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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 5, 1996

Air Date: April 5, 1996


Forgetting Chernobyl / Bruce Gellerman

To commemorate ten years since the Chernobyl nuclear plant core reactor meltdown and radiation release in the Ukraine, Living on Earth sent producer Bruce Gellerman to the site of the world's most serious nuclear plant disaster. Narrator Gellerman describes the terrain and the fears he enounters as he visits the entombed sarcophagus of the reactor, as well as with school children, hospitals, people who've returned to live out their days in their highly radioactive homes, with alternative energy advocates, and with a Chernobyl disaster museum curator — whose displays of remembering are rarely visited these days. (20:51)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). (01:15)

Montana Oil & Gas / Jennifer Schmidt

Jennifer Schmidt reports from Montana where sacred Blackfoot Indian tribal land was leased in the 1980's to gas and oil companies for potential development. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has declared a moratorium on drilling among the mountain wilderness, and both sides — Native Americans and the interested corporation — wait to see what will happen next. (10:32)

The Wolves of Isle Royale

Steve Curwood speaks with biologist, photographer and author Dr. Rolf Peterson about his research and recent book The Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance. Moose are also prominent on the island and in Peterson's research. (06:56)

Return of the Trumpeter Swans / Bill Cohen

Bill Cohen of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium has this report on the organized release of the majestic white Trumpeter Swan to repopulate the wetlands of Ohio. The birds got their name from their unique brass-sounding cry. (03:40)

Reappearing Animals / Bill McKibben

Author and commentator Bill McKibben on the Endangered Species Act. (02:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, David Wright, Bruce Gellerman, Jennifer Schmidt,
Bill Cohen
GUEST: Dr. Rolf Peterson

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Ten years after the greatest nuclear power disaster in world history, the word Chernobyl is synonymous with catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine poisoned hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people with radioactivity, and only today are the full dimensions of the cataclysm emerging. A worker at the Chernobyl plant says government authorities are still trying to minimize its effects.

SHEVCHENKO: They want to celebrate, make this 10th anniversary and then forget, as if nothing happened. I think it is forever; it shouldn't be forgotten.

CURWOOD: Remembering the meltdown of Chernobyl ten years later, the Soviet Union may be gone but the contamination persists. On Living on Earth this week, right after this news.

Environmental News

RUDOLF: For Living on Earth, I'm John Rudolf. A mystery illness in coastal South Florida suspected of suffocating manatees is now killing large numbers of sea birds. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Miami.

O'NEILL: First there was an epidemic of dying manatees in Southwestern Florida's waterways. Now scientists say the seafaring cormorant, a ducklike black diving bird, is possibly falling prey to the same mystery illness. Officials at the Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary near Sarasota say the facility has received 50 listless and lethargic cormorants in the last 8 days, up from about 3 to 4 a week in normal conditions. Other Gulf Coast bird treatment centers are also reporting higher than normal numbers of sick birds. Some experts are blaming the deaths on a recent outbreak of Red tide in the lower Gulf area.

Red tide is an algae that produces a toxic substance harmful to some wildlife. But scientists have ruled out red tide in causing the suffocation deaths of 126 manatees in the same region since January, a death rate that's more than 5 times higher than normal. And so far, they say, it's unclear whether there's a link between the cormorant and the manatee deaths. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Miami.

RUDOLF: Hydrogen gas is building up to dangerous levels in vats and pipes at the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver. According to a report by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board, the buildup is well into the range where an explosion is possible. The hydrogen is not radioactive, but an explosion could spew radioactive material that remains in pipes, vats, and ducts. Officials hope to vent the most dangerous pipes by June, and all the vats by the end of August. Rocky Flats once produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.

Dust kicked up by deforestation and over-farming may have a major influence on the Earth's climate. Two separate articles in the journal Nature point out that dust generated by logging and farming is both cooling and warming the Earth. What effect the dust has on the planet's temperature depends on the size of the particles, and whether they are over land, sea, or snow. One of the researchers says that as deserts grow, and more land is cleared for farming, more and more dust will be released into the atmosphere, changing temperatures worldwide.

Federal officials are investigating charges that the US Forest Service hindered an investigation into the theft of timber from Federal lands. From KQED in San Francisco, David Wright explains.

WRIGHT: The allegations stem from a case where Weyerhaeuser Company was accused of illegally harvesting millions of dollars in Federal timber. A special Forest Service task force on timber theft was looking into allegations that in the early 1990s Weyerhaeuser took thousands of healthy green trees from Federal forests in the Pacific Northwest when the company was only authorized to salvage dead or diseased timber. Company officials deny any wrongdoing. They acknowledge that in a few cases they did take a small number of green trees by mistake, but they say they reimbursed the Forest Service for double the trees' value. In any case, the Forest Service took no action against the company. But now the government is questioning why the Forest Service eventually dropped the case, and according to the Los Angeles Times the Agriculture Department believes Agency officials may have obstructed the investigation into the Weyerhaeuser case. The paper says the case has now been referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. For Living on Earth, I'm David Wright in San Francisco.

RUDOLF: The French government has announced the first major program to combat auto emissions plaguing Paris. The plan limits auto traffic during peak pollution periods in cities with more than a quarter of a million residents. It also calls for installing pollution surveillance systems across the country. Environment Minister Corinne LePage said the government wants to encourage people to use cars that pollute less or use bicycles and public transportation. But the opposition Green Party said the measures are symbolic and do not force polluters to pay for damage they caused to the environment. A study earlier this year found that between 250 and 350 Parisians die each year from air pollution.

