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.