Monday, October 1, 2012

When I was in college, one of my favorite courses was animal behavior. One of the more memorable lessons I learned was the difference between proximate and ultimate causes of behavior. Proximate and ultimate causes of events are important to distinguish.
For instance, say a researcher finds that sedimentation in streams is causing reproduction failure in trout. That is the proximate cause. Often the sedimentation is the result of logging roads—the ultimate causes. But agencies and even far too many environmental groups do not want to identify the ultimate factors causing environmental degradation because naming names is politically risky.
Worse, they often fail to connect the dots. Land management agencies tend to want to treat the symptoms, rather than confront the ultimate causes of these environmental problems. The reason for this is easy to understand from a bureaucrat’s perspective—confronting the causes for environmental degradation usually involves directly confronting some economic interest that is financially benefiting from the activity.
Livestock production and its impact on other species is one of the best examples of how ultimate causes are ignored. When we look around the West and enumerate many of the factors causing environmental concern, knowledgeable folks can easily trace the cause directly back to livestock production. For example, when streams are dried up to support irrigated hay fields, and trout/salmon populations decline due to removal of water, the proximate reason is lack of water. However, if the dewatering is used to produce hay that is fed to cattle, than the ultimate cause of aquatic ecosystem degradation is livestock production.
We see these kinds of proximate and ultimate factors with many endangered species throughout the West. Nowhere is this connection between livestock production and species decline more apparent than with sage grouse. Yet the United States Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t even consider livestock production among the major factors in sage grouse decline.
This past week I attended the Desert Conference held in Bend, Oregon I saw yet another example of this blindness to livestock.
Among the representatives on a sage grouse discussion panel, there was a representative of the Oregon Fish and Game (ODFW). During her presentation, she commented upon the agency’s policies regarding sage grouse and she listed the threats that Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) thought were a threat to the bird. ODFW identified factors like energy development, wildfire, invasive species (cheatgrass), vulnerability to predators, and climate change among the issues, nowhere was livestock grazing considered. When questioned about this seemingly inexplicable omission, she explained that ODFW thought livestock grazing benefited sage grouse.
The omission of livestock production as a major factor in sage grouse endangerment points out a serious flaw in the way agencies articulate and characterize the threats to wildlife. What the ODFW biologist did was a common error, often seen when studying natural resources issues, as well as in many other controversial topics. People often focus on the symptoms rather than the causes of observations. In this case, nearly all of the threats to sage grouse with the exception of energy development are ultimately caused by livestock production—yet the ODFW did not want to discuss, much less, mention the cow factor.
Invasive plants like cheatgrass are a problem for sage grouse, in part, because the annual cheatgrass out completes native grasses which are better hiding cover for the grouse. Cheatgrass is highly flammable and burns frequently. Due to the widespread occurrence of cheatgrass in the West, fire regimes have been altered, and we now see more frequent fires in many of our sagebrush steppe ecosystems. While the native species like sagebrush and bunchgrasses are adapted to occasional fires, they cannot survive fire year after year—a situation that often occurs when cheatgrass takes over.
Thus, as more and more cheatgrass dominates the West, there is less and less good sagebrush habitat.
But why is cheatgrass so prevalent in much of the West? The short answer is livestock. By trampling soil crusts which otherwise cover the bare spaces between native bunchgrasses, cattle often create perfect disturbed sites for cheatgrass seeds to colonize. More over cheatgrass seeds are carried from place to place on the fur of livestock, helping to ensure its widespread distribution.
Livestock also impacts sage grouse in other ways. For instance, wet meadows and riparian areas by streams are important foraging areas for sage grouse chicks during the first 3-4 weeks of life. They hunt insects in these areas and the usually dense vegetation provides cover from predators. But cattle love grazing in riparian areas and wet meadows, eliminating the cover, and often due to ”down cutting” as a result of cattle trampling of stream bank vegetation, even eliminating the wet meadows entirely.
Another factor of sage grouse mortality is fence collisions. Sage grouse are slow fliers and tend to fly only a little above the ground. As a result, they frequently run into barbed wire fences. The ODFW did not mention this as a problem, but a number of studies have shown that fences may be a major mortality factor. So the proximate cause of this mortality is collisions with fences, but again one must ask why are the fences here? They facilitate livestock production. So once again livestock is again the ultimate cause of sage grouse mortality.
Fences also impact sage grouse in yet another way. The fence posts make natural perches for birds of prey that often predate on sage grouse. So predation by a hawk or eagle maybe the proximate cause of mortality, but again livestock production is the ultimate cause of mortality. Without the fences strewn across miles and miles of sage grouse habitat, birds of prey would not be a major issue.
Another cause of sage grouse mortality is West Nile Virus. In some sage grouse populations as much as 25% of the females have died from the disease. The virus is carried by mosquitoes. so while West Nile Virus is the proximate cause of sage grouse mortality, the presence of mosquitoes is greatly enhanced by livestock stock tanks where the mosquitoes find ideal breeding habitat. So again livestock production is the ultimate cause of sage grouse mortality.
Climate change is yet another factor. Changing climate is one of the factors which includes severe drought and extended warm season are driving the fire cycles that converting many millions of acres of sage brush habitat to annual grasslands of cheatgrass and other invasive species. The reason climate is again yet another ultimate cause has to do with cattle methane releases. The bacteria in cattle rumen produce methane as a bi-product of digestion. These gases along with conversion of native vegetation to cow pastures are among the largest contributors to global warming. One World Watch paper estimates that as much as 50% of global GHG emissions may be due to livestock production.
Some opponents of sage grouse listing argue that coyotes are responsible for sage grouse decline. Never mind that coyotes and sage grouse have always co-existed, so one must ask what is the difference? The reason sage grouse are vulnerable to predators is the result of livestock removal of grasses that provide hiding cover. The proximate of sage grouse poor recruitment is coyote predation, but the vulnerability is due to the ultimate cause—livestock production.
Indeed, when considering all the mortality factors and limitations that are driving sage grouse towards extinction, livestock production is easily the dominant factor. Curiously, it was not even mentioned as a concern by ODFW, and in fact, the ODFW official said livestock grazing was considered beneficial. How can this be? The short answer appears to be that it’s politically convenient to enumerate the proximate causes rather than confront the ultimate causes for sage grouse decline. Ranchers continue to have a lot of political clout. It’s obvious that ODFW does not want to antagonize these lords of the sage.
This example of sage grouse decline and how livestock causes decline is a good lesson in proximate and ultimate causes. When you look closely at many different environmental issues in the West, one can generally trace it back to livestock production.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Smart Resource Management and the Lorax

Weeds along logging road--one of the uncounted costs of logging.

I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.

Dr. Seuss

It seems more and more there are fewer conservation organizations who speak for the forest, and more that speak for the timber industry. Witness several recent commentaries in Oregon papers which are by no means unique. I’ve seen similar themes from other conservation groups in the rest of the West.

Many conservation groups have uncritically adopted views that support more logging of our public lands based upon increasingly disputed ideas about forest health, fire ecology as well as age-old bias against natural processes like wildfire and beetles.

For instance, an article in the Oregonian paper quotes Oregon Wild’s executive director Sean Stevens bemoaning the closure of a timber mill in John Day Oregon. Stevens said: “Loss of the 29-year-old Malheur Lumber Co. mill would be “a sad turn of events,” he said.” Surprisingly, Oregon Wild is readily supporting federal subsidies to promote more logging on the Malheur National Forest to sustain the mill.

In the same article Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center was quoted saying “Had you told me 10 years ago that I would be trying to keep a mill open in eastern Oregon, I would have said you’re crazy, but things change.”

George Sexton, the Conservation Director, for KS Wild in a separate editorial in the Medford Oregon Mail Tribune advocates more logging of our federal lands by writing in an editorial that “We can make forests healthier and communities safer from wildfire and provide a product to the mills. It is time to follow the lead of the local Forest Service and produce timber in a way that attempts to restore our forests rather than exploit them.”


I think what motivates such commentary from these organizations is the desire to defuse the timber issue. They hope that support of logging in less controversial areas such as tree plantations, heavily roaded and previously logged areas will keep agencies away from roadless areas and other critical habitat. It is part of an overall strategy to ultimately garner more protection for wildlands.

It’s important to note that all of these conservation groups I am critiquing here as well as throughout the West which are currently supporting more logging continue to fight the worse logging proposals in roadless areas and old growth, and are strong advocates for wilderness designation.

However, I tend to believe that their support for logging represents a failure to challenge many of the flawed assumptions that are guiding federal logging programs and in some cases even repeating many of the same pejorative language helps to undermine in the long term conservation efforts. After all if the public believes our forests are sick and unhealthy; that logging will cure them; that logging will preclude wildfires and eliminate beetle kill, and that rural economies are dependent on public lands logging to survive, than they are, in my view, contributing to the wrong message.

