Friday, October 30, 2009




One of the most persistent myths perpetuated by the livestock industry and its proponents is the assertion that grasslands benefit from herb ivory. Actually this is not a new issue since it has been contested for decades in the ecological literature and largely resolved with most botanists and other ecologists concluding that the purported “benefits” from herb ivory—must be placed within a contextual framework that sees cropping of plants by animals and plant adaptations as largely an antagonistic response. Nevertheless, this has not stopped livestock proponent (Knight et al 2001) from repeating the same argument that livestock grazing benefits grasslands. Some (Savory 1999) even go further suggesting that if ungrazed, grasslands may deteriorate or become “degraded.” Over-rest, not overgrazing, they warn, is the problem (Savory 1999, Knight et al. 2001) in much of the West. Such assertions, of course, conveniently legitimize the exploitation of rangelands by the livestock industry and deserve careful scrutiny from conservationists.


Grasses and large herbivores have co-existed for millions of year. In many ecosystems large mammal herbivores consume between 20-50% of the annual net primary productivity (Detling 1988). Over that time plants evolved mechanisms that allow them to survive, and even flourish with grazing animals. Grazed plants tend to have higher nitrogen levels (because they have a larger percentage of rapidly growing tissue), that are more palatable and often more nutritious to herbivores. Nevertheless, claims that grass require, rather than merely tolerate herb ivory demonstrate confusion between “tolerance” and “need.” Many grassland plants have developed mechanisms that permit them to persevere in spite of harm from herbivory. The ability to tolerate adverse impacts, however, should not be interpreted as evidence of “need.”

The blanket application of assertions that grasslands need large mammal herbivory pressure can easily be refuted by a quick tour of the West. Even in the Great Plains where the alleged benefits of large mammal herbivory are said to be greatest, there are numerous sites that remained ungrazed by large herbivores of any kind—whether livestock or bison, yet do not “suffer” from ecosystem degradation or decline. That is not to say there are no differences between grazed and ungrazed sites. There are sometimes differences between ungrazed sties and grazed sites in plant species, shifts between plant groups favored by C3 to C4 pathways and genetic responses (Detling 1988). And studies have demonstrated that even grazing by small herbivores such as prairie dogs can causes striking changes in plant species composition. One study in South Dakota found that 25 years of prairie dog grazing had caused the replacement of grasses by forbs (Coppock et al. 1983)


Over most of the West, arguments about the potential benefits of large mammal herbivory are a moot point. The vast bulk of public lands that are grazed by domestic animals including the Great Basin, Southwest, California grasslands, Palouse Prairie of eastern Washington, Oregon and adjacent parts of Montana and Idaho, and alpine and subalpine basins throughout the Rockies, had few , if any large herds of grazing mammals like bison (Baker 1978, Mack and Thompson 1982). Plants in these regions poorly tolerate any but the lightest amounts of grazing pressure.


East of the Rockies on the Great Plains, bison, antelope, elk, and other herbivores were locally abundant, and this has led some to speculate that such grasslands are dependent upon herbivory pressure for their ecological health. Some of the evidence used to support this contention are the presence of high concentrations of silicates (Brizuela et al 1986), ground-level meristems, vegetative reproduction (as opposed to seed), increased tillering and the ability to translocate resources from roots to leaf production referred to as “compensatory growth” (McNaughton 1986, McNaughton et al. 1988). These and other adaptations of Great Plains grasses are often cited as an indication that the Great Plains grasses evolved with large grazing mammals. While there is no doubt that many of these adaptations help plains grasses to cope with herbivory, it’s a stretch to then argue that they “need” to be grazed by livestock or even native herbivores like bison.

Some livestock advocates while unwilling to suggest that grasslands benefit from livestock may nevertheless argue that livestock herbivory under proper management does little harm (Laurenroth et al. 1994), thus should not preclude livestock grazing on public or private lands.

While most evolutionary ecologists would have no problem with the statement that adaptations to herbivory may help a plant to cope with herbivory pressure, they do not necessarily agree that grasslands “need” to be grazed or they will somehow become degraded in the absence of grazing influences. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary.

For instance, Belsky (1986) finds that while herbivory may benefit certain plants by reducing competition or removing senescent tissue, no convincing evidence supports the theory that herbivory benefits grazed plants. Belsky and Painter (1993) warn that uncritical acceptance of research purporting to demonstrate benefits from grazing may result from misinterpretation of evolutionary ecology.

Other authors warn that the differences in height, leaf length, and other morphological characterizations of grazed vs. ungrazed plants often used to indicate greater “vigor” may be misleading because of “possible grazing-related genetic differences between plants in sites with different grazing histories” (Painter et al 1989).

Finally, lack of overwhelming evidence of harm as reported by Lauenroth et al. (1994) from livestock herbivory under certain conditions does not necessarily mean no harm is occurring. This is an especially convenient position for livestock proponents to take since range professionals who are usually livestock proponents conduct most research. Such researchers can not be perceived to be unbiased observers. The kinds of questions and research one conducts often determine the kinds of answers one finds. Range professionals are not necessarily going out of their way to find examples of harmful impacts from livestock. Their findings are countered to some degree by others such as Licht (1997) that focuses on ecosystem harm resulting from livestock production.


Indeed, the presence of high levels of silicates, sharp awns, low nutritional quality, and vegetative modes of reproduction may be a consequence of a long association with herbivores, but these adaptations suggest an antagonistic relationship not a beneficial one. Much as alarms, multiple locks and bars over windows in a high crime neighborhood may suggest a long association with thieves, one would never claim that the presence of these devices indicates a “beneficial” relationship between criminals and victims of criminal activity. The fact that some businesses may persist in the presence of high crime does not necessarily mean they need it. Indeed, all these “compensatory” factors “cost” the business more energy and resources. That some businesses may be successful in spite of these costs should not be taken as evidence that they “need” or “thrive” in the presence of thieves.

Similarly the production of sharp awns, vegetative reproduction (which is inferior to sexual reproduction with seeds), and the ability to replace lost photosynthetic material are adaptations to herbivory that have a real cost to plants (Holland and Detling 1990). These authors state “the decrease in root biomass along the grazing chronosequence is probably caused by repeated grazing and reduced allocation of carbon belowground.” Even grazing by bison has a similar effect. Johnson and Matchett (2001) found that bison “grazing decreased root growth, especially in heavily grazed patches.” Even grazing by smaller mammals like prairie dogs can substantially reduce root biomass (Whicker and Detling. 1988) In other words, plants respond to grazing pressure by reduction in the amount of roots produced. This has real consequences to the plants living in arid and semi arid climates including the Great Plains since over all root biomass determines the ability of plants to capture soil moisture and thus survive periodic drought common in these environments.

Even when such negative overall effects on plant biomass is not found, does not mean that grazing enhances grasslands. Evidence such as increased growth rates, higher total biomass, increased seed production occasionally (very rarely) found in clipped or grazed plants used by livestock proponents (Savory 1999, Knight et al. 2001) to argue that herbivory “benefits” plants can be more properly termed responses to injury (Belsky et al. 1993).


Plants respond to clipping by herbivores in the same way that your body responds to hypothermia. It shuts down blood flow to less “vital” parts of the body and tries to maintain a core temperature. After losing its leaves to a herbivore, the plant says “May Day” May Day”-- I need to grow some new leaves because I’ll “stave” if I can’t photosynthesize. I have to maintain my “core” food production abilities. A grass plant responds by translocating energy from roots to leaf production much as the body shuts down blood flow to extremities when core temperatures are declining due to hypothermia. But just as it comes at a cost to other bodily functions, the translocation of energy from roots (where extra carbohydrates are usually stored) to the production of new leaves comes at a cost in root growth. Less root mass, for instance, can cause such plants to die during drought periods. In making the “decision” about responses and resource allocation, a plant places leaf replacement first since it needs to “eat” over the reduction in root mass “gambling” that it can grow enough new roots in time to compensate for these changes before the next drought.

Indeed, all studies that demonstrate a “benefit” from herbivory are done in laboratory conditions where water and nutrition are unlimited and competition does not exist. Or as Jaramillo and Detling (1988) have pointed out findings of reduced production of individual plants in field exclosures may be as much the result of greater competition among plants than due to any positive direct effects on plants as a consequence of herbivory.

Furthermore, many of these plant adaptations such as the ability to replace lost photosynthetic material by translocating resources from roots to leaves or ground level meristems may also be adaptations to other influences like fire that may have some positive benefits for grazed plants as well. Such adaptations do not always demonstrate a long continuous association with herbivory pressures.


The usual evidence cited by most livestock proponents to demonstrate that herb ivory “benefits” grasslands involve the measurements of overall ABOVE GROUND biomass production. This is partially due to the fact that measuring roots and other below ground parts is difficult to do without killing the plant. Furthermore, most range researchers are primarily interested in the growth of leaves and stems since these are the parts of the plant that are forage for livestock.

Above ground biomass (which excludes roots, which is the largest part of the grass plant biomass) can increase under herbivory pressure. If you crop a grass during the growing season, it will respond by growing more leafy material. If you measure the leafy material prior to cropping and measure the new material produced in respond to cropping as well, the overall biomass of this leafy material we be greater than what you had if you had not cropped the plant at all. In addition, the remaining unclipped leaves on a plant will sometimes increase their photosynthetic output by up to 35% in response to the loss of other leafy material.


If your concern is production of above ground biomass to feed livestock, than one might be willing to call these responses a “benefit”. However, we must be clear to note that this is an economic value, not a biological or evolutionary value. The young trees that are planted after clearcutting also produce more biomass per acre annually than old growth forests, but few would argue that clearcutting old growth forests is entirely a biological benefit. All of these “compensatory” factors can be thought of as “coping” mechanisms to injury or disturbance.

