Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Truth About Agriculture and impacts on Biodiversity

The Truth About Land Use in the United States
By George Wuerthner

Misunderstanding abounds about land use in the United States.

By far the greatest impact on the American landscape comes not from urbanization but rather from agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farming and ranching are responsible for 68 percent of all species endangerment in the United States.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of water, particularly in the West. Most water developments would not exist were it not for the demand created by irrigated agriculture.

If ultimate causes and not proximate causes for species extinction are considered, agricultural impacts would even be higher. Yet scant attention is paid by academicians, environmentalists, recreationists and the general public to agriculture's role in habitat fragmentation, species endangerment and declining water quality.

The ironic aspect of this head-in-the sand approach to land use is that most agriculture is completely unnecessary to feed the nation. The great bulk of agricultural production goes toward forage production used primarily by livestock. A small shift in our diet away from meat could have a tremendous impact on the ground in terms of freeing up lands for restoration and wildlife habitat. It would also reduce the poisoning of our streams and groundwater with pesticides and other residue of modern agricultural practices.

Most of the information in the following summary is available from the USDA Economic Research Service publication "Major Uses of Land in the United States 1997." (To order, call 1-800-9996779). The numbers do not change appreciably from year to year.

Overview of Land Use in the United States-The U.S. has 2.3 billion acres of land. However, 375 million acres are in Alaska and not suitable for agricultural production. The land area of the lower 48 states is approximately 1.9 billion acres.

To put things in perspective, keep in mind that California is 103 million acres, Montana 94 million acres, Oregon 60 million acres and Maine 20 million acres.

Developed Land- Despite all the hand wringing over sprawl and urbanization, only 66 million acres are considered developed lands. This amounts to 3 percent of the land area in the U.S., yet this small land base is home to 75 percent of the population. In general, urban lands are nearly useless for biodiversity preservation. Furthermore, urbanized lands, once converted, usually do not shift to another use.

Rural Residential Land-This category comprises nearly all sprawl and subdivisions along with farmhouses scattered across the country The total acreage for rural residential is 73 million acres. Of this total, 44 million acres are lots of 10 or more acres.

Developed and rural residential make up 139 million acres, or 6.1 percent of total land area in the U.S. This amount of land is not insignificant until you consider that we planted more than 80 million acres of feeder corn and another 75 million acres of soybeans (95 percent of which are consumed by livestock, not tofu eaters) last year alone. These two crops affect more of the land area of the U.S. than all the urbanization, rural residential, highways, railroads, commercial centers, malls, industrial parks and golf courses combined.

Cropland- About 349 million acres in the U.S. are planted for crops. This is the equivalent of about four states the size of Montana. Four crops -- feeder corn (80 million acres), soybeans (75 million acres), alfalfa hay (61 million acres) and wheat (62 million acres) -- make up 80 percent of total crop acreage. All but wheat are primarily used to feed livestock.

The amount of land used to produce all vegetables in the U.S. is less than 3 million acres.

Range and Pasture Land- Some 788 million acres, or 41.4 percent of the U. S. excluding Alaska, are grazed by livestock. This is an area the size of 8.3 states the size of Montana. Grazed lands include rangeland, pasture and cropland pasture. More than 309 million acres of federal, state and other public lands are grazed by domestic livestock. Another 140 million acres are forested lands that are grazed.

Forest Land- Forest lands comprise 747 million acres. Of these lands, some 501 million acres are primarily forest (minus lands used for grazed forest and other special categories).

The USDA report concludes that urbanization and rural residences (subdivisions) "do not threaten the U.S. cropland base or the level of agricultural production." This does not mean sprawl doesn't have impacts where it occurs. But the notion that sprawl is the greatest threat to biodiversity is absolutely false.

Conclusions that place sprawl ahead of agriculture in terms of biodiversity impacts are due to faulty accounting methods and a general bias that favors agriculture as a "good" use of the land.

Furthermore, there are viable means of controlling sprawl. They include land-use planning, zoning, fee purchase and conservation easements.

Despite acreage being paved over, malled over or overbuilt with condos, developed land is generally concentrated in and near cities. The loss of farm or ranch land is insignificant compared to the total acreage available in the U.S.

The real message here is that we can afford to restore hundreds of millions of acres in the U.S. if we simply shift our diets away from meat. Many organizations spend their time fighting sprawl and championing agriculture as a benign use of the land. If a similar amount of effort were directed toward reducing agricultural production, we would produce far greater protection and restoration for declining species, endangered ecosystems and ecological processes.

When critics suggest that we don't have the money to buy land for wildlands restoration, they are forgetting agricultural subsidies, which amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. For what we spend to prop up marginal agricultural producers, we could easily buy most of the private farm and ranch land in the country This would be a far more effective way to contain sprawl, restore wildlands, bring back endangered species, clean up water, slow the spread of exotic species and reduce soil erosion.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Problem with National Forest Collaboratives