Five sea lions that were to be executed by Washington State officials have gotten a last-minute reprieve. The sea lions had been lolling about at Seattle's Ballard Locks gorging on steelhead salmon struggling to make their way upstream. With the fish runs depleted and much of the blame put on the portly pinnipeds, the state got Federal approval last month to kill the animals. Now, Florida's Sea World theme park has come to the rescue, offering the animals a new home in the park's 2-acre salt water pool.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm John Rudolf.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Forgetting Chernobyl

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. At 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986, in the heart of the Ukraine's best farm lands, reactor number 4 at the V.I. Lenin atomic power station at Chernobyl took off out of control, exploded, and burned. The pillar of fire from the reactor core sent a deadly plume of radiation into the atmosphere that rained down over the Ukraine and neighboring Belarus with 250 times more radiation than the atom bombs that had ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At first the Soviet authorities hid the extent of the disaster. Nearby residents were kept in the dark for as much as 36 hours. And when the accident was finally announced, it was minimized. Valerie Legasof, Senior Chernobyl Investigator, later admitted, "I didn't lie, but I didn't tell the whole truth." On the second anniversary of the disaster, he committed suicide. Chernobyl played a crucial role in bringing down the Soviet system, and from the radioactive ashes a determined and courageous people carry on. As reporter Bruce Gellerman found during a recent trip to the region, the long-term consequences are just emerging.

GELLERMAN: My guidebook to Ukraine says tourists shouldn't worry about the lingering effects of the Chernobyl disaster. By now, it says, the impact of that tragic event is largely past. The book is wrong.

(Laughter echoing)

GELLERMAN: In a market in downtown Kiev, fruit and vegetables are stacked in neat pyramids. Meat hangs by hooks. You can't see any signs of the country's nuclear nightmare, but it's here.

MAN: [Speaking in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: It's everywhere. If you have radiation it's everywhere. It's in all products. It has to be there, in my opinion.

GELLERMAN: Does that not frighten you?

MAN: [Speaking in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: We don't know for sure. I don't walk around with a counter.

GELLERMAN: This man sells dried white mushrooms. [To man]: but I've heard that the mushrooms are not safe.

The man pulls out a slip of crumpled paper stamped with an official seal certifying the mushrooms are clean of radiation. Another seller offers advice.

SELLER: [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: Radiation is very afraid of vodka.

GELLERMAN: What else is good against radiation?

(A woman speaks in Russian)

GELLERMAN: An old woman is quick to add that horseradish and garlic also scare away radiation. So does red wine. Today, a decade after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, contaminated food is the greatest source of radiation, and fear is a fact of life. One of the only facts in a time when truth is hard to come by.

(Traffic sounds)

GELLERMAN: It's a 2-hour drive from Kiev to Chernobyl, along rolling hills and peat bogs. Ukrainians say the soil here is so rich you can eat it; at least that's what they used to say. Today a thousand square miles of land around the plant is off-limits to most people.

PETRO [Speaks in Russian]:
TRANSLATOR: As the sign says, it's impossible to live here constantly.

GELLERMAN: Eighteen miles from Chernobyl we enter the exclusion zone. My driver Petro is quiet as we pass empty farms, homes, churches, and schools. A week after the disaster, 135,000 people were permanently removed from this area.

(A car door opens, then closes)

PETRO [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: It is our tragedy. This was a very good place to live. What can we do? This is our fate.

GELLERMAN: Signs warn the infrequent visitor against forest fires. Trees store Chernobyl contamination. A fire here 2 years ago re-released an immense amount of radiation into the air. To visit Chernobyl requires special permission, and an official guide. We are joined by a plant technician who will monitor radiation levels. He sees the look in my eyes.

(The technician speaks in Russian)

GELLERMAN: He says we're completely safe. Still, I'm given special clothes to wear: a Russian hat, burly coat, cotton socks, gloves, leather boots, and a face mask, just in case.


GELLERMAN: A faded mural on a vacant apartment building welcomes us to Pripyat. The town was once home to 45,000 residents, plant workers and their families. The sign reads, "The party of Lenin leads us to a Communist victory." My guide, Alexander Shevchenko deadpans an old party slogan. The people of Pripyat really did invite the friendly atom into their homes. He laughs alone in the silence.

(A beeper among the footfalls, voices speaking)

GELLERMAN: But for our Geiger counter, the apartments are ghostly quiet. Plant officials delayed the evacuation of Pripyat for a day and a half. By then, Alexander says, the clouds of radioactive iodine had delivered intense doses to the town's children. [Asks Shevchenko]: Why did they wait 36 hours before they evaluated them?

SHEVCHENKO: They waited for the order from Kremlin. They knew about the danger, but they waited for the instructions.

GELLERMAN: So now 10 years after the accident --

SHEVCHENKO: They want to celebrate, make this 10th anniversary and then forget, as if nothing happened. I think it is forever; it shouldn't be forgotten.

(A creaking door opens)

SHEVCHENKO: Hard to forget it. Hard to forget this abandoned city.