The response of grasses to cropping is somewhat analogous to the respond of coyotes to control. There is much evidence in the scientific literature that coyotes can increase pup reproduction and survival in the face of persecution. If we humans shoot, trap and poison coyotes, they respond to this “pressure” in the same way that plants respond to grazing. They compensate to survive. Exploited coyotes reproduce at a younger age and produce more pups that survive into adulthood. So if you are using overall pup production as a measurement or “indicator” of benefit, than shooting, trapping and poisoning coyotes could be argued to “benefit” coyotes. Of course, most environmentalists would be loath to argue that we should shoot, trap and poison coyotes because we wind up getting “more” coyotes overall. Few would argue this is a “benefit” except for Wildlife Services, which gets paid to kill coyotes.


As explained previously above ground biomass production or even a large number of species recorded for a site does not necessarily make the site “healthy.” Sites that are disturbed may actually record more species in total numbers but deviate greatly from expected natural conditions. Most grassland ecologists agree that a “healthy” landscape tends to low rates of soil erosion, low rates of exotic species invasion, dominance by natural ecological processes as periodic wildfire that are expected on that site, wildlife and plant species in some kind of natural range of abundance and distribution again expected on that particular site and other criteria that broadens the definition of what exactly is ecological health.


Even the presence of large migratory grazing herds of bison and other native ungulates as occurred on the Great Plains doesn’t mean that these plant communities “need” to be grazed or somehow will become degraded from herbivory pressure. To see the fallacy of argument, observe the right of ways along rural highways and railroads throughout the Great Plains. Many thousands of miles of these rights of ways are neither grazed by large ungulates nor cropped in any other way (i.e. mowing). The fact that these remain luxuriously clothed in grasses suggests that herbivory is not necessary for “ecosystem health.” Similar examination of the tops of isolated buttes (Square Butte in Montana), rugged side hills and slopes of badlands as along the Missouri River Breaks, Badlands National Park and other sites where no large herbivores regularly grazed demonstrates that even on the Great Plains herb ivory is not necessary to maintain ecologically stable plant communities.


The following natural areas have neither bison nor livestock yet some are used, as research natural areas because of they remain as ecological standards against which livestock grazed sites are measured. These non large herbivore grazed Great Plains sites include many isolated buttes, mesas, steep cliff faces along rivers such as the Yellowstone, and tops of badlands found throughout the plains that are inaccessible to large herbivores for a variety of reasons.

Among the sites that I personally know have no large herbivory pressure but exhibit intact and healthy grasslands are the top of Square Butte, Montana, Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming, Makoshika State Park, Montana, Terry Badlands WSA, Montana, Agate Fossil Beds NM, Nebraska, Cherry Creek State Park, Colorado, Seedkadee NWR, Wyoming (this is on the edge of the plains and may be considered part of the Great Basin by some), Fort Stevenson State Park, ND, Badlands NP. (Badlands has bison grazing about 65,000 acres of the park, but according to the resource person I interviewed there is no “major ungulate grazing on much of the park."), Medicine Lake NWR Montana (some is ungrazed mid-grass prairie), Niobrara NWR Nebraska (bison are found on a small part of this mostly grassland area, but the majority has no livestock or bison). Scotts Bluff NM, Nebraska, Chatsworth State Park, Colorado, Boyd Lake SP Colorado, Boulder City Open Spaces, Colorado, Greycliffe Prairie Dog Town State Park, Montana, Ulm Pishkun State Park, Montana, Guadalupe National Park, Texas, and Springer Wildlife Management Area, near Torrington, Wyoming.


The debate over whether grasslands require herb ivory by large animals like livestock is at the center of much debate over continued grazing of public lands. Those who argue that grasslands require grazing misinterpret or conveniently ignore a great deal of scientific research that suggests that moderate to heavy grazing pressure is detrimental to grazed plants—even though plants do have coping adaptations that enable them to survive herb ivory effects.

At the very least the abundance of these sites suggests that the absence of large herbivore grazing pressure is not necessary for ecosystem health and calls into question the assertions that Great Plains grasslands or other grassland ecosystems require or need large mammal herbivory to remain “healthy.”


Baker, H.G. 1978. Invasion and replacement in Californian and neotropical grasslands. Ppg. 368-384. In Wilson eds. Plant Relations in Pastures.

Belsky AJ. 1986. Does herbivory benefit plants? A review of the evidence. American Naturalist 127:870-892.

Belsky, A.J. 1987. The effects of grazing: Confounding of ecosystem, community, and organism scales. American Naturalist 129 (5) 777-783.

Belsky, A.J. , W.P. Carson, C.L. Jensen, and G.A. Fox. 1993. Overcompensation by plants:herbivore optimization or red herring? Evolutionary Ecology 7:109-121.

Brizuela, M.A. J.K. Detling, and M. Silvia Cid. 1986. Silicon concentration of grasses growing in sites with different grazing histories. Ecology 67 (4): 1095-1101.

Coppock, D.L., J.K. Detling, J.E. Ellis, and M.L. Dyer. 1983. Plant-herbivore interactions in a North American mixed grass prairie. Effects of black-tailed prairie dogs on intraseasonal above ground plant biomass and nutrient dynamics and plant species diversity. Oeocogia 56:1-9.

Detling, J. 1988. Grasslands and savannas: regulation of energy flow and nutrient cycling by herbivores. In. Concepts of Ecosystem Ecology—A comparative view. Pps. 131-148. Springer-Verlag, New York.

Holland, E.A. and J.K. Detling. 1990. Plant response to herbivory and below ground nitrogen cycling. Ecology 7 (3) 1040-1049.

Jaramillo V.R. and J.K. Detling. 1988. Grazing History, defoliation, and competition: effects on shortgrass production and nitrogen accumulation. Ecology 69(5):1599-1607

Johnson, L.C. and J.R. Matchett. 2001. Fire and grazing regulate below ground processes in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 82(12) 3377-3389.

Knight, R.L., W.C. Gilgert, and E. Marston. 2001. Ranching west of the 100th Meridian. Culture, Ecology and Economics. Island Press. Covelo, CA.

Laurenroth, W.K., D.G. Milchunas, J.L. Dodd, R. H. Hart, R.K. Heitschmidt, and L.R. Rittenhouse. 1994. Effects of grazing on ecosystems of the Great Plains. In Ecological implications of livestock herbivory in the West. ed. M. Vavra, W.A. Laycock and R.D. Pieper.

Licht, D. S. 1997. Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains. U of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Mack, R.N. and J. N. Thompson. 1982. Evolution in steppe with few large, hooved mammals. American Naturalist 119 (6) 757-773.

McNaughton, S.J. 1986. On plants and herbivores. American Naturalist. 113:691-703.

McNaughton, S.J. R.W. Ruess, and S.W. Seagle. 1988. Large mammals and processes dynamics in African ecosystems. Bioscience 38(11) 794-80.

Painter, E. L., J.K. Detling, and D.A. Steingraeber. 1989. Grazing history, defoliation, and frequency-dependent competition: effects on two North American grasses .American Journal of Botany. 76(9) 1368-1379.

Painter, E.L. and A. J. Belsky. 1993. Application of herbivore optimization theory to rangelands of western United States. Ecological Applications 3(1) :2-9.

Savory, A. 1999. Holistic Management. Island Press. Covelo, CA.

Whicker, A.D. and J.K. Detling. 1988. Modification of vegetation structure and ecosystem processes by North American Grassland Mammals. In Plant form and vegetation structure. Ed. J.J. Werger, P.M. Van der Aasrt. H.J. During and J.A. Verhoeven. Pp. 301-316.

Williamson, S.C. J.K. Detling, J.R. Dodd, and M.I. Dyer. 1989. Experimental evaluation of the grazing optimization hypothesis. J of Range Management 42 (2) 149-152,

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why FIsh and Game Agencies Can't Manage Predators

Why Fish and Game Agencies Can't Manage Predators
By George Wuerthner, 4-17-09

In the past month or so, helicopters with gunners skimmed over the Alaskan tundra and forests shooting wolves to “protect” caribou herds. In Nevada, the state Fish and Game agency wants to kill more mountain lions to increase mule deer numbers. In Idaho, the Idaho Game and Fish wants to kill more than a hundred wolves in the Lolo Pass area to benefit elk. In Maine, the state agency encourages hunters to shoot coyotes to reduce predation on deer.

Without exception, state game and fish agencies do not treat predators like other wildlife. Even though state agencies are no longer engaged in outright extermination of predators, persecution and limited acceptance of the ecological role of predators is still the dominant attitude. State wildlife agencies only tolerate predators as long as they are not permitted to play a meaningful ecological role.

In general, they seek to hold predator populations at low numbers by providing hunters and trappers with generous “bag” limits and long hunting/trapping seasons. For some predators, like coyotes, there are often no limits on the number of animals that can be killed or trapped. The attitude of many hunters towards predators is not appreciably different than what one heard a hundred years ago, despite a huge leap in our ecological understanding of the role top predators play in the ecosystem.

Beyond the general hostility towards predators that many hunters hold, state wildlife agencies are not the objective, scientific, wildlife managers that they claim to be. Wolves, mountain lions, bears, and other predators are a direct threat to state wildlife budgets because top predators eat the very animals that hunters want to kill. Because state wildlife agencies rely upon license sales to fund their operations, maintaining huntable numbers of elk, deer, moose, and caribou is in the agencies’ self interest.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti hunter, I want to make it clear that I hunt, and most of my close friends hunt. We value the wildlife success stories created by past and present wildlife agencies actions. And to give credit where credit is due, hunters and anglers have been responsible for many successful wildlife recovery efforts, and through their lobbying efforts, sweat, and money, they have protected a considerable amount of wildlife habitat across the Nation for many wildlife species, not just the ones hunted. Well known early conservationists and wilderness advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Charles Sheldon and Olaus Murie were all hunters. But that doesn’t mean hunters are beyond criticism when it comes to wildlife management policies, particularly when it comes to predator policy.