Collaboratives have been initiated on many national forests across the West. The stated goal is to resolve controversial resource issues through cooperative discussions between various interests, Thus collaboratives typically include representatives of industry such as timber companies, ranchers, local tourist promotion, county commissioners, Forest Service, BLM, FWS, state and county government, and state wildlife agency representatives, recreational interests like horseman, mountain bikers, ORV interests and what are variously termed “environmentalists” which typically includes one or two paid staff of national or regional environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and so forth.
I have participated to one degree or another in five collaboratives and I can attest that there are institutional biases inherent in all collaborative that makes them unlikely to promote policies that are in the best interest of the public in general, much less the integrity of the land. Indeed, some critics argue their purpose is to reduce public participation in public lands management decisions.
First is the fact that participation in collaborative is voluntary. Meetings are typically scheduled during week days during “work” hours which is one way that overall public participation is significantly reduced. What happens is that most involvement is from those with a vested economic interest in the outcome-- paid lobbyists of the timber industry, ranchers/grazing industry, ORV industry, and other groups.
One timber company representative acknowledged when asked why we were at the meeting said quite unabashedly that he was paid to be there to lobby for more logging.
One can question the ethics of allowing individuals with a direct financial stake in the outcome to participate in decision-making and recommendations that will benefit themselves or their employers.
While it’s true that occasionally there are one or two paid representative of environmental groups or other members who do not represent exploitative interests (nor have a financial stake in the outcome), they are completely overwhelmed by resource extractive interests.
Even beyond the obvious representatives of industry who often dominate these collaborative, other agency and public employees in attendance also have a philosophical and indirect vested interest in continued resource exploitation. For instance, many of the collaboratives I’ve attended include county extension foresters, state foresters, representatives of the state forestry schools, and Forest Service foresters in attendance. If you are a forester your job depends on continued logging of public lands, and most take it for granted that logging is overall a public good.
Occasionally you might get a Forest Service or Fish and Game biologist attending who might have a slightly different outlook on what is the “public good”, but even these folks know their marching orders—which are not to interfere ultimately with the general demand for some logging, grazing, or other resource exploitation.
Beyond even these obvious conflicts of interest, others in attendance like county commissioners, extension agents, and other public employees also generally see resource extraction like logging and grazing as a “good” for local economic interests.
Given the membership of the typical collaborative it is hardly surprising that most support greater logging/grazing of our public lands.
To make an analogy, imagine there was a collaborative that was put together to determine whether a nuclear power plant should be build adjacent to your city and the majority of participants were representatives of the nuclear power industry, nuclear engineers, and members of the local power company with maybe one or two environmentalists—would you trust their recommendations to the federal nuclear regulatory agency?
Beyond these obvious conflicts of interest, there are starting assumptions that serve to limit participation as well. Basically those who agree with the basic premise that our forests need to be “managed” and are “improved” by logging are those who self-select to be on collaboratives. Those who may question such starting assumptions have limited opportunities to voice their objections and disagreements and if they attend at all, often become frustrated and leave. This self selection process guarantees certain outcomes and recommendations.
There is also a lot of group pressure to “get along”, so even when environmentalists are paid to attend the meetings and may have some different ideals than the overall group philosophical values, it is difficult for anyone to make any substantial differences except along the margins. It takes real courage to attend such meetings and continuously voice objections, or concerns that run counter to the dominant paradigm. Most environmentalists I’ve encountered at collaborative meetings are subtly pressured to agree to actions that they are uncomfortable supporting, but resisting the social pressure to “cooperate” is difficult.
Because of this group think, there is little opportunity or support for alternative interpretations of science, economics, and policy paradigms. For instance, all collaboratives I’ve attended believe our forests are “unhealthy” even though forest health is largely defined in terms of timber management goals. Most believe that wildfires, beetles, and other natural selective processes are detrimental to forest ecosystems, despite a growing body of literature that questions such assumptions.
Most believe that wildfires “damage” the land, again despite a lot of science that shows that wildfires are largely beneficial to the long term health of forest ecosystems.
Most believe that logging is good for the economy, ignoring the fact that nearly all federal timber sales are money losing affairs subsidized by taxpayers. And most of the economic analysis used to justify logging/grazing do not consider the inherent collateral damage caused by resource extraction as a cost. Thus sedimentation from logging roads, weeds spread by livestock, trampled riparian areas that harm fish, loss of biomass from the forest ecosystem, and other impacts are simply ignored or downplayed.
Most start out with the assumption that thinning/logging can preclude or stop wildfires (again because wildfires are viewed as “bad”), even though there is abundant evidence that under severe fire conditions, wildfires burn through, over, and around thinned forests.
Because most are dominated by pro-logging/grazing interests, they ignore other alternatives that might achieve many of the same goals but with less environmental impacts and less direct subsidies to the industries. For instance, one will hear that logging will reduce forest density which is presumed to improve forest health, but it’s not considered a viable option when it is pointed out that beetles will selectively reduce forest density for free, and do a better job of picking the trees that are genetically or otherwise most vulnerable to drought.
In addition, due to the technical nature of some of the issues, in particular the science on fire ecology, thinning effectiveness, grazing practices, fire management, logging impacts, wildlife impacts, and even what constitutes a healthy forest that are used to justify resource exploitation, participates are really not scientifically equipped to debate or disagree with the dominant paradigms.
To give one example of how new science can change assumptions, in Oregon many logging proposals are now justified on the belief that wildfire is detrimental to spotted owl survival due to the owl’s need for old growth forests. If the forests burn up, so it is thought, owls are harmed. While it’s true that owls require old growth forests for nest and roosting habitat, it turns out that recent studies demonstrate that owl preferentially forage for prey in burned forests due to the increase in rodent populations created by wildfire regrowth. But most agency personnel, much less the average collaborative participant, have never heard of these studies, and thus support logging and thinning on the presumption that they are protecting spotted owls.
Unfortunately even the agency personnel do not have the time to keep up with the vast amount of new scientific information generated annually, and it is beyond the ability and time constraints for anyone else involved in these collaboratives to monitor the latest scientific literature except in the most cursory manner. No matter how dedicated one may be to keeping up with the latest science, one can’t know everything and there will always be debate about what constitutes the “best” science. So nearly all collaboratives are operating under flawed assumptions, outdated ecological science, and of course, the inherent bias to find science that supports resource extraction while minimizing and/or ignoring science that questions such assumptions.
We all want to be liked and respected and the social pressure to agree with collaborative decisions is exceedingly strong—which is why collaboratives are so universally endorsed. Those in power know that getting the approval of a collaborative with “representatives” of environmental interests certifies and legitimizes the outcomes.
Participation in collaboratives also silences environmental groups on many other issues that are not necessarily discussed as part of any particular collaborative. There is a tendency to avoid vigorous advocacy for environmental protection in other areas if it might offend other stakeholders (read industry representatives and rural politicians). Thus environmental representatives that may be promoting wilderness designation may avoid criticism of livestock grazing or logging proposals if they believe they must remain “friends” with the timber, ranching and others collaborative members.
They also know that all those meetings are a huge time commitment, and since most environmental groups have limited funds, paying an employee to attend meetings usually comes at the expense of other activities like reviewing and commenting upon environmental impact statements, visiting timber sale sites and grazing allotments, and most importantly organizing community resistance to additional resource extraction and/or promoting wilderness designation and other protective measures.
Given all the drawbacks is there any reason why anyone with environmental concerns should participate in a collaborative? I think yes, but with qualifications. This should not be done In the absence of good organizing, advocacy in other ways or coop your group or you from voicing objections to nebulous and destructive projects.
Be clear from the start that you are like the Lorax—there to speak for the forests. People are more likely to respect you if they know you are speaking from heart-felt and honest feelings.
Participation does guarantee that collaborative members will hear alternative perspectives that they might not otherwise be exposed to in their daily encounters. I am certain, for instance, when I repeatedly voice the opinion that wildfires, beetles, mistletoe, and other natural agents are “RESTORING” the forest, it is counter intuitive and contrary to what most collaborative members ever hear otherwise. Or when I point out that some scientists question the validity of fire scar studies for determining past wildfire history due to inherent biases in how the data is collected and analyzed, I know this is news to many in the group. Now, of course, many may dismiss my ideas as heretical to “good forest management” but at least they are exposed to the ideas.
In addition, there are some agency people who regularly attend these meetings who are sympathetic to the concerns of environmentalists. When someone questions the dominant paradigm or introduces some new scientific perspective, it gives them the political cover to raise these same issues in their own internal discussions and decision-making process.
Finally there are some members of the collaborative who are truly open to new ways of viewing forest management and concepts. Voicing a different perspective may be the only exposure they may have to these ideas and it can change opinions and perspectives.
Nevertheless, I think it’s important for the media, politicians, agency personnel, and the general public to recognize the inherent conflicts and limitations of collaborative efforts. No one should automatically assume that collaborative are reaching the best outcomes in terms of public interest , much less the best interest of our forests.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cow Conspiracy Video hits Home Run

