Posts Tagged ‘Elk’

Jul11

Of Race Cars and Banked Tracks (Elk and Wolves)

By Bob Ferris
 
“At issue is how wildlife is managed in this country. Our belief is based on more than 100 years of the most successful wildlife management model in the world that our state agencies are to manage wildlife within their respective borders. That includes management of gray wolves along with other predators.” David Allen letter to Congressman Peter DeFazio dated July 10, 2014 
Elk US FWS
 
An Open Letter to David Allen of the  Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
 
July 11, 2014
 
Mr. David Allen
President and CEO
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
5705 Grant Creek
Missoula, MT 59808
 
Dear Mr. Allen,
 
As much as I enjoy reading your declarative statements about complicated issues you clearly know very little about, I find that I must interrupt that pleasure and interject a few comments.  Again, as I have before (1,2,3,4,5).  
 
There is a lot to criticize in your letter starting with the disrespectful and unprofessional omission of the “Dear” in the salutation to a sitting Congressman (here are some helpful tips on writing to elected officials), but I want to set all of that aside and focus on this gem of a paragraph at the top of this page and also your general invoking of science.    
 
Ignoring the question about whether or not wildlife in your first sentence should be treated as a plural in this context (i.e., multiple species and in multiple settings) and setting aside the fact that the following sentence is poorly written, this whole paragraph demonstrates that you are laboring under a tall tower of misconceptions as jumbled as your second sentence.  And while it might seem advantageous for you to pull a state’s rights page out of the Cliven Bundy handbook at this point, you should take some time and actually look at conservation history in this country before acting the expert as you have.  
 
While completing that exercise you would come to understand that market hunting—what caused your elk to decline precipitously in the first place—was largely allowed or inaffectively opposed by the states. But it wasn’t until the federal government stepped in with the Lacey Act in 1901 and other similar federal legislation as well as international treaties (Heaven forbid, Edna, he’s talking Agenda 21) that market hunting finally took a powder.
 
Certainly there were actions from both levels of government, but it is a complicated relationship.  And my sense is that you seem to have problems with these complex relationships like, for instance, why wolves and elk are seemingly at odds but really need each other to prosper in the long run.  All this led me to believe that perhaps no one has taken the time to explain these relationships in terms that you can understand—you do, after all, lack grounding in ecology and any direct experience in conservation or natural resources policy.  I have taught ecology, worked as a biologist and participated in policy for more than 30 years, so let me take a stab at that. 
 
You come from NASCAR so let’s start there.  NASCAR is a sport born out of bootlegging and running from federal revenuers.  The best initial drivers were the ones that ran more ‘shine faster and kept it on the road.  So we have a good example of natural selection here as those who did not were removed from the population by running into trees, rocks or handcuffs.  
 
In essence this sport involves running a car at high speeds around a banked track (my wife’s family once owned a tire company and stock cars so she is coaching me).  The car, driver and engine provide the speed and excitement while the banked track—for the most part—keeps cars and drivers from spinning out of control with potentially fatal repercussions.  If you think of the cars and drivers as the "states" and the banked track as the "federal government," this analogy works for the North American model of wildlife management and why it has functioned as it has over the years.  As much as you want to invoke the 10th Amendment you cannot have a successful model without both parties playing and it is folly to think so (see also this analysis on the North American Model).
 
But there is more.  In the western states a lot of the wild habitat is owned by the federal government so they become even more important in this relationship, not less, as your paragraph has characterized.  In addition when you look at Montana, Wyoming and Idaho where the flow of federal money is positive (i.e., more federal monies flow into the states than flow out in federal taxes) the folks who are paying to maintain and keep those habitats are from all over the country and therefore federal in nature.  And since what we are talking about in this proposal by Congressman DeFazio is mostly federal forest lands perhaps a more open and welcoming attitude in this should be exercised by you.  (Just a suggestion.)  
 
The funny thing is that the relationship between elk and wolves is very similar and the NASCAR model works here too.  Wolves prevent elk populations from spinning out of control by overshooting the carrying capacity of their habitat; being too numerous or concentrated thus more subject to disease; and accumulating too many of the wrong kind of alleles (variants of genes) that normally would be selected against just like the bad bootleggers referenced above by the process of natural selection.  These seem to be foreign concepts to you as you continually mischaracterize what is happening in Yellowstone though your organization has paid for and been briefed on the science by folks like Dr. Arthur Middleton. 
 
Moving on to the topic of science, your condemnation of Congressman DeFazio’s lack of scientific justification is ironic coming from someone who has called for a reduction of all predator populations in the absence of any scientific justification for that collection of actions.  This is made even more ironic given your organization’s tight relationships with the cattle and timber industries both of which through grazing and herbicide use displace elk and degrade elk habitat.  And the science on the increased likelihood of disease transference when wildlife populations are concentrated at supplemental feeding stations that are supported by you and RMEF further calls into question your dedication to science, scientific principles or even prudent wildlife management.
 
Perhaps you and others in your organization have trouble with complex analyses or dealing with data in general.  That was certainly apparent when you rolled out your page on wolves and elk using truncated graphs that were purposely misleading.  Your constant arguing that wolf populations are too high because they are well above minimum recovery goals may sound like science to you and many of your adherents, but it is not.  These were simply numbers indicating when the shift from federal recovery management to state recovery could happen.  Nothing more, nothing less.
 
Are wolf numbers too high in the Northern Rockies states as you have repeatedly claimed and inferred? Probably not.  Right now the wolf densities in these states are about one fifth of what we see in British Columbia with about the same land area.  Certainly there are habitat and human density differences between BC and the Northern Rockies states but there is unlikely a five-fold carrying capacity differential and there are many in BC who think that their wolf density is too low.  
 
And while you are madly trying to claim this scientific high ground, there is nothing in your rhetoric that shows any acknowledgement of the ecological value of wolves, their impact on other predators such as cougars and coyotes, and any appearance of a mental governor on your talking points as evidence emerges of the importance of maintaining social structure in packs and the need for large numbers of wolves across a broad landscape in order to realize the promised benefits of trophic cascades and meso-predator release.  
 
Circling back to the original premise for your letter, I will not tell you that Yellowstone wolves killed outside the Park will cause population calamity as that would be just as disingenuous and unfounded as  your claims that science dictates that predators—particularly wolves—need to be controlled and that their current levels are too high.  That said, these near-park boundary mortalities do impact the population.  
 
My concern, which is science-based, has to do with the value of these animals as part of a well-studied population free from interference.  Now you might—having never conducted scientific research yourself—not consider these animals and the data their continued existence contributes to our overall understanding of complex predator-prey relationships valuable but many of us do.  And quite frankly I long for a day when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is once again led by someone who might similarly value research and understand that successful conservation is more about appreciating the complexity of these natural systems and all their parts and less about marketing fear and innuendo like a pair of jeans or stock car race.  
 
Now granted some of the above is certainly facetious in nature and somewhat patronizing.  And I would be annoyed and offended if something similar was done to me.  But at some point, Mr. Allen, you have to ask yourself which is the greater sin, the facetiousness and patronizing tone I employ or your misstatements and missteps that make this sort of response not only appropriate but necessary?  
 