(Another creaking door opens. Then, back on the road, someone speaking in Russian)

GELLERMAN: The radiation readings jump as we pass the remains of a contaminated forest buried in a field. It's a 2-mile ride from Pripyat to the plant. Chernobyl dominates the desolate marshland. It's a white, windowless monolith, a mile long and nearly a football field high. Giant power lines hum with current. Two of Chernobyl's 4 reactors are still on line, generating electricity. Improvements have been made, but they have the same fatal design flaw that doomed unit 4.

(Car doors open, close)

GELLERMAN: We're standing at ground zero. Today, what remains of the melted number 4 reactor is entombed in a massive 24-story Sarcophogus. But even 300,000 tons of steel and concrete can't contain the intense radiation within.

MAN [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: four point five milirems per hour.

GELLERMAN: The levels on our Geiger counter double when we point it at the Sarcophogus. It's the most radioactive building on the planet. Like a shroud, the Sarcophogus is painted black. To stand here, see it, and know what happened is frightening. An ill-conceived safety experiment in the middle of the night; inexperienced and incompetent operators deliberately disregarding safety rules, disarming half a dozen emergency systems. Failing to understand the fatal flaw in the reactor's design. A collision of catastrophic mistakes creating an uncontrollable chain reaction. Imagine the horror the reactor operators must have felt when they realized what they had done, when they hit the panic button, knowing it was too late. The core erupted into a nuclear volcano. It burned for 10 days. Eight tons of radioactive material: iodine, cesium, strontium, and plutonium, rained down on Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 250 times that of atomic bombs dumped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. After a minute here, Alexander wants to leave this place.

SHEVCHENKO: [After speaking in Russian] To the car.

GELLERMAN: Why is that?

SHEVCHENKO: Because it's rather high. The regulation is like this, 5 rem is the limit.

GELLERMAN: Five rem. The limit and you're out.


GELLERMAN: Now you've been working here how many years?


GELLERMAN: How many rem do you have?

SHEVCHENKO: I don't know. (Laughs) And I'm not interested in.

GELLERMAN: Why aren't you interested in learning?

SHEVCHENKO: Because it is easier to live. I've been inside the sarcophagus 4 times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

SHEVCHENKO: Wrecks. Ruins. Ruins, wrecks, and high level radiation. Only 2 minutes allowed.

GELLERMAN: The Sarcophogus was supposed to isolate the doomed reactor for at least 30 years, but the hastily built tomb leaks. Alexander says thousands of gallons of water now cover the melted reactor core. Studies indicate sediment downstream, in Kiev's reservoirs in the Black Sea, is contaminated with radioactivity. The senior scientist in charge of the Sarcophogus thinks it may collapse within 10 years, recontaminating the local area. Exposing workers and the few hundred people who have made the forbidden zone something of a refuge.

(A man speaks in Russian, then says, :Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy.")

GELLERMAN: Sixty-six year old Ivan calls his cat Moosha, and affectionately pats his gigantic cow. They stand in the mud next to the barn Ivan recently built. Ivan and his wife Oolyana live in the ghost town of Ohpacheechee. Oolyana remembers the day officials ordered them to leave. She said it was like a devil stole everyone's soul.

OOLYANA [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: The next day, in the morning, one of my friend's Motya came from the bus stop and said there was an explosion at the atomic station. We were laughing, saying, okay. We didn't know what it was. But then we were forced to move. We shouted, yelled, and screamed.

GELLERMAN: But within 2 years Ivan and Oolyana secretly moved back to their farm. In the decade since the explosion, 700 elderly residents have come back to the forbidden zone to die in the place they've always lived.

IVAN [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: I built my house and I am tied to this place, and I want to be here and not to live in a house where the ceiling can fall on my head.

GELLERMAN: Ivan rolls a cigarette out of newspaper and drinks homemade vodka. Oolyana prepares sweet dumplings in cream. Every bite they take, every breath is radioactive. [To Ivan and Ulyana]: They told you it was dangerous. Isn't this a dangerous place to live?

IVAN: Nyet. No, no, no.

GELLERMAN: It's not dangerous, says Ivan, and Oolyana agrees. Their grandchildren visit them during the summer.

(A piano plays and children sing)

GELLERMAN: The 10-year-old children in Miss Valintina Vassiliyevna's third grade class in Kiev practice a spring song in preparation for this year's May Day celebration. A decade ago, 5 days after Chernobyl exploded, Communist officials in Kiev ordered students and their parents to march in the annual May Day parade, but many party officials had already evacuated their own families to the south. Doctors believe children like these, born around the time the reactor exploded, face the greatest health risk. [To the children]: I'm going to do a story about Chernobyl, okay? Who knows about Chernobyl, what happened?

BOY 1 [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: Officials didn't say anything about Chernobyl, only afterwards. They didn't say anything that day. They didn't want people to panic.

BOY 2 [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: I can definitely say when there was no Chernobyl people were healthier. There was no radiation. I can definitely say when they close Chernobyl there will be much less radiation.

GELLERMAN: Miss Vassiliyevna looks on approvingly, sadly.

GELLERMAN: How are these kids? Are they as good as 10-year-olds any place in the world?

VASSILIYEVNA [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: I wouldn't say so. They are a bit weaker than children 10 years ago. Sometimes they get nosebleeds and they are sick more often. Still we love our life; we are happy about our life.