George Wuerthner
I recently had the pleasure of viewing Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn new video Cow Conspiracy. The basic question these two film makers ask is why the contribution of livestock to ecosystem degradation is missing from the world’s environmental agenda. To find the answer they set out to interview environmental leaders as well as others to see if they could find the answer. The video is well researched and illustrated. But more than that, it is also entertaining. You will enjoy this video.
The first lesson they learned is that no one wants to fund a video about why livestock degradation is ignored. That was a lesson itself about the cow conspiracy. The duo were not able to find any normal sources of funding, instead had to rely upon contributions from strangers. But they persevered and produced what I think is one of the best environmental documentaries done in recent years. What they show and document in their video is the implicit or in many cases, the explicit omission of livestock production as a major source of global environmental degradation on many fronts including water pollution, deforestation, global warming, species extinction, ocean dead zones, and more.
So, for instance, the duo interview various well known authors and scientists like rancher Howard Lyman, of Mad Cowboy; Michael Pollen of Omnivore’s Dilemma; Will Tuttle, Environmental and Ethics author, Dr. Greg Lutis, and others who lay out the basic problem—no one wants to talk about the contribution of livestock to global environmental destruction.
This is illustrated over and over again throughout the video where spokesman for various “green” groups are interviewed and either avoid livestock as a problem or deny/downplay its contribution to environmental woes.
For instance, Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, is interviewed about global climate change. Hamilton correctly identifies fossil fuel burning as one factor contributing to global warming, but when asked about livestock’s contribution to green house gas emissions—Hamilton says “what about it?” At this point, the video discusses many recent scientific papers that point to livestock production as the single largest contributor to GHG production—even exceeding all transportation sectors, yet the Sierra Club, like many other groups, simply does not identify it as a problem.
The duo has similar responses from other organizations. For instance, when interviewing Rainforest Action Network about the causes of rainforest destruction, land clearing for livestock grazing and forage production is barely acknowledged.
Their goal is not to embarrass these individuals or organizations, but rather to illustrate how the contribution of livestock to environmental degradation is too often ignored or omitted from official recognition by nearly everyone.
The movie goes far beyond the obvious impacts of livestock production such as overgrazing of rangelands, and talks about everything from water pollution (from manure) to energy use in the production of meat to the mistreatment of meat producing animals by humans. Overall it makes a very cogent and articulate argument against meat/dairy consumption.
They even take on Allan Savory, advocate of more livestock production as a means of reducing global warming, pointing out that methane production from domestic animals is one of the largest contributors to warming climate, and vastly exceeds any ability of grazed grassland ecosystems to absorb more carbon.
The video is full of facts illustrated with great graphs like how many more gallons of water or the amount of land required in the production of a hamburger vs. a veggie burger that will make it easy to understand why livestock are one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity and ecosystems.
So why is livestock production and its multitude of environmental impacts so ignored by even environmental groups? The conclusion that Andersen and Kuhn come to is that it’s just too risky to discuss. Many groups depend on contributions from major donors and foundations that do not want livestock production criticized. The rancher and dairy farmer are cultural icons in many parts of the country—you cannot challenge them without risk to your organization’s financial security.
There exists what I call a Bovine Curtain very similar to the Iron Curtain that once prevented outside news from penetrating the old Soviet Union. The Bovine Curtain comes in many forms. Land management agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management seldom critique livestock production as a source of ecosystem degradation because they must answer to western politicians who often are ranchers or otherwise associated with agriculture. Similarly, many universities researchers do not investigate the negative consequences of livestock production and are silenced because they rely upon funding from legislatures dominated by Ag producers. In some states it is even against the law to critique Ag interests—as TV host personality Opiah Winfrey learned in 1998when she was sued by a Texas cattleman for allegedly making disparaging remarks about beef. Even though Winfrey ultimately won the suit, she no longer will even discuss the issue so in essence the threat of another law suit has silenced her.
My personal experience confirms Andersen and Kukn’s assertions that there is an unspoken and explicit desire to discuss livestock as an environmental, ethical, and health issue. For instance, I once worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) in Montana. GYC expressly forbade me to discuss livestock production’s contribution to the issues that the organization was highlighting. The organization’s board of directors included many wealthy people who had purchased ranches in the ecosystem and raised cattle. And GYC, like many western based environmental groups wanted to avoid antagonizing regional politicians like county commissioners to governors and Congressional representatives who are frequently ranchers or otherwise connected to Agricultural interests.
For example, when I was asked to discuss the threats to the ecosystem at the organization’s annual board meeting, I was not allowed to mention livestock production even though many of the issues the group was fighting could be traced directly back to ranching as the ultimate source of the environmental problem. Whether it was dewatering of rivers for irrigation and its detrimental impacts on fisheries, to the spread of disease from domestic sheep to wild bighorn sheep, from the killing of bison that wandered from Yellowstone Park to opposition to wolf recovery to the continued policy of elk feedgrounds in Wyoming, the ultimate source of the problem was and is livestock. However, GYC was unwilling to frame the issue that way for fear of antagonizing its board and/or regional politicians.
In another example of the Bovine Curtain slamming down, I had been admitted to a Ph.D. program at Montana State University in Bozeman and offered a four year financial grant to support my academic pursuits. However, when the Montana ranching community learned that I, a well-known Montana livestock critic, might be attending the state’s premier Ag school, they applied pressure to everyone from the department head to the President of the University threatening to cut funding to the university if my admission wasn’t denied and grant withdrawn. In the end I did not attend the university due to this perceived hostility.
The cow conspiracy is not only in the West. I lived for a time in Vermont where dairy farming is relegated to the status of a God. For instance though dairy farms are the chief source of pollution of Vermont’s rivers and one of the major contributors to the eutrophication of Lake Champlain, there is virtually no critique of dairy farming in the state. No environmental groups are actively pursuing reduction in dairies despite their well document environmental impacts, not to mention the health risk associated with consumption of dairy products. Instead dairy products are lauded as “good” in Vermont and supported as “local” agriculture. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream which was founded in Vermont is often held up as a responsible corporation even though consumption of ice cream is extremely unhealthy to consume. And while a few groups discuss the negative consequences of sprawl on the landscape, they virtually ignore the far greater acreage in Vermont that is degraded by corn and/or hay production to feed livestock. Of course dairy farming contributes to many impacts from manure, fertilizer and pesticide run off into streams, GMO seeds, to the mono cropping that destroys native biodiversity. Even Bill McKibben’s 350.org, a group based in Vermont and dedicated to reducing global warming, fails to mention the contribution that livestock production makes to global climate change.
The truth is that there are very few environmental organizations that are willing to even discuss livestock production’s impact on biodiversity and ecosystem function, much less other related issues like human health and ethical treatment of animals.
Hopefully after viewing he Cow Conspiracy you be will motivated to start questioning politicians, environmental organizations and others why they are ignoring what is ultimately one of the major contributors to global climate change and biodiversity losses.
You can find out more about the movie at this link-- http://vimeo.com/95436726. Watch the trailer. Get a copy of the video and show it widely. Arrange for a showing at conferences, in your college classes, at your church, and any other forum. Better yet support Kip and Keegan’s efforts by making a contribution to them and joining one of the few organizations that are directly addressing livestock impacts on public lands like the Idaho based Western Watersheds Project (http://www.westernwatersheds.org/).
Author’s Bio: George Wuerthner is an ecologist, author of 37 books dealing with wildlands and environmental issues including Welfare Ranching: The Environmental Impacts of Livestock Production on the Arid West. He is also a board member of Western Watershed Project.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Whither the Hunter/Conservationists?

