But those few animals remain the only black-footed ferrets in the entire country, and every year about 30 people come here from across Canada to count the remnants for two weeks in August. They volunteer for long night-time shifts, wandering for hours with spotlights and hoping to catch a tell-tale reflection in the dark.
“People hike 10 kilometres to see if they can find eye shine,” Mr. Sturch says.
As we drive, Mr. Schmidt glances at the time.
“We’ve already seen a long-billed curlew, a horned lark, the black-tailed prairie dog, sharp-tailed grouse. And we’ve basically been here for 10 minutes,” he says. “That definitely is one of the things that makes this park so special.”
'WE NEED OIL'
There is a barbed-wire fence. There is a ceaseless wind pushing tumbleweed across late-winter grasses. Sometimes, there are cattle grazing. And there are several buildings that make up a compressor station on a 1980s-era natural gas pipeline, the only indication that there is something important about this utterly lonesome place.
It is this exact spot where the Keystone XL pipeline route moves from Canada into the United States. By just about any measure, this small stretch of isolated land is forgettable. But these have become, in many respects, Keystone XL’s single most important few metres. It is because of this border crossing that TransCanada Corp. has been obligated to seek a presidential permit and submit itself to review by the U.S. Department of State. It’s a review now nearing five years that has exposed the company to a political opposition so loud that it remains an open question whether the White House will ever allow TransCanada to bury its pipe where the barbed wire now stands.
Cody Math can’t figure out what the fuss is about. It is, he says again and again, “plumb goofy.”
“I don’t know why people are against this thing. It’s not landowners. It’s the liberal left wing,” he says. “They’d rather run their cars on wind or something.”
Mr. Math is not a central figure in the Keystone XL debate. On the day I stop by, he’s not even particularly thrilled to be talking; he’s just come back from a bachelor bender in Las Vegas. But he is the first American whose house the pipeline will pass by. He lives just three kilometres from the border crossing; the Keystone XL route comes within about 800 metres of the place where he and his wife are expecting the sixth-generation of Math to live in this part of Montana.
The natural gas pipeline, called Northern Border, has made them familiar with life next to buried energy. Thirty years after it was built, Northern Border’s right-of-way is still discernible: The grass grows differently, and crops on top of the pipe ripen earlier. When something went wrong last year at the compressor station – he’s not sure whether it was a leak or fire of some sort – it produced a jet-like roar so loud it could be heard in his basement.
Mr. Math also tried to have TransCanada move a Keystone XL pumping station from its current location about 1.5 kilometres from his home. He doesn’t like how it is positioned in an oddly-shaped field that is already difficult to till, and he is worried it will introduce an industrial hum to a landscape now notable for its silence. He failed to persuade the company.
He’s also irritated by the weather sent down from north of the border: “The snow comes sideways from Canada,” he says. “It can get pretty bad.”
Yet neither blizzards nor pipeline problems have soured people here on Keystone XL. Brent Anderson raises cattle on the land where the route first enters the U.S. “We need oil, so we might as well get it from there” – he means Canada – “rather than across the pond. I don’t have a problem with it,” he says.
Mr. Math feels the same. He lives at the end of 30 kilometres of unmarked gravel road, 250 kilometres from the nearest Wal-Mart store and even farther from the closest interstate highway. There aren’t many places as distant from mainstream America as his house. He began dating his wife after reaching out on Facebook, which he accesses via satellite Internet. His wife pulls recipes from Pinterest. They do much of their shopping online now; even here, Amazon makes two-day deliveries. He doesn’t like the idea of impeding cultural or economic progress, which has so tangibly improved his own life.
“As long as this pumping station is not loud, I don’t care. And they say it will be okay,” he says. Building new industrial development is “the way it’s supposed to be,” he says. “Isn’t the point of the human race to move forward?”