Reflecting on a Winter with NRDC in Bozeman

The field marks are easy to pick out in old family photos: I’m that kid who permanently has a frog or a bird on his t-shirt, knees buckling under the weight of a massive pair of binoculars.

Guest blog post written by Oliver James.

The field marks are easy to pick out in old family photos: I’m that kid who permanently has a frog or a bird on his t-shirt, knees buckling under the weight of a massive pair of binoculars.

I’ve always had a passion for natural history. If you asked six-year old me to produce the names of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, well, I could probably produce at least half. If, however, you required a concise list of all the warblers commonly found in North America, or how many records there were of Greater Sand Plover in my home state of California, or how to differentiate an ensatina from a slender salamander…I was your man.

Natural history is a gift that keeps on giving. My curiosity in the animal kingdom sparked my studies in biology and ecology all the way through college and afforded me opportunities to join field research efforts in lots of wild places. There’s always more to see, more to learn (i.e., one more log to turn over, one more unfamiliar bird song). If you spend a lot of time closely observing the natural world (as I still do!), trust me, you will wake up every day to a planet that is intoxicatingly unfamiliar and borderline magical.

There is, however, one inevitable side effect: an acute awareness of the insecurity and instability that our environment and its inhabitants (human and non-human) currently face. Close observation gives you a baseline. Every time I return to my favorite childhood stomping grounds around the Bay Area, I notice changes, often perplexing ones.  At the same time, I credit these first-hand observations with inspiring a personal commitment—to defend the defenseless and to educate and inspire others to action.

So. Fast-forward to January of this year.

The chance to join the NRDC in Bozeman for the last three months as the Winter Wildlife & Energy Intern presented an amazing opportunity to merge my past experience with that commitment. For the first time, I got to join a team working right at the intersection of conservation, people and policy. À la my past experience as a field biologist, my day to day work involved awesome wildlife, like wolves, bison and greater sage-grouse. What was new: the satisfaction of making a tangible difference, through writing, research, and advocacy, in the protection of these animals and their habitats. 

If I had to choose one thing from my time that will stick with me, it would be this: effective advocacy requires unusual empathy and good listening.

I noticed this while supporting ranchers with non-lethal methods to protect their livestock, a part of NRDC’s ongoing work to encourage coexistence amongst carnivores and humans. I noticed this while investigating what a just transition will look like for coal communities in eastern Montana. I noticed this while sitting in on many meetings discussing the future of wild bison on public lands.

Montanans nurture a distinct connection to the environment. Use and enjoyment of wild, empty places is a way of life here, and this is manifested in a seemingly hereditary duty to stewardship and protection of the landscape. Don’t get me wrong: clean and accessible open spaces are cherished and fought for in urban places, too (e.g., where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area). But it’s not quite the same. The land ethic is more ingrained here. And that means the flavor of conservation and environmentalism is too.

The bottom line is that it’s pretty easy to fall in love with this place.

Oliver graduated from Wesleyan University with a double degree in Biology and Environmental Studies in 2014. He has held field jobs studying birds from the Arctic Ocean to the Peruvian Amazon and has worked as a naturalist guide in his home state of California. He was our Winter Wildlife & Energy Intern in NRDC's Northern Rockies Office in Bozeman, Montana, this past winter. Oliver’s internship was made possible by a generous grant from Robert and Dana Reisse in memory of their son Andrew.

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