Many hunter organizations like to promote the idea that hunters were the first and most important conservation advocates. They rest on their laurels of early hunter/wildlife activist like Teddy Roosevelt, and George Bird Grinnell who, among other things, were founding members of the Boone and Crocket Club. But in addition to being hunter advocates, these men were also staunch proponents of national parks and other areas off limits to hunting. Teddy Roosevelt help to establish the first wildlife refuges to protect birds from feather hunters, and he was instrumental in the creation of numerous national parks including the Grand Canyon. Grinnell was equally active in promoting the creation of national parks like Glacier as well as a staunch advocate for protection of wildlife in places like Yellowstone. Other later hunter/wildlands advocates like Aldo Leopold and Olaus Murie helped to promote wilderness designation and a land ethic as well as a more enlightened attitude about predators.
Unfortunately, though there are definitely still hunters and anglers who put conservation and wildlands protection ahead of their own recreational pursuits, far more of the hunter/angler community is increasingly hostile to wildlife protection and wildlands advocacy. Perhaps the majority of hunters were always this way, but at least the philosophical leaders in the past were well known advocates of wildlands and wildlife.
Nowhere is this change in attitude among hunter organizations and leadership more evident than the deafening silence of hunters when it comes to predator management. Throughout the West, state wildlife agencies are increasing their war on predators with the apparent blessings of hunters, without a discouraging word from any identified hunter organization. Rather the charge for killing predators is being led by groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others who are not only lobbying for more predator killing, but providing funding for such activities to state wildlife agencies.
For instance, in Nebraska which has a fledging population of cougars (an estimated 20) the state wildlife agency has already embarked on a hunting season to “control” cougar numbers. Similarly in South Dakota, where there are no more than 170 cougars, the state has adopted very aggressive and liberal hunting regulations to reduce the state’s cougar population.
But the worst examples of an almost maniacal persecution of predators are related to wolf policies throughout the country. In Alaska, always known for its Neanderthal predator policies, the state continues to promote killing of wolves adjacent to national parks. Just this week the state wiped out a pack of eleven wolves that were part of a long term research project in the Yukon Charley National Preserve. Alaska also regularly shoots wolves from the air, and also sometimes includes grizzly and black bears in its predator slaughter programs.
In the lower 48 states since wolves were delisted from the federal Endangered Species Act and management was turned over to the state wildlife agencies more than 2700 wolves have been killed.
This does not include the 3435 additional wolves killed in the past ten years by Wildlife Services, a federal predator control agency, in both the Rockies and Midwest. Most of this killing was done while wolves were listed as endangered.
As an example of the persecutory mentality of state wildlife agencies, one need not look any further than Idaho, where hunters/trappers, along with federal and state agencies killed 67 wolves this past year in the Lolo Pass area on the Montana/Idaho border, including some 23 from a Wildlife Service’s helicopter gun ship. The goal of the predator persecution program is to reduce predation on elk. However, even the agency’s own analysis shows that the major factor in elk number decline has been habitat quality declines due to forest recovery after major wildfires which has reduced the availability of shrubs and grasses central to elk diet. In other word, with or without predators the Lolo Pass area would not be supporting the number of elk that the area once supported after the fires. Idaho also hired a trapper to kill wolves in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness to increase elk numbers there.
Idaho hunters are permitted to obtain five hunting and five trapping tags a year, and few parts of the state have any quota or limits. Idaho Governor Butch Otter recently outlined a new state budget allotting $2 million dollars for the killing of wolves—even though the same budget cuts funding for state schools.
Other states are no better than Idaho. Montana has a generous wolf six month long season. Recent legislation in the Montana legislature increased the number of wolves a hunter can kill to five and allows for the use of electronic predator calls and removes any requirement to wear hunter orange outside of the regular elk and deer seasons. And lest you think that only right wing Republican politicians’ support more killing, this legislation was not opposed by one Democratic Montana legislator, and it was signed into law by Democratic Governor Steve Bullock because he said Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks supported the bill.
Wyoming has wolves listed as a predator with no closed season or limit nor even a requirement for a license outside of a “trophy” wolf zone in Northwest Wyoming.
The Rocky Mountain West is known for its backward politics and lack of ethics when it comes to hunting, but even more “progressive” states like Minnesota and Wisconsin have cow-towed to the hunter anti predator hostility. Minnesota allows the use of snares, traps, and other barbaric methods to capture and kill wolves. At the end of the first trapping/hunting season in 2012/2013, the state’s hunters had killed more than 400 wolves.
Though wolves are the target species that gets the most attention, nearly all states have rabid attitudes towards predators in general. So in the eastern United States where wolves are still absent, state wildlife agencies aggressively allow the killing of coyotes, bears and other predators. For instance, Vermont, a state that in my view has undeserved reputation for progressive policies, coyotes can be killed throughout the year without any limits.
These policies are promoted for a very small segment of society. About six percent of Americans hunt, yet state wildlife agencies routinely ignore the desires of the non-hunting public. Hunting is permitted on a majority of US Public lands including 50% of wildlife “refuges as well as nearly all national forests, all Bureau of Land Management lands, and even a few national parks. In other words, the hunting minority dominates public lands wildlife policies.
Most state agencies have a mandate to manage wildlife as a public trust for all citizens, yet they clearly serve only a small minority. Part of this is tradition, hunters and anglers have controlled state wildlife management for decades. Part of it is that most funding for these state agencies comes from the sale of licenses and tags. And part is the worldview that dominates these agencies which sees their role as “managers” of wildlife, and in their view, improving upon nature.
None of these states manage predators for their ecological role in ecosystem health. Despite a growing evidence that top predators are critical to maintaining ecosystem function due to their influence upon prey behavior, distribution and numbers, I know of no state that even recognizes this ecological role, much less expends much effort to educate hunters and the public about it. (I hasten to add that many of the biologists working for these state agencies, particularly those with an expertise about predators, do not necessarily support the predator killing policies and are equally appalled and dismayed as I am by their agency practices.)
Worse yet for predators, there is new research that suggests that killing predators actually can increase conflicts between humans and these species. One cougar study in Washington has documented that as predator populations were declining, complaints rose. There are good reasons for this observation. Hunting and trapping is indiscriminate. These activities remove many animals from the population which are adjusted to the human presence and avoid, for instance, preying on livestock. But hunting and trapping not only opens up productive territories to animals who may not be familiar with the local prey distribution thus more likely to attack livestock, but hunting/trapping tends to skew predator populations to younger age classes. Younger animals are less skillful at capturing prey, and again more likely to attack livestock. A population of young animals can also result in larger litter size and survival requiring more food to feed hungry growing youngsters—and may even lead to an increase in predation on wild prey—having the exact opposite effect that hunters desire.
Yet these findings are routinely ignored by state wildlife agencies. For instance, despite the fact that elk numbers in Montana have risen from 89,000 animals in 1992 several years before wolf reintroductions to an estimated 140,000-150,000 animals today, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks does almost nothing to counter the impression and regular misinformation put forth by hunter advocacy groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife that wolves are “destroying” Montana’s elk herds.
I have attended public hearings on wolves and other predator issues, and I have yet to see a single hunter group support less carnivore killing. So where are the conservation hunters? Why are they so silent in the face of outrage? Where is the courage to stand up and say current state wildlife agencies policies are a throw-back to the last century and do not represent anything approaching a modern understanding of the important role of predators in our ecosystems?
As I watch state after state adopting archaic policies, I am convinced that state agencies are incapable of managing predators as a legitimate and valued member of the ecological community. Their persecutory policies reflect an unethical and out of date attitude that is not in keeping with modern scientific understanding of the important role that predators play in our world.
It is apparent from evidence across the country that state wildlife agencies are incapable of managing predators for ecosystem health or even with apparent ethical considerations. Bowing to the pressure from many hunter organizations and individual hunters, state wildlife agencies have become killing machines and predator killing advocates.
Most people at least tolerant the killing of animals that eaten for food, though almost everyone believes that unnecessary suffering should be avoided. But few people actually eat the predators they kill, and often the animals are merely killed and left on the killing fields. Yet though many state agencies and some hunter organizations promote the idea that wanton waste of wildlife and unnecessary killing and suffering of animals is ethically wrong, they conveniently ignore such ideas when it comes to predators, allowing them to be wounded and left to die in the field, as well as permitted to suffer in traps. Is this ethical treatment of wildlife? I think not.
Unfortunately unless conservation minded hunters speak up, these state agencies as well as federal agencies like Wildlife Services will continue their killing agenda uninhibited. I’m waiting for the next generation of Teddy Roosevelts, Aldo Leopolds and Olaus Muries to come out of the wood work. Unless they do, I’m afraid that ignorance and intolerant attitudes will prevail and our lands and the predators that are an important part of the evolutionary processes that created our wildlife heritage will continue to be eroded.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why Thinning Forests is Poor Wildfire Strategy

Much of the current political discussion about forest thinning and many of the efforts being implemented or proposed for federal forest lands are aimed at reducing large severe wildfires. It seems intuitively obvious to most people that reducing fuels will eliminate or minimize large fires that burn across large swaths of the West and occasionally threaten homes and communities.

But it is also intuitively obvious that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and thus must circle the Earth—yet we know that what seems intuitively obvious about the sun’s relationship to the Earth is false. Similarly while fuel reductions may appear to be a panacea for halting large fires, in reality they are not.

To evaluate thinning for fuel reduction effectiveness we need some context. First there is the issue of how fires burn and don’t burn. Fires only ignite and spread when the weather/climatic conditions are appropriate to sustain a blaze. You can have all the fuel in the world, and not get a fire if the fuel is too moist or otherwise unable to sustain a flame. That is why there are few large fires in the old growth coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest even though there is tons of fuel per acre.