Bear in mind that these organizations do not unconditionally support all logging. Rather they have very specific criteria and limitations used to determine which logging operations they support and which they may oppose at times. Nevertheless, the public seldom hears these qualifiers.

For instance, it was standard practice in the not too distance past for conservation groups to point out that nearly all federal timber sales lost money. Today one seldom hears any of these organizations discussing the poor economics of federal logging—indeed, they are often supporting these money losing timber sales. They would also point out how logging harmed wildlife, fisheries, spread weeds, and the many other ecological impacts. Logging hasn’t changed. These impacts still exist—but in today’s world few are articulating these costs.

If there is going to be logging on public lands we need to consider all these costs and benefits fairly. Even if there is some benefit that can be ascribed to a logging proposal, the economic and environmental costs may still not justify this expense. Far too often these organizations are unwilling to critique or point out that the flawed premises used to justify logging.


Such comments as mentioned above and many more I could quote from other conservation organizations, tends to endorse a certain way of thinking which I call “Smart Resource Management (SRM)” The SRM paradigm is a direct descendent of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Forest Service who advocated the “wise use” of natural resources. It assumes we know enough about ecosystems to manage them without unintended consequences and wise enough to do so judiciously—two assumptions I would challenge.

SRM is the antithesis of wildness or self willed nature. This notion that we can and should manage ecosystems as a giant garden is, in my view, the root cause of many of our environmental problems. I tend to believe that most of the people working for western conservation groups are not strong supporters of SRM school of thought. Unfortunately conservationists have adopted the language, analogies and “stories” that support and lend credibility to the SRM ideas which dominate land management decisions. We hear our forests are sick, unhealthy, will be improved with logging, and so on. These are the words and story of industry.

I personally feel there is a growing body of evidence that questions whether our forests are significantly altered from what one might expect given climatic and other conditions. These ideas challenge the assertion that we “need” to log our forests in the first place—assuming again that we are smart enough to manage forests to begin with.

However, if forests are not significantly altered if considered from a boarder set of criteria, this negates any requirement for “restoration”.

Even if one agreed that some forests have changed from recent historic conditions, it doesn’t automatically mean that logging is the best or only way to put these forests back on a more natural trajectory—natural processes like beetle kill, drought, wildfire, and other factors are currently doing a fine job of maintaining the health of millions of acres of our forests.

There may be legitimate rationales for logging, but it’s not the one usually given for logging public forests today. Indeed, the major justifications given for logging public lands is typically some social or ecological benefit—to reduce fires, clean up bug killed trees, fix watersheds, restore forest health or provide for “economic stability” to rural communities. In far too many cases, all of these are just cover to hide the main reason for logging—to maintain the local timber industry at the expense of our forest’s ecological integrity and taxpayer dollars.


Even if I were to agree that forest management has led to a deviation from historic conditions, I see no need to introduce logging into the forest to “fix” the situation. Forests are perfectly capable of “restoring” themselves. That is what beetle kill and wildfires are doing.

Dead trees are actually a sign of a healthy forest ecosystem that is functioning properly to readjust itself to the prevailing conditions.

What isn’t well known, and you won’t know it from listening to the advocates of logging, is that many of these assumptions and ideas that have guided forest management policies are being challenged. There is a growing body of research which suggests that dense forests, even in dry ponderosa/Douglas fir stands, may not be significantly out of historic condition. That fire suppression has been less effective than previously thought. That thinning doesn’t preclude large blazes and so on.

For example the alternative to the fire suppression has led to denser forest stands is countered by another paradigm that climatic conditions—namely moister, cooler conditions for decades in the last century–may have done more to create dense forest stands and limited fire spread than human fire fighting.

There are a growing number of people, myself included, who believe we don’t have enough dead and dying trees in the forest to sustain forest ecosystems—therefore we do not think that beetle kill and large fires are something to bemoan, rather they should be celebrated.

There is also conflicting opinion about whether logging can actually reduce or slow large fires under severe fire conditions. There is an abundance of evidence from large fires that logging has little effect on slowing blazes—which of course from an ecological perspective we need.

Even if thinning did appear to slow or halt small fires, historically speaking it is the very few, but exceptionally large fires that account for nearly all the acreage burned—and consequently do all the ecological work. If, as many conservation groups now acknowledge, wildfires are critical to ecosystem health—then we must do everything we can to facilitate large blazes—not prevent them.

So if the goal to promote healthy ecosystems, we need large blazes and major beetle kill. I hear few conservation groups, particularly partnering with logging advocates promoting non-invasive measures such as homeowner responsibility for reducing home flammability as well as zoning to reduce home construction in these areas that would reduce conflicts with large fires. Is this coincidence? I don’t think so.

It is not unlike groups that are livestock advocates that are unwilling to suggest that ranchers take greater responsibility for reducing predator conflicts by using guard dogs, removal of dead carcasses, calving and lambing sheds as well as other measures that would reduce or eliminate the presumed need for predator control.

All of these ideas and others are a challenge to the common discourse promoted by the timber industry and its lackeys in forestry schools, federal agencies, and now even far too many conservation groups.

Now I will be the first to grant that many of these new ideas and challenges to the old paradigm are preliminary and may, upon future review, be found to be overly simplistic as the original ideas they are replacing about fire suppression, forest health, fire ecology, and so forth.

But isn’t it the job of conservation groups to err on the side of caution? If there is dispute about whether logging is needed or not, shouldn’t conservation organizations err on the side of no active management rather than promoting policies that by happy coincidence just so happens to line the pockets of the timber industry?


Far too many conservation groups have gone well beyond advocating “wise use” to advocating exploitation. Much of it based on out of date ideas about wildfire ecology, forest health, and logging.

Take for instance George Sexton’s idea that we can log our way to “forest health”. The underlying presumption of such commentary is that our forests are no longer healthy. But new insights into how forest ecosystems work challenge the dominant paradigm. Increasingly we find that dead trees, whether due to beetle kill, diseases, drought or fires are a sign of a healthy forest, in much the same way that wolves killing elk indicates a healthy predator prey relationship.

Groups as diverse as Oregon Wild, the Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association as well as others—all of whom I might add do a lot of good conservation work in other areas–are advocating thinning to preclude large wildfires and beetle kill. Not only is there a growing body of literature that suggests that thinning is not effective at stopping fires under extreme fire conditions, one has to ask why you would want to do this? Even if the motivation is forest “restoration” why not advocate restoration by natural processes like wildfire or beetles?

Forest ecosystems require periodic inputs of dead trees. Dead trees fill many critical roles and functions in forested ecosystems from homes to many bird species (45% of all birds rely on dead trees) to habitat for salamanders, ants, bees, lichens, fungi and a host of other species. Dead trees falling in streams are important for aquatic ecosystems, and rotting wood in the soil is critical to soil nutrients.

The natural background rate of tree mortality that occurs in the absence of large fires or beetle kill is not sufficient to provide the long term input of dead woody biomass essential for functioning forest ecosystems. Forests need occasional large scale mortality to provide for these dead wood needs.

Thinning forests, even if it worked to effectively thwart fires and beetles, would be undesirable because it would be short circuiting the long term flow of dead wood. Even if some old growth died as a consequence of fires or beetles, this does not represent a loss to the ecosystem since big dead trees are the most valuable to the ecosystem. So what if some old growth burns up—so long as we don’t remove those trees by logging, they will continue to full fill important functions in the forest ecosystem.


Beyond these problems, logging is not benign. Many of the real costs associated with logging remain unaccounted and often ignored.

If we are trying to decide whether to log a particular area or not, we need to fairly articulate the real costs as well as the benefits. In far too many cases, the benefits are imaginary or fleeing (as in the assumption that logging can reduce the spread of large blazes) and the negatives are ignored or glossed over.

For example, logging roads cutting across slopes severs the subsurface flow of water, diverting it on to the surface of the road, which in turn causes excessive sedimentation in streams. Logging equipment also compacts soils reducing infiltration. Both factors create greater erosion and sedimentation loading in streams.

Logging roads, equipment, and access created by logging roads is one of the major vectors for the spread of weeds. In the long run, the introduction of weeds may have more negative impacts on wildlife and the forest ecosystem than any effect from natural processes like fires.

Logging roads are also a major vector for hunters, poachers, trappers, ORVs, and other human activities that can disturb sensitive wildlife or reduce wildlife populations. For instance, grizzly bears avoid logging roads—and thus logging roads effectively reduces bear habitat. Elk also avoid roads. And even so-called closed roads and/temporary roads still provide access to hunters, and are often broached by illegal ORV use.

I have only mentioned a short list of the effects of logging—and I could add a much lengthier list here.

The point is that these negatives are seldom mentioned when decisions to log or not are discussed. And even if they are acknowledged agencies and supportive groups often advocate other “techno fixes” to correct the problem. For instance, it is common for the FS and their conservation group allies to acknowledge that logging can spread weeds, but then the response is that we have to spray herbicides to control the weeds. Even if herbicide spraying were implemented, an honest appraisal would admit that spraying is seldom a 100% effective. Does it make sense to risk the spread of weeds by logging forests on the assumption logging will preclude fires or restore the forest, when it may not be effective in reducing fires anyway and the forest is perfectly capable of self restoration?