GELLERMAN: Recently, 23 seniors from this school were given Army physicals. All 23 failed the health exam; they were too sick. Researchers estimate 1.2 million children were exposed to heavy doses of Chernobyl radiation. Hardest hit was Belaurs. In the city of Gomel, the levels of radiation were 130,000 times normal. Today in the most contaminated areas, 70% of the children suffer from one or more chronic diseases. The most serious and dangerous so far is childhood thyroid cancer. Before Chernobyl, thyroid cancer was extremely rare in children. Now the number of cases has exploded: a 30-fold increase in Ukraine, a 100-fold increase in Belarus, and researchers are now predicting the rate of childhood radiation-induced leukemia will soon begin doubling.

(A loud thud; a door shuts)

GELLERMAN: The paint is peeling, the electric outlets exposed and the furniture is broken at a hospital in Ivankovo, just beyond the dead zone. Dr. Felix Konstantinovich recalls that in the first months after Chernobyl exploded, the hospital received plenty of medical supplies. Now there is almost none, yet he has more patients to treat.

CONSTANTINOVICH [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: There are lots of problems from Chernobyl. There are blood diseases, lots of children with enlarged thyroids. And I've seen one case of cancer. Stress is certainly a problem, but the main cause is radiation. How do I know? We didn't have this before Chernobyl.

GELLERMAN: Since Chernobyl, reports of blood, respiratory, and nervous disorders have skyrocketed throughout the region, especially in Belarus where immune disorders and gastrointestinal problems are widespread. But it's difficult to link these cases directly to Chernobyl, and many researchers are skeptical. Dr. Uri Antipken of the Ukrainian Institute of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics in Kiev, has studied 2,500 women who were pregnant at the time of the disaster.

ANTIPKEN [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: Our researchers show there have been structural changes in the placenta of a woman exposed, and researchers in Bristol, England, have collected radionuclides in the placenta itself.

GELLERMAN: So far, though, Dr. Antipken says he hasn't seen any problems in the children of these women. But the World Health Organization says mental retardation, behavioral problems, and nervous disorders have increased among kids born in contaminated areas. Meanwhile, Japanese researchers report a doubling of birth defects in Belarus, and today in Ukraine nearly 1 child in 5 dies before or soon after birth. Many couples can't conceive at all. Research conducted by the Ukrainian Institute of Reproductive Medicine shows that young Ukrainian men have the lowest sperm counts and the highest infertility rate in the world. Scientists admit they still know very little about the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of radiation, like those persisting in the wake of Chernobyl. And much of the Chernobyl research done so far is shoddy, often producing contradictory findings. One of the most harshly criticized reports was released by the International Atomic Energy Agency 5 years ago. IAEA researchers acknowledge they lack the time, money, and data to do a proper survey. Nevertheless, Agency officials concluded no health disorders could be attributed directly to radiation exposure. They attribute widespread stress and anxiety to radiophobia, an unfounded fear of the effects of radiation. But whether or not people's fears are justified, the consequences are very real, especially for those who received the highest doses. Eight hundred thousand workers cleaned up after the Chernobyl disaster. Some got a lifetime exposure to radiation in just 90 seconds. Today thousands of these so-called liquidators are invalids, their prospects often bleak. [Asks a worker]: Did you work as a liquidator?

(The man answers in Russian)

GELLERMAN: Vasily Federov received 4 times what's considered a safe lifetime dose of radiation. He has a heart condition. I met him in a Kiev hospital where clean-up workers are treated. He says some of his fellow liquidators can no longer cope.

FEDEROV [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: During the last half year I know 3 men who committed suicide. Maybe they didn't have strong characters. Maybe they were depressed.

GELLERMAN: Today suicide is the number one cause of death among liquidators according to a psychiatrist who works with them. The despair is evident.

FEDEROV [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: We have no medicine, but I need it. So I asked my wife to find it. I said do anything you can to get it.

GELLERMAN: The day I met Federov, the government had shut off the heat to the liquidator's hospital. It hadn't paid its bill in 3 years. The hospital, like Ukraine itself, is broke.

(Rock music plays loudly)

GELLERMAN: In the Kiev office of Greenpeace, activists preview a video they've made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl.

(Rock music continues)

GELLERMAN: Chernobyl has crippled Ukraine's future; at its peak spending on the disaster ate up more than 15% of the country's budget. Now the government has no choice but to cut back drastically. Still, Greenpeace's Chernobyl coordinator, Olexei Kaduka, says the effects of the catastrophe will continue to drain the nation far into the future.

KADUKA: It consumes huge amounts of money still. In order to deal with the consequences, to decontaminate the area, to keep Sarcophogus in place, I cannot say that it is safe but at least they are spending a lot of money on that.

GELLERMAN: Ukraine is asking the West for $2.3 billion in aid to stabilize the Sarcophogus and to help shut down the 2 remaining Chernobyl reactors by the year 2000. Some of the money would also be used to complete 2 new nuclear power plants. Olexei Kaduka of Greenpeace says that's the ultimate irony: that after all it's been through, Ukraine continues to bet the few chips it still has on more nuclear power.

KADUKA: As the official policy now in Ukraine is to develop the nuclear industry, and 10 years after, well, it was a problem but now it's not any more. So we should develop our nuclear industry. There's a really strong wish to forget about the catastrophe.

GELLERMAN: Just 10 years after a disaster that will affect them for centuries, Ukrainians are already weary.