Because fires only burn when weather/climatic conditions are “ripe” for a fire, most ignitions go out whether we do anything or not. For instance, between 1972 and 1987 Yellowstone National Park decided to experimentally allow all natural fires to burn without suppression. There were 237 blazes during that period, and the vast majority burned only a few to a hundred acres, and no more. Even more telling, all self-extinguished without any intervention.

Yet under normal fire policy on public lands, such fires would have been “put out” by fire fighters who would have claimed credit for extinguishing the flames. The vast majority of all wildfires are in this category—in that they would go out on their own with or without suppression and they will only char a small amount of forest.

On the other hand, there are a few blazes that are ignited under severe fire weather conditions of low humidity, high temperatures, drought and wind. Under these extreme conditions, fires are difficult to impossible to extinguish. They may burn hundreds of thousands of acres before they go out—usually on their own whether we do anything or not. These are the fires that everyone knows, such as the Yellowstone fires of 1988, the 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado, the Biscuit Fire of Oregon in 2002, the 2007 Murphy Fire in Idaho, the Rim Fire near Yosemite in 2013, and other well-known blazes that have charred millions of acres of the West in recent years.

There is a consistent theme to these fires. They all burned under extreme fire weather conditions—and often burned through thinned forests, clearcuts, overgrazed rangelands and previously burned acreage. In other words, fuel reductions did not appear to appreciably change the course of these blazes.

When you look at statistics it is these few well known fires that burn the vast majority of all acreage in the West. One study concluded that more than 96% of all acreage burned was the result of 2% of the blazes and, even more telling, half of all acreage burned was the result of less than 0.1% of all blazes. In other words, it is a few very rare, and very large, fires that burn the bulk of all forest acreage and, it should be noted, these do the bulk of all ecological work and provide most of the benefits associated with fire.

So it is these few fire that most fire-fighting policy and related thinning efforts are designed to halt or control. Yet it is never asked whether thinning can actually effectively halt such blazes.

There are good reasons to believe that thinning cannot and will not effectively halt such blazes.

First, most thinning projects are not done properly. A properly performed fuels reduction project would include not only mechanical removal of smaller trees and reduction of canopy density, but also broadcast prescribed burning to reduce ground fuels. In fact, mechanical thinning alone often INCREASES fire spread by putting more fine fuels on the ground.

Additionally, thinning in some instances can INCREASE fire spread by exposing the forest floor’s fuels to greater sun drying and greater penetration by wind through the open forest stands. What is surprising to learn is that often the most dense forest stands (i.e. those with the most fuels) do not burn well because they retain moisture the longest, and wind is impeded from pushing flames through such dense forests.

Second, thinning by removing competition between trees and brush often increases rapid regrowth of vegetation. Therefore, any thinning/fuels reduction program must have follow-up maintenance in the form of recurring prescribed burns and/or thinning to be effective. Yet most thinning projects do not even get the first prescribed burning, much less follow up burns.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that many thinning projects, although consistently money-losing affairs, do recoup some funds by the sale of wood to timber companies. But once a site has been logged, it is decades before it can be logged again. So there is no financial incentive for follow-up maintenance work.

Also, prescribed burning is risky, and the opportunity for agencies to set fires is limited to short windows of time. Many forest managers are loath to okay a prescribed burn unless conditions are ideal for containment. No one wants to be the person who signed off on a prescribed burn and then had it get away and burn homes to the ground. However, when conditions are good for controlling a blaze, they are usually not good for fire spread.

In the last analysis, the politics of forest thinning promotes more logging. The timber industry has successfully sold the idea that fuel reductions work and it has great influence with politicians who buy into to its assurance that logging reduces large fires.

Due to rapid regrowth of vegetation released from competition from other trees and shrubs, the effectiveness of fuel reduction projects—even those done properly—is lost relatively quickly.

Since one cannot predict where and when fire will occur, the vast majority of fuel reduction projects are a waste of time and money because the probability that a fire will start or move into a thinned forest in any given time period that matters is exceedingly small.

Worse, all thinning projects have unintended ecological consequences. Nearly all require roads for forest access. Roads are a major cause of the spread of weeds. Roads also increase access for hunters, trappers, and poachers, reducing security for wildlife. Roads also are the major source of sediment flow into waterways, thus negatively impacting fish. Removal of biomass off-site also has impacts on forest ecosystems, eliminating nutrients and reducing wildlife habitat.

So even where fuel reductions are done and maintained properly, and happen to be in the path of a major fire, one must ask if the negative impacts associated with these thinning projects don’t outweigh the benefits—especially, since they all lose money.

And here’s the clincher. Even if thinning/fuel reductions did stop fires under moderate fire weather conditions, it would likely not matter because most of such fires self-extinguish anyway.

The fires that thinning is designed to halt are the very few large severe wildfires that are driven by drought, high temperatures, low humidity and, most importantly, wind. The fires that make the news stories across the country and are responsible for burning the vast majority of all acres in the West are exactly the fires thinning—even when done properly—cannot halt. The reason? Wind!

Wind blows burning embers several miles ahead of a fire front, easily hopping over thinned forest patches. Wind also increases the intensity of the blaze as anyone who has blown on a smoldering fire and seen it flare up can attest. All large fires around the West burn under high wind conditions and in those situations, fire fighters and their techniques are ineffective. Indeed, under high winds, fires will jump highways, rivers, and lakes where there is no fuel. They will race across grass stubble on over-grazed rangelands. Fuels do not limit fires under such weather/climate conditions.

Even if it were possible to reduce large fires by thinning, one must ask whether it would be advisable to do so. It turns out that the severely burnt forests that result from large conflagrations are among the most biologically important habitats. The snag forests that result from severe stand replacement blazes have the second highest biodiversity of any forest habitat in the West. The dead trees that result are a long term biological legacy critical to forest ecosystem health.

So is there any place for forest thinning/fuel reductions? There is. But it should be limited to the areas immediately surrounding homes and communities. Since one can’t predict where a fire will start and burn, thinning forest willy-nilly is a waste of effort. Not only are most thinning projects done improperly, most are done for the wrong reasons and lose taxpayer money to boot.

No one wants houses and towns to burn up. Focusing thinning on the immediate area around structures is cost effective. It is also easier to maintain fuel reductions near homes because access is easy, and even though there are negatives with any logging operation, by focusing those impacts to the area immediately around homes and towns—places already impacted by human use—we minimize those negative ecological impacts.

Thinning trees/shrubs near homes, combined with a reduction in home flammability by installation of metal roofs, removal of flammable materials adjacent to homes, and other measures can virtually guarantee a home will survive even a severe high intensity forest fire.

Thinning forests for fuels reductions, unless strategically done, is a waste of taxpayer funds, and has significant ecological impacts. It is unwise forest policy.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Montana Grayling Final Push for Listing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on the proposed listing of the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Following the status review, the Service will either publish a proposed rule to protect the Arctic grayling under the ESA, or a withdrawal from candidate status in the Federal Register by Sept. 30, 2014. This may be the final step in the long drawn out effort to provide federal protection for this iconic fish.

The plight of the grayling, like many native fish in the West is tied to livestock production. Directly and indirectly livestock production is the major factor in grayling decline. As a result of the political clout of the ranching industry, the agencies responsible for grayling recovery including the Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have had to operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Their walking orders are to do nothing that would antagonize the ranchers. The machinations that have befallen the grayling are a clear example of how political considerations trump the biological criteria that are supposed to guide ESA decisions.


In 1990 I was clandestinely contacted by several Montana Dept. Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishery biologists who were concerned that their department was not aggressively addressing the threats to the grayling. They asked me to seek federal protection on behalf of the grayling under the ESA.