What is problematic about conservation groups endorsement of logging is that they then become captured by the industry. They cease to be advocates for the forest. It is difficult to be in collaboration with industry or politicians while at the same articulating the many ways that logging impacts the land. Yet if conservation groups like NW Conservation, MWA, Oregon Wild, KS Wild, Idaho Conservation League, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and others will not articulate these problems to the public, who will?

All the public knows from the quotes in the paper or hearing a short radio spot is that our forests are “unhealthy”, logging “improves” forest health or that logging will reduce fires or beetles. And it is a natural conclusion that dead trees are a sign of an unhealthy forest ecosystem. They hear that conservation groups believe logging is the cure for a host of ailments that affects the forest– real or imaginary.

Instead of promoting logging, conservation groups ought to be articulating all the negatives associated with logging. If they support anything it should be the alternatives to logging—be a staunch supporter of more wildfire—and do not use qualifiers like “good fires” (low intensity) and “bad fires” (stand replacement). Tell the public why beetle kill is good for forests—how it creates a nice mosaic of age classes and is one of the main ways we get biomass into forest ecosystems. Why dead trees are needed for “healthy” forest ecosystems. These are the messages that conservation groups should be sending—because if they don’t, no one else will do it.


Furthermore, these groups could point out that there are alternatives to logging. Even if one agreed that our forests deviate from historic conditions, one could advocate allowing natural ecological processes to correct the situation.

Keep in mind that in our national parks and wilderness areas—the kinds of places that these groups with names like Montana Wilderness Association, Oregon Wild, KS Wild, and others believe is a desirable land status—are restoring themselves with wildfires, beetles, and other natural processes. They don’t need to be logged to be healthy.

Permitting fires and beetles to “restore” forests—if indeed they even need restoration–is akin to promoting wolves to “restore” healthy elk herds by reducing elk numbers. Wolves are far better at determining which elk should or should not survive than the indiscriminate killing by hunters just as wildfire, beetles, and so forth at better than any foresters in determining which trees should be killed.

Is it the role of conservation groups to be advocates for logging? If conservation groups abdicate their responsibility to speak for the forests—then who will? There are not enough loraxes around anymore.

Friday, July 13, 2012

CAPTION: Log torn apart by grizzly looking for ants.

Dead. Death. These are words that we don’t often use to describe anything positive.

We hear phases like the walking dead. Death warmed over. Nothing is certain but death and taxes. The Grateful Dead. These are words that do not engender smiles, except among Grateful Dead fans.

We bring these pejorative perspectives to our thinking about forests. In particular, some tend to view dead trees as a missed opportunity to make lumber. But this really represents an economic value, not a biological value.

From an ecological perspective dead trees are the biological capital critical to the long-term health of the forest ecosystem.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in many ways the health of a forest is measured more by its dead trees than live ones. Dead trees are a necessary component of present forests and an investment in the future forest.

I had a good lesson in the value of dead trees last summer while hiking in Yellowstone. I was walking along a trail that passes through a forest dominated by even-aged lodgepole pine. Judging by the size of the trees, I would estimate the forest stand had its start in a stand-replacement blaze, perhaps 60-70 years before.

Strewn along the forest floor were numerous large logs that had fallen since the last fire. Fallen logs are an important home for forest-dwelling ants. Pull apart any of those old pulpy rotted logs and you would find them loaded with ants.

Nearly every log I pass along the trail had been clawed apart by a grizzly feasting on ants. It may be difficult to believe that something as small as ants could feed an animal as large as a grizzly.

Yet one study in British Columbia found that ants were a major part of the grizzly’s diet in summer, especially in years when berry crop fails.

Who could have foreseen immediately after the forest had burned 60 years before that the dead trees created by the wildfire would someday be feeding grizzly bears? But dead trees are a biological legacy passed on to the next generation of forest dwellers including future generations of ants and grizzly bears.

Dead trees have many other important roles to play in the forest ecosystem. It is obvious to many people that woodpeckers depend on dead trees for food and shelter. In fact, black-backed woodpeckers absolutely require forests that have burned.

Yet woodpeckers are just the tip of the iceberg so to speak. In total 45% of all bird species depend on dead trees for some important part of their life cycle.

Whether it’s the wood duck that nests in a tree cavity; the eagle that constructs a nest in a broken top snag; or the nuthatch that forages for insects on the bark, dead trees and birds go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Birds aren’t the only animals that depend on dead trees. Many bats roost in the flaky bark of old dead snags and/or in cavities.

When a dead tree falls to the ground, the trunk is important habitat for many mammal species. For instance, one study in Wyoming found that without big dead trees, you don’t have marten. Why?

Marten are thin animals and as a consequence lose a lot of heat to the environment, especially when it’s cold. They can’t survive extended periods with temperatures below freezing without some shelter.

In frigid weather, marten dig out burrows in the pulpy interiors of large fallen trees to provide thermal protection. They may only need such trees once a winter, but if there are no dead fallen trees in its territory, there may not be any marten.
Many amphibians depend on dead trees.

Several studies have documented the close association between abundance of dead fallen logs and salamanders. Eliminate dead trees by logging and you eliminate salamanders.

Even fish depend on dead trees. As any fisherman can tell you, a log sticking out into the water is a sure place to find a trout lying in wait to grab insects.
If you talk to fish biologists they will tell you there is no amount of fallen woody debris or logs in a stream that is too much. The more logs, the more fish.

Even lichens and fungi are dependent on dead trees. Some 40% of all lichen species in the Pacific Northwest are dependent on dead trees and many are dead tree obligates, meaning they don’t grow anyplace else.

Dead trees fill other physical roles as well. As long as they are standing, they create “snow fences” that slows wind-driven snow. The snow that is trapped, melts in place, and helps to saturate the ground providing additional moisture to regrowing trees.

Dead trees that fall into streams stabilize and armor the bank, slowing water, and reducing erosion.

Dead trees create hiding cover and thermal cover for big game as well. I was once on a tour with a Forest Service District Ranger who wanted to conduct a post fire logging operation. We were standing near the open barren landscape of a recent clearcut that was adjacent to the newly burnt forest.

I pointed out to him that the black snags still had value. He couldn’t see anything but snags waiting to be turned into lumber. I said the snags were still valuable for big game hiding cover. He dismissed my idea out of hand.

So I challenged him. I said I have a rifle and you have two minutes to get away from me. Where are you going to run? He didn’t have to ponder the point very long.

Even more counter-intuitive is that dead trees may reduce fire hazard. Once the small twigs and needles fall off in winter storms their flammability is greatly reduced.

By contrast, green trees, due to the flammable resins contained in their needles and bark, are actually more likely to burn than snags under conditions of extreme drought, high winds and low humidity.

Under such extreme fire-weather conditions, I have seen trees like subalpine fir explode into flame as if they contained gasoline.

Fine fuels are what drive fires, not large tree trunks. Anyone who has fiddled around trying to get campfire going knows you gather small twigs, and fine fuels. You don’t try light a twenty inch log on fire.

Dead trees are the biological capital for the forest. Just as floods rejuvenate the river floodplain’s plant communities with periodic deposits of sediment, episodic events like major beetle kill and wildfire are the only way a forest can recruit the massive amounts of dead wood required for a healthy forest ecosystem.

Such infrequent, but periodic events may provide the bulk of a forest’s dead wood for a hundred years or more.

All of the above benefits of dead trees are reduced or eliminated by our common forest management practices.

Sanitizing a forest by “thinning” to promote so-called “forest health”, post-fire logging of burnt trees , or removal of beetle-killed tree bankrupts the forest ecosystem.

And even our mostly ineffective efforts to suppress wildfires and/or feeble attempts to halt beetle-kill reduce the future production of dead wood and leads to biological impoverishment of the forest ecosystem.

Creation and recruitment of dead trees is not a loss, rather it is an investment in future forests.

If you love birds, you have to love dead trees. If you love fishing, you have to love dead trees. If you want grizzlies to persist for another hundred years, you have to love dead trees.

More importantly you have to love or at least tolerate the ecological processes like beetle-kill or wildfire. These are the major factors that contribute dead trees to the forest.

So when you see fire-blackened trees or the red needles associated with a beetle kill, try to view these events in a different light-praise the dead: the forests, the wildlife, the fish-- all will be pleased by your change of heart.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Understanding MDFWP Wolf Hunting Decision

On July 12, 2012, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commissioners voted 4-0 to increase wolf hunting in the state, expanding the hunting season and permitting the trapping of wolves for the first time as well. The goal is to reduce wolf numbers across the state in hopes that it will calm the hysteria that presently surrounds wolf management.

The commission’s decision to boost wolf hunting and trapping will likely lead to greater conflicts between humans and wolves because MDFWP’s management ignores the social ecology of predators.