Sincerely,
 
bob's signature
 
 
 
Bob Ferris
Executive Director
 
 
 

Jun29

Rachel, Rachel Where Art Thou?: The Need for a Noisy Spring

By Bob Ferris
 
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This past April marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson.  And while I certainly bemoan her absence and miss her rachelcarson_binocularsiconic Silent Spring voice, I mourn more for the fact that her life’s work and sacrifice on our behalf has apparently taught many of us little or nothing.    Exhibit “A” in this thesis is the list of herbicides contained in a 2012 private forestry spraying application for a 3,416 acre unit near the Willapa Headwaters in southwestern Washington (thank you, Jon Gosch). 
 
"If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." Robert White-Stevens American Cyanamid biochemist
 
Rachel’s story is a powerful one and too often repeated.  Here’s how it goes: A systems thinker (in her case a marine biologist) noticing trends and problems in the natural world compiles evidence that establishes correlative links between a chemical or chemicals and a natural or human health issue and then brings it to the public’s attention.  These are not “proofs” in the traditional scientific sense but rather concrete rationales for further investigation—in short these are the building blocks of testable hypotheses.  
 
“Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn't it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.” Letter to the editor of the New Yorker
 
But once these building blocks form and become known, a storm of industry-led criticism always follows.  We know the pattern: Credentials and motivations are questioned; industry scientists rush in to defend the safety of products; new brochures addressing criticisms are prepared; and those offering the hypotheses are quickly and roughly kicked to curb for being un-American, job-killers, communists or worse.  In all of this we have to really wonder where the sin lies in raising legitimate and justifiable concerns.  And when exactly did poisoning our wildlife and future generations become an American value?  
 
Now I cannot say conclusively, for instance, that forestry herbicide use on private lands is directly causing hoof rot in elk in southwestern Washington.  That said, I know that the chemical cocktails being sprayed have some impact because herbicides directly lower available food supplies and that stresses elk (and deer) making them generally more vulnerable to any infections.  
 
And I have good reasons to suspect additional impact from glyphosate herbicides like RoundUp or Rodeo because they often control the availability of trace metals and micronutrients to plants, soil microbes, and thus bigger critters through a complicated process known as chelation that undoubtedly alters metabolic functions and other systems at each step up the food chain (see 1, 23)  And then there are some concerns about the immunological and thyroidal impacts of some herbicides. So this is not so much a debate about whether or not herbicides are contributing to this current elk affliction, but how far this class of chemicals moves the needle from zero (no impact) to 100 (proximate cause).
 
“The New York Times reported that in 1996, "Dennis C. Vacco, the Attorney General of New York, ordered the company to pull ads that said Roundup was "safer than table salt" and "practically nontoxic" to mammals, birds and fish. The company withdrew the spots, but also said that the phrase in question was permissible under E.P.A. guidelines."  Under “Legal Cases” in Glyphosate Wikipedia listing 
 
I suspect that many in America believe that the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of theAutism_and_Glyphosate_correlation Clean Water Act have worked together to reduce herbicide use since the 1960s when things were really “bad.”  These are after all the pollution cop agency and a bedrock piece of environmental legislation.  The reality is that while many chemicals were eliminated from use, many more emerged with a lot of them being herbicides.  At the same time lots of wildlife issues such as difficult-to-identify diseases, deformities and population drops are manifesting themselves with similar things happening in human communities too.  Certainly there are multiple factors involved in any wildlife or human health syndrome but the incidence of these problems and the rise of herbicide use seems to track well enough that serious questions should be asked (see glyphosate use and autism graph at right).
 
Now herbicide proponents will be quick to point out that these are only correlations and not causation.  True enough, but like Rachel Carson’s work these correlations are and should be the vibrant roots of hypotheses that we must pose and follow to their conclusions.  And before the charges of scare tactics are deployed and my ethics questioned, my sense is that it is much more responsible to ask legitimate questions arising from a well-constructed correlation, even if it might elicit fear and caution, than to agressively deny that fear and condemn that caution in the absence of adequate and conclusive testing.  And if there is one thing that you learn from plowing through mountains of primary literature on herbicides it is that there is much we do not know and the number of studies that end with a desperate call for more studies is astounding.  
 
It should also be clear to those in the pro-herbicide camp by now that curiosity met with swift denial only leads to suspicion.  And ultimately this becomes distrust if legitimate concerns are ignored or dismissed without visible investigation.  They should also understand that suspicion and distrust can easily snowball into campaigns.  This brings us to our present state which is not quite a broad campaign but more like isolated prairie fires across the rural western landscape that are starting to send sparks back and forth to each other. 
 
These efforts include those by non-traditional folks like hunters and citizen activists Jon Gosch (1,2,3) and Bruce Barnes working on the elk hoof rot issue in Washington; wildlife rehabber Judy Hoy in the intermountain West trying to figure out deformities in deer, elk and antelopes; and Josh Leavitt’s emerging efforts in Utah to serve as a research destination and clearinghouse.  They also include the fine work of groups like our soon-to-be-ex-across-the-hall-neighbors, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides or NCAP that fight this battle daily. (You see, Kim, I was listening and we will miss your shining faces and having Edward's organic eggs just a few steps away).  They should give us all hope that the brave spirit of Rachel Carson lives. 
 
But there is a second part of the Carson lesson and that is the grassroots part of the equation.  For the US EPA to not think it is alright to characterize RoundUp similarly to table salt and for state agencies in charge of our forests, waterways, wildlife and health not to cavalierly sign off on the chemical carpet bombing enumerated at the top of this piece, we all have to speak up.  Carson’s efforts were initially successful because you, your parents or grandparents spoke up in the 1960s and, therefore, for these current efforts to be successful you, your children and your grandchildren have to be vigilant and not think that the first Earth Day was the end of the battle but rather the beginning.  Let’s get to it.  The below action is one to get started, but more will follow from us or other "prairie fires" in the West.
 
 

Jun09

Of Roosevelt Elk, Bacteria, Hooves and Herbicides

By Bob Ferris Elk US FWS
 
Over the last several years through numerous blog posts and comments Cascadia Wildlands has been forwarding two important notions. The first is that state wildlife commissions (and therefore agencies) in the West are too beholding to resource-oriented industries such as ranching, timber, mining and energy interests at the expense of hunters, anglers and our ever-dwindling wildlife legacy (1,2).
 
And, at the same time, western wildlife commissions are too accepting of the ideas forwarded by some extreme hunting groups that increasingly reflect the views of these same resource-dependent industries such as increasing clearcuts, aggressive predator control, protection of public lands grazing and more road creation for access rather than hitting the conservation sweet spots of habitat restoration, wilderness preservation, road retirement and water quality improvement (1,2). In essence, both the commissions and these more trophy hunting-oriented groups have been quietly coopted by the very elements that do damage to the natural resources needed by all wildlife and fish.
 
The most recent and troubling example involves the issue of hoof rot in Washington State’s Roosevelt elk herds. No one knows for sure at this point what is causing the hoof rot in southwestern Washington, but there are a lot of candidates both of a direct and indirect nature. One hypothesis that was put forth recently is that there is some link between combinations of factors that could include herbicide use by the forest products industry and a bacterial infection known as leptospirosis. Leptospirosis often causes severe muscle pain in mammals which might explain the limping observed in these elk as well as the lack of hoof wear on the sore legs. Leptospirosis has been present in Washington for decades.
 