In 1991 I and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation filed a petition to list the grayling. It was our collective hope that ESA listing would provide the legal muscle to implement changes in habitat management to the benefit of the grayling that MDFWP, the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies were unable or unwilling to do without the club of the ESA hanging over their heads.

By 1994 the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had determined that the grayling was indeed headed for extinction and warranted protection under the ESA. However, listing was precluded according to the Service because other species were in greater peril—a common ploy to avoid listing controversial species.

Numerous attempts to gain listing since 1991 have failed as a result of political interference from Congressional members and the Bush administration, opposition from the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as well as the co-opting of environmental groups by ranching interests. Groups like Montana Trout Unlimited (TU) have actively fought against listing. Instead TU and other organizations have sought to cozy up to the ranchers and advocated modest modifications in livestock management instead of actively seeking ESA protection.


The effort to list the grayling and provide the federal protection it deserves under the ESA is a good example of Machiavellian logic and deceit. During the next decade, grayling numbers continued to plummet, but listing was avoided by numerous political machinations. After the initial decision by the FWS to list the grayling as a candidate but with no further movement I and others made repeated follow up requests to the Service to upgrade the grayling’s status.

In March of 2004 the FWS finally bumped the grayling priority from a level nine to a level three, the highest priority level for a candidate listing. In May 2004, I and others, petitioned for emergency listing of the grayling to try to move it from candidate to protected status. After nearly three years of delay, the Fish and Wildlife Service responded to our petition in April of 2007. Instead of listing the grayling, the FWS reversed itself due to interference from the Bush administration, and determined the grayling no longer deserved special Distinct Population Status at all and removed it from candidate status. This decision was legally challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity and others.

In 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, the FWS again reversed itself, and remanded the 2007 decision, and conducted a new review of the Distinct Population Status (DPS). In September of 2010 the FWS concluded that the grayling was indeed listable under the DPS. It was once again given a priority level three candidate status where it remains today.


Whether listing in 1991 when I first petitioned for ESA protection would have reversed the decline of grayling can be debated, but collaboration with ranchers has not produced the desired recovery of the fish. During this intervening period, Missouri River grayling populations have declined by an average of 7 percent a year and now number less than half of their 1990 numbers. In many remaining waters, the effective breeding population of fish numbers in the low hundreds—and grayling are in essence already functionally extinct. For instance, in the 113 miles of occupied grayling habitat in the Big Hole River, it was estimated by the early 2000s there were around 200 adult fish—or little more than one grayling per river mile. In 2012 researchers found an average of three grayling of 1 year age per mile in a 19 mile stretch that was surveyed. Whether grayling can be recovered in most of the remaining occupied habitat at this point is questionable, but certainly worth trying.


Arctic Grayling are found in cold clear waters across the Boreal Ecoregion in both North America and Eurasia. The Missouri River Arctic Grayling are an ice age relict and considered a genetically distinct population. The ancestral Missouri River once flowed north to Hudson Bay and the predecessors of today’s fish were isolated in the Upper Missouri when Continental Glaciers blocked the river’s northward flow and shifted its waters east and eventually to the Mississippi drainage and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

A beautiful fish with a large dorsal fin and shimmering purple sides, the species reaches its southern limits in the colder waters of Montana’s Upper Missouri River drainage. Lewis and Clark were the first to record the species. At that time, grayling were found in the Sun, Smith, Gallatin, Madison, Red Rock, Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Big Hole rivers. (There are unconfirmed reports that grayling may be native to the St. Mary’s River near Glacier National Park). The next closest population of grayling is found hundreds of miles further north in the Pembina River west of Edmonton, Alberta.

By 1990 when I became involved in grayling issues, the fish was restricted to the Big Hole River drainage, Upper Red Rock River drainage, and a small portion of the Madison River near Ennis, Montana. Natural populations of grayling were also found in a number of lakes in these drainages, including Miner Lakes and Mussigbrod Lake in the Big Hole drainage and Upper Red Rock Lakes in the same named river drainage. (Note that Arctic Grayling have been stocked in lakes outside of its historic range so one may find them in various other water bodies). The last significant refuge for Missouri River grayling is the Big Hole River where the fish are found in approximately 113 miles of the main stem and 45 miles of tributaries between Glen and Jackson, Montana. Today Arctic Grayling only occupy about 4-5 percent of their historic range in the Upper Missouri River.

The FWS estimates that, with the exception of the fish in Mussigbrod Lake, the remaining strongholds for grayling including the Big Hole River have a 13-55% change of extinction in the next 30 years simply due to random stochastic events.


The major factor in grayling decline can be summarized in one word—cows. Livestock production has multiple negative effects on grayling.

The biggest impact is dewatering of rivers for hay irrigation. Dewatering of the Big Hole River in particular has been exacerbated by a number of drought years. In June the river often runs at over 2000 CFS, but in summer during irrigation season, it can be drawn down to 20 CFS, with some portions of the river dried up completely.

Water draw downs affects grayling in several ways. First, reduction in water flows forces all fish into smaller pools of habitat, increasing the competition among grayling as well as other fish for food and security.

Reduction in water flow creates shallower river channels that heat up more in summer sun, with in-stream temperatures often climbing to lethal levels during extended hot periods. Indeed, in most summers, the Big Hole River exceeds Clean Water Act standards for temperatures. For instance in during the summer of 2012, ten out of eleven temperature monitoring stations in the river exceeded 70 degrees, the thermal threshold for salmonid species (like the grayling).

Run off water from irrigated fields that is not lost to evaporation also tends to be warmer, and sometimes full of pollutants such as manure and fertilizers.

Irrigation barriers and diversions in streams (small dams designed to shift flow into irrigation channels) also act as barriers to upstream migration of grayling that might otherwise seek out colder headwater streams.

Dewatering for irrigation often completely dries up grayling spawning streams, killing any eggs or fry that are in them. Entire recruitment for a season can be lost.

Young grayling that are hatched in tributary streams and move downstream during the summer months can wind up in irrigation ditches instead of the main river. At the end of the season when irrigation gates are closed, grayling are trapped in irrigation ditches that subsequently dewatered killing all fish in them.

Loss of adequate flows is probably the biggest factor in grayling demise. But cattle also impact grayling habitat by trampling and compaction the wet meadows, headwater springs, and other natural sponges that are a source for up to half of the late season flows in these rivers.

Trampling by cattle of the riparian streamside vegetation also harms grayling. Breakage of banks by cattle hooves contributes to widening of stream channels (and subsequently less pool habitat and higher water temperatures) with fewer deep pools which is the ideal grayling habitat. Cattle browsing on willows, as well as changes in hydrology due to livestock impacts, have significantly reduced streamside vegetation, eliminating shade which contributes to higher and often lethal temperatures for grayling. Trampling of stream banks by cattle also contributes to higher erosion and sedimentation in streams. Even non-grazed areas are impacted. For instance, portions of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that are closed to livestock grazing, still suffer from sedimentation flowing into the refuge from upstream livestock grazing damage.

This sedimentation flow resulting from accelerated erosion not only smothers grayling spawning beds, but fills in and reduces the deep pools that are a necessary component of grayling over-winter habitat. For instance, due to livestock induced sedimentation, the average depth of Upper Red Rock Lake in Red Rock Lakes NWR has shrunk from 25 feet to 16 feet in the last century.

Unlike northern grayling populations that co-evolved with top predatory fish like bull trout, lake trout, and northern pike, throughout its Missouri River range, the grayling has lived without an apex predator. Except for small grayling populations that co-existed with lake trout in Miner Lake in the Big Hole drainage, and Elk Lake in the Red Rock drainage, grayling did not co-exist with any top predatory fish.