Hunting predators tends to skew populations towards younger animals. Younger animals are inexperienced hunters and thus are more likely to attack livestock. Predator hunting disrupts pack cohesion, reduces the “cultural” knowledge of pack members about things like where elk might migrate or where deer spend the winter.

In addition, just as occurs with coyotes, under heavy persecution, wolves respond by producing more pups. More pups means greater mouths to feed, and a need to kill even more game—thus hunting and trapping may actually lead to greater predator kill of game animals like elk and deer.

Thus a vicious self-reinforcing feedback mechanism is set up whereby more predators are killed, leading to greater conflicts, and more demand for even greater predator control.

So why has MDFWP and the commission ignored the social ecology of predators? The answer lies in politics.

Montana’s hunters have been driven to frenzy by various interest groups. Some are just plain ignorant predator ecology and truly believe that the best way to reduce conflicts is to kill more wolves. Less wolves, some believe, means hunter nirvana.

But others have a sinister motive which I believe the MDFWP Commission was in part responding to.

Right-wing conservative groups have seized upon the wolf issue as a way to generate support among ecologically ignorant hunters. They have used the media and hunting advocacy groups (like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) to sell the idea that wolves were a major threat to big game hunting-- despite the fact there are more elk now in Montana than when wolves were first restored.

Others spread stories about wolves carrying off babies and children or spreading infectious disease.

Some of the most conspiracy-minded survivalist types even believe the restoration of wolves is a UN Plot—part of Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is a plan for sustainable living but many conservatives believe is a blue print for a new world order.

And of course against this backdrop we had the livestock industry screaming that wolves were destined to destroy the industry despite an annual loss of less than 100 animals to the predators last year out of a total population of 2.5 million cattle and sheep.

These conservative organizations and individuals successfully made killing wolves a litmus test for politicians and even the MDFWP. If you were not supportive of more wolf persecution, you were, at the very least against rural America and in the minds of some individuals perhaps even against hunters.

At the worst, a decision to lessen the persecution of wolves meant you were sympathetic to animal rights organizations and gun control advocates. What Fish and Game Commissioner wants to be branded as siding with animal rights organizations or the gun control crowd? Of course that is all irrational. But you must remember this issue is not based on rational thought.

It is within this kind of madness that the MDFWP Commissioners were required to make a decision. If the commission did anything but increase the killing of wolves, it would have certified in many people’s mind, including many hunters that the MDFWP was anti hunter.

The Commission vote demonstrates that Fish and Game agencies are incapable of managing predators based on science or ethics.

One must remember that hunter and angler license sales are the primary funding mechanism for state wildlife agencies. Even if the vast majority of the public were against killing predators, the state agencies are likely to ignore those concerns if there is the perception that the majority of hunters were in favor of more predator control.

The commission, for instance, recently increased the quota for mountain lion in western Montana despite the direct opposition of some its own biologists who argued that such hunting was ineffective and even detrimental to mountain lion populations.

In Montana, as with the rest of the country, I have no doubts that the majority of hunters favor fewer wolves. And the commissioners have to dance with the one that “brung ya.”

Beyond this political background that the commissioners faced, there was an even larger context.

The right wing conservative organizations, most of them friendly and supportive of Republican candidates for office, were hoping to lay a trap for Democratic politicians. If the Commissioners, who after all, were appointed by a Democratic governor, voted to maintain last year’s hunting quota or god forbid actually reduce or eliminate wolf hunting, it would have been exactly the issue needed to unseat every Democrat in the Montana legislature.

There was a further fear—and a not unwarranted one—that if the MDFWP Commission did not expand wolf hunting and trapping, it could ruin the chances for Democratic candidates for office. A new Republican governor and Republican dominated legislature it is reasoned, would quickly sweep the MDFWP Commission clear of anyone who didn’t actively promote even more aggressive wolf control.

There is also some who were willing to bet, and probably were correct, that all Democratic candidates would be hurt if the Commission did not expand wolf hunting, including Senator Jon Tester, who is seeking re election to the US Senate.

So it was within this context that the Commissioners had to make their decision.
I do know the MDFWP Commissioners are well educated, thoughtful, and very conscientious men. In my view the MDFWP commissioners are men of the highest integrity.

Although I was not privy to any of their thoughts, I am certain they did not reach their decision, easily nor with any joy. For some, I am almost certain it was an agonizing and painful splitting of the baby. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes.

I suspect that if you asked them why they decided to expand wolf killing, they would tell you that they know that wolves won’t be eliminated from Montana—and that is a step forward compared to the situation of a few decades ago when there were few or no wolves in the state.

And some might even suggest that once the rhetoric and hysteria dies down, they could envision a more sensible and less vindictive approach to wolf management in the future. There might even be wolf management based on science, including the social ecology of predators, instead of politics.

I am also certain if you could speak to the Commissioners in private when they thought no one would hear, they might admit the wolf had to take the fall for a “greater good.” As they would suggest, and quite correctly I’m afraid, a Republican Governor in Montana would be even more likely to enact aggressive wolf hunting policies, and appoint Commissioners far less sympathetic to wolf supporters.

It may be difficult to believe that MDFWP Commissioners are sympathetic to wolf supporters given their votes, but I know after attending one of the hearings that the Commissioners are not personally hostile to wolves.

But I am sure that Commissioners were thinking even beyond Montana state politics when they voted to expand wolf persecution. If somehow right wing conservatives were able to paint Senator Tester as one of the “wolf loving” Democrats, it might hurt his re election bid. After all Tester only won in the last election by a mere 3000 votes.

Whether a correct assumption or not, many Democrats fear if Tester loses his re election, the US Senate could tip to the Republicans. In their worst nightmares, some Democrats see a situation whereby Republican Mitt Romney wins the White House, the rabid tea party activists manage to hold on to their stranglehold on the House, and the Senate is controlled by Republicans.

With all legislative bodies held by Republicans and a Supreme Court that sees Corporations as persons, and is generally sympathetic to tea party anti-government rhetoric and big business interests, there is no end to the bad outcomes that one could imagine might befall the country.

Within this political context, a few more dead wolves seems like a small, if not regrettable sacrifice necessary to prevent a far worse calamity for the country. The unfortunate thing for me is that it appears that despite all the scientific research, and “enlightened” environmental concern, predators are still being treated as unwanted and under-valued members of our wildlife heritage.

I might even go so far as to suggest pro wolf sympathizers made some strategic mistakes. They failed to hammer over and over again that predator control is unnecessary, ethically suspect, and only leads to greater conflict. By not taking the high moral ground, they lost the political debate.

Many were unwilling to argue against wolf hunting in general—afraid that such a position would be unacceptable to most hunters and ranchers. By passively and in some cases, even agreeing that wolf control was needed, it legitimized the idea that wolf control was necessary. At that point the discussion just degenerates to a debate about how many wolves should be killed, not whether wolves should be killed in the first place.

Environmentalists should have stated categorically there is no legitimate reason to kill wolves or any other predators for that matter, except perhaps for the most unusual and special circumstances such as the surgical removal of an aggressive animal.

Instead of arguing that wolves are part of the Nation’s wildlife patrimony that deserve to be treated with respect, appreciation, and enlightened policies, pro wolf activists lost the rhetorical argument by allowing anti wolf forces to define the limits of discussion and successfully frame the issue
In my view, many conservation organizations lost the debate with their weak and tepid stance. As many have suggested, boldness is rewarded—and in the case of wolves—boldness by those set on using wolves as a surrogate for conservative values won the political debate.

If environmentalists had made a more cogent argument, marshaled the latent and widespread support for predators, wolves in particular, they might have provided the political cover for the MDFWP commissioners to make a more wolf-friendly decision.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Baucus Farm Bill Amendment Bad for Forests

Despite the ecological reality that beetle-kill is part of healthy functioning forest ecosystem, Montana Senator Max Baucus successfully added an amendment to the Farm Bill that would provide additional funds ($200 million) to log beetle-killed trees as well as “stream line” the process of getting out timber sales. Baucus stated this would be “good news” to the timber industry. Here’s a link to one news report on the Baucus amendment.

I don’t blame the Senator for his lack of ecological knowledge. And I am sure he had the best intentions, however, his amendment is “bad news” for our forests.
Among the incorrect assertions made by Baucus is the idea that dead beetle-killed trees increases fire risk. Except for the “red needle” stage, there is no conclusive evidence that dead trees contributes to any greater fire risk. Indeed, there is some research that suggests that dead trees are less prone to fire, especially once the needles and small branches are worn off over time.

Green trees, by contrast, have flammable resins that under conditions of drought and high winds can sustain high intensity blazes.

Baucus’s press release also furthered the misconception that beetle kill leads to a “loss” of the forest. In fact, beetle related mortality is seldom more than 50% of the trees in any forest. The naturally thinned forests that beetles create leads to increased growth rates among the remaining trees.

