Guest blog post written by Oliver Wood
My summer legal internship at NRDC landed me waist-deep in pond scum. Although I spent weeks wading through legal research, policy memoranda, and scientific studies, I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of algae creeping up my legs and the muck between my toes. I was in western Montana building an electric fence, a half day’s drive from NRDC’s Northern Rockies Office in Bozeman, Montana.
Most legal internships do not require you to leave your desk, especially to do manual labor. NRDC—and specifically Zack Strong, my supervisor—encouraged me to pursue a summer of office-based research projects punctuated by field work throughout the West. I am grateful to Zack and NRDC for this combination of physical work and mental rigor.
I was originally drawn to NRDC for its nationally renowned leadership in resolving natural resource disputes, often in the courts. While I understood that litigation is a crucial tool in the toolbox, I knew NRDC was pioneering an unlikely partnership with USDA-Wildlife Services to reduce human-wildlife conflicts through nonlethal methods. As a rising third-year law student, I was hired as a legal intern, but I soon realized NRDC’s Northern Rockies Office was accomplishing much more than filing lawsuits; I found myself enamored by the fence-building initiative undertaken by USDA-Wildlife Services, NRDC, and other partners. NRDC employees play an integral role in constructing electric fences and fladry to deter predators like bears, wolves, and coyotes from killing livestock and eating crops. Proactively fencing out predators reduces the number of conflicts with agricultural and ranching producers, which ultimately reduces the killing of “nuisance” wildlife.
The soupy pond where I stood in the heart of grizzly country was ripe with possible conflict. As the second-largest grizzly ever killed by humans was hit by a truck fifteen miles down the highway from where I stood, the landowners, with our help, were wisely reinforcing their perimeter fence. The insulators I hung in the pond kept electrified wire off of the conventional barbed wire, providing an extra line of defense against curious wildlife. The hot wire would shock any predator in search of calories in the expansive garden or cattle pasture. The outcomes of this project-based work were important, but I wasn’t the only person out there with the goal of human-wildlife coexistence.
At NRDC, I was encouraged to act beyond just roundtable conversations and seek project-based, hands-on work with organizations I didn’t always agree with. It’s one thing to discuss collaboration around a table in hypothetical terms; it’s a whole different experience to arrive as the sun is rising in rural Montana and pound posts into the baked clay dirt. That kind of experience—the kind where blisters develop, and good conversation emanates—is where I felt like I best understood other people’s views on the world and could envision continuing to work together. Whether it was building an electric fence in California or testifying before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, I tried to find tasks to do or stories to share that would help me relate with employees from different organizations or agencies; luckily for me (if not my hands), it normally involved post-pounding.
Oliver Wood was the summer legal intern in NRDC's Northern Rockies Office in Bozeman, Montana. He received a bachelor's degree in Environmental Humanities from Whitman College in 2013, and a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana in 2017. He is a rising third year law student at the University of Montana School of Law.