Although the evidence is unclear, it is assumed that competition with non-native trout like rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout have impacted grayling populations. Circumstantial evidence suggests non-native fish do limit grayling since nearly all attempts to restore grayling in streams with competing non-natives have thus far been unsuccessful (though there is limited evidence for grayling recruitment in the Ruby River). Competition that may exist with non-native fish like brook trout is exacerbated by irrigation dewatering and the shrinkage of habitat associated with water draw downs. So once again, livestock production may be culpable for grayling decline induced by non-native fish competition.


Another suspected cause of the grayling decline in the Upper Missouri River system is the loss of migratory function. Many grayling populations migrate long distances between spawning habitat and over winter sites. I once witnessed a grayling migration in the Kobuk River in Alaska where thousands of fish stream past me as they were descending the river as it froze to overwinter in deep holes in the lower river. Similar migrations once likely occurred in the Upper Missouri River. However, numerous dams have been built on these rivers, including on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Madison, Ruby, Jefferson, Sun, and Red Rock. For instance, the Ennis Dam on the Madison River is known to block grayling migrations, and any fish that fall below the dam cannot return back upstream and are lost from the population. Nearly all of these dams were built for irrigation water storage—thus yet another impact of livestock production upon grayling survival.


Historic effective breeding population of grayling in the Upper Missouri system was an order of magnitude of 10-100 times greater than today. Due to the fragmented nature of grayling populations, combined with current small population numbers, random genetic drift may jeopardize the future of the fish as maladaptive alleles are spread throughout the remaining fish populations. At least in the short term, reestablishing grayling populations across entire river drainages like the Big Hole and Red Rock River seems highly unlikely, which makes modification of grazing practices and livestock operations even more critical to the fish’s survival.


The wild card in the grayling’s future is climate change. Regional temperatures are predicted to rise an average of up to 10 degrees in the next century. Warming temperatures could prove even more lethal to grayling populations if water flows are not substantially improved. Earlier spring run-off could also influence grayling by reducing late season flows.


MDFWP has spent many man hours studying and attempting to restore grayling with limited success—manly because they are not permitted to address the fundamental issue of livestock production impacts in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, the agency has attempted to restore grayling in several rivers including the Sun River upstream from Gibson Reservoir and in the Upper Ruby River near Twin Bridges, Montana. The Ruby River efforts appear to be paying off, with reproduction reported for four years in a row.

However, all these efforts seem to be motivated more from a desire to preclude listing than to recover the grayling.

One of the ways that the FWS has avoided listing of the grayling so far (even though it determined as early as 1994 that the species listing was warranted) was by signing off in 2006 on a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). The CCAA was implemented by Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in an attempt to preclude listing of the fish. Ranchers, who agreed to voluntarily implement habitat improvement mechanisms like planting of willows on riparian areas or releasing more water during drought periods, would be protected against any future restrictions designed to restore the grayling, should the fish be listed. Over 30 landowners in the Upper Big Hole River have signed on to the CCAA.

The CCAA has spent $3.6 million (most of it tax dollars) to subsidize various projects designed to improve grayling survival and preclude listing. Among some of the improvements resulting from the CCAA and other efforts is a small increase in summer stream flows, removal of some barriers on tributary streams, and fencing of riparian areas. However, the overall effect has been far short of what is needed to stabilize, much less recover the grayling.

Groups that have supported the CCAA and generally thwarted efforts to list the fish include Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. In their view, listing would have had little positive on the ground effects on the fish. They believe that the CCAA offered the best opportunity to improve conditions for the grayling. While undoubtedly some of the habitat improvements that have resulted are positive for the fish, the outcomes thus far are not very promising, as the grayling continues to slide towards extinction. If the grayling should be listed, the CCAA will limit the legal options for recovery.

Even in the face of obvious political machinations and duplicitous manipulation of data and biological information during the past two decades, these groups remained silent. Personally, I will consider them culpable if the grayling goes extinct for their failure to alert the public to the fish’s plight and work EVERY angle, including legal protection of the ESA designed to recover the fish.

Listing would have created a legal mandate for enforcement of the Clean Water Act minimum standards for water temperate, mandated grazing changes on federal lands managed by the Forest Service and BLM which control 50% of the grayling habitat, including much of its spawning habitat. It may also create opportunities to challenge dewatering of the Big Hole River by irrigators.

At this point, it is my sincere hope that the FWS finally lists the grayling, and provides a legal safety net that can result in significant changes in grayling management.

Anyone wishing to submit information regarding the Arctic grayling may do so by writing to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2013-0120; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203, or electronically at regulations.gov. After accessing the regulations.gov website, Search for Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2013-0120 and then follow the instructions for submitting comments. Information must be received by Dec. 26.

Additional information is available in the Federal Register announcement initiating this status review. For more information on the Arctic grayling go the FWP website or contact the FWP Service, Montana Field Office, 585 Shepard Way, Suite 1, Helena, MT 59602 or by telephone at 449-5225.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Allan Savory Myth and Reality

Allan Savory: Myth And Reality
By George Wuerthner

Allan Savory is an advocate for the livestock management system known as, Holistic Management (HM). He is a former member of the Rhodesian Parliament (now Zimbabwe) and has made his living as a consultant with the Savory Institute. He is best known for his recent appearance as a TED speaker where he made a number of controversial statements that he has been advocating for decades, as well as some new claims. His most recent assertion is the idea that more livestock grazing may be the solution to global warming.

In short, Savory’s basic theme is a variation on what has been called “short duration grazing” or “mob grazing”. Under such scenarios livestock, typically cattle are tightly herded through a confined pasture (small pastures) or rangeland so that the animals cannot be selective in their choice of food. Then the livestock are moved rapidly on to the next grazing area, and the previously grazed area is rested from livestock for an extended period of time, so the plants can recover and regrow. Savory’s advocacy for monitoring and careful attention to livestock plant utilization is consistent with well-established range management principles.

However, many of his observations about animal behavior, plant ecology, evolutionary history and carbon storage are well outside the accepted scientific consensus. And these ideas can lead to damaged ecosystems and in the case of his ideas about livestock and global warming may actually be counterproductive—leading to greater GHG emissions if implemented according to his ideas.

As with everything in science, there are few absolutes. There is great variation in land productivity, climate, and the experience of ranchers and farmers who are managing livestock that can affect outcomes. One may experience or hear about examples where Savory’s prescriptions appear to be valid, but as stated below they are usually isolated exceptions. Exceptions do not invalidate the rule.

The few scientific experiments that Savory supporters cite as vindication of his methods (out of hundreds that refute his assertions), often fail to actually test his theories. Several of the studies cited on HM web site had utilization levels (degree of vegetation removed) well below the level that Savory actually recommends.

The following are among Savory’s most debatable ideas that a majority of scientists and observers believe are contrary to standard rational understanding and observation.

MYTH: Livestock grazing can reduce Green House Gases and reduce global warming.

REALITY: One of Savory most recent claims is that grazing will stimulate the translocation of carbon from the atmosphere to the roots of plants, thus increasing domestic livestock numbers and grazing, Savory asserts, will significantly reduce global GHGs. While it is true that significant amounts of carbon are stored in the soils of rangelands, the ability to capture and transfer additional atmospheric carbon to grassland soils is very limited. Most arid grasslands have low productivity, thus low ability to store new sources of carbon.

Furthermore, a full GHG accounting would demonstrate that domestic livestock are among the largest source of global GHG. Methane emissions from domestic livestock, particularly cattle, are considered one of the largest sources of global GHG. Livestock also emit nitrous oxide that is even more potent as a greenhouse gas. Together these emissions are considered by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization to be responsible for up to 18% of global GHG.

Even worse much of the livestock pasture around the world has been created and continues to be created by the destruction of forests which results in the release of even more carbon into the atmosphere. The replacement of forests with grass pasture thus increases overall carbon emissions. According to a recent review by World Watch Institute utilizing this full accounting system livestock production may be responsible for as much as 50% of all global GHG. Thus a reduction of domestic livestock numbers would go much further towards reduction of global atmospheric carbon than any small amount of carbon which might be sequestrated as a result of growth from grasses related to livestock grazing.