With the delisting of wolves by the Secretary of the Interior Salazar, several states are poised to begin managing wolves. Proponents of wolf control suggest that Americans should let state wildlife agencies manage predators “just like other wildlife.”

The problem is that top predators are not “just like other wildlife.” Indeed, they play a crucial ecological role in maintaining ecosystem stability and integrity. In addition, predators, more than most other species, have well developed social structures that demand a much more nuanced approach to human/wildlife relationships than most wildlife agencies are prepared to deal with, much less even acknowledge.


Much recent research has demonstrated many ecological values to predators. As top-down regulators of ecosystems, predators like wolves, mountain lion, and bears help to reduce herbivore numbers to slow or reduce over-browsing or overgrazing of plant communities.

Perhaps more importantly, predator shift how prey animals use their habitat. For instance, it is well documented that the presence of wolves in Yellowstone has changed how elk use the landscape, with less browsing on riparian vegetation as one consequence.

But wolf-induced habitat shifts by elk has had other benefits as well. Since the road system in Yellowstone tends to follow the river valleys, movement of elk away from streams to adjacent uplands increases the likelihood that a certain percentage of the animals will die further from a road. This has important consequences for grizzly bears that have been shown to avoid feeding on carcasses located close to roads. Finding even one more elk carcass in the spring in a place that is “safe” for feeding is like winning the lottery for, say, a mother grizzly with several cubs to feed.

Some scientists have even postulated that wolves may ameliorate the effects of climate change on scavenger species by providing carrion throughout the year.

Predators can also limit the effects of disease, like chronic wasting disease found in elk, deer, and moose since infected animals are more vulnerable to predators.

The presence of a large predator has a cascading effect on all other predators as well. For instance, the present of wolves results in fewer coyotes. Since coyotes are among the major predators on pronghorn fawns, presence of wolves, has led to higher pronghorn fawn survival.

And because of the single-minded bias of state wildlife agencies for maintaining large numbers of huntable species, they fail to even ask whether predation might have a positive influence on ecosystem sustainability.

For instance, in certain circumstances, top predators like wolves, bears, and mountain lions will hold prey populations low for an extended period of time, especially if habitat quality is marginal for the herbivores. These “predator sinks” provide the long term “rest” from herbivory pressure that plant communities may require on occasion to reestablish or recover from past herbivory pressure. Almost universally when predators begin to “hold down” prey populations, state agencies want to kill them so the targeted populations of moose, caribou, elk, deer, or whatever it might be can “recover.” That is the justification, for instance, for the proposed slaughter of approximately 100 wolves near Lolo Pass by the Idaho Fish and Game.

Unfortunately for predators if their numbers are sufficiently high for them to have these ecological effects on other wildlife as well as the plant communities, state wildlife agencies tend to view them as too high for their “management objectives.”


I won’t dwell on it here, but top predators have sophisticated social interactions that state wildlife agencies completely ignore in their management. For the most part, state agencies’ management of predators is based on numbers. If there are enough wolves or mountain lions to maintain a population, and they are not in any danger of extinction, than management is considered to be adequate.

The problem is that top predators have many social interactions that complicate such crude management by the numbers.

Many social animals pass on “cultural” knowledge to their young about where to forage or hunt. Researcher Gordon Haber has found that some wolf packs in Denali National Park have been passing on their prime hunting territory from generation to generation for decades. Loss of this knowledge and/or territory because too many animals are killed can stress the remaining animals, making them more likely to travel further where they are vulnerable to conflicts with humans.

For instance, predator control can shift the age structure of predator populations to younger animals. Since younger animals are less experienced hunters, they are more likely to attack livestock than older, mature predators. (Young animals are more likely in rare instances, to even attack people. Nearly all mountain lion attacks are by immature animals.)

Furthermore, predator populations that are held at less than capacity by management (i.e. killing them) also tend to breed earlier, and produce more young, increasing the demand for biomass (i.e. food). Both of these factors can indirectly increase conflicts between livestock producers and predators.

Wolves, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and other predators all possess such intricate social relationships. Yet I have never seen a single state wildlife agency even acknowledged these social interactions; much less alter their management in light of this knowledge.


Despite the self serving propaganda coming hunting groups that hunters are an adequate “tool” to control herbivore populations, research has demonstrated sufficient differences in the animals selected by predators compared to human hunters. In general, hunters take animals in the prime of life, while predators disproportionally take out the older, younger or less fit individuals. As poet Robinson Jeffers has noted, it is the fang that has created the fleet foot of the antelope.

Human hunting has other long term genetic consequences as well. As was recently reported in PNAS, sustained human hunting has led to universally smaller animals, as well as other suspected genetic impacts that may affect their long-term viability.


Despite the long history of hunter conservationists, when it comes to predators there are two major reasons for the failure of state wildlife agencies to adopt objective and biologically sound predator policies. The first is that most hunters are ecologically illiterate. Though there are some sub-groups within the hunting community who put ecological health of the land first and foremost, the average hunter cares more about “putting a trophy on the wall or meat in the freezer” than whether the land’s ecological integrity is maintained. The focus is on sustaining hunting success, not ultimately on the quality of the hunting experience, much less sustaining ecosystems as the prime objective. Such hunters are the ones using ORVs for hunting, use radio collared dogs to “track” predators, object to road closures that limit hunter access by other than foot, employ more and more sophisticated technology to replace human skill, and not coincidently they tend to be the hunters most likely to be demanding predator control.

On the whole, I have found most state wildlife biologists to be far more ecologically literate than the hunters and anglers they serve. In other words, if left to the biologists, I suspect we would find that agencies would manage wildlife with a greater attention to ecological integrity.

However, curbing such impulses by wildlife professionals are the politically appointed wildlife commissions. While criteria for appointments vary from state to state, in general, commissioners are selected to represent primarily rural residents, timber companies and agricultural interests—all of whom are generally hostile to predators and/or see it as almost a God-given requirement that humans manage the Earth to “improve” it and fix the lousy job that God did by creating wolves and mountain lions.

The other reason state agencies tend to be less enthusiastic supporters of predators has to do with funding. State wildlife agencies “dance with the one that brung ya.” Most non-hunters do not realize that state wildlife agencies are largely funded by hunter license fees as well as taxes on hunting equipment, rather than general taxpayer support. This creates a direct conflict of interest for state wildlife agencies when it comes to managing for species that eat the animals hunters want to kill. Agency personnel know that the more deer, elk, and other huntable species that exist, the more tags and licenses they can sell. So what bureaucracy is going to voluntarily give up its funding opportunities for “ecological integrity?”

Adding to this entire funding nightmare for agencies is the decline in hunter participation. There are fewer and fewer hunters these days. Many reasons have been proposed for this—a decrease in access to private lands for hunting, decrease in outdoor activities among young people, and fewer young hunters being recruited into the hunting population, a shift in population from rural to urban areas, and a general shift in social values where hunters are held in less esteem by the general public. Whatever the factors, state wildlife agencies are facing a financial crisis. Their chief funding source—hunter license tags sales are declining, while their costs of operations are increasing.

This creates a huge incentive for state wildlife agencies to limit predators. Most agencies are beyond wanting to exterminate predators, and some even grudgingly admit there is some ecological and aesthetic value in maintaining some populations of predators, but few are willing to promote predators or consider the important ecological value of predators in the ecosystem.

Yet these inherent conflicts of interest are never openly conceded by the agencies themselves or for that matter few others. It is the elephant in the room.


With the exception of killing predators in the few instances where human safety is jeopardized as with human habituated animals, or to protect a small population of some endangered species, I find little good scientific support for any predator management. Predator populations will not grow indefinitely. They are ultimately limited by their prey. Leaving predators to self-regulate seems to be the best management option available.

In general, predators will have minimum effects on hunting. Even now in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, most elk populations are at or above “management objectives.” Climatic conditions and habitat quality typically have a far greater impact on long-term viability of huntable species than predators.

Arguments that people will “starve” if they can’t hunt are bogus. Alternative foods are usually far less expensive and more easily acquired than a moose or elk. Furthermore, in our society where food stamps and other social security nets are available, no one will starve for want of an elk dinner or caribou steak.

In my view, we need to restore not only token populations of wolves to a few wilderness and park sanctuaries, we ought to be striving to restore the ecological role of top predators to as much as of the landscape as reasonably possible. While we may never tolerate or want mountain lions in Boise city limits, grizzly bears strolling downtown Bozeman or wolves roaming the streets of Denver, there is no reason we can’t have far larger and more widely distributed predator populations across the entire West, as well as the rest of the nation. But this will never happen as long as state wildlife agencies see their primary role to satisfy hunter expectations for maximized hunting opportunities for ungulates like deer and elk rather than managing wildlife for the benefit of all citizens and ecosystem integrity.

Montana Needs More Wilderness

George Wuerthner

Montana has some of the best spectacular unprotected wildlands left in the lower 48 states, but it lags behind other western states in the amount of land protected as designated wilderness. For instance, California has 138 wilderness areas, covering than 14.3 million acres—more than 14 percent of the state. When the Omnibus Public Lands Bill before Congress passes, California will get another 700,000 acres of new wilderness areas. By contrast, Montana only has 15 wildernesses covering 3.4 million acres, or slightly less than 3.7% percent of the state.