(A heavy door shuts)

GELLERMAN: It's quiet on the third floor of the Kiev Museum of History, where historian Anna Poldolskaya oversees the Chernobyl exhibit. She began documenting the history of Chernobyl soon after the explosion. But Soviet authorities banned the exhibit until 1991. Today her collection includes letters, photos, top secret documents, and eyewitness accounts.

(Poldolskaya speaks in Russian)

GELLERMAN: This handwritten testimony describes the signs of acute radiation poisoning in the doomed victims. A metallic taste. Vomiting. Ringing in the ears. Thirst. When the Chernobyl exhibit first opened, people crowded into these 2 small rooms. Today, Anna Poldolskaya says only a few people come to this place filled with lies and secrets, portraits of heroes who fought the radioactive blaze, and stories of heartbreaking sadness. [To Poldolskaya] Do you think people have forgotten Chernobyl?

POLDOLSKAYA [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: No, I don't think so. We just got used to that. We didn't forget, it's just that in such an economic situation people don't go anywhere. Museums, anywhere, ever. People are just tired of this life.

GELLERMAN: Historian Anna Poldolskaya says it's the task of the future to write the whole truth about Chernobyl. She now has a personal as well as professional reason to search out the facts and consequences. Recently she says her 17-year-old son began showing symptoms of leukemia. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: To make a comment or find out how to order a tape or transcript of this program, call 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or e-mail LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth, a bid to drill for oil and gas in one of America's most beautiful and wild places: the Eastern Rocky Mountain Front.

(Water burbles; a flute plays)


(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In 1863 while serving at the US Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia, Henry Berg witnessed the cruel beating of a horse by its owner. Three years later, in his home of New York City, Mr. Berg gave a lecture in defense of what he called the mute servants of mankind. Three months later on April 10, 1866, his words turned to action with his founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Within days the New York Legislature passed an animal anti-cruelty law, and gave the ASPCA the right to enforce it. With its 3-person staff, that's exactly what happened. At first the ASPCA was mostly concerned with livestock, but in time turned to the role we are familiar with today: caring for cats, dogs, and other pets. The Society's efforts focus on adoption, veterinary care, animal bereavement counseling, dog training, and lobbying for animal welfare laws. Today there are an estimated 60 million cats and 50 million dogs in the US. That works out to about a dog for every 5 people.

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(Music up and under)

Montana Oil & Gas

CURWOOD: Some of the largest tracts of unprotected wilderness in the Continental US lie in northwest Montana, along the rugged windswept east slope of the Rocky Mountains. This area, known as the Rocky Mountain Front, is at the center of an intensifying dispute over drilling for oil and gas. Chevron, Fina, and other petroleum interests say the front probably contains vast reserves of fossil fuel, and they're eager to use drilling leases that they bought from the Federal Government back in the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration. But the Clinton Administration and environmental activists say the front is a crucial piece of a great ecosystem and should receive permanent wilderness designation. Meanwhile, Native Americans are fighting to protect parts of the front they consider sacred. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports.

SCHMIDT: The day is threatening rain. Dark storm clouds hover over the Rocky Mountain Front and the peaks beyond. The mountains rise unexpectedly out of the high prairie, their weathered slopes a sharp contrast to the yellow fields which stretch eastward, seemingly without end. The Blackfeet Indians call this section of the northern Rockies the backbone of the world.

(A truck over gravel)

SCHMIDT: The Blackfeet Reservation borders what's known as the Badger-Two Medicine, a 116,000-acre section of the National Forest on the Rocky Mountain Front. It's at the center of the controversy over oil and gas development here. On this day, 2 tribal biologists head their pickup across the rutted prairie toward Badger Creek. They're checking on several grizzly bear traps set a few days ago.

BIOLOGIST 1: Do you want to grab your pistol or take the shotgun?

BIOLOGIST 2: Oh, grab the pistol, I guess.

SCHMIDT: The large silver canisters have been baited with cow heads in hopes of attracting a grizzly sow and 2 cubs which have turned up near Reservation homes, and which they hope to relocate back to the mountains. But after circling the traps cautiously, the biologists discover only a starving dog caught in one of them.

(Sound of metal scraping and falling)

BIOLOGIST 1: Hey! Hello, puppy. Oh, you poor guy.

(The dog pants)

SCHMIDT: Even though the bears remain elusive, biologist Dan Carney says there's no question about the area's wildness.

CARNEY: There are tracks of wolves that we see every winter. Grizzly bears are all through the area, not only in the mountains but we've got them, oh, 10 miles further out the creek.

SCHMIDT: The Badger-Two Medicine is part of a Federally designated grizzly bear recovery zone. It's also home to other wildlife, including elk, mountain goats, moose, and wolverines. And it serves as an important link between Glacier National Park to the north, and 1.5 million acres of protected wildness to the south.

(Knocking on a door. A man opens, says, "Hi, come on in.")

SCHMIDT: Lou Bruno lives in a tidy, double-wide mobile home in East Glacier, a small community where in the winter cattle and horses roam the streets freely. Mr. Bruno is president of the environmental group The Glacier Two Medicine Alliance. He says the Badger-Two Medicine is a crucial linchpin in a unique ecosystem.

BRUNO: I live on the edge of an area that essentially now, with the return of the wolf, has every animal that it naturally evolved with. I mean, we have a whole nation of fragmented ecosystems that are essentially only able to survive with manipulation by man. You know, they talk about deer getting out of hand because the predators are gone. That wouldn't happen here. You know, this ecosystem, I think, hopefully, that the ecosystem can go on its own.