Dead trees not a wasted resource as implied by timber industry propaganda. Rather they are important for many wildlife species. Up to 45% of all bird species depend on dead trees for some part of their survival including feeding, roosting, and nesting. Dead trees that fall into streams contribute to as much as 50% of the fish habitat in aquatic ecosystems. Dead trees in streams also provide bank stability reducing water velocity and thus erosion.

In addition, dead trees are an important biological legacy to the future forest. The physical presence of dead trees is critical to future forest growth. Dead trees stacked on the ground capture water and concentrate it on the ends of logs where it can enhance seedling growth. The snags left by beetles provides some shade for tree saplings, and acts like a snow fence to trap snow in the winter adding to the water infiltration of the forest soil. The slowly decomposing boles are an important source of nutrients to the future forest.

Logging is not a benign activity. The disturbance that accompanies logging can enhance the spread of weeds. Logging roads are a major source of sedimentation in our streams and one of the major factors in the decline of many native fish populations. Logging activities can displace or disturb sensitive species from grizzlies to elk. Logging removes biological legacy, in effect, starving the forest.

Finally, to put the $200 million Baucus proposes to subsidizes timber operations in perspective, consider that in 2011 the entire 151 million acre national wildlife refuge system cost only around $500 million to operate. Could we not better spend $200 million on other conservation work?

While Senator Baucus’ amendment may have had the best intension, it’s bad news for taxpayers who will pay for the destruction of our forests, not to mention the long-term degradation of our forest ecosystems.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Population and Biodiversity Loss

Population and Biodiversity
The Parable of Isle Royale

Isle Royale in Lake Superior is a national park. Besides its fame as a park, Isle Royale is also famous for its wolf and moose populations. The island provides a unique experimental design of what happens when populations are permitted to grow without restraint.

The story begins with the immigration of moose to the island sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Some speculate that moose swam to the island or crossed on ice in winter. No matter how they got there, they existed on the island for five decades without wolves. By the 1920s the moose population increased to more than 3000 and as a consequence of over browsing, the moose population crashed in the 1930s. The moose population languished for a while, and then began to grow again.

Just after World War II, wolves migrated to the island, most likely over the ice in winter. Wolves preyed on moose, and for a few decades, wolves and moose seems to sustain a relative equilibrium. Then in 1980, the wolf population crashed after the introduction of canine parvovirus.

Released from wolf predation, the moose population soared to new heights inflicting tremendous damage to the island’s plant communities. As before the moose population crashed with 2000 moose starving to death in one four month period! The moose population now remains at around 500 animals, far below their original high numbers due to the damage sustained by the island’s plant community as a consequence of too many moose.


There are lessons for human population in the Isle Royale example as well as other tales that could be told. Continuous population growth can lead to habitat degradation, great suffering for the dominant animal, and eventually a lowered carrying capacity due to habitat destruction.

Human populations may be like the proverbial moose population. We have been released from predators that might otherwise keep our numbers in check and somewhat sustainable. Mind you I have no wish for a major pandemic, famine, warfare or other factors that once held human numbers in check. But I do think there are plenty of signs, that humans, like the moose of Isle Royale, are degrading the carrying capacity of Planet Earth—which is, after all, the only habitable island we know of in the Universe.

Despite the seriousness of population growth as an agent of planetary damage with serious potential repercussions for human survival, there is a tendency for the majority of people to ignore the issue.

There are many on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum who feel human population growth is not a problem or at the very least a manageable problem. Typically the right opposes any discussion of population reduction because of conservative religious views or a business model that requires endless growth to maintain economic prosperity. The left tends to downplay population based on social justice grounds—that the world’s poor are blamed for population growth, while the world’s richest countries enjoy the benefits of excessive consumption.

Both support their respective positions often by arguing that as a result of technology we will rise to the occasion and help us get through any shortages we may face be it energy, food, or space. In a sense the worldviews of the left and right are not appreciably different when it comes to techno optimism.

I am inclined to agree that technological advances often change assumptions about limiting factors—what’s available to use and at what cost can change dramatically due to technological innovations. At one time salt was more valuable than gold, but technological innovations has made it so common we can buy it for pennies. So I am loath to discount how technology can rapidly change predictions and assumptions about the availability of critical resources.

But the problem is that technology does not come free. There’s a huge ecological cost to technological fixes. Even if you could grow sufficient food for 10 billion people, one has to consider what’s driving that food production. The price of food does not reflect the real costs.

It’s the mining that produces the metal to make the plow. It’s the gas drilling that provides the fertilizer. It’s the oil drilling that provides the fuel to power the trucks that moves the food to people. It’s the dams that provide the water storage for irrigation of fields. And even more so today the computers that calculate the amount of water to spread or the exact percentage of pesticide to apply and so on. Behind that food production is long technology train that is pulling a lot of cars—each taking a bite out of the Earth’s biodiversity, land and water to feed a growing human population.

Of course, I’m generalizing here, and there are many shades of gray and degrees of buy-in to the various perspectives. But there are few on either side of the right or left who agree that human population growth poses a grave danger to the Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity, much less a threat to humanity as well.

The debate over population has largely focused on whether outright population growth—primarily in the less developed countries is a threat– and/or whether consumption of natural resources by developed countries is really the problem for sustainability. In reality this debate is not helpful since both are problematic. Both issues need to be addressed. Depending on how you define sustainability, we are already likely well past any sustainable society.


There are physical limits to the Earth and its life support systems. And though technology can unleash abundance where previously there was scarcity, ultimately this means there are limits to population growth. There is only so much agricultural land, fish in the sea, fresh water to drink, oil and coal to burn, and so forth. Where and when we reach those limits is a matter of debate, and for many of these resources, limits may be more regional in nature. But what can’t be debated is that all of these are finite. I don’t doubt that humans are clever and innovative, and some of these resources will be replaced or used far more efficiently in the future.

Nevertheless, just the physical need for housing, and providing basic needs for an expanding human population will place new demands on Planet Earth whether we impose strict limits or not. What we have in terms of ecological limitations is a planet that is already overtaxed if one uses the appropriate metrics like biodiversity loss.

It would be unfortunate to simply try to determine what number of humans could be supported on Earth if we were to completely exploit any of these resources. I think it misses an important philosophical question.

In the simplest terms, some define sustainably only in terms of human population. Can the Earth sustain 10 billion or whatever number one chooses to use? I think it probably can.

However that may be the wrong question. Human sustainability ought to be a question of quality of life. And when that is the objective, we clearly need to reduce our population and consumption. For human impacts on the planet’s natural capital; its forests, its oceans, its ecosystems, as well as air, water, air, and wildlife are already showing severe degradation and/or loss of resources that are critical to human health and happiness. Impoverishment of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, loss of beauty and exhaustion of critical minerals, and energy supplies all threatens to jeopardize the continued habitation of humans on the planet.

Even if we could succeed in supporting a population of 9 or 10 billion people that doesn’t mean that number is good for the Earth and good for people. Do you really want to live in a mega city with wall-to-wall apartments much like a packing plant at a CAFO factory (Confined Animal Farming Operation)? Can anyone argue that this provides a quality of life?

If one answers in the negative, and says they would prefer to live in less crowded conditions with abundant clear air, clean water, abundant wildlife, and beautiful surroundings than it really demonstrates that we must do something about population. It is a choice. Inaction is a choice by default.


There are other considerations other than merely whether human population can be sustained in some fashion. We have a moral obligation not only to the overall quality of life for humans, but also a responsibility for other life on Earth. As many have pointed out we are on the verge of a massive new extinction. The world is losing species at a rate that is 100 to 1000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. Studies have shown that biologically diverse ecosystems are more productive, so these losses, if nothing else, have the potential of reducing the ability of the Earth to sustain human population.

Habitat loss is the biggest driver of extinction. And much of this habitat loss is a direct consequence of human population growth and the need to support more and more people. For instance, agriculture already claims an astounding 40% of the Earth’s total land area. This figure is not difficult to doubt if you have ever stared out of a plane window while flying over the Great Plains and Midwest. What you see is mile upon mile—for thousands of miles—is croplands that have virtually replaced the native prairie ecosystem.

When you consider there are huge areas of permanent ice like Antarctica as well as the boreal forests that cover much of Siberia and Canada, such numbers are shocking. Agriculture, by its definition, is the production of one or a few species of plant and/or animal at the expense of native species. And the amount of land devoted to agriculture is expanding as a direct result of human population growth. The existing agricultural land use is a major driver of species extinction and biodiversity loss. Increasing agricultural conversion will likely hasten biodiversity losses.

No one wants to say to anyone that they have to suffer hunger or even starvation. And it seems sensible to suggest that population reduction is really the only way we can guarantee adequate nutrition for people without continuing to drive more and more species over the brink to extinction.

And even when species are not driven to extinction, they may be so reduced that they are functionally extinct. Globally, large predators have been shown to have significant influence upon ecosystem function. Yet large predators are among the most imperiled animals on the Earth. In many parts of the world they are functionally extinct.