More than six million FS roadless acres, plus at least another million acres of BLM and FWS lands, could potentially be added to the National Wilderness System. Yet for a host of unfortunate circumstances, the state has failed to see any new wilderness legislation passed for several decades. To see a map of Montana’s roaded and roadless terrain go to

The most comprehensive legislation dealing with Montana’s wildlands so far is the visionary Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act or NREPA. NEPRA was created by the Alliance for Wild Rockies, in part, after the failure of several other state-wide Montana wilderness bills to pass Congress or Presidential veto. It takes a comprehensive approach to wildlands preservation and includes most of the larger unprotected roadless lands in the Northern Rockies, including Montana.

While NREPA is the best wilderness legislation to ever be introduced, Congress may not be ready for the best. There are many obstacles to enactment, the least of which is that supporters must either convince the Congressional delegations from Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington, many of whom are hostile or luke-warm to wilderness preservation, to support this bill or garner enough votes from other House and Senate members to overrule the opposition from these delegates. I’m convinced if NREPA were enthusiastically endorsed and actively promoted by the entire environmental community, it could be enacted. Unfortunately, that wide-spread support has yet to materialize.

An alternative to NREPA is a more piecemeal, state specific approach to wilderness designation that focuses on passage of a Montana-only wilderness bill. Recently, there is a convergence in opinion that a state-wide wilderness bill is needed that can implement at least a portion of the NREPA vision for Montana. With the election of Barack Obama the opportunity for passage of such a comprehensive state wide bill has never looked better than now.

If I were creating such a bill, I would, at a minimum, propose the following areas for potential wilderness designation. My proposal is only a starting point for discussion.

In the interest of brevity many fine and worthy smaller wildlands areas will be left out of this compilation, but are included in NREPA, so if you want to see what could be protected in Montana, go to the Alliance for Wild Rockies web site. The following is only the briefest description of key areas that should be included in any state- wide bill with a rough estimate of the potential acreage to give readers some idea of the size of each area. At one time or another I have personally visited most of the areas I’ve listed so know firsthand of their wildlands qualities.

Northwest Montana includes the Purcell, Cabinet, and Coeur d’Alene Mountains. Heavily forested and relatively moist, the easily accessible timber has been logged, but many small roadless areas remain.

Starting in the Northwest portion of the state, there are a number of small wilderness areas proposed for the Yaak drainage in what many consider to be the wildest river valley south of Canada. The Yaak is home to nearly all the species (except perhaps caribou) that existed at the time of settlement, including wolves, grizzlies, wolverine, and lynx.

Roadless areas of note in the Yaak include the 15,000 acre Northwest Peak Proposed Wilderness. It lies right up against the Canadian border, supporting alpine larch forests in glaciated bowls. Other proposed wildernesses in the Yaak include 36,000 acre Buckhorn Ridge, 14,000 acre Mount Henry, 7,000 acre Robinson Mountain, 7,000 acre Grizzly Peak, and 30,000 acre Roderick Mountain, among others. Taken together, designation of all of these roadless lands will provide a quilt of wildlands that could work to begin the ecological restoration process for the heavily logged Yaak drainage.

South of the Yaak lies the 94,000,000 acre forested, but rugged Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The highest point is 8,723 foot Snowshoe Peak. The core of the Cabinet Mountains is protected as the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, but another 100,000 plus acres of additions could be added to the existing wilderness, primarily by adding lower elevation slopes to the wilderness to create a 200,000 acre or so complex.

Extending southward as part of the southern Cabinet Mountains north of Thompson Falls are several other roadless areas including the 39,000 acre Cube Iron Silcox and 39,000 acre Catarack Peak proposed wilderness areas. Vertical relief in this part of the southern Cabinet Mountains is more than 4,500 feet.

Directly across the Bull River to the west of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and straddling the Idaho-Montana border lies the 88,000 acre proposed Scotchman’s Peak Wilderness. Surprisingly, for this area where logging has fragmented so much of the lower elevation forests, the Scotchman’s Peak area has remained roadless from valley bottoms to the summit of its glacier-scoured peaks. Like the Cabinet Mountains, the Scotchman’s Peak area is heavily forested with low elevation Pacific Northwest species like western red cedar, and western hemlock, including the famous giant Ross Creek Cedars. Friends of Scotchman’s Peak has worked for decades promoting this area.

A few other large roadless areas on the Coeur d’Alene-Cabinet Divide south of the Clark Fork River worth mentioning are the 50,000 acre Trout Creek Proposed Wilderness and the 41,000 acre Mount Bushnell Proposed Wilderness. These both are important for corridors linking the Cabinet-Yaak to the Bitterroot Mountains.

The Bitterroot Mountains stretch along the Idaho Montana border for hundreds of miles. The highest peaks are included in the 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but other lovely wild country along or near the Bitterroot Divide and adjacent lands should be included in any state wide wilderness bill.

Along the Idaho border south of I-90 is the 68,000 Sheep Mountain/State Line Proposed Wilderness. More than 70 inches of precipitation, most of it as snowfall, supports forest of mountain hemlock, a rare species in Montana. An essential corridor for wildlife moving north and south from the Cabinet to the Bitterroot, the area features some small lakes, and heavy forest cover.

Moving south along the Idaho border, south of Superior, Montana, in the Fish Creek headwaters lies the 275,000 acre Great Burn Proposed Wilderness. Straddling the northern Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border, the Great Burn is named for the 1910 fires that swept across these slopes leaving alpine-like terrain dotted with snags. However, the lower elevation valleys still harbor some huge western red cedars. The lush vegetation and numerous cirque lakes make for scenic hiking. It is increasingly threatened by ORVers. The Great Burn has been included in many previous wilderness bills introduced into Congress, and hopefully will someday achieve wilderness protection.

South of Missoula is the Bitterroot Valley. Friends of the Bitterroot are one of the local wildlands advocacy groups romoting wilderness preservation on both sides of the Bitterroot Valley. Additions of 123,000 acres to the sprawling 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness along the Bitterroot Front would bring the wildlands boundary down closer to the valley floor.

West and south of Darby on the Idaho-Montana border is the 70,000 Bluejoint Proposed Wilderness. Most of the Bluejoint drainage was burned by wildfire and is reforested with even-aged lodgepole pine forests. It is one of the wilderness study areas protected by S.393, passed in the 1970s by the late Senator Lee Metcalf and includes several geologic features including a volcanic plug at Castle Peak and Rock Arch near Jack the Ripper Creek.

Adjacent to the Bluejoint and encompassing the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River along the Idaho-Montana border lies the 150,000 acre Allan Mountain Proposed Wilderness. (I’ve also seen this spelled Alan, Allen). Allan Mountain includes the spectacular 100 foot Overwhich Falls and provides a critical link between the Bitterroots and areas to the east in the Big Hole drainage.

Rock Creek, a major tributary of the Clark Fork River, is a small blue ribbon trout stream east of Missoula. The stream is bordered on the west by the Sapphire Range, which includes the Welcome Creek Wilderness, the only designated wilderness in this range.

South of Welcome Creek in the Sapphire Range is the 103,000 acre Stony Mountain Proposed Wilderness including headwater tributaries to Rock Creek.

Continuing south of Skalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Range is another S.393 wilderness study area, the 116,000 acre Sapphire Mountain Proposed Wilderness. The highest point is 9,000 foot, Kent Peak. The Sapphire Mountain WSA is a critical link in the Sapphire/Rock Creek Wildlands corridor that leads to the Big Hole Valley further south. The Sapphire Mountain WSA is also immediately adjacent to the existing Anaconda Pintler Wilderness, and the combined acreage of 350,000 acres makes it the fourth largest continuous roadless area in Montana.

On the east side of the Rock Creek Valley lies the 77,000 acre Quigg Peak Proposed Wilderness, a circular patch of little visited non-descript forested country that rises 4,500 feet above Rock Creek.

Another major tributary of the Clark Fork is Flint Creek. The Flint Creek Range south of Deer Lodge and east of Phillipsburg contains glacier-scoured, 10,000 foot peaks, cirque lakes and a 60,000 acre proposed wilderness.

Tucked up on the Canadian border west of Glacier National Park and east of Eureka are the rugged Whitefish and Galton Ranges which include a number of roadless areas, collectively totaling 171,000 acres. These areas are part of the proposed Winton Weydemeyer Wilderness. Weydemeyer was a long-time local wildlands advocate. Many ecologists consider the North Fork of the Flathead Valley to be one of the most biologically important areas in Montana, home to wolves, grizzlies, wolverine, lynx, elk, moose, and deer, plus some of the best bull trout spawning habitat in Montana.

Starting on the Canadian border is the 45,000 acre Ten Lakes Proposed Wilderness. The highest peaks rise to nearly 8,000 feet, and a number of sparkling lakes and lush flowery meadows dot the cirque basins. (I only count six lakes). Another S.393 protected area, the Ten Lakes area was included in the 1984 Montana Wilderness bill that President Reagan vetoed.

Immediately west and south of the Ten Lakes area lies the 126,000 acres North Fork Wildlands Complex, a series of roadless areas lying west of the North Fork of the Flathead River separated by a few logging roads. The North Fork Wildlands includes Mount Hefty/Mount Tuchuck, Mount Thompson Seton/Nasukoin Mountain. Great views of Glacier National Park’s rugged peaks are possible from many of the highest points in this proposed wilderness.

Glacier National Park has nearly a million acres of wilderness quality lands. All of it should be designated as wilderness. I don’t think I need to discuss the attributes that makes Glacier an outstanding wildlands complex. The NPS essentially manages this as wilderness anyway, so designation of this area should be politically easy.