Caution the below video contains images that may be disturbing to some:
 

As a wildlife biologist who frequently looks at complex interactions, I can appreciate a scenario that includes multiple causes such as massive habitat changes and herbicide use that put elk in a vulnerable condition so they present the variety of symptoms we are observing with this hoof rot phenomenon. But the idea of this being driven by leptospirosis or via an herbicide link—either through decreased habitat quality or consumption effects—has been met with apparent resistance in spite of efforts by a retired public health researcher and an expert on leptospirosis detection, Dr. Boone Mora, and hunter Jon Gosch who has written two well-researched blog posts on the topic (1,2).  In addition, farrier Krystal Davies has also made a rather cogent argument for this being laminitis associated with or driven by herbicides.
 
WDFW Herbicide
The above is a screenshot from the WDFW website.  Please note the mentions of NCASI and the University of Alberta as sources. Click here to view U of A study's funding sources. 
 
It is amazing given the volume of public commentary on habitat, herbicides and alternative diseases that the WDFW Hoof Disease power point presentation from October 2013 focused on identifying symptoms and wildly invasive cures rather than dealing with what the root causes might be such as habitat degradation and herbicide use which seem buried deep in the presentation—almost as afterthoughts. You almost get the impression when you view this slide show that the elk are at fault and should bear the brunt of the solution. Why are the root causes being ignored in favor of a narrow band of issues that are more likely symptoms? That is a great question or set of questions.
 
"The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement is an independent, non-profit research institute that focuses on environmental topics of interest to the forest products industry. Membership is open to forest products companies in the U.S., Canada, and beyond." Mission statement of NCASI from website.
 
Part of the answer to the above comes in the form of an obscure but powerful group called the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement or NCASI. Formerly known as the  National Council of the Paper Industry for Air and Stream Improvement, this is the research arm of the timber industry and often their scientific mouthpiece. NCASI seems to enjoy preferred access to Washington's wildlife agency and used as a resource (see FAQ quote above) which is troubling given that the timber industry has a long history of viewing deer and elk as unwelcome pests (1,2,3) and because of NCASI's industry biased spinning of scientific findings, regulations and other phenomena ( 1,2,3,4).
 
"During that outing, Dr. Vickie Tatum, a herbicide specialist for the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, told the hoof disease group that herbicides target specific actions in plants that don’t occur in animals. Dr. John Cook, an elk researcher who also works for the NCASI, pointed out that herbicides are used in Oregon and the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and there’s no hoof disease there." In The Daily News May 22, 2014
 
Of particular relevance here, NCASI has also been very active in telling the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) that herbicides are not the problem.  This is probably based in part on a report by NCASI written by Dr. Tatum, NCASI researcher Larry L. Irwin Ph.D. and others with assistance from Dr. Cook.  Unfortunately, WDFW seems to be listening to the pro-herbicide rhetoric and they are not the only ones.  
 
“Larry brings decades of on-the-ground work to the table,” said David Allen, RMEF President and CEO. “His studies on elk, other wildlife, and habitat further strengthen RMEF’s resolve to acquire more science-based research and knowledge.” David Allen quoted in NCASI press release April 15, 2013. 
 
Some who have been paying attention might ask: But where is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in all of this? Shouldn’t they and their members be outraged that the timber industry is compromising elk habitat with herbicides and forest management practices? Aren’t they the ones who should stand up for the elk, elk habitat and support Dr. Mora and Mr. Gosch in their efforts to get answers? Logical questions and some of the answer might come when you look at RMEF board of directors page and right in the middle, wearing a dark brown cowboy hat, a bolo tie and a smile sits the above mentioned Larry Irwin.  And the connection between RMEF, NCASI and Dr. Irwin is a strong one as RMEF has provided significant, long-term funding for a number of projects overseen by NCASI, Dr. Irwin and others in the timber industry (1,2,3)
 
"Improving large mammal browse was a primary focus of the first decade of research on forest herbicides (pers. comm., M. Newton, Emeritus Professor, Department of Forest Science, Oregon State University) and remains an important consideration today." in NCASI pp. 31.
 
As a former ungulate biologist I was particularly concerned with the statements made in NCASI's herbicide paper in the wildlife section on pages 29-31. Reading these pages in the absence of background one would think that the timber industry’s goal was increasing and improving forage for deer and elk and that these ungulates were only minimally impacted because the woody vegetation killed was replaced by grasses.
 
“Conversely, herbicidal control of hardwood brush for the establishment of conifer plantations may remove valuable wildlife browse species and habitat.” In Review of the Ecological Effects of Herbicide Usage in Forestry by J.P. Kimmins 1975
 
“Model results suggested that the potential for long-term changes in vegetation composition and resultant ungulate forage availability were most pronounced during winter.” in NCASI pp. 29-31.   
 
The well recognized fly–even by NCASI–in this ointment is winter. Grasses are great in the spring and summer but as they mature and summer transitions into fall these plants take their protein and ship it below ground to be stored for next year. In short, if you have killed off the woody vegetation and are left with nutritionally useless grasses what do the elk eat in winter when stress and caloric needs are high–particularly in females carrying young?
 
I was also concerned with the coverage in this section about the toxic impact of the herbicides on wildlife. Certainly this is the timber industry’s party line, but the public has compelling reasons to be dubious about the rigor of these findings as they apply to wildlife and human health too. These “benign” herbicides are turning out to be more problematic than originally thought.  Adding to this general atmosphere of distrust are stories like the one unfolding at Triangle Lake in Oregon where citizens rightfully want to know what the timber and herbicide industries have put in their waters and ultimately their bodies.   
 
"The group also heard a presentation about herbicides by Anne Fairbrother, a veterinarian and principal scientist with the Exponent research company in Seattle.
 
Herbicides have “no known mode of action in mammals,” Fairbrother said. "They’re practically nontoxic to mammals according to most of the studies that have been done. We haven’t had any observations of direct effect that we’ve been aware of on wildlife and most of these herbicides have been around for several decades.” in The Daily News June 5, 2014
 
"CropLife America represents more than 60 developers, manufacturers, formulators and distributors of virtually all the crop protection products used by American farmers and growers. We are the voice of the industry that ensures the safe and responsible use of pesticides in order to provide a safe, affordable and abundant food supply." CropLife Mission Statement from their website.
 
My nervousness over this herbicide issue is little diminished by the nuanced quote above by Dr. Anne Fairbrother whose company Exponent is a dues paying member of CropLife America along with Syngenta the manafacturer of atrazine (see also attacks on scientists).  It is noteable that Dr. Fairbrother when she was with the US EPA during the Bush II era also supported the EPA's decision to continue to allow the use of atrazine over the objections of many and an existing and growing body of scientific evidence that if anything should have dictated a more cautious approach (1,2,3,4,5,6).  Atrazine is banned in the EU.
 