SCHMIDT: Lou Bruno and other environmentalists fear the impact of oil and gas drilling, and accompanying activities like road building. He cites what happened along the Rocky Mounntain Front not far north in Alberta, Canada, where there's been widespread oil and gas drilling.

BRUNO: They went up every single drainage of the front, and now that the bottom fell out of the industry and they're reaching the end of their, the field production, the communities are left high and dry. And the country is destroyed. Elk populations are way, are a fraction of what they are in the states. Sheep populations are a fraction of what they are in the states.

SCHMIDT: But for oil companies, the message from Alberta is something else. It's a sign there may be more natural gas along the front just waiting to be tapped. The fight over the Badger-Two Medicine began during the Reagan Administration, when vast areas of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front were leased to petroleum companies. Fina and Chevron are the primary lease holders on the Badger. Mark Palmer is a Fina spokesman.

PALMER: It is frontier drilling, and by that it's not exactly proven area. But back when we purchased the lease we were interested in the natural gas formations that were somewhat evident in that area of the Rocky Mountain Front.

SCHMIDT: Both Fina and Chevron want to start exploratory drilling, but they've been held up by environmentalists in court, and more recently by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Secretary Babbitt, whose agency controls underground mineral rights, has placed a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas activity in the Badger Two Medicine. The ban is intended to give Congress time to push through a Wilderness Bill, which could provide permanent protection for the area. Fina's Mark Palmer says the petroleum industry has shown that it can safely balance exploration with environmental protection, but that's a separate issue from the lease right. Mr. Palmer says Fina expects the government to fulfill its lease obligations.

PALMER: We do have an investment, and we are looking out for the interests of our shareholders and our company. So we want to protect that investment. We spent a good deal of money for the lease, and we have been unable to make any type of a decision because we've been put in limbo, kind of a suspended animation on this project, because of the moratorium.

SCHMIDT: But the battle over the future of the Badger-Two Medicine is not just between industry and environmental groups. Spiritualists with the Blackfeet Nation consider the area sacred.

(Wind whistles)

SCHMIDT: Out on the Blackfeet Reservation the wind blows hard and often. On this cold, clear night, it's whipping across the prairie at nearly 100 miles an hour. But sitting in his living room, warmed by a wood stove, Blackfeet Elder Buster Yellow Kidney shrugs off the wind as a way of life here. He, along with other Blackfeet who continue to hold traditional spiritual views, have formed a tribal association to protect the nearby mountains.

YELLOW KIDNEY: Sometimes I go back up on the mountains and I'll do some fasting and so forth, maybe 4-day fasts. And I come off of there, and I do a lot of sweats back in that area. And even in the winter I used to go back in and stay for weeks at a time, because I find it so peaceful back there. And it's the only place I could say that I found peace within myself.

SCHMIDT: Mr. Yellow Kidney says he was once asked by a Forest Service official to pinpoint the sacred sites within the Badger Two Medicine, with the understanding that those specific areas might be put off-limits to oil and gas drilling.

YELLOW KIDNEY: And this is what I told him. I said you know, this is what you are trying to do to us here in the Blackfeet. It's like if you were sitting in church on some Sunday morning and I came to the church door and I asked you, point out the sacred areas in your church, the holiest part of your church. You know, say this one and that one, that one. Okay, then I go back out and I climb on my bulldozer and knock everything down except those things you point out. I said that's what you want to do to our church.

SCHMIDT: Forest Service officials are currently trying to determine the cultural significance of the Badger-Two Medicine and whether it should be protected. Local Forest Service supervisor Gloria Flora says the study of the cultural sites shows how much the Agency has learned since it granted the oil and gas leases a decade and a half ago.

FLORA: We've become more aware of the grizzly bear and how to understand the habitat needs. Certainly we've advanced in our knowledge and understanding and respect for the Blackfeet Nation. The level of concern that the public has expressed over development. These have all changed dramatically. So, would the same decision be made? I doubt it.

SCHMIDT: But Ms. Flora says it's too late to say no to the oil companies now.

FLORA: It's already too far down the road to just say oh, we quit. It really would take Congressional legislative action to determine that we're somehow going to extract ourselves from these lease obligations.

SCHMIDT: But Congress may not agree to spend what could amount to tens of millions of dollars to buy back the oil and gas leases. Meanwhile, Secretary Babbitt is under increasing pressure from the Forest Service not to renew the moratorium on the Badger. Despite the Agency's wish to resolve the conflict, there's no end in sight. If the moratorium is lifted, a lengthy court battle over the Badger is expected to resume.

(Water sluices)

SCHMIDT: Back on Badger Creek, tribal biologist Dan Carney looks out across the Front, which rises like a great wall along the land.

CARNEY: You can see Badger Canyon, where it comes out of the mountain. Up in that way a few miles there's Two Medicine River.

SCHMIDT: For as far as one can see, there are no roads, no houses, nothing but trees and dark valleys and craggy peaks. For some the beauty of this place is in its wildness; for others it's in the development opportunities. The question now is which vision will prevail. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.