South of Glacier National Park is the 1.5 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which includes the contiguous Great Bear and Scapegoat Wildernesses. The complex is Montana’s flagship wilderness area. Proposed additions to the Bob Marshall total more than 500,000 acres in three major blocks—Swan Range, Rocky Mountain Front, and the peaks bordering the Blackfoot Valley on the south.

Starting along the western border of the Bob Marshall, is the spectacular Swan Range which stretches nearly a 100 miles from Glacier National Park south to the Blackfoot Valley. The Swan forms the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but much of the range lies outside of the wilderness boundary. The 89,000 acre Swan Crest takes in the Jewel Basin Hiking Area with its two dozen or so cirque lakes and other roadless lands lying at the headwaters of tributaries to the South Fork of the Flathead River. The 169,000 Swan Front Proposed Addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness would take in the steep west face of the Swan Range, including 9,200 plus Swan Peak and 9,300 foot Holland Peak, as well as Lion Creek drainage with its giant western red cedars.

Making up the northern face of the Blackfoot River Valley along the southern edge of the Bob Marshall is the 90,000 Monture Creek Proposed Additions. Monture Creek, along with the North Fork of the Blackfoot, are among the best bull trout spawning streams left in the Blackfoot River drainage.

The eastern edge of the Bob Marshall consists of the Rocky Mountain Front where the mountains rise for 110 miles north to south abruptly and dramatically from the Great Plains. It is probably the premier unprotected wildlands in Montana. Ecologists have documented that approximately a third of all plant species found in Montana are known to grow here as well as 290 species of wildlife. During the Forest Service’s RARE11 inventory, some of the roadless lands on the Front had the highest wildlands ratings in the lower 48, comparable to some of the Forest Service lands in Alaska. Some of the larger roadless areas along the Front include Badger Two Medicine, Choteau Mountain, Teton High Peaks, Deep Creek, Renbshaw, and Falls Silver King.

Central Montana includes the communities of Lewistown, Butte , Great Falls and Helena. A number of isolated mountain ranges, as well as a diverse number of roadless lands along the Continental Divide provide linkages between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Bob Marshall/Glacier Ecosystem.

Along or near the Continental Divide are a number of proposed wildernesses. Most of these roadless areas consist of more gentle terrain of rolling mountains, open parks, and great wildlife habitat. Among the largest roadless areas are the 50,000 acre Nevada Mountain Proposed Wilderness, 50,000 acre Electric Peak Proposed Wilderness, and east of I-15 the 84,000 acre Whitetail-Hay stack Proposed Wilderness with its extensive wetlands.

Just south of Helena is the 88,000 Elkhorn Mountains Proposed Wilderness, home to one of the more productive elk herds in the state.

To the southeast of Helena in the Big Belt Mountains that harbor a series of small roadless areas like a string of beads. Anchoring it on the north is the 28,000 acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Named by Lewis and Clark, the Gates signaled where the Missouri left the mountains. Additions to this area, including 10,000 acre Sleeping Giant and adjacent state Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, would make a 65,000 acre complex.

South of the Gates of the Mountains, the two largest roadless areas include 20,000 acre Camas Creek Proposed Wilderness which features Camas and Boulder lakes lakes, plus the 18,000 acre glaciated cirques of the Baldy Peak/Mt. Edith Proposed Wildernesses.

East of Great Falls is the isolated volcanic Highwood Mountains, that contains aspen-lined coulees and a patchwork of meadows and forest in a 40,000 acre proposed wilderness split by one road. Southeast of Great Falls are the Little Belt Mountains. There are many roadless aeas in this range that collectively total more than 450,000 acres. Three of the notable wildlands include the 43,000 acre Pilgrim Creek Proposed Wilderness, a prime hunting area with many open parks.

The center piece of the Little Belts is the 105,000 acre Tenderfoot/Deep Creek Proposed Wilderness encompassing the Smith River Canyon, a sixty mile float through wild country with magnificent limestone cliffs and excellent fishing.
The Little Belts are also the location of the rolling terrain that makes up the 92,000 acre Middle Fork of the Judith River Proposed Wilderness, another S.393 WSA, featuring dramatic limestone canyons.

The 105,000 acre Big Snowy Mountains Proposed Wilderness, south of Lewistown, is another S.393 area. The Big Snowy Mountains rises 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains and features an extensive above timberline plateau, and the singular beauty of aptly named Crystal Lake.


Southwest Montana takes in Montana’s largest national forest—the sprawling 3.3 million acre Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and the greatest acreage of unprotected roadless lands in the state. A number of conservation groups have proposed the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership which would guarantee access to 730,000 acres, including many roadless area of forest, for logging in exchange for timber industry support of wilderness. While the timber giveaway of the partnership is inappropriate, there are quite a number of wildlands on the BDNF worthy of wilderness protection in the proposal as well as a few not included in the agreement. Many of these wildlands form the headwaters of the famous Big Hole River.

Just south of Butte are three roadless areas that have important wildlands values.
The 12,000 acre Humbug Spires, 21,000 acre Highland Mountains, and 36,000 acre Fleecer Mountain proposed wilderness areas. The spires features many granite knobs that are a favorite for climbers while the Highlands feature flat-topped Table Mountain with expansive views. Finally, Fleecer Mountain is part of an important game range just north of the Big Hole River.

Starting in the north end of the Big Hole Valley is what has become known as the 50,000 acre North Big Hole proposed additions to the existing 158,000 acre Anaconda Pintler Wilderness which would expand significantly protection for the lower slopes of the range. This would secure some of the more productive lands in the valley, including the most important big game habitat.

Immediately south of Chief Joseph Pass along the Montana-Idaho border and on the north end of the Beaverhead Mountains is the 50,000 Anderson Peak Proposed Wilderness, a land of mostly rolling lodgepole covered hills.

South of Big Hole Pass are the rugged glaciated peaks and more than 30 cirque lakes of the 130,000 acre West Big Hole Proposed Wilderness, including 10,621 foot Homer Young Peak, the highest in the range.

East of Wisdom is the 240,000 roadless acres of the West Pioneer Mountains, one of Montana’s largest roadless areas and another S.393 wilderness study area. The rolling forested mountains of the West Pioneers Proposed Wilderness top out at 9,000 feet. This area has been greatly impacted by ORV intrusions in recent years.

Directly east and across the Wise River, are the 145,000 acre East Pioneer Mountains Proposed Wilderness. The East Pioneers are extremely rugged, with many cirque lakes and glaciated high peaks including 11, 154 foot Tweedy Mountain and 11,146 foot Torrey Mountain.

The 50,000 acre South Big Hole/Tash Peak Proposed Wilderness, as its name implies, takes in the high peaks at the south end of the Big Hole Valley, including 9,800 foot Bloody Dick Peak.

The 90,000 acre Italian Peak Proposed Wilderness is part of a larger nearly 300,000 acre chunk of roadless country straddling the Continental Divide on the Montana-Idaho border. The lonely, but rugged limestone peaks, including 10,998 Italian Peak reminds me of the Canadian Rockies. Other major peaks include 11,141 foot Eighteenmile Peak.

The arid 83,000 acre Tendoy Mountains Proposed Wilderness east of Dell, Montana, consists of open grass-sagebrush slopes rising to the top of 10,000 foot mountains with pockets of conifer and aspen. The open country is superb for cross country hiking and excellent hunting terrain.

The 42,000 acre Lima Peak/Mount Garfield Proposed Wilderness also straddles the Continental Divide, and includes 10,961 foot Mt. Garfield. This area features many aspen groves, along with patches of conifers intermixed with open grassy slopes that can be hiked for miles.

Several other small BLM roadless areas are also found in this region including 27,000 acres in the Ruby Range east of Dillon, 15,000 acres in the Blacktail Mountains southeast of Dillon, and 12,000 acres in the dry, open limestone summit of Henneberry Ridge area southwest of Dillon.

Surrounding Yellowstone National Park are some of the largest wildlands in the Rockies.,

The centerpiece in Montana is the 920,000 acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, which includes Montana’s highest summits such as 12,799 foot Granite Peak, and some of the most extensive alpine tundra in the lower 48 states. Starting near Gardiner and working around the edge of the existing wilderness significant proposed additions include Dome Mountain and Emigrant Peak, wintering habitat for thousands of elk that migrate from Yellowstone, the Paradise Face that provides the scenic backdrop for Paradise Valley, Shell Mountain, Mount Rae, and the Deer Creeks, a lower elevation unglaciated terrain between the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers, home to genetically pure cutthroat trout and as its name implies lots of deer. Nearer Red Lodge are the Beartooth Face and the 20,000 acre high-elevation alpine Line Creek Plateau.

Lying north of the Yellowstone River by Livingston is the 140,000 acre Crazy Mountains Proposed Wilderness. The Crazies have 23 peaks over 10,000 feet with more than 7,000 feet rise from the Yellowstone River to the top of 11,214 Crazy Peak, rivaling the Tetons in total elevation gain. The wind- blasted glacier-carved summits have an Arctic look that makes them more like something in Alaska, especially in winter, when the snowy peaks are set against a cold winter sky.
Directly across the Shields Valley from the Crazy Mountains, and just outside of Bozeman, is the 42,000 acre Bridger Mountain Proposed Wilderness. The Bridgers are a critical link in the chain of roadless lands that leads from the Greater Yellowstone north to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Marking the southwestern edge of the Gallatin Valley is the 96,000 acre Tobacco Root Mountains Proposed Wilderness. Extensively fragmented by old mining roads, the Tobacco Roots still harbor some small roadless areas. These glaciated mountains possess 28 peaks over 10,000 feet and dozens of small lakes and tarns.