Thus far I’ve mostly made the argument for population reduction based on how it might improve things for human society. But humans are not the only species on the Planet. Ethically we have a moral obligation to share the Planet with other life. I recognize that most people will see human life as most important, and that is completely natural. Yet it’s also an important human trait that we have compassion for other lifeforms. And if one feels that we have a moral obligation to share the Earth with the other millions of species inhabiting the Earth and being an agent of their extinction is morally wrong than we should look again at how population growth is contributing to species extirpation.


Proponents who discount population growth or suggest that the rising tide of humanity is already self- correcting and that globally population growth is tapering off. Tapering off isn’t good enough. While some countries are experiencing reduced fertility and in some places like northern Europe or Japan, population growth is no longer at replacement, globally human population is still growing at an astounding rate.

Despite these positive shifts in demographics in some countries, we are still adding 80 million people to the Earth every year! And some suggest that somewhere on the planet we’ll be building the equivalent of a city of a million inhabitants every five days from now until 2050. This multiplier effect due to demographic inertia will cause significant population expansion for decades to come.

A good example is the country of Ghana. In 2010 there were 20 million people in this impoverished country. The average number of children born per woman was 4. Even if the fertility level decreased dramatically to replacement rate of 1.1 children per mother 2020, we would see Ghana’s population continue to grow for 40 more years before it would stabilize at 40 million.

There are additional social issues, particularly concerning pregnancy and women’s health. An alarming 1400 Afghanistan women per 100,000 die in childbirth or complications from pregnancy, compared to 5 deaths per 100,000 in countries like Denmark. Of course, that is mostly a factor of poverty and lack of good medical care, but it is also a factor of how many children women in each country typically have. The more children you birth, the higher the chances that one of them will be problematic. Maintaining and providing good medical care while your population is exploding is difficult if not impossible as well.

As many note, education of women can significantly reduce population growth. But there is a chicken and egg situation here. One of the main barriers to education is poverty. In poor countries providing even a minimum education for women is made more difficult by the sheer number of children requiring schooling.

Happy pronouncements that we can feed more people through new agricultural techniques and other techno-fixes, ignore the fact that more a billion people already live in extreme poverty. It’s difficult to see how adding 2-3 billion more people can make it any easier to relieve poverty.

There is evidence that overall mortality and absolute poverty are declining, especially for the world’s poorest people. However, with that decline in mortality and economic growth come new demands upon the Earth.

Despite the fact that some parts of the world consume the bulk of natural resources, per capita consumption is increasing even among the poorest people. While this is likely a good thing given the extreme poverty, it does not bode well for the Earth.

In addition, most assertions that we can feed, house, cloth, educate, and employ 9 or 10 billion people requires continuing ever deeper into dependency on high tech solutions and massive inputs of energy. Intensive agriculture using genetically modified crops, an abundance of pesticides, irrigation, and the conversion of more and more the Earth’s surface to growing crops at the expense of native ecosystems. We are already nearing the limits or perhaps exceeding the limits on what can be captured by nets and trollers from the world’s oceans. Decline in larger fish across the world has serious implications for ocean ecosystems. And most of the world’s grazing lands are suffering from livestock induced degradation, soil erosion, and weed invasion.

And unless one presumes everyone is going to live a bare existence lifestyle, providing even a reasonable amount of light, heat, and power for production and transportation of “things” requires more and more energy production. Whether this is derived from burning of more fossil fuels or nuclear energy and/or massive wind farms, solar fields, hydroelectric, and other more renewable energy sources, the end result is more and more of the Earth is mined, drilled, and/or converted to energy production.


Part of the hysteria over population voiced by some is that declining population growth will lead to economic stagnation. As one commentator said recently “ It’s an irony that aging doomsayers like Ehrlich and Holdren may not live long enough to behold come to fruition in their lifetime, but to achieve the very goals they claim to be aiming toward, there may be only one hope for the human species: Bring on the babies. “

The Population Reference Bureau reported that in 2011 US population grew by just 0.7%. Immigration was down, and more people survived than were born. This is causing some to wring their hands over what is sometimes called the demographic decline. They predict that aging population and lack of births will lead to economic decline and a collapse of society. Just look at the aging population of Japan and its slowing economy we are told, ignoring the fact that Germany and a number of other European countries have low reproduction rates as well as strong economies.


I’m generally an advocate of natural regulation—or letting nature take its course. But when it comes to human population collapse, I’d rather see alternatives. We are, we are told by those who suffer from too much hubris, (often the same ones saying we don’t have a population problem) that we are clever and intelligent. Well an intelligent person, and even one that might not believe we have a serious population problem, would at least use the precautionary principle which says in the absence of better information you seek the alternative that has the least potential for long term damage.

Certainly advocating population reduction can have few down sides that I am aware of, especially if done with a sense of justice and fairness. Even though I do not want to be viewed as a techno optimist, I have to admit that we have the “technology” in the form of birth control, plus education, and access to medical facilities to limit our population. It seems in light of the on-going biodiversity loss as well as other crisis’s exacerbated by population growth (like global climate change) that we can begin a global effort to bring human population more in line with global carrying capacity. And global carrying capacity in my view means not significantly contributing to accelerated species extinction, excessive pollution, and the rapid consumption and/or degradation of finite resources.

I’m afraid that if we don’t use our brains, we’ll follow a path much like the Isle Royale moose—a major population crash with a much depressed and infinitely poorer surviving population of humans. But even worse, we may be taking down a lot of the Earth’s heritage of diversity and landscapes in the process.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