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CURWOOD: Thomas Wolf may have written that you can't go home again, but don't tell that to many of North America's wild animals. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

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The Wolves of Isle Royale

CURWOOD: America's Isle Royale National Park is a forested gem set far north in Lake Superior, just 20 miles from the Canadian shore. At the turn of the century, moose arrived on Isle Royale, probably by swimming from the mainland. They had no natural predators until about 50 years later, when a single pair of gray wolves apparently walked to the island across an ice bridge. And so began a simple arrangement. It's a perfect place to study nature's balancing act. Dr. Rolf Peterson is a wildlife biologist and accomplished photographer who studied wolf-moose dynamics on Isle Royale for 25 years. He's trying to find out just how many moose and wolves the island can sustain. He's captured the wonder of the place in a new book from Willow Creek Press. It's called The Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance. Dr. Peterson, on the cover of your book, there's a picture of a wolf howling at the moon. Is that a photograph you took?

PETERSON: It's a painting, but of a real wolf.

CURWOOD: The wolf's name was?

PETERSON: Well, we called him Murphy, just because he got, everything seemed to go wrong for this wolf, and he ended up the last 4 years of his life living as a lone wolf who didn't do real well, but he got by. But never succeeded in breeding, and got chased -- he could kill moose by himself but he usually got chased off these kills by territorial packs. So he suffered a rather obscure end and died of starvation.

CURWOOD: And what did he sound like? I see he's got his head tossed back, you know his throat is open.

PETERSON: Well, I'm not sure this particular wolf ever howled, because lone wolves typically try and remain as hidden as possible. Just getting by, basically. But the normal wolf howl is a pretty deep, throaty sound with a lot of variability. And they can communicate pretty complex messages.

CURWOOD: Think back to a situation where you heard a wolf howling, and give me that howl, and tell me the context of it after we hear it.

PETERSON: Let's see if I can imitate it first. (Howls) That's a pretty pathetic howl, but it's one that we actually observed. A male and female dominant, alpha individuals in a pack, and the mother and father in other words of most of the other wolves in the pack. And it was summer time, and they came home to where their pups were parked in the woods, near a den site, and found everybody gone. And so they sat down and immediately the male started out howling, and then the female came in at a higher pitch, and they howled for 2, 3 minutes. And then we could just barely pick out with our own ears a response several miles away, where the pups had been moved by some babysitters. So the wolves had their information and they up and left, and we never saw them again at that site.

CURWOOD: Now the balance of wolves and moose on this island is constantly changing. Can you tell me a bit about the various booms and busts that we've seen over the decades?

PETERSON: Of course the first major one was moose, when there were no wolves present. There was a big food crash in the 30s. And then once wolves were in place in the 1950s the amplitude of changes in moose numbers hasn't been smoothed out by wolf predation. And in a very real sense the wolves protect the food base of moose and help perpetuate it, because moose have the capacity to destroy their own food base.

CURWOOD: We need to talk about the basic ecology here. If wolves eat the moose, the moose eat --

PETERSON: They eat trees and shrubs and aquatic plants in summer time. But it's the winter browse, the plants that they eat in winter, that is most limiting. And in recent years there have been so many moose that very little of that forage is available even by midwinter. So a lot of malnutrition has set in, and of course this winter was a winter to set records in terms weather and snow depth, and a lot of moose simply didn't make it.

CURWOOD: So it was a pretty good winter, actually, if you were a wolf.

PETERSON: Oh certainly, yeah. A banner year for the wolves. They didn't have to work as hard because they often found moose that had starved to death, or many moose simply fell off cliffs while they were looking for something to eat. Literally, food was falling out of the skies. For the first year in almost a decade, all 3 packs had at least 1 pup survive until winter. Their numbers have been low for most of the last 15 years, and there's a sub-quest, we might say, we've been searching for the reason for their problems. Because they really have been on the edge of extinction. They reached the world's highest density of wolves in the wild in 1980 with 50 wolves present on this relatively small island, and 2 years later there was simply, there were just 14 left.


PETERSON: So over 4 dozen wolves had died in that 2-year period.

CURWOOD: What caused that, do you think?

PETERSON: Well initially we attributed it to the shortage of food, because they had pretty much cleaned out of the moose population the animals that were vulnerable to predation. But now we look back and realize there were some disease events coming through the Midwestern states, and Isle Royale specifically. Canine piro-virus probably led to that big crash in 1980 to '82. This is an exotic virus, a new mutant virus that people probably brought to the island inadvertently.

CURWOOD: But things have turned around recently.

PETERSON: In 1996 there are 22 wolves present, so they're up out of the real danger zone.

CURWOOD: So do you think this means that the system is now righting itself, that the wolves will survive?

PETERSON: They have a good chance at survival. I'm not sure I would call them completely recovered because they do have a genetic heritage now that could certainly put them at risk if theory is right. It looks like all the wolves have descended from a single female, probably a founder of the population in the 1940s, and they're all essentially related like brothers and sisters and they've lost significant genetic variability. And we'll see if they can get around the theoretical risks of genetic decay that we seem to be preoccupied with in endangered species management

CURWOOD: Rolf Peterson is a wildlife ecologist at the Michigan Technological University. His new book is called The Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance. Thank you, sir.

PETERSON: You bet. Thank you.

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Return of the Trumpeter Swans

CURWOOD: Back before Colonial times, the Great Lakes was also habitat for thousands of trumpeter swans. And in recent years some have been trying to bring the great birds back. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario have all had trumpeter swan projects, and now Ohio is trying one, borrowing ideas from its neighbors. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Bill Cohen reports.

(Swans trumpet)

COHEN: Trumpeter swans look majestic, with their white feathers, their 2-foot-long necks, and their 7-foot wingspan. And the unique call that inspired their name.