To the southwest of Dillon and the headwaters of the Ruby River lies the wildly fe-filled 110,000 acre Snowcrest Range Proposed Wilderness. A long narrow range with a number of 10,000 plus peaks, the Snowcrest Range is a mixture of open grassy/sage slopes, pockets of aspen and conifers, topping out with tundra along the ridges and higher peaks. You mightee pronghorn as elk on the high slopes of this range.

The rolling Gravelly Range lies south of Virginia City and forms the western border of the Madison River Valley. It has some important elk and bighorn sheep habitat, but is severely compromised by heavy livestock grazing. There are four major roadless areas in this range including 39,000 acre Black Butte, 14,000 acre Lone Butte, 70,000 acres West Fork Madison and 53,000 acre Bighorn units.

Straddling the Continental Divide west of Henry’s Lake, Idaho, the 82,000 Centennial Mountains Proposed Wilderness is one of the few east-west running mountain masses in Montana, making it an important corridor and connector between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Central Idaho wildlands to the west. Directly below this range is the remote Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the range on the Montana side of the border is managed by the BLM which has identified a 27,000 wilderness study area in the central portion of the range. Aspen is abundant here, and the valleys are surprisingly lush.

The 255,000 acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Big Sky honors the late Senator Lee Metcalf, one of Montana’s wilderness champions. Unfortunately, when the wilderness was created, several important areas were left out of the wilderness, including Cowboy’s Heaven proposed addition on the north, taking in Cherry Creek, a proposed westslope cutthroat trout restoration site.

The 32,000 acre Lionhead Proposed Wilderness straddles the Continental Divide and Idaho-Montana border just west of West Yellowstone, Montana. It is really the southern extension of the Madison which is largely protected as the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The area features a number of 10,000 foot peaks. The Lionhead is an important corridor in the east-west movement of wildlife from Yellowstone to the various ranges in southwest Montana. Grizzlies, for instance, move from the Lionhead to the Gravelly and Centennial Ranges through this area. In recent years, snowmobiles have taken to riding to the top of Lionhead Peak, significantly compromising the solitude and wildlands qualities of this area.

The 200,000 acre Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness is on Bozeman’s doorstep and extends southward into Yellowstone National Park where more than 325,000 additional acres of proposed wilderness are found. The Gallatin Range features many glaciated peaks exceeding 10,000 feet, and some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in Montana.

The proposed wilderness is home to nearly every major large mammal found in Montana, including grizzly, wolf, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, wolverine, lynx, marten, and even bison on occasion. The Gallatin Range contains many headwaters streams for two blue ribbon trout rivers—the Gallatin and Yellowstone. One hundred and fifty one thousand acres are tentatively protected by Congress as the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in S. 393, but unfortunately, ORVs have established many new “routes” in the range.

South of Billings and lying in the rain shadow east of the lofty Beartooths is the Pryor Mountains, a mix of BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service and Indian Reservation lands.

A limestone northern extension of the Bighorn Mountains, the Pryors has several major roadless areas including Lost Water Canyon Proposed Wilderness, as well as four other roadless areas. In some areas, the narrow limestone canyons might make you think you were in southern Utah. Numerous caves provide habitat for ten species of bats including the spotted and Townsend's big eared bats, both candidates for listing under the ESA. The Pryors contains 10 distinct ecological systems which support a variety of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, black bears and mule deer, and more than 200 species of birds. Unfortunately the dry and fragile Pryor Mountain landscape is being torn apart by ORV use.


Most of the private land in Montana is found on the Great Plains, but there are some patches of public lands, mostly managed by the BLM and FWS. So far only two small prairie wildernesses exist in Montana: 11,000 plus acre Medicine Lake Wilderness in extreme Northeast Montana, and 20,000 acre U Bend Wilderness along the shore of Fort Peck Reservoir. There are, however, many other areas that could be added to the prairie wildlands protection list. Here are three of the best.

Nearly on the Canadian border northwest of Glasgow, the 60,000 acre Bitter Creek Proposed Wilderness is one of the largest grassland roadless areas in the state. Past glaciations has left gently rolling terrain that invites long walks across an endless horizon. With a name like Bitter Creek, it’s not difficult to imagine why this part of the plains was never settled.

Another prairie BLM wildlands is the 50,000 acre Terry Badlands. The proposed wilderness borders the lower Yellowstone River near Terry, Montana. Water and wind have sculpted the soft sandstones in numerous buttes, pinnacles, and spires. One of the eastern most stands of limber pine is found growing on the rims.

The largest prairie wildlands complex is found along the Missouri River in the Missouri Breaks National Monument and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The roadless areas are too numerous to name here, but as much as 400,000 acres may qualify as wilderness. All of this country consists of steep escapements and coulees bordering the Missouri River.

Praise for the Dead

By George Wuerthner
Forest Magazine, Spring 2009

Dead. Most of us have negative associations with the word. After all how did Death Valley get its name? Not because it was a favorite vacation spot for prospectors. Is anyone interested in fishing the Dead Sea? And when we say someone looks like “death warmed over,” it’s not usually taken as a compliment. So it’s not surprising that most of us tend to view dead things as undesirable, unless we are talking about mosquitoes and rattlesnakes.

We impose this cultural bias about dead things to our forests as well. Public land management agencies spend billions annually trying to contain wildfire and insect outbreaks based upon the presumption that these natural processes are destroying the forest by killing trees. Even though there is now some grudging acceptance by land managers that wildfires and insect attacks may be potentially beneficial if they do not kill too many trees, stand-replacement fires, ice storms and large beetle outbreaks are still viewed as unnatural and abnormal—something to suppress, slow and control.

When these natural processes kill trees, managers propose logging to “salvage” the economic value of the downed trees. They operate on the tacit assumption that surplus wood can be removed without hurting the forest’s ecosystem, and until now that has formed the basis of scientific and/or sustainable forestry.

But a new perspective is slowly taking root among forest managers, based on growing evidence that forest ecosystems have no waste or harvestable surplus. Rather, it seems that forests reinvest their biological capital back into the ecosystem, and removal of wood—whether dead or alive—can lead to biological impoverishment. Large stand-replacement blazes and major insect outbreaks may be the ecological analogue to the forest ecosystem as the hundred-year flood is to a river. Such natural events are critical to shaping ecosystem function and processes. Scientists are discovering that dead trees and downed wood play an important role in ecosystems by providing wildlife habitat, cycling nutrients, aiding plant regeneration, decreasing erosion and influencing drainage, soil moisture and carbon storage.

“When you start to look at western forests outside of wildernesses and parks, you notice right away that they lack large quantities of downed wood—dead trees,” says Jon Rhodes, an independent consulting hydrologist in Oregon. “Ecologically speaking, there is a big difference between areas that have been logged compared to areas that are left alone.”

Chad Hanson, a University of California, Davis, researcher, agrees. “We are trapped by an outdated cultural idea that a healthy forest is one with nothing but green trees. An ecologically healthy forest has dead trees, broken tops and downed logs.” Such forests may not look tidy from the perception of a forester, he says, but it’s an indication that the forest is healthy and biologically diverse. “Pound for pound, ton for ton, there is probably no more important habitat element in western conifer forests than large snags and large downed logs,” Hanson says.

Studies have consistently concluded that most western forests have a deficit of large snags and downed dead wood. “Large standing trees are important,” Rhodes says, “but they shouldn’t be museum pieces. They should be part of functioning ecosystems.” When old-growth trees burn in wildfires, they aren’t completely lost, he says, but provide the ecosystem with large quantities of snags and downed wood. “While some say we can’t afford to have old growth burned by fire, it’s apparent that we can’t afford for old growth not to burn in fires, due to the importance of large snags and downed wood and its current lack in western forests,” he says.

Writing in a 2004 article in Conservation Biology, University of Montana ecologist Richard Hutto sums up the new thinking about the ecological value of dead trees. “I am hard-pressed to find any other example in wildlife biology where the effect of a particular land-use activity is as close to 100 percent negative as the typical post-fire salvage-logging operation tends to be,” he wrote. “Everything from the system of fire-regime classification, to a preoccupation with the destructive aspects of fire, to the misapplication of snag-management guidelines have led us to ignore the obvious: we need to retain the very elements that give rise to much of the biological uniqueness of a burned forest—the standing dead trees.”

Healthy Dependence

Dead trees are important to wildlife. Think woodpeckers. But many other species depend on dead trees and downed wood for food and shelter.

Hutto reports that upwards of 60 percent of species that nest in severely burned forests use only snags for nest sites. In addition, about 45 percent of all North American native bird species rely on snags for at least a portion of their life cycle.

Hutto has found fifteen species that are most abundant in forests with high numbers of snags resulting from high-intensity stand-replacement crown fire—the kind of fires that foresters pejoratively call catastrophic. Hutto notes it is doubtful that these species would have evolved such dependency on snag abundance if large stand-replacement fires and widespread insect outbreaks were uncommon or unnatural, as some suggest.

But it’s not just the use of snags for nesting, or even feeding as with woodpeckers, that attracts birds and other wildlife to recently killed forests. Burned forests also are used extensively by seed-eating species that are attracted by the abundance of new seeds shed by cones and colonizing plants.

Even the presumption that large blazes are a threat to spotted owls is being challenged. “There are several studies which indicate that spotted owls actually benefit from substantial patches of high-severity fire within their home ranges,” says researcher Hanson. “They selectively forage in unlogged, high-severity burn patches.” However, he adds, if these burned areas are salvage logged, spotted owls avoid them.

In a paper presented at a conference on the ecology and management of dead wood in western forests, researcher Timothy Kent Brown estimated that two-thirds of all wildlife species use dead trees or downed wood during some portion of their life cycle. Among Pacific Northwest vertebrates, sixty-nine species depend upon cavities for shelter or nesting, while forty-seven other species are strongly associated with downed wood. And it’s not just the obvious species like woodpeckers that demonstrate this dependence. Many bat species, for instance, hide in cavities in dead trees or under the loose bark of dead and/or dying trees.