‎ Colt Summit Timber Sale Exemplifies False Assumptions Behind Many Timber Sales
”At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour.” ~ Edward Abbey The Colt Summit timber sale on the Seeley Lake Ranger District is the first logging proposal on the Lolo National Forest to be challenged in five years. It has become symbolic of a bigger fight over logging in the Northern Rockies. It is the proverbial line in the sand. It is actually typical of the many timber sales now being promoted by the Forest Service based on flawed assumptions about fire ecology and exaggerated public benefits, so in a sense is worthy of scrutiny since it is representative of what environmentalists around the West are encountering these days. The Colt Summit Timber sale is being challenged by the Friends of the Wild Swan, Native Ecosystems Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Mountain Ecosystems Defense Council. They have filed a law suit to stop the timber sale arguing that the logging may jeopardize endangered grizzly bear, lynx and bull trout. Also, Wildwest Institute filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs (they are members of the Lolo Restoration committee). THE COLT SUMMIT TIMBER SALE The Colt Summit sale calls for thinning in mature and old growth forest, along with shelterwood cuts (essentially a clear cut with most of the larger trees removed) along with extensive prescribed burning in what is clearly one of the last contiguous forest corridors left in the Seeley Swan Valley. The FS admits that it’s one of the few intact unfragmented tracts of federal forest in the Swan Valley, but then ignores its significance. The proposed timber sale is in Situation One occupied grizzly habitat, and critical lynx habitat. Streams in the sale area support endangered bull trout. The logging operations, and the human presence is likely to have negative impacts on these species. To its credit, the Forest Service has designed the timber sale to mitigate some of the worse impacts of logging. For instance, most of the logging will occur in winter with over-snow removal of trees to reduce the need for road construction and disturbance that can lead to weed spread. But reduction in logging impacts is not the same as no impacts. And in a region that is already significantly over cut, any new logging has disproportionate cumulative negative effects. Here’s a photo showing clearcuts surrounding Lake Inez. Seeley Lake is further out. All of these clearcuts lie between the Colt Summit area and Seeley Lake. GREEN WASHING Like all timber sales today, the Forest Service is ostensibly not cutting trees just to provide lumber or profits to timber companies. The agency no longer has a public license to log simply to enrich timber industry corporation coffers, so they use other rationales that play upon the public’s fears and misunderstandings. The agency now logs for dubious rationales including forest health, to reduce fire risk, to “improve” wildlife habitat, increase recreational opportunities and other presumed public benefits. The main justification for Colt Summit is to log the area to reduce the threat of wildfire and increase the safety of Seeley Lake by logging in what it is calling the Wildlands Urban Interface. Never mind that Seeley Lake is more than ten miles from the closest segment of the proposed timber sale and there are already miles of clearcuts and thinned forest between Colt Summit and Seeley Lake. (See photo) Beyond the somewhat fallacious assertion that logging can be justified on the basis of reducing fire hazard in the Wildland Urban Interface, the agency asserts that road closures, by reducing sedimentation into streams, will be a net benefit. There is no doubt that closing any road is a net benefit. However, the agency stacks the deck in its analysis by comparing the on-going excessive road density and problems associated with it such as chronic sedimentation into streams, with an alternative that closes some roads, but calls for significant logging as the “price” for road decommissioning. As a result it can suggest that logging “improves” the landscape over the current situation. There is, unfortunately, no alternative that compares the no action or current condition with an alternative that closes roads, and only proposes thinning in the immediate vicinity of Seeley Lake, along with modification of homes to reduce flammability such as requirement for metal roofs. Such an alternative would clearly be more cost effective, better for the land, and more effective in reducing fire risk than the Forest Service’s current proposal. Advocating for logging so you can close the very roads created by the logging sale and even if you close a few other miles of roads is a bit like building a couple of new dams and then putting in fish ladders to improve fish migration. Sure fish ladders is an improvement, but one doesn’t have to build dams as a justification to marginally improve fish movements. Neither does one need to log the forest to justify removal of the very roads used to log the forest. If road closure is good for wildlife, they should be closed regardless of whether there is a timber sale in the area, not use the road closures as an excuse to justify logging. LOGGING HERE, THERE, EVERYWHERE Part of the objections made by the groups suing the Forest Service is the fact that the Colt Summit timber sale occupies the last remaining strip of unlogged forest connecting the Swan Range to the Mission Range in the entire Seeley Swan corridor. As a result it is important for the movement of wildlife like the grizzly and lynx from one mountain range to the other. If you go to Google Earth and put in Seeley Lake Montana then move northward following the Highway 83 corridor you will see from space what is not visible to causal observation—a highly fragmented and ravaged valley. Here’s a link to a short video showing the sale area and the surrounding butchered landscape. Look west of Seeley Lake and Lake Inez on Google Earth and you will see miles of clearcuts and logging. Same pattern for the land east of these lakes all the way to the foothills of the Swan Range. Continue north past Lake Inez and Rainy Lake and you will come to the circular pond known as Summit Lake among unlogged forests that lie on the watershed divide between the Clearwater River flowing south and the Swan drainage flowing north. Immediately north of the watershed divide you will see many more clearcuts on the Flathead National Forest—all the way to Swan Lake. I’ve seen a lot of butchered landscapes in Oregon and Washington, but the Seeley Swan Valley gives either of those states a run for the prize as most abused and degraded landscapes. It will become abundantly clear why groups like the Alliance for Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and others are arguing this sale will degrade the connectivity between the Mission Range and Swan Range. Yet the Forest Service has the audacity to propose more logging in what is already one of the most fragmented forested valleys in Montana and amidst one of the last forested corridors that stretches across the Seeley-Swan Valley. MORE LOGGING PLANNED—CUMULATIVE IMPACTS ANYONE? Worse for the Colt Summit corridor, is that the Forest Service has four or five other timber sales planned for the area both north and south of Summit Lake. For instance, the proposed Glacier-Loon timber sale lies just north and west of Summit Lake. The proposed Summit Salvage timber sale lies north and east of Summit Lake between Holland Lake and Clearwater Lake. Several other proposed timber sales, including Beaver Creek timber sale, lie to the west and south. If all of these are permitted to be logged, along with Colt Summit, it will destroy the remaining connectivity in the southern Swan Valley. Past over logging combined with new proposed timber sales clearly poses a cumulative impact on affected wildlife species. It’s disingenuous for the FS to declare that logging Colt Summit will improve habitat for lynx by creating additional acres of younger age tree stands. Any review of the surrounding land of clearcuts would demonstrate that young age class trees are not in short supply. Rather it is old growth with down wood that is scarce on the Seeley Lake Ranger District due to the excessive past logging of the area by Plum Creek timber company, state of Montana and the Forest Service. DISTORTED FIRE SCIENCE The worst part about the Colt Summit proposal is that it’s based on faulty and perhaps purposefully deceptive ideas about wildfire ecology and fire risk. Nevertheless, distortion of science is not something that can halt a timber sale. So the conservation groups suing the FS are using one of the limited legal handles available—the ESA to draw attention to what is a poorly planned and unnecessary logging operation. This timber sale is predicated on the assumption that fire regimes in the Colt Summit area are outside of their historical variability. It appears the Forest Service is confusing fire regimes. It appears to be applying the Southwest Model for ponderosa pine forests of short fire intervals and low intensity blazes to the Colt Summit’s lodgepole pine and subalpine fir forests. These forests tend to burn infrequently and usually as stand replacement intense blazes. This gets to problem number two. There is quite a bit of new debate about how effective fire suppression has been, particularly in the higher elevation/moister forest types such as we find dominating in the Colt Summit. In other words, even if this area didn’t have naturally long intervals between fires, it’s questionable that fire suppression has had a significant influence on fuels. There has been a period of significantly wetter and cooler conditions that has prevailed for nearly 50 years between the 1940s until the 1990s that reduced fire spread throughout the Rockies. These forests are frequently too wet naturally to burn except when there are severe fire conditions and then they tend to burn in stand replacement blazes. The idea behind thinning is that fuels are the driving force in fires. However, a growing body of evidence suggests major climatic conditions are what drive fires, not fuels. If climate/weather is dry, with low humidity and high winds, fires tend to burn through all kinds of fuel loadings. Many studies question whether fuel loadings have significant influence on fire spread under these severe climatic conditions. There are also scientific studies that show thinning can often increase fire severity so it’s by no means a guarantee that thinning operations will have even a neutral influence on fire hazard. The frequent failure of thinning to halt or even slow major fires under severe conditions is obvious by reviewing large fires throughout the West. The closest is the Jocko Lakes Fire that burned the area just to the west of Colt Summit. The Jocko Lakes Fire burned through a landscape that was heavily logged, and thinned. There were a lot of clearcuts. If logging can halt or reduce the spread of fires, the Jocko Lakes area would have to be a good test. It failed miserably. To suggest that thinning which is a much lower reduction of fuel compared to a clearcut will significantly slow or stop fires is reckless at best, giving the community a false sense of security. WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO PROTECT HOMES? Research has shown that the best way to protect individual homes and/or a community from fire is to reduce the flammability of the buildings, not trying to fireproof the forest. Putting on a metal roof, and clearing burnable materials around a structure would be far less expensive and effective method to protect Seeley lake. If the Forest Service were really working for the public interest, and not the timber industry, they would be promoting home protection over logging. It’s cheaper. It’s more effective. It does not require disturbing the forest. It would even provide jobs. It just doesn’t provide profit to timber companies. LOGGING AND ENDANGERED SPECIES Logging will impact endangered species like lynx. The work of lynx biologist John Squires and others repeatedly demonstrates that older forests with a lot of down woody debris (DWD) is critical lynx habitat. Thinning the forest will remove dead trees, and thus will contribute to a reduction to recruitment of dead woody debris in the future. So not only would logging destroy existing lynx habitat today, but it will significantly reduce the creation of additional lynx habitat in the future. A CLOSED ROAD IS NOT THE SAME AS NO ROAD The FS and its supporters suggest that the Colt Summit timber sale will be a net benefit because an estimated 25 miles of road will be decommissioned or stored. Road closures are desperately needed to be sure, but what isn’t made clear is that the majority of roads to be closed are ones that are created and/or reopened to facilitate the Colt Summit timber sale. There is no doubt a need for additional road closures, but one does not have to do any further logging to close roads. The way the FS gets to declare this a net benefit is by closing or eliminating a few miles of roads and comparing it to current condition of doing nothing. But one does not have to log the area to close roads, and because there is no alternative that compares road closures. The Upper Clearwater watershed where Colt Summit is located is heavily roaded. According to the FS “road densities were high in most of the drainages… . All drainages had between 20 and 30 percent of roads within a 300 foot buffer of a stream.” The FS own fish biologist opines that “sedimentation is also an increased concern due to the high amount of timber harvest, roading, and sensitive soils within this watershed.” The conclusion of the fish biologist is that nearly all sub drainages in the Clearwater drainage were functioning at an unacceptable risk” for sediment. One way the FS sugar coats its road building enterprises is by suggesting that new roads will be “temporary” and most logging activity will be limited to winter when snow cover will reduce impacts. There is some truth to these assertions, but even the best logging practices will contribute new levels of sedimentation to a system that is clearly already severely degraded. And at least some of these temporary roads will be open for at least six years that the timber sale is implemented guaranteeing that many of these impacts will occur for a considerable amount of time. All of these new roads will be providing new access to hunters/trappers as well as illegal ATV use, the spread of weeds, and in some cases, additional sedimentation into streams, and other harm. All of these are minimized in the FS EA so as to suggest a net benefit to the logging operations. And even after road closures the impact of roads continues. Roads, even closed roads, are not the same as no road. A closed road still provides easier access to snowmobiles (and trappers use snowmobiles—lookout lynx) and ORVs, and even hunters on foot tend to follow old roads, thereby reducing security for wildlife. There is also some deception in the statement that the FS will close 25 miles of roads, because by my count at least 14.5 of these miles are a direct result of the proposed timber sale. So the 25 miles is an inflated number. i.e. without the timber sale, one would have fewer miles of road to close in the first place. The closure of 4 miles of streamside road 646 adjacent to Colt Creek will have the greatest benefits by reducing sedimentation in streams. However closure of this road is on-going and not opposed by the appellants. In addition the EA says that roads will be “decommissioned and/or stored”. It does not define decommissioned. In many cases if a road bed is not ripped up, the slope restored, and trees planted on the site, it cannot be considered “restored.” Worse, stored roads definitely mean they will be reused at some future date. Furthermore, animals like the grizzly avoid areas of human use. Even a closed road is avoided for a long time after human traffic ceases. In one study in the South Fork of the Flathead, FWP showed that bears would avoid up to 2 miles on either side of an active road, and even a closed road. Using a 2 mile standard, the timber sale will nearly affect the entire width of the Swan Valley in this location. Finally it’s important to note that the groups that are opposing the timber sale are not opposed to any road closures. WEEDS INVASION FACILITATED One of the biggest and long term threats to the forest comes from exotic weed invasion. While roads may be closed and even erased with enough money and time, weed invasion typically is a one way street towards greater ecological degradation. The FS own analysis concludes that “ground disturbances worth noting with this project consist of landings associated with the harvest units, new road construction, road obliteration, road maintenance, road reconstruction, increased traffic due to log haul, and stream crossing upgrades.” Ground disturbance will increase weed establishment and spread. And if you read between the lines in the FS own weed analysis, the suggestion is that despite some requirements for weed control practices, the likelihood of significant increase in weed establishment is foreseen. CUMULATIVE IMPACTS IGNORED The logging should be considered as part of a cumulative impacts. The FS is proposing timber sales on all sides of Colt Summit. When all these logging operations are considered together, along with the negative impacts of past logging, it’s clear the cumulative effects from this are significant. In the end, Colt Summit is not in the public interest and if implemented will have far more negative impacts to our public lands than any benefits.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird