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Hamlet by William Shakespeare 1602
 
All in all the herbicide users, makers and the minions for both “doth protest too much, methinks” to do anything other than raise serious questions about too tight and too trusting relationships with WDFW and other serious conflicts of interest.  And what about spending just a little bit of time with Dr. Cook’s interesting “proof” about herbicies not contributing to or being at the root of this situation because we are not seeing the same phenomenon is other places where herbicides are used like the Blue Mountains?  We have indeed seen drops in elk populations in the Blues (1,2).  And setting aside the fact that we are dealing with a different subspecies of elk, in different habitats, and under different precipitation regimes, this area also has a full compliment of predators including wolves which are coursing predators that would make quick work of limping elk affected by leptospirosis, laminitis or other diseases.  
 
Getting back to Dr. Irwin, he is coincidentally also a science advisor to our friends at the Oregon Outdoor Council (1,2,3) who have, without caveat or condition, endorsed federal legislative proposals that could greatly increase clearcutting on federal forest lands in western Oregon as well as potentially reopening the door for herbicide use on some of these lands. As we have heard numerous rumors of limping elk in Oregon and leptospirosis has been documented in the state, this really needs to be examined and questioned as it has significant implications for issues like the privatization of the Elliott State Forest and the O&C proposals—both of which could lead to more clearcuts and herbicide use.
 
Embedded in all of this is also the oft repeated cautionary tale of massive habitat changes—human-wrought and natural—leading to short term gains in ungulate populations followed by population crashes and other catastrophic problems. Ecologists and visionary wildlife managers have been trying to raise the alarm about the consequences of these phenomena and related habitat issues for nearly 100 years (see Flathead Game Reduction). Yet we tend to get shouted down, ignored or fired (1,2) both during the elation over increased populations and the ensuing panic that accompanies the crashes.
NCASI Report Tree Illustration
In the latter case of crashes some hunters and wildlife commissioners do not want to hear about solutions—like habitat restoration—that might take decades or even centuries to fully unfold. They want right-now solutions like predator control, vaccines for diseases, and other biological Band-Aids. Population explosions also reset expectations and no one wants to be reminded that succession happens and clearcuts provide good elk food resources for a decade or two before shading out needed understory for nearly two centuries.  And as the illustration above from NCASI's herbicide report shows, the "clearcut bonus" is reduced nearly to zero when those lands are densely replanted with Douglas-firs and managed with herbcides.  
 
In all of this it is important to know the players and their biases. Moreover, it is important to make sure that the solution process is appropriately designed and equipped to provide solutions that solve the root causes of this problem and protect this important public resource for future generations. Towards those ends I would make the following suggestions to the WDFW:
 
1) Get more systems thinkers such as ecologists and also folks with experience outside of laboratories involved in the process.  These need to be people willing to ask tough questions about why this might be happening in the first place and not tied to any agency or industry that might be contributing to the problem.
 
2) Take some time to educate folks on elk habitat needs and the short and long-term consequences of habitat changes, herbicide use, and plant succession on elk populations.
 
3) Be more inclusive of other voices in the process and listen more closely to the concerns of hunters, anglers, and others who own and enjoy these public resources and less to those like the timber industry, herbicie interests or their scientists whose actions tend to decrease biodiversity and ecosystem integrity.
 
4-6) Conduct research, research and more research. This may seem facetious, but there is so much that we do not know, yet we are acting in a manner that suggests that we do. The impacts of herbicides and the interactions between various products as well as their "inactive" parts needs to be fully investigated before the issue is dismissed and the public told that these chemicals are safe for wildlife and humans. The full range of bacterial and immunotoxic causes and symptoms need to be examined and considered before they are ruled out. And the human health implications of handling and consumption of infected elk need to be fully addressed as well. There are others, but this would be a great start.
 
As I mentioned above, I do not know what is causing this phenomenon. But I do know that if the process and players lack openness and are preloaded to a certain realm of answers, the solution will reflect this. If you agree with these concerns click below to request that WDFW modify their current approach and remember that they are in the elk business not in the timber and herbicide game.
Roosevelt and Muir
 
My last comment has to do with the value of citizen activism and picking effective campaign partners by shared goals and benefits rather than appearance or perceived politics. I have written volumes about the campaigns of some with ties to the resource industries to drive wedges between natural allies in the conservation and environmental communities. Instead of rehashing what I have already said let me end with this. Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir—arguably the father of modern conservation and the king of the tree huggers—were friends and effective colleagues. They did not always agree on issues—in fact they had some pretty monumental battles.  But when they worked together they accomplished amazing things that are still talked about and revered more than a century later. Perhaps this is an issue where we can all work together again and not only do something exceptional on this front but set the stage for another and much needed push to ensure the future of wildlife and wild places and, at the same time, make our future more secure. 
 
 

Apr30

Patting Your Back While Picking Your Pocket

By Bob Ferris
 
The recent article in Mother Jones about the oil industry and the NRA floods me with relief because it is a variation of what I have been saying for the last two years about some of what I have calledElk US FWS “wedge” hunting groups.  And that is:  Do not let inflammatory and seductive rhetoric mask an agenda that favors exploitive industries over the true habitat protection and conservation agendas of hunters and anglers.  
 
Hunters and anglers who are paying attention should be for enhanced habitat protections, more wilderness areas, cleaner water and additional roadless expanses.  If the group you support spends a lot of time riling you up about wolves, you might want to take a closer look at their total package because it might just hide some dark secrets.  They might just be patting you on the back so they can pick your pocket.
 
What should you look for?  The first and most obvious thing is coziness with oil, timber, mining and ranching interests.  Look at who is on their board and whether they argue for roads in the interest of access, timber harvests for habitat enhancement, and partnerships with ranchers to enhance hunting. Are they trying to convince you that energy development is compatible with wildlife?  Are they fighting hard to kill predators and not fighting hard enough to protect deer and elk from livestock-borne diseases or competition with cattle and sheep?
 
Look also to see if they have campaigns to protect wilderness, regulate public lands grazing and push restorative timber harvests rather than clearcuts.  And do they oppose herbicide use and dense replanting of forest lands?
 
Look also where the academics cluster—not the industry scientists from “think” tanks—but scientists who are legitimately working to figure out the mysteries of ecosystems not how many trees can be cut down, wells drilled or cattle grazed.  All these should be clues.
 
There are a lot of false flags out there and misinformation abounds when it comes to wildlife so take a moment to ask some of the above questions to see if you are working with a legitimate organization forwarding the cause of wildlife or one that gets you ramped up and angry while stealing your wildlife future when you are looking the other way.
 
 

Dec29

Besmirching the Wolf and Roosevelt’s Ghost

wolf-110006By Bob Ferris 
 
“We’re continuing to see an alarming trend in Western wildlife management. I am calling it the “Predator Death Spiral.” The underlying cause of this phenomina [sic] is when a wildlife agency attempts to hide or “pad” their big game population estimates when over predation begins to take hold. This in turn creates a downward spiral that cannot easily be avoided, and is often not even noticed until the state hits both a financial and PR rock bottom.” Guy Eastman, The Predator Death Spiral 
 
When I was in graduate school in the mid-1980s I sat on a panel that was put together by the faculty of the School of Engineering because of a recognized deficit in the engineering curriculum: ecological literacy.  Our panel was asked what might be reasonable classes for engineering students to take to gain them sufficient grounding in ecology to lead them towards designs and approaches that work with nature rather than against it.  
 