Jim Andrews, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, studies amphibians and reptiles in northeastern forests. “Foresters tend to look at the forest from the floor up,” he says. “I have occasionally gone on field trips with them, and they were rather proud of how they had managed their forests, but the forest has nothing in it. There’s no cover. No places to find live critters.”

Andrews notes that dead and dying trees are important for many cold-blooded species, from gray frogs to arboreal rat snakes. “Standing snags, once they get big enough so that they have hollow centers—what foresters call ‘overmature’…are the places where wildlife reside,” Andrews says. “To a biologist you don’t have overmature trees—you have wildlife habitat.”

Andrews notes that the greatest biomass of terrestrial vertebrate species found in eastern forests are salamanders, not the more charismatic large mammals like deer and moose. Salamanders provide food to many other species, from wild turkeys to shrews.

But salamanders are also significant predators in their own right, Andrews says. They eat beetle larvae, fly larvae, ground beetles, spiders, sow bugs, round worms and other invertebrates that feed on forest debris. In doing so, they shape the forest ecosystem much as wolves do on another scale. “Salamanders, by preying upon these species that consume leaf litter, help to maintain a deeper layer of leaves and other organic debris that holds moisture, reduces floods and that kind of stuff,” Andrews says.


It’s easy to identify an ecosystem for its most photogenic species, but there are dozens of small cogs that are of equal importance. One of those is ants, and downed logs are their preferred home. Ants are among the most common invertebrate in forest ecosystems and, not surprisingly given their abundance, are critical elements in forest ecosystems.

The most obvious value of ants is as food—from birds such as flickers to much larger animals like bears. In fact, research suggests that ants are among the most important food for bears in Oregon during June and July, as well as later in the summer if the berry crop is small. A British Columbia study found that grizzly bears rely on ants for food late in the fall when berries are unavailable. Reducing the number of dead trees, and thus ants, has a direct consequence for bear survival.

But ants also prey on insects that attack trees. For example, studies in Washington and Oregon discovered that ants accounted for an 85 percent reduction of pupae from two tree-defoliating moths.

Dead logs and snags are also home to pollinating insects. Solitary and colonial bees, of which there are hundreds of species that reside in downed logs and/or snags, are among the major pollinators of flowers and berry-producing shrubs.

Dead trees are even important for other plant species. Bureau of Land Management botanist and lichen expert, Roger Rosentreter, says that dead snags, by creating suitable habitat for lichen growth, carry the legacy of lichen species to the next generation of live trees in the forest. Research by Oregon State University professor Bruce McCune found that some common lichens were more abundant on barkless branches of dead trees than on live ones.

Healthy forest soils also require decomposing material. Below the litter layer in the soil is yet another layer of life that depends on dead wood. “There’s a whole complex food web in the soil that is a combination of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, micro-fauna like arthropods, springtails, mites—all those organisms thrive and are important to the composition of the forest,” says soils specialist Tom Deluca, a forest scientist at the Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office.

Deluca notes that while forest litter, such as fallen needles and branches, is important to forest soils, forest soil development is also “very dependent upon the influx of carbon from [whole] trees that have a life cycle of hundreds of years.”

If the carbon influx (dead trees) created after a wildfire or beetle outbreak are removed, he says, the soil is robbed of energy for micro-organisms. “The organic influx is essential to micro-community,” he says.


People commonly assume that wildfire destroys trees and leaves a smoldering pile of ashes. In truth, some live trees and a lot of dead wood physically survive blazes. Beyond the value of dead trees as feeding, hiding and resting habitat for wildlife, downed logs play an important role in forest regeneration.

Snags and downed logs modify micro-sites that can affect seedling establishment. For instance, snags provide some shade and reduction of drying winds, creating more favorable conditions for tree seedling survival. Researching the effects of fires on snags in Wyoming, Dan Tinker, of the University of Wyoming, found that only 8 percent of the downed wood was consumed in fires. He also says that 35 percent of the downed wood in clear-cuts was a biological legacy left by past fires that occurred prior to logging. Tinker and his associates found that these legacy trees intercepted precipitation and funneled it to the ends of the log, creating a moister micro-site that was often more favorable for tree seedling germination and survival.

Other researchers have found that, when it comes to trees, all death is not equal. How a tree dies affects its ultimate role in the forest ecosystem. A tree killed by bark beetles has a different decay trajectory than, say, a tree dying from disease or wildfire. For instance, bark beetles, by breeching the outer bark of a tree, create tiny openings that allow fungi and other insects to enter the tree’s core.

Bark beetles emit pheromones that not only attract other bark beetles but also insects that prey on bark beetles. And the volatiles released from the decomposing trees attract another entirely different group of organisms that feed upon dead wood. That is why one researcher in Europe found that bark beetle outbreaks increased biodiversity in forest ecosystems.

William Laudenslayer, a U.S. Forest Service researcher at the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experimental Station, and his colleagues experimentally girdled trees to kill them, a common forestry practice used to produce snags for wildlife. They compared those snags to trees killed by bark beetles. They found that “bark beetle-killed trees provided significantly greater woodpecker feeding activity, cavity building and insect diversity” compared to snags created by girdling.

Trees heated and killed by fire create sapwood that resists rotting and lasts longer in the ecosystem. Trees dead prior to the fire tend to become blackened and charred. Charred trees are also resistant to decay. Thus, a wildfire creates long-lasting biological legacies that can survive for a century or more.


Wayne Minshall, professor of ecology with the Stream Ecology Center in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University, points out the importance of logs to aquatic ecosystems as well. “Wherever the logs occur, they cause the stream to meander or braid. And whenever you get braiding or meandering, you’re getting a reduction in the power of the stream and delivering the water in a way so as to dissipate that energy so the flow becomes less destructive. That’s important in keeping streams healthy.”

Wildfires and/or insect outbreaks create downed logs that fall into streams and across slopes. Downed logs, by slowing the velocity of the water, allow sediment to settle out and help return sediment flows to pre-burn levels. Minshall points out that while organisms have evolved to deal with episodic sediment flush events, such as those occurring immediately after a wildfire, they are unable to cope with forestry-induced sedimentation. To these organisms, a forest fire is no big deal, he says. “We get a short few years of sediment runoff, but it’s not a major thing that organisms can’t handle.” But aquatic organisms can’t take unexpected events they haven’t evolved with, such as the presence of fine sediment all year round for extended periods of time. “If we clear-cut, salvage log or put roads in, then the sediment flows tend towards chronic, and it’s a major detriment to organisms,” he says.

Rhodes says that scientists have not identified an upper threshold of logs in streams that is too much for fish. “The more wood, the more fish, all things being equal,” he says. “Lots of wood is a big part of the productivity for streams.” The loss of salmonids in many parts of the West, he says, can be attributed to the absence of wood in streams.

The criteria for healthy ecosystems can’t be easily defined or exhaustively listed. But healthy ecosystems have a full array of processes operating unimpaired, including hydrologic function, soil productivity, carbon sequestering, provision of wildlife habitats and keystone disturbances such as fires, floods, storms and insect outbreaks.

One crucial element present in unmanaged, healthy systems is a significant amount of dead trees and downed wood, Rhodes says. “There is seldom too much dead wood in forests and certainly not in unmanaged ones. However, there is almost always a dearth of it in managed forests.”

Seeing the Forests for the Trees

There’s an old clichĂ© that one can’t see the forest for the trees. It is used to describe people who are so focused on some detail that they fail to see the big picture. Nowhere is this failure to see the forest for the trees more evident than the rush to utilize dead trees for biomass fuel s and/or the presumed need to “thin” forests to reduce so called “dangers” and/or “damage” from wildfire and beetle outbreaks.

Contrary to popular opinion, we probably do not have enough dead trees in our forest ecosystems. And this deficit is a serious problem since dead trees are critical to the long term productivity of forests, and perhaps more important to forest ecosystems than live trees. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. It is questionable whether we can we remove substantial quantities of live or dead wood from the forest without serious long term biological impoverishment to forest ecosystems.

An abundance of dead trees, rather than a sign of forest sickness as commonly portrayed, demonstrates that the forest ecosystem is functioning perfectly well. For far too long we have viewed the major agents responsible for creation of substantial qualities of dead trees--beetles and wildfire—as “enemies” of the forest, when in truth; they are the major processes that maintain healthy forest ecosystems.

Recent research points out the multiple ways that dead trees and down wood are critical to the forest. One estimates suggests that 2/3 of all species depend on dead trees/down wood at some point in their lives.

Dead trees are very important for functioning aquatic ecosystems as well. Trees create structure in streams that shapes stream channels, reduces water velocity and erosion, and provides both food and habitat for many aquatic invertebrates. In general the more wood you have in the stream, the more fish, insects, and other aquatic life. Aquatic ecologists generally believe that there is no upper limit for dead wood in streams.

Once a tree falls to the ground and gradually molders back into the soil, it provides home to many small insects and invertebrates that are the lifeblood of the forest, that help recycle and produce nutrients important for present and future forest growth. For instance, there are hundreds of species of ground nesting bees that utilize down trees for their home. These bees are major pollinators of flowers and flowering shrubs in the forest.

Ants are among the most abundant invertebrates in the forest and many live in down trees and snags. Ants play a critical role in the forest, helping to break down wood, aeration of soil with their burrows, and protection of trees against the onslaught of other insects. One study found that ants killed 85% of the tussock moths that attacked Douglas fir and there are many other examples of how ants protect trees from tree predators.

