With its diverse habitat and abundant wildlife, Montana is a prime place for producing animal conservationists who are leaders in their field, and scientists at the Indianapolis Zoo appear to agree.
On Wednesday, the Indianapolis Zoo announced the names of 39 conservationists who will be considered for the biennial Indianapolis Prize, a top award for international animal conservation.
Along with this year's more notable nominees — anthropologist Jane Goodall and photojournalist Joel Sartore — are three Montanans, who have been recognized for their lifetime dedication to animals.
Of the three Montanans, two are based in Bozeman, giving the city a fair chance to hold onto the prize.
State Sen. Michael Phillips was chosen for his work with the Turner Endangered Species Fund, his work on wolf recovery and his legislative contribution toward the recovery of the American bison.
Phillips was nominated for the award by world-famous entomologist E.O. Wilson and received recommendations from author David Quammen and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
Ashe presented the Turner Endangered Species Fund with the his agency's Recovery Champion Award in 2011 for conservation initiatives benefitting imperiled species, such as the black-footed ferret, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the Northern gray wolf.
“Whether I get any further, I'm so very proud of the people who supported me,” Phillips said. “(Ashe) recognizes the value of our work, which is good because we can't do anything without permits. If the USFWS didn't consider us credible, we wouldn't have a chance.”
The other Bozeman nominee is Joel Berger, an ungulate researcher and University of Montana professor. Berger also does research for the Bozeman-based Wildlife Conservation Society on antelope migration corridors, the effect of climate change on Alaskan musk ox and the effects of energy development on wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Berger started his conservation work in the 1970s and has seen some wildlife losses during his career but said things have improved for some species.
“We face daunting challenges but people like wildlife. We've made great strides in Montana because we didn't use to have as many wolves, grizzly bears or other species,” Berger said. “The greatest challenge is — with 7 billion people and some are haves while others are have-nots — how we can get people to be more moderate with consumption?”
The third Montanan nominated is connected to the 2012 Indianapolis Prize winner, Steven Amstrup, chief scientist with Bozeman-based Polar Bears International.
Ornithologist Denver Holt is the founder of the Owl Research Institute out of Charlo, Mont. Last year, he traveled to Churchill, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International on snowy owls and climate change.
“It's hard to get people to care about ice. But if you can tell the story with polar bears or owls, people pay more attention,” Holt said.
Holt has conducted independent research on several species of owls for 25 years and is one of the few scientists to claim the caliber of long-term studies he's worked on.
“In the past 10 years, university research has tended to focus on shorter studies – 2 to 3 years. Long-term studies are a dying part of biology, but how can you see trends without long-term data?” Holt said. “I took a chance to get out on my own. It's taken forever but now we're on the front line of owl and conservation research.”
In spring 2014, six finalists will be announced, and the winner will be chosen a few months later.