The thinking being that by creating engineers who were aware of and sensitive to ecological considerations that we might have dams that do not exterminate fish, underpasses that facilitate migrations and sewage plants that provide tertiary treatment while at the same time creating needed habitat for fish and waterfowl. These were exciting discussions because we could see some ideas first introduced by folks like Buckminster Fuller and Howard Odum in 1960s finally getting some traction. It was for some, the rolling out of ecological engineering and industrial ecology after the requisite two decades incubation from idea to adoption.   It was for others an uninteresting sideshow to be ignored.  
 
You have a degree in Engineering; have you ever worked in the engineering field?
Yes, I did engineering work for three years when I got out of school from 1997 until 2000. I guess I got sick of punching a calculator and decided that going back into the family business would be a better fit for me.
 
I think about these times, this revolution in design and the wide array of opportunities offered, because of an ill-reasoned, poorly presented anti-wolf blog post from 2011 that was recently resurrected on the I-Fish site.  The blog was written by a person who trained as an engineer a decade after the revolution started and left because he saw engineering as simply pushing too many calculator buttons.  He exited after a three-year “career.”  The person in question is Guy Eastman of the Eastman Outdoors conglomerate.  
 
You are a huge advocate for the hunting of wolves. If you were in charge of managing them, how would you do it?
I am pretty anti-wolf. I think wolves do have a place in an eco-system but not this one. The eco-systems in the lower 48 are much too small for super predators like wolves. We are now finding this out the hard way. I would eradicate almost all of the wolves outside Yellowstone National Park and keep the numbers down to a minimum inside the park if it were up to me. I have lived through the second largest big game animal decline in modern history. The only wildlife crisis larger than this one was the market killings of the 1900s that took out all of our buffalo herds and most of our other wildlife populations. Our ancestors have worked extremely hard to bring these populations back from the brink only to be thanked by a bunch of self righteous want to be book worms that call themselves biologists. They are using "super predators" to destroy our wildlife resource right in front of our eyes. They have in essence created massive tracts of biological waste lands throughout Idaho, Wyoming and Montana with their Frankenstein wolf project. Teddy Roosevelt is rolling over in his grave. As with some much that our government does, the very legislation (the Endangered Species Act) that was built to protect our wild life is being used as the very vehicle to destroy it. I hope I wasn't too clear on this one.
 
gordon eastmanThe above interview and the blog post in question are hard for me to reconcile with the Eastman legend on so many levels.  The first mental speed bump for me is that Guy is the grandson of Gordon Eastman who made a little movie called The Savage Wild in 1970 about his experience raising a set of wolf pups in the Yukon for eventual release.  The film is interesting in that the senior Eastman has a sort of implied epiphany in that he acknowledges that he once shot wolves for bounty and memorializes his walking towards the light by portraying trappers intent on killing his pups as villains and eventually killing them off in the story line.  Gordon also did work for Disney on their set of nature films that likely served as cinematic gateway drugs to a generation of field biologists coming of age as environmental awareness blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s.
 
Gordon’s work was pretty progressive given the times.  I made a trip in the mid-1960s in that direction visiting Wells, British Columbia among other places.  Wells at that point was pretty much a frontier town with all wooden sidewalks and I remember walking down Main Street past rack after rack of black bear and wolf skins that could be had for $20 or so.  Supporting trappers of predators was the norm in the area at that time.
 
Given the above, Guy’s attitudes and his anti-wolf as well as his anti-Endangered Species Act (ESA) screeds seem to simultaneously exhibit a lack of perspective and a shortage of self-awareness.  Born shortly after the passing of the ESA, he probably lacks an understanding that the ESA is not only about the species recovery successes since enactment, but it is also about where we could have been had we not taken action.  To fully appreciate the true value of this Act as well as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act one had to experience or take time to investigate the species and environmental trajectories observed during the latter part of the 1960s.  His statements clearly reflect a lack of this perspective.
 
In addition, in his interview and blog post he authoritatively talks about ecological principles as if he has knowledge or experience in these areas.  Unfortunately—for the reasons cited in the opening of this post—he comes off sounding a lot like the youngsters in the popular AT&T commercials explaining to the deadpanned adult why faster is better.  His answers while entertaining are wrong and he is so confident in the sanctity of his bully pulpit that he feels absolutely no obligation to provide supporting evidence for his comments.  
 
Take, for instance, his statement about the size of ecosystem in the lower 48 states.  Experience and nearly 70 years of biological speculation and modelling disagree with his characterization.  Perhaps if he had taken some time and done some research then he would see that there are dozens of habitat and population viability analyses done by PhD biologists and ecologists that indicate that there is an abundance of room for wolves in the lower 48 states (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10).  Moreover, his claim that he has lived through the second largest big game decline in modern history is just plain silly when you compare it to overall elk population numbers and trends which are a mixture of good and bad news but overall much larger than a generation ago (1,2,3,4,5).  
 

His comment about “biological wastelands” is painfully ironic and is similar to the "raisins to grapes" argument in the above video.  Had Mr. Eastman taken a few courses in basic ecology at Purdue he would understand that the classic examples of wastelands—i.e., many Western rangelands, sea urchin barrens, deer on the Kaibab Plateau, and rabbit-chewed landscapes in Australia—are all examples of herbivores destroying ecosystems in the absence of predators.  Evidently the top element of the trophic pyramid in Guy’s world floats above other levels buoyed by some form of ecological anti-gravity rather than supporting levels of increasingly broad consumer groups.  
 
The comment regarding Teddy Roosevelt spinning in his grave is an interesting one.  My sense is that Guy mistakenly sees an roosevelt readingally in Roosevelt when it comes to hating wolves.  Certainly Roosevelt had no love for wolves, but then who did in the late 1800s when he wrote about them? But Roosevelt was also a Harvard-educated progressive and a first adopter of scientific ideas who was a bookworm (see picture of him speed-reading Dickens at right) and frequently carried a worn copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in his saddle bags when he rode off on hunts.  He was an amateur scientist who spent time with scientists and was treated as a peer.  He would therefore likely bridle at Guy’s caustic dismissal of voracious readers and biologists.
 
"I put Cooper higher than you do," Roosevelt would write to the novelist Josephine Dodge Daskam when he was vice president of the United States. (Page 40)
 
"Cooper's alter ego, Natty Bumppo, firmly believed that the unecessary slaughter of wildlife was a crime against God." (Page 41) 
 
 
Teddy and his good friend and Audubon Society creator George Bird Grinnell founded the Boone and Crockett Club that was one of the first organizations to forward concepts like “fair chase” principles.  My sense is that both Roosevelt and Grinnell picked Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett as exemplars because they had some nostalgic connection to these flintlock and percussion era, iron-sight hunters who struck out into the wildest of wildernesses with a cherished firearm, skinning knife, tomahawk, possibles sack and not much more.  Roosevelt was also a fan of James Fennimore Cooper and read the Leatherstocking Series from start to finish.  Roosevelt’s fair chase ideals were probably influenced by this quintessential American writer who loved woodscraft artfully employed, felt forests were jewels and who abhorred wasteful killing without purpose. 
 