And it’s not just wildlife that depends on dead trees. A recent review of 1200 lichen species found that 10% were only found on dead trees, and many others prefer dead trees as their prime habitat. Lichens, among other things, are important convertors of atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen important for plant growth.
Even the charcoal that results from wildfires burning up trees is important for soil productivity, helping to increase soil nutrients, water-holding capacity, and as a long-term storage mechanism for carbon.

Most beetle and wildlife events do not kill all the trees. Instead, they create a mosaic of age classes that actually increases biodiversity. Contrary to the popular opinion that beetles “destroy the forest” and fires “sterilize” the soils or create biological deserts, several recent studies have concluded that both beetle killed forests and the burned forests that result remain after stand replacement wildfires have among the highest biodiversity of any habitat type.

Notwithstanding, the fact that much new research suggest that both thinning or biomass removal are often ineffective at slowing or stopping large fires or insect outbreaks because these events are primarily driven by climatic/weather factors rather than fuels, there is the issue of whether the cure is worse than the so-called disease.

Logging, thinning, biomass removal and other forest management introduce all kinds of negative impacts to the forest ecosystem from the spread of weeds to soil compaction to alteration of water flow, disturbance to wildlife, creation of new ORV trails, increases in sedimentation, that all lead to the degradation of the forest ecosystem itself. Most of these negative impacts are ignored or glossed over by proponents of thinning and biomass removal.

In short, current efforts to thwart, and stop beetle outbreaks and wildfires create “unhealthy forests”. In fact, nearly everything that foresters do from thinning forests to suppressing fires degrades and impoverishes the forest ecosystem. Forest “management” is so focused on trees and wood products, that it represents a critical failure to see the forest through the trees.

On the Virtues of Living in Town

I just got back from the store where I picked up a newspaper and some fresh fruit. Along the way I made a quick stop at the bank where I retrieved some money from the ATM. Since I was just across from the post office, I picked up my mail. And on the way home, I stopped at the cafĂ© to get a cup of coffee and visit with a friend. The “trip” to town was a nice break from sitting in front of a computer and gave me a chance to even socialize a bit. It was possible for me to do all these things without once getting in my vehicle because I live in town. In fact, all the places I visited are within a few blocks of my home.

Though I sometimes use my vehicle when the weather is particularly nasty or time is limited, I can usually do many of my activities by walking or riding a bike if I choose. And living in the shadow of Peak Oil, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of being in a village, town or city where I can reduce my reliance upon the automobile.

Because I live in town, both of my kids have a freedom that most children lack these days—they can walk to school, to friends, to soccer games, and other events. My daughter tells me that out of 90 kids in her 7th grade, only 4 of them regularly walk to school. The rest ride a bus or are driven by parents. Their lives are highly regulated by the availability of their parents as chaffers or school bus transport. Given how few kids walk to school or any place else any more, it’s no wonder that childhood obesity is such a problem.

The majority of people in my community live out on their one to five acre tracts scattered along the rural roads away from the central village. They believe they are living the American dream or from my perspective the American nightmare. Their homes fragment wildlife habitat and chew up open space. Their septic tanks leach pollution into the local waterways. Worse of all they spend a lot of their free time driving. Driving the kids to school. Driving to the grocery store. Driving to work. Driving to play. Driving just to be driving.

Where I live today is such a contrast from where I thought I would wind up when I was in my twenties. Then it was my dream to live in a remote cabin somewhere in Alaska, and I did so for short periods of time as well as other remote locations around the Rockies. But I always came back to town—either because I needed to work or go to school. After a while I realized that I was tied to town whether I liked it or not.

Over time I actually came to understand that I liked living in town but the real epiphany for me occurred because of an old girlfriend. I was back in Montana going to the University of Montana (I was a perennial student on and off for years). My girlfriend at the time rented a cabin down on the flanks of the Bitterroot Range south of Stevensville. It was a romantic location—you could sit on the front porch of the cabin and take in a good sweep of the valley all the way to the Sapphire Range. It was quiet. There were elk and deer nearby. And, of course, you could ski or hike out the door—as my girlfriend always liked to tell people when she would brag about where she was living.

But she rarely had time to go hiking or skiing. She, like me, was a student which meant that she had to come into town every day to attend class. It would take an hour to get from the cabin to the classroom—assuming the car would start when it was 20 below and the snow wasn’t too deep, and the roads weren’t too slick with ice or snow. She spent about two hours a day commuting from her lovely cabin in the woods to the university and back again. By the time the weekend would roll around and I would ask her to go hiking or skiing, she would often decline. She had to do the laundry, clean the cabin, chop wood, buy the groceries, and sometimes just catch up on the sleep she didn’t get during the week. She didn’t have time to enjoy the woods in her backyard because she spent too much time sitting in a car driving into town and back.

I, on the other hand, lived about four blocks from the campus and could roll out of bed fifteen or twenty minutes before a class, and ride my bike to the campus with time to spare. Since I lived so close to the school, it was easy to use the library, go home for lunch or whatever, and I almost always got most of my studying done during the week so my weekends were often free to explore the Montana countryside.

Since that time, I have always chosen to live in town. And now that I have kids, I’m even more convinced that living in town is the right place to be—because it gives them as well as me, more freedom. In town I can take advantage of all the things that towns can provide kids from the public library to the public swimming pool. There are many other reasons to encourage people to live in town. Studies have shown that it’s far more costly to provide services to people who live outside of communities than those in town. There’s also a loss of community civil life. Plus people who are constantly driving here and there have less time to devote to community endeavors and less time to know their neighbors. And in many parts of the West if you live out of town, you are almost surely on some former big game winter range or in the potential path of a wildfire. If you have to live someplace—think about living in town and/or at least on its edge—both the wildlife and other taxpayers will thank you.

Wildfires and Dead Trees Needed

Wildfires and Dead Trees Needed

This is a letter to the Register Guard in Eugene, Oregon responding to a recent letter from Mike Dubrasich, a timber industry advocate.


George Wuerthner

In his January 19th Register Guard guest editorial on forests and fire, Mike Dubrasich, suggests that fire suppression had led to higher fuel loadings, and hence is responsible for the large blazes we have seen around the West in recent years. And he advocates logging as a prescription to "restore" forests to their historic condition. Unfortunately Mr. Dubrasich conflates very different fire regimes into one narrative that inaccurately portrays the causes of recent large blazes as well as the influence that fire suppression may have had on PNW forests.

Only the lowest elevation grasslands, oak savannas and ponderosa pine forests tended to burn frequently and contrary to timber industry rhetoric even these forest occasionally burned in stand replacement fires. Fire suppression may have increased fuels in these forests, but since only a small proportion of our woodlands are of this forest type, the influence of fire suppression is greatly exaggerated.

The bulk of all forest types in the PNW, including most fir, hemlock, spruce, and other mid-higher elevation forests historically burned infrequently and as mixed or high severity stands replacement fires. Because of the naturally long interval between fires--often hundreds of years--fire suppression has had a minimum affect on most forests types since they have not "missed" a fire rotation and there is no unusual fuel buildup.

This is important because the majority of acreage burned annually occurs in higher elevation, longer fire regime kinds of forest types. Large blazes in these forest types cannot be attributed to fire suppression activities, nor are large stand replacement fires "abnormal" or a sign of "unhealthy" forests as timber industry advocates try to portray.

The main factor contributing to large blazes around the West is not fuels, but climatic/weather conditions. The period between the 1940s and 1980s was moister and cooler than previous decades earlier in the century as well as recent decades. This is exactly the same time that people are suggesting fire suppression was effective. But another interpretation is that it was too wet to burn well during that period.

Timber industry proponents try to link fuels with fire, but it is climatic and weather conditions that permit any fuels to burn. If you have extensive drought, coupled with low humidity, high winds, and high temperatures, you can get large blazes—no matter how much or how little fuel you have.The West has been experiencing some of the worst droughts in centuries so it's not surprising that we are seeing large blazes.

The 2002 Biscuit Fire illustrates this finding. Old growth stands and north slopes—the very forest types with the highest fuel loadings and greatest biomass--were the least likely to burn. By contrast younger forests, open savannas of Jeffrey pine and shrub dominated south slopes which had far lower fuel accumulations made up the bulk of acreage charred by the blaze.

Another study found that areas that had been "salvage logged" after the Silver Fire and subsequently reburned in the Biscuit Fire had higher fire severity than unlogged stands, even though these stands obviously had far less biomass (fuel) than unlogged stands.

The explanation is simple—north slopes and old growth forests retained moisture better--and despite the high fuel loads, are more difficult to burn. By contrast, open forests and south slopes exposed to the sun dry out sooner and typically had more "fine" fuels, thus burn better. This is one reason why "thinning" can enhance the chances that a stand will burn because removing trees opens up the forest to higher solar radiation and wind—both of which contribute to fire spread.

A third misconception perpetuated by the timber industry is the idea that dead trees are somehow undesirable and an indicator of "unhealthy" forests. In reality dead trees are the foundation for forest soil productivity. Dead trees are also important for most forest dwelling species—with fully 2/3 of all forest species dependent upon them at some point in their lives. Wildfires, along with insects, are the major agents for producing dead trees and contributors to healthy forests.

Contrary to popular opinion, our managed forests are the ones that are "unhealthy" and "sick". Managed forests typically have less dead trees, and are biologically impoverished and degraded.

The timber industry keeps trying to tell us that all they care about fixing the forests degraded by none other than past forestry practices—and now suggest that we need more logging to fix the problems they created. I am willing to bet if there were no profit in logging our forests, they wouldn't give a hoot about forest health, restoration, wildfires or anything else. It's all a rationalization for exploitation.

Forests have survived for thousands of years with wildfire and insects and they don't need our help to survive or be healthy. I suspect forests live in far more fear of foresters who possess too much hubris, than of any wildfire.