – necessary and honorable. In addition to mining and energy transition, I was surprised to learn (being the city girl that I am) that wildlife management raises similarly personal issues. This became obvious to me through NRDC’s work promoting carnivore-livestock coexistence among ranchers and the federal agency Wildlife Services – as well as by sitting in on an emotional multi-stakeholder bison management meeting.

As I got a glimpse into the “personal” side of change-making, and as I learned more and more about the impacts of the livestock industry, I came away with this: as we ask others to change, we need to also be willing to question and change ourselves. More than ever before, I see food as a critical nexus – a leverage point from which we can influence positive change across many social and environmental fronts, all at once. By reducing consumption of animal products, we can reduce the need for energy (be it dirty or clean), minimize pollution and water use, benefit U.S. wildlife, and so much more. Less is more. It is an elegant solution, and one that distributes the “change” across both sides of the equation: production and consumption.

I leave this summer inspired by the hard-working, passionate, kindhearted people that I had the privilege of working with every day; by the beautiful mountains that hold this energetic little city; and by the tangible momentum that I can feel the environmental movement gaining. As I continue pushing ahead on my personal journey, figuring out how I can best contribute to that momentum, I am grateful that my experiences this summer opened my mind, refreshed my purpose, and pushed me to question myself.

It’s a beautiful world we live in, filled with beautiful people, places, and creatures. We’re all in this together – so let’s keep on pushing.

Emma Fisher is a rising senior at Stanford University, studying Earth Systems and minoring in Human Biology. She is also a distance runner on the women’s cross country and track & field teams. She was the Ann Clark Environmental Fellow in NRDC’s Northern Rockies Office in Bozeman, Montana, this summer.

Emma after winning the Cross Cut 15K Trail Run this summer
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