It is hard to imagine what this monumental man and former President—who loved science, championed land preservation, advocated for game laws and embraced Cooper—would think about virtually eliminating a species like the wolf from the lower 48 states in today’s context.  Particularly considering that his current library would now include works by Aldo Leopold, Olaus Murie and Harvard professor E.O. Wilson as well as articles indicating that elk were so abundant in some areas that they were displacing his beloved birds–particularly in areas where cattle were grazed or climate change impacts were present or simulated (1,2,3,4) .
 
Likewise, I doubt that this man who championed fair chase (i.e., in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals) would support the gadget-rich, engine-dependent and scope-driven type of trophy hunting advocated by the editorial staff at Eastman’s publications or their myriad advertisers.  (And to those who might defensively say that their guided and catered trophy hunts on private ranches are just like those that Teddy experienced, I would suggest that they read Candice Mallard’s excellent book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and think again.)
 
I have gone on too long when my main points were simply that Guy Eastman’s blog post and his interview are intellectually and factually challenged.  My advice to Guy would be to take some time to read about Roosevelt before claiming ownership of his allegiance and also dig into some tomes by or about Leopold (1,2,3), Murie (1), Wilson (1) and Cooper (1,2) before rambling on about super predators, ecosystems or the underlying philosophies of our precious avocation.   He might just be surprised by what he finds and the exercise would certainly improve his writing in terms of tone, content and maturity.  It would likely also help with the some members of the hunting public’s impression of Guy and his publications.  
 
I will close by saying that the paranoid part of me reacts when I read illogical and uninformed drivel like what Guy is shoveling or what we read coming out of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others who are dependent on ranching, timber and energy interests for access to hunting lands, moneyed clientele for trophy hunts or cold-cash for donations.  My sense is that these associations come with significant blinders that prevent entities from seeing or speaking out about the wildlife impacts of these commercial activities.  I suspect too that the associations generate a certain amount of obligate empathy that calls for endorsement of actions such as predator control, timber harvests in excess of ecological need and road building.  Maybe this was why Teddy was really spinning?

 

Apr17

Of Hobbits, Elves, Elk, Ecology and Wolves

 

By Bob Ferris

My wife and I are fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For us that meant that we recently re-watched the extended versions of the three movies and also spent time watching the special features disc associated with each film.  The former was still great and the latter was revealing in so many ways.  One of the things we learned on the special features disc was how some of the special effects were accomplished both during shooting and with post-production wizardry.  Pretty cool stuff.
 
One interesting element of this was how they were able to deal with the size differences between the smaller hobbits and dwarfs and the larger humans and elves.  Once you understand that “little people” actors in prosthetics were used in the wider shots containing both big and small characters it really changed your perspective.  You actually could start to identify the various small actors who served as costumed and masked doubles in these scenes by their gait and movements.  Once you gained this knowledge and knew what to look for it was easy to spot the cinematic sleight of hand when it was employed.  It did not take anything away from the movie experience in fact it really seemed to enhance it.  
 
This whole episode got me thinking about wolves and why what is so obvious to those who have had ecological and biological training just may not be that accessible to others without the same grounding.  Maybe we need a “special features” disc for the wolves?  But what would be on that disc?  What is missing from the anti-wolf crowds understanding of the bigger picture?
 
To begin to understand what should be on the disc, perhaps we should visit the most notorious example cited by anti-wolf parties and trophy hunters—the Northern Yellowstone elk herd crash.  For the last couple of years all we have heard from the David Allens, Bob Fannings and Don Peays of the world are how wolves were released and immediately decimated this famous and very visible elk herd.  It is almost like these anti-wolf advocates had their own “remember the Alamo” moment.  But we need to inject a little of the late Paul Harvey here and start to look at the rest of the story.
 
That examination begins with looking at the long term elk population trends in Yellowstone’s northern range.  Important milestone events to remember to help make sense of this are that wolves were basically gone from the system by the mid-1920s, Park staff culled elk herds until 1968 when hands-off or ecological management became the rule, the massive Yellowstone fire happened in 1988, and wolves were first re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995.  
 
Bearing all of this in mind, here is what would likely make the short list for inclusion on “Special Features Menu” for the Northern Yellowstone elk herd or subpopulations like the Gallatin:
 
"Elk summer-fall use declined after fire, then increased to levels nearly three times the level of the control before dropping back at the end of the 20-year period. Elk winter-spring use was higher than the control throughout the entire evaluation period, with the highest recorded post-fire use 7 years after fire." Effects of Fire in the Northern Great Plains
 
Post-fire Plant Succession: The Yellowstone fire of 1988 swept through the Park with a myriad of consequences.  One of the most important ones for elk was that the fire opened up habitats and enabled an explosion of new plant growth which enabled the elk population to grow rapidly.  As plant succession—the natural progression from the softer, more nutritious pioneer plants to woody plants—progressed the amount and quality of food in the Northern Range available to elk diminished.
 
Availability of Water: Water is a huge driver for elk as it has a consequential impact on the quantity and quality of vegetation.  When precipitation is plentiful elk populations tend to grow and they decline in droughts. [1]
 
 
Competition with Bison and Other Species:  Elk tend to displace deer but are in turn displaced by bison in Yellowstone and domestic cattle in other places where grazing is allowed.  Bison populations have risen considerably over the past several decades ergo competition is likely another factor to consider. [1,2]
Grizzly Bears and Predators:  Grizzly bears also prey on elk—particularly elk calves.  Grizzly populations in Yellowstone have increased considerably over the last several decades.  This puts additional pressure on the elk.
 
Disease: Disease also can be a factor in populations particularly those that are at or above the long-term carrying capacity of the area and in the absence of selective pressures like predation.  Diseases spread faster when populations are dense, which is one of the reasons that feeding wildlife is generally a bad idea. [1,2,3]
 
Density Dependence: Density dependence is less a cause than and observation.  There is a general tendency in populations that become dense to “self-edit” at some point and it is likely caused by any one of these factors or a complex combination of them. [1]
 
Secondary Plant Compounds:  One of the most interesting areas of botany is looking at secondary plant compounds and how those plant produced chemicals often regulate the populations of animals that consume them.  While we often think in terms of grazing critters determining vegetation there is a large body of evidence that in many cases it is the other way around. [1,2,3]
 
“Additive and compensatory are the two types of mortality that occur in mule deer populations. An increase in one cause of mortality or the introduction of a new type of mortality may or may not increase the total number of animals that die, depending on whether that mortality is additive or compensatory. If the increase or introduction of mortality increases the number of deer that die, the mortality is additive. If it is compensated for by reductions in other types of mortality, and therefore doesn’t change the total number of deer that die, then it is compensatory.”  From Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies website.
 
Additive versus Compensatory Predation:  If a certain amount of prey species did not die each year through natural or artificial means, prey would quickly over populate their habitats with disastrous consequences.  Because many wildlife agencies tend to want prey populations to exist at or near their carrying capacities this question of whether or not predation is compensatory or additive comes into play.  One recent study looking at nearly 2800 radio collared elk in 45 areas, found that additive predation from all predators including wolves was less than 2%.
 