MYTH: Holistic Management is superior to other grazing management strategies.

Reality: Due to particular unique aspects of a livestock operation, HM methods may produce better results than other livestock management methods for that specific operation. However, in side by side comparisons with other grazing methods, if EQUAL attention to forage utilization and timing is followed HM methods have not been shown to be superior. And in many other situations HM has resulted in poorer condition livestock and damage to the land resources.

The qualifier is that equal attention to forage utilization and timing is important because much of the success reported for HM has to do with a significant change in livestock producer effort as well as capital investment in more range developments like watering troughs and fencing that, along with intensive monitoring, resulted in better animal distribution. These results are often compared to past lack luster management whereby livestock were left to forage with little supervision. This frequently resulted in overgrazing in some areas, while other parts of the pasture, ranch or farm were barely utilized.

However, it is important to note, efficient cropping of forage by HM methods is not necessarily an improvement for wildlife and plants, soils, water quality, and other values since intensive grazing has many negative effects on these ecosystem values. For many species the lightly grazed areas on the ranch or farm were/are places where wildlife find/found refugia and suitable habitat. Many beneficial insects, pollinators, and larger wildlife such as reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals benefit from the lightly grazed areas and can be critical for ecosystem functioning.

MYTH: Savory’s intensive grazing management strategies have led to greater livestock production and economic gains for ranchers and are a panacea for declining ranch/farm bottom line.

REALITY: Many ranchers cannot or are not able to adopt Savory’s intensive grazing management. First, the intensive management required by HM methods to be successful often requires significant investment in fencing, water development and other infrastructure. It also requires diligent attention to livestock grazing effects and movement. This kind of diligence and attention is often difficult for ranchers and farmers to implement due to economic and/or human constraints. Other limitations to the success of HM techniques are climate and terrain. HM works best in flat terrain where livestock impacts can more equally be distributed and where adequate moisture exists for plant regrowth.

MYTH: Most rangelands suffer from “overrest” not overgrazing.

REALTY: Overgrazing is the cumulative effect of multiple cropping of plants that leads to a decline in plant energy reserves, reduction in root mass, seed production/reproductive effort, and is often accompanied by soil erosion and overall changes in plant composition on a site. In the absence of livestock grazing, plants recover energy reserves, seed and reproductive effort typically improves and soil erosion is reduced. There are no documented examples of “overrest”.

MYTH: In the absence of livestock grazing, plants become moribund and die.

REALITY: There is ample evidence that plants do not require livestock grazing to remain viable. First, there are few places on Earth where plants are not “grazed” or “browsed” by natural herbivores including larger native mammals like bison, wildebeest or guanaco to small animals like ground squirrels and grass hoppers. So plants do not “need” livestock to thrive and on public lands at least we can and should promote native herbivores over exotic domestic livestock.

Secondly, one can easily refuse this statement by visiting any number of natural areas that lack livestock and nevertheless have thriving grassland/rangeland ecosystems. Most National Parks do not permit livestock grazing. And there are literally tens of thousands of small and large grass covered landscapes that for one reason or another naturally exclude livestock like isolated buttes, cliffs, gorges, mesa, plateaus, and even rail and highway right of ways.

MYTH: Hoof action increases water infiltration and helps to plant seeds.

REALITY: Nearly all studies (dozens or hundreds) that have reviewed the effect of hooves on soil infiltration have shown that a thousand pound cow compacts soil, reducing the space between soil particles and thus reducing water penetration and increasing water runoff.

Seeds do not require hoof action to germinate. The plants in rangelands have many different adaptations to ensure adequate recruitment without “hoof action.” Some seeds are attractive to seed eating species like some birds, voles, even ants that carry seeds to their burrows or new locations and help distribute and plant the seeds. Other plants have special adaptations like needle grass which “drills” itself into the ground to ensure successful germination.

MYTH: Biocrusts capping soil surface inhibits plant growth, preventing seeds from penetrating the soil and water from soaking into the ground. Biocrusts need to be broken up by hoof action.

REALITY: Biocrusts are common throughout grassland ecosystems around the world. They are particularly common in arid landscapes where they play a critical role in ecosystem health and function. Biocrusts cover the soil between the spaces in bunchgrass communities (bunchgrasses are common in arid landscapes) keep other plants from germinating and competing for nutrients and water. Biocrusts can decrease the germination of large seeded annual grasses that are degrading grasslands and increasing fire frequency in grasslands and steppe habitats. While inhibiting annual grasses the biocrusts help the perennial grass species thrive.

MYTH: Livestock, particularly cattle, can be managed so as to emulate native species that may no longer graze grasslands.

REALITY: The notion that livestock can replace or emulate the native grazers that may have inhabited a region prior to conversion to domestication. Nearly all plant communities have multiple herbivores that chomp, chew, and graze upon their leaves, stems and even roots. This includes everything from nematodes in the soil that “graze” on roots to grasshoppers, ground squirrels, birds like geese to larger mammals like deer, elk and bison. However, funneling above ground biomass (leaves, stems, etc.) into a single animal like a cow simplifies energy flow in the ecosystem. It can also result in uneven herbivory on plants since the natural collection of animals all graze different plants, different parts of plants at different times and seasons than the single herbivore effects of one or two kinds of domestic animals.

MYTH: Domestic animals like cattle are merely replacing herds of native species like bison that once roamed grasslands.

REALITY: There are substantial evolutionary differences between domestic animals like cattle and native species like bison. Bison naturally move more frequently than cattle. They are better at defending themselves against native predators. They can exist on lower quality forage than cattle.

Furthermore, most of the American West did not have large grazing herds of bison and/or other large mammals. For instance, bison were largely absent or found in very small numbers west of the Continental Divide. Most of the Great Basin of what is now Nevada, western Utah, southern Idaho, southeast Oregon historically did not have large herds of grazing animals, nor did Arizona, much of California, Oregon and Washington.

MYTH: Domestic animals like cattle merely replaced extinct native herbivores that once roamed the western United States.

REALITY: Sometimes Savory advocates will admit that historically large herds of bison, elk and other grazing mammals were absent from much of the West. But they argue that cattle are merely replacing Ice Age herbivores like giant sloth and ancient bison that are now extinct.This ignores the fact that grasslands have not remained static since the last Ice Age. Indeed, in the absence of large herbivores, western grasslands have evolved in response to climate variation, and changing evolutionary pressures. The absence of large grazing mammals permitted plants with a low tolerance for grazing pressure to occupy much of the arid West. These plants invested energy in developing extensive root systems and other mechanisms to survive in arid environments but have few adaptations that permit them to survive grazing by large mammals.

MYTH: Plants need to be grazed and benefit from livestock grazing.

REALITY: Savory mixed up compensation with need and an economic value with a biological one. The grazing of a plant harms the plant, especially if the cropping occurs during the growing season. Plants can compensate for this loss but often do so at a cost to their overall fitness. Grazing the top of a grass means that the bottom or root of the plant will compensate for it but only with a loss of capital and root mass, weakening the plant that now needs rest from grazing.

The loss of photosynthetic material (leaves) by grazing causes a plant to respond by translocation of energy from roots or other parts of the plant to build new leaf material—assuming there is sufficient moisture, nutrients and other critical elements available to recover from the grazing event.

Thus cropping may result in greater overall biomass production as plants seek to compensate for their loss of leaf material. However, the production of more above-ground biomass is often done at the expense of other important plant material including a reduction in root growth, loss of reproductive effort (the plants expends energy on leaf production instead of seed production), and so forth. It is hardly a “benefit.”

To characterize compensation from a harmful event as a need is analogous to suggesting that shooting and poisoning of coyotes is a “benefit” to coyotes because they compensate for these losses by producing additional pups.