I recently attended the wolf hearings held by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in Helena. The commission is considering initiation of a trapping season, as well as eliminating quotas on the number of wolves that may be killed. The goal is to significantly reduce the state’s wolf population which currently numbers somewhere in the vicinity of 600 animals. The commission will make a final decision on the matter by July. At the hearing I felt like I was witnessing a modern day version of Harper Lee’s famous book To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel the mockingbird is symbolic of innocence animals and by extension, innocence citizens destroyed by thoughtless and ignorant people. In Lee’s novel the main character, lawyer Atticus Finch, is one of the few residents of the southern community of Maycomb committed to racial equality and fairness. He agrees to defend a black man (a mockingbird in human society) wrongly accused of raping a poor southern girl. For his efforts both Atticus and his children suffer abuse and ridicule from the community. Worse, in the end, Atticus is unable to overcome the racial prejudice of his community members and win acquittal for the black man who was convicted by public opinion rather than facts. Even the otherwise descent people of that community were unable to put aside the cultural biases they had grown up with. In a similar way I believe the wolf has become a symbolic scapegoat for many otherwise descent Montanans who, for whatever reason, cannot overcome the cultural biases against wolves. I do not want to overstate this analogy. Wolves can and do kill elk and deer as well as livestock. They can sometimes even depress elk and deer populations. Yet for many who testified at the commission hearings, it is clear that killing wolves symbolizes more than just a predator that may occasionally create conflicts with human goals. When one can’t lash out at the real and/or imaginary forces that are creating fear or anger, someone or something else is punished. What was termed in my college animal behavior classes as “displaced” aggression. In Montana there is displaced aggression being heaped upon the wolf. For some with the most extreme opinions in Montana, the wolf actually represents the distance federal government or worse a UN global plot to subjugate rural America that they fear is controlling their lives. When they kill wolves, they are lashing out at these institutions they fear. And like the mythical towns people in Maycomb Alabama whose racial prejudice and lynch mob mentally convicted the black man Tom Robinson of imagined crimes based on dubious evidence, the wolf has been convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion—at least the portion of the public I observed at the hearings. There is no other way to explain the depth of hatred and fear I witnessed. Any rational examination of the evidence against the wolf would not justify the death penalty that I fear will be imposed by the Commission. Over and over again I heard many of the same old inaccurate and often exaggerated justifications for wolf reductions. Among them is the assertion that wolves are decimating the state’s elk and deer herds and destroying hunter opportunity. Yet in 1992 when the state completed its elk management plan, and three years before wolves were reintroduced, there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana. By 2007 an article in Montana Outdoors proclaimed there may be as many as 150,000 elk in the state. And a recent communication I had with Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist put the current number at around 140,000 animals. Even as I write this commentary, the headlines in today’s papers proclaimed “FWP: Surveys Show Big Game Populations Bouncing Back.” Any reasonable person looking at those numbers would conclude that the presence of wolves is not a threat to hunting opportunities. Indeed, if I wanted to be as irrational as many of the hunters I heard at the hearing, I could suggest a correlation where the presence of wolves appears to increase elk numbers and hunting opportunities across a state. Similarly, accusations that wolves are a threat to the state’s livestock industry are equally as dubious. Last year according to the Montana Dept of Livestock, more than 140,000 cattle and sheep died from various causes including poisonous plants, disease, and other factors. Out of these 140,000 animals, wolves were responsible for less than a hundred deaths. This is not to suggest that the loss of any livestock is not an economic blow to the individual rancher, but can anyone seriously argue that wolves are a universal threat to the livestock industry that justifies state-wide persecution? And there are many positive benefits to the presence of a large wolf population that were rarely mentioned or acknowledged at the hearing. For instance, temporary or even sustained decrease in elk numbers can lead to a reduction in browsing on riparian vegetation like willows and cottonwood along streams. Healthy riparian areas create more food for beaver. Beaver ponds improve water storage and stream flow, reducing floods—which may be a huge net economic benefit to society. Healthy and functioning streams also equal more trout and other fish, improving fishing opportunities and of course the bottom line for businesses that depend on serving the fishing public. Predation by wolves can also reduce the occurrence of diseases that are a potential threat to both livestock and wildlife. For instance, the spread of disease like chronic wasting disease and brucellosis can have economic consequences to the livestock industry as well as elk and deer hunting. Wolves by their presence tend to reduce disease across a herd by dispersing elk and deer as well as by preying on sick animals. Collectively these positive economic benefits to society and even to the livestock industry may far outnumber any negative costs associated with wolf livestock losses. If we are going to manage wolves so they full fill their ecological function as top predators, one can’t kill the majority of wolves off and expect to maintain these positive ecological benefits. Even more troubling to me is that Montanans seem to want to use brute force instead of their brains to deal with wolf conflicts. A great deal of recent science on the social ecology of wolves as well as the positive benefits of predators on ecosystems is largely ignored by current management policies. There is a growing body research that suggests increased persecution of predators is likely to increase, not decrease, human conflicts. Even if you lower the wolf population, you may actually increase the human conflicts. Widespread and aggressive indiscriminate killing of wolves or any other predator may have unintended consequences. Hunting and trapping tends to skew predator populations towards younger age classes; Younger animals are less skillful hunters. They are the very animals most likely to wander into the backyards of people’s homes or come into a ranch yard to nab a young calf or lamb. Due to their inexperience and lack of hunting skill, younger animals are more inclined to seek out livestock as prey. In addition, a wolf population suffering from heavy mortality leads to break up of packs where breeding is usually limited to the dominant male and female. Fragmenting the population into many smaller packs can result in more breeding females and often results in a higher survival of pups. In a very short time the population rebounds, prompting endless calls for more persecution. Predator control can even potentially lead to greater kill of elk and deer. Smaller packs with many pups to feed are unable to guard their kills against other scavengers. When an adult kills an elk or deer, by the time it can carry meat back to the den and return, much of the carcass may be stripped of any remaining meat, leaving that animal no choice but to kill another elk or deer. Smaller packs may in the end also produce more pups—and like teenagers everywhere—the greater food demands of growing pups may lead to the killing of more prey and/or livestock. And since many wolves co-exist with livestock, the indiscriminate and random removal of wolves by hunting and trapping can actually create a void that may be filled by other wolves that may be more inclined to prey on livestock. There are definitely conflicts that sometimes arise between wolves and people. However, the intelligent way to respond is through the surgical removal of individual animals or packs and adoption of non-lethal animal husbandry practices. For instance, after California passed a state-wide ban on use of traps and poison to control predators, Marin County Commissioners voted to replace lethal measures with non-lethal methods. The tax payer funds that previously went to lethal control were used instead to build fences, purchase guard dogs and lambing sheds. In the end there was a reduction in predator losses while at the same time, the county spent less funds than what it had previously spent on lethal predator control. A similar effort in Montana’s own Blackfoot Valley where dead carcasses which serve as an attractant for predators are promptly removed has also lead to a reduction in livestock /predator conflicts. Such changes in policies demonstrate what is possible when people use their brains instead of their guns. In the novel to Kill a Mockingbird, the indiscriminate killing of mockingbirds represented the unnecessary and thoughtless destruction of animals and humans based on old biases. The sad truth is that in Montana we are still killing symbolic mockingbirds by our archaic and irrational attitudes towards predators like the wolf.