“Wolves are coursing predators that chase prey over long distances in open habitat and have a relatively low success rate, selecting substandard prey. The success rate on elk is 20 percent.”  Notes on a talk by Dr. Dennis Murray University of Idaho on Western Hunter
 
Genetic Impacts: People shooting elk and wolves killing elk have different genetic implications.  Hunters kill elk in the fall when the animals are fat after summer feeding.  Wolf predation peaks in late winter and early spring when less biologically fit animals are at their most challenged [reference].  The former action has limited beneficial impact on the gene pool of elk because the selective pressures are only chance and size.  In contrast, wolves chase animals and are most successful with those unable to escape or resist.  While humans might not be able to differentiate between genetically robust individuals by sight it is believed that coursing predators such as wolves that chase their normally faster prey do so mechanically.
 
Pollution:  Pollution from pesticides and herbicides are likely on the low side directly in Yellowstone but that is not true in the surrounding federal forests where the migratory elements of this herd frequent.  Many people including citizen scientist Judy Hoy have been expressing concerns about some of these pollution effects and hopefully this is an area that will receive broader research attention in the future.  
 
Actually the above is not really a menu per se, because all of these factors and more are all in play in the Northern Range and other locales where elk are declining and where they are increasing in the presence of wolves.  
 

Thinking that wolves are completely driving the elk population decline in Yellowstone’s Northern elk herd is a lot like thinking that actor Elijah Wood is only three feet tall because he appeared to be that height in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I would urge those who still adhere to the yard-tall thespian hypothesis to take a deep breath, employ some commonsense and dig a little deeper into the situation. I think that you will find that many wonderful things are going on and that wolves are only supporting players in this drama wholly undeserving of this deep hatred we observe and the wholesale slaughter heaped on this still recovering species.

Mar01

The Sacred Cows Return to the Public Trough…Again and Again

by Bob Ferris
 
Cattle Grazing Helps Maintain The Land:
• Grazing minimizes non-native plant growth;
• Grazing reduces wildfire risk by decreasing flammable material on the land;
• Grazing contributes to soil stabilization;
• Grazing promotes grass tilling, plant reproduction, and healthy plant communities.  Oregon Cattlemen’s Association website
 
Proof that there are at least some who actually believe claims like the above made by the livestock industry—in spite of a huge body of contradictory science—comes from companion bills recently introduced in the House and Senate.   
 
(c) Terms; Conditions.—The terms and conditions (except the termination date) contained in an expired, transferred, or waived permit or lease described in subsection (b) shall continue in effect under a renewed or reissued permit or lease until the date on which the Secretary concerned completes the processing of the renewed or reissued permit or lease that is the subject of the expired, transferred, or waived permit or lease, in compliance with each applicable law. From H.R. 657
 
The House bill introduced by Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador (R-ID)—H.R. 657 or the Grazing Improvement Act—extends the length of grazing leases from 10 years to 20, acts to exclude the public from the permitting process, and lets expired leases continue in the absence of action by the involved agencies.  Congressman Labrador’s lifetime League of Conservation voters score is 7%.
 
The parallel bill in the Senate—S. 258—was introduced by Senator Barrasso (R-WY).  If that name rings a bell it might be because this was the Senator who backed the terrible wilderness bill that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation first endorsed and then—once their membership rebelled—opposed because it was so bad for elk.  The Senator, who is also an MD, is pushing for LNG export which would require fracking in the intermountain states which is not a positive development for wildlife either.  Senator Barrasso’s lifetime LCV score is 13%.  
 
"Livestock grazing is the most damaging use of public land."
- Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior
 
These bills are so contrary to the interests of the American public and wildlife that they are almost painful.  Let’s start with climate change.  Science is telling us that we have to take drastic steps to ameliorate our current greenhouse gas contributions and mitigate our past actions.  One set of options for that involves lowering methane-leaking livestock numbers on public lands and also taking steps to allow cattle and sheep-hammered habitats to recover.  This set of bills greatly reduces our abilities to undertake these needed actions.  Why when we know that we need flexibility and creativity do we want to lock ourselves in deeper and tighter to a system that has already proven itself broken?
 
The economics and social equity arguments are also a little twisted too.  Why at a time when we are pinching pennies and cutting social programs for the economically challenged are we making it easier for a very small class of citizens to undertake an activity which costs us hundreds of millions more than we receive in fees not counting the impact of below market fees and the not insignificant ecological damage our public lands and resources suffer?  Why would we want to do all this for an industry whose relative contribution to the economy—even in rural areas—is diminishing?
 
The economics on this deserve examination.  First we know that the entire cattle industry in the US produces about $60 billion in revenue annually in a $14 trillion dollar economy.  As only 2% of beef is produced on federal public lands we are talking somewhere in the vicinity of $1.2 billion dollars for which the US tax payer pays around $124 million in cash outlay.  I know a lot of us would love to get that kind of return on our investment but these figures do not include the associated damages to water quality, wildlife and ecological services as well as predator control costs and revenues lost via below market grazing fees which have been estimated to be as high as $500 million to $1 billion annually.  Given this, public lands grazing in the West starts looking more and more like the “bridge to nowhere” or the $700 toilet seat.  
 
The automatic lease extension is also interesting, because commercial leases (unlike residential leases) normally do not have clauses that allow them to extend or convert to month-to-month arrangements upon expiration.  So in addition to pumping way too much money into this anachronistic undertaking we would be granting them additional privileges that none of the rest of us enjoy.   Again, why?
 
Images and associations are important in all of this and one that sticks with me is a campaign picture from Senator Barrasso’s flicker account.  It shows the candidate at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation event.  He is talking with Kevin Hurley with the Wild Sheep Foundation at the Cody, Wyoming.  What strikes me about this photo is not the candidate or Mr. Hurley, it is the fact that the elk is out of focus and overshadowed by an image of a cowboy.  Whether purposeful or accidental the fact that the elk is fuzzy and secondary to a romantic image of the livestock industry at a RMEF function is metaphoric of the problem that trophy hunting organizations suffer when they try to serve two masters and end up compromising their apparent missions.  Most of the rest of us see the right course here and that is to contact our representatives and senators and ask them to oppose this ecologically and economically indefensible legislation.  Please join us in this and future actions to bring reform to this antiquated and unfairly administered program.  Follow this link to contact elected officials.

 

Jul30

Let’s Talk of Wolves and Cattle but Please Include Elk, Deer, Fish, and Birds Too.

Having worked in orchards and on ranches as a child and young adult, I have a tremendous respect for the folks who actually produce our food.  That respect has led me to work diligently over the years to protect farm land, working landscapes, and family farmers.  But in all of this we have to be realistic and honest.  We also have to understand—particularly when we look at public lands that are owned by all—that there are a myriad of issues that need to be considered and they need to be considered in a rational and equitable manner.

Cattle grazing (US FWS)

I bring this up because I was disturbed this week by the news coverage over the wolf attack that seriously injured at calf on federal land in eastern Oregon.  That calf will likely be put down and that has an impact on that rancher and that needs to be dealt with, but not hysterically.  Portraying wolves as another nail in the coffin of ranching is not borne out by reality or experience.  