(A swan trumpets)

COHEN: But the trumpet call of the swan hasn't been heard in Ohio for nearly 300 years. Ohio wildlife official Geedo Torry says humans are to blame.

TORRY: When the French trappers came through and were settling the country, they would trade with the Indians for guns. And Indians and settlers utilized them for food. They were, you know, a huge bird, provided a lot of meat. Unfortunately they took a lot of them, also for the feather trade in Europe, and decimated them.

COHEN: Now, to make sure that wasn't the trumpeter's swan song, wildlife officials are hatching 2 plans. First, they're buying swans from a Michigan animal sanctuary, for release in Ohio during the summers. They'll get accustomed to Ohio by first living at The Wilds, the International Center for the Preservation of Wild Animals in eastern Ohio. The second part of the project...

TORRY: We will fly to Alaska this summer, and collect eggs from wild trumpeter swan nests, bring them back to Ohio where they'll be hatched at the Cleveland Metro Park Zoo. Then they'll be taken to the Wilds and then released in Ohio wetlands when they're 2 years of age. So we hope to release abut 150 swans over the next 5 years. Various wetlands in Ohio, starting with our Great Lakes, Lake Erie wetlands.

COHEN: Ohio is not operating here just on a wing and a prayer. Wildlife officials say they've learned from the successes and failures of other Great Lakes states. And that's why Ohio will be releasing 2-year-old swans into the wetlands: birds old enough to survive. Again, Geedo Torry.

TORRY: The other states, Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota got started actually earlier and tried a couple techniques that weren't so successful. They finally got them refined just in time for us to begin, and it's working quite successfully. Michigan now has 14 breeding pairs, and they raised 40 young last year, and their program has basically been a success and they're off and running.

COHEN: The swan project is being funded in part with $80,000 of tax refunds Ohioans have donated back to the state. Wildlife advocates hope the sight of the beautiful swans in Ohio wetlands will convince more people how important the birds' habitats are. Stan Serrells is curator of birds at the Cleveland Zoo.

SERRELLS: This bird is what we call a flagship species for the wetlands habitat. And the wetlands habitat is very important for a large number of species, but unfortunately many times, in order to get the public's interest about wetlands habitat, you need a flagship species. A swan is white, it's large, it's beautiful, it's majestic. And if you care about the swan and do something for its habitat, 60 or 70 other species will benefit.

COHEN: Two trumpeter swans that have already been brought to Ohio for the start of the revival project are attracting the attention of adults and children, and wildlife officials think that's a great entree to educate the next generation about animals and the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill Cohen in Columbus, Ohio.

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Reappearing Animals

CURWOOD: Amid all the fears about species going extinct, we hear reports of animals reappearing in places they haven't been seen in generations. On the face of it, this seems like a positive finding. But to commentator Bill McKibben it's only the latest chapter in a story that may not have a happy ending.

McKIBBEN: In the mid-18th century, Thoreau made a list of all the animals that had once lived in and around his Concord, Massachusetts home but were no longer to be found there. The wolf, the turkey, the beaver, the bear, the deer, the porcupine, the moose. Save for the wolf, they've all returned. Deer in record numbers to browse on suburban shrubbery, wild turkey flocking back toward the scene of the first Thanksgiving, beaver busy creating new wetlands. Several years ago, state game officials shot a moose that had taken up residence on the median strip of nearby Route 128, America's Technology Highway. They donated the carcass to a Salvation Army soup kitchen.

And it's not just the northern forest. Seals have returned to Long Island Sound in the last decade. The sea otter population off California's coastline is booming. Alligators have moved so far off the endangered species list that no Florida golfer would even consider fishing for a ball lost in a water hazard.

In an age that biologists assure us is marked mostly by extinction, and by extinction on the order of the great cataclysms that killed the dinosaurs, what do these small resurgences mean? Not that we should assume nature will bounce back from our abuse; for every sea otter rebounding on the Pacific shore there are 100 populations of birds and beetles and frogs losing ground. Indeed, even some of the so-called recoveries are signs of dsperation. When a manatee spends all winter in the hot wastewater of a Houston sewage treatment plant, it's a sign of life out of whack.

All it means is that in those few places where human beings have backed off, nature retains some small measure of resilience. In the mountain east, where farming moved west a century ago and the forest began a slow recovery, even the cougar may be returning to the woods. Where game laws and endangered species acts have ended poaching in protected habitat, and where toxic pollution has abated to levels that allow reproduction, animals have responded.

It's almost dangerous to discuss these successes, because too many people are eager to take them as signs we can gut our environmental laws and count on nature to clean up after us. Instead, they're signs of just the opposite, signs that the early efforts at ecological vigilance have shown some payoff. Signs that there's some grace left on the planet, that we may yet by redoubled effort be able to meet the rest of creation halfway. Signs that in a few scattered places we've started down the right track.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bill McKibben lives in upstate New York. His most recent book is called Hope: Human and Wild.

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CURWOOD: And we'd like to know what wild animals have been reappearing in your neighborhood. Do you have more deer in the back yard? Raccoons in the rafters? Call us at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our e-mail address; that's LOE@NPR.ORG. LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth' senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, and Liz Lempert. We also had help from John Rudolf, Susan Shepherd, Michael Argue, Mark Borrelli, and Emily Atkinson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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