Right now there are 1.3 million or so beef cattle in Oregon and many of those cattle die before reaching market.  In fact, in an average year something like 50,000-60,000 cattle die of non-predator related causes in Oregon.  That is about 150 head per day.  But one calf gets killed by a wolf in 6 months and it is time to ring the alarm bells and call out the cavalry, because wolves are going to put ranchers out of business.  This sort of hyperbole is not helpful.

As much as this piece would suggest that the public lands ranching equation is just a wolf and rancher question, it really is not.  There are several other vested players in this equation that need to be considered such as hunters and fishermen as well as the growing number of wildlife watchers who visit our public lands.  These uses and desires need to be balanced and currently they are not.

We also need to remember that cattle displace both elk and deer.  They also muddy trout streams and remove streamside vegetation critical to invertebrate food production for trout and other fish.  They also foul potential campsites with their flops.  And grazing from all three often impacts bird habitat—both watchable and hunt-able.  Sure ranchers pay to graze BLM and Forest Service lands but those fees are generally much lower than private land grazing fees and degradation much higher.  

So am I advocating for an end to public lands grazing so we have more wolves as well as more elk, deer, fish and wilderness experiences? No, but I think we need to examine the entire system again and assess the ecological, economic, and social value of each activity.  Are elk and elk hunting more valuable and employ more people than cattle grazing?  What are the trade-offs to keep cattle away from streams and have vibrant fishing on our public lands again?  Which of the activities provides the largest returns to local communities?  And are subsidized grazing fees for a few still appropriate in these times of great fiscal stress for many, particularly in those counties that are hardest hit by the economy?

Moreover, we probably need to re-evaluate each in the light of climate change.  Studies coming out of Yellowstone at this point are linking the drop in elk populations to climate change related drought conditions.  This notion is reinforced by the fact that female elk are in poor condition which leads to low reproductive rates.  This makes sense when you realize that July temperatures in Yellowstone are nine degrees higher than normal and brown-up is happening several days earlier than it has in the past.  Any shortening in critical summer feeding is going to hurt elk numbers so keeping commercial grazing levels on public lands static does not seem like a logical course.

 

Jul17

Muries Rebuke Elk Foundation over Anti-Wolf Remarks

Olaus Murie (r) and Aldo Leopold (l) at Wildlife Society Meeting

The Muries—much like the Leopolds—are part of the conservation community’s royalty.  They shined individually and were an awesome force collectively—and they still are.  They have also been on my mind a lot of late.

Poisoning and trapping of so-called predators and killing rodents, and the related insecticide and herbicide programs, are evidences of human immaturity. The use of the term 'vermin' as applied to so many wild creatures is a thoughtless criticism of nature's arrangement of producing varied life on this planet. – Olaus Murie

They came to mind first as I wrestled with the irony of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation being so anti-wolf and yet honoring Olaus Murie who while clearly the father of modern elk management was also one of the pioneers when it came to predator appreciation and understanding.  For me—a proud owner of a well-thumbed copy of Olaus Murie’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks—the cognitive dissonance caused by this happenstance was profound and irreconcilable.  

Adolph and Louise Murie

 
And now they are on my mind because they too are bothered by the above.  And just as the first generation of Muries—Olaus, Mardy, Adolph, and Louise—did in such precious places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Grand Teton National Park, and Denali National Park, the remaining second and third generations are standing up for the wolf and sound science.  
 
So what did they do?  Donald Murie—Olaus and Mardy Murie’s son—recently wrote a strong letter (click here to see) to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation asking them to both stick to the science and change the direction of their comments regarding wolves or stop using the Murie name in association with the award and their programing.  This is a pretty straight-forward request driven by a growing frustration with the indefensible, anti-wolf rhetoric coming out of RMEF.  
 
The letter was sent to all the board members of the RMEF as well as the leaders of the major conservation organizations—many of which honored members of the Murie family with awards including:
 
The Wildlife Society’s Aldo Leopold Memorial Award Medal (Olaus)
Pugsley Medal (Olaus)
Audubon Medal (Olaus)
Sierra Club John Muir Award (Olaus)
Audubon Medal (Mardy)
Sierra Club John Muir Award (Mardy)
The National Wildlife Federation J.N. Ding Darling Conservationist of the Year Award (Mardy)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (Mardy)
John Burroughs Medal (Adolph)
 
On some level I suspect that this will be viewed as a harsh condemnation of RMEF as a conservation organization.  For my part, I hope it is viewed both as a community-wide intervention and an invitation.  I hope the elk foundation understands the seriousness of this action and owns up to their 
missteps.  But to move forward and accept the “invitation” element of the action they have to make serious changes in leadership and philosophies.  If they can do it, there are plenty of us who would welcome an opportunity to work with them again in the spirit of cooperation and sound conservation science.  It is really their choice.
 
Bob Ferris
Executive Director 
Cascadia Wildlands

 

Jun06

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation–Needed: Less 10 Gallon Hats and More 10 Pound Brains

Right after the Mexican wolves were released in the Southwest I was at a DC press conference with Dave Parsons, Craig Miller, and other drivers of the restoration project.  I was interviewed after the event by a reporter from USA Today who asked me what wolves needed to survive.  My answer was quick and flippant and was a follows:

“Wolves are very resourceful.  All they need to survive is for people not to shoot them.”

That quote was picked up in papers across the country and eventually ended up being the quote of the year in the Chicago Tribune and still seems to pop up now and then on the internet.  That is pretty wonderful from a “getting out the message” angle, but the only problem is that I have since found out that I was flat wrong.  

As we look at the on-going wolf slaughters in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming my simple admonition of not shooting wolves is clearly not enough.  We have to stop trapping them as well.  Moreover, we need to make sure that the myths are dispelled and that sound, science-driven policies are enacted and enforced to make sure that robust and viable populations exist to re-colonize other wolf-empty areas in Oregon, Washington, and California.

“To keep wolf populations controlled, [David Allen CEO Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation] said, states will have to hold hunts, shoot wolves from the air and gas their dens.”  (Predator, Protector —as Costs Mount, Some Researchers Point Out Benefits. Bend Bulletin Jan. 7, 2012)

Lots of people are spewing misinformation about wolves, but one of the loudest and most boorish is M. David Allen the CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—a once broadly respected, science-driven conservation organization.  Mr. Allen is rapidly becoming the “poster child” of why conservation and environmental groups put themselves at risk ethically and intellectually when they hire CEOs who are not adequately grounded in the organization’s field of endeavor.  And while Mr. Allen seems extremely capable in the marketing arena as evidenced by his development of strong links with NASCAR, the Pro Bull Riders, and Aflac—all of which help the organization’s bottom-line—his anti-wolf rhetoric has alienated him and his organization from many of the very organizations that have helped RMEF—in subtle and profound ways—garner the successes it has over the years.

The environmental and conservation communities are not monolithic and we all have subtly different cultures—which is exactly why we exist independently.  That said it is important that we have continuous and constant dialogs that enable us to come together when the risk is high and we all agree on what needs to be done.  Mr. Allen, because of his short tenure as a conservationist and confrontation modus, has violated and stomped all over this long standing culture of agreeing to disagree and then coming together when needed.

I believe the above is a direct result of his lack of grounding and history.  He was not, for instance, a member of the conservation community in the mid-1990s (like many current conservation and environmental CEOs) when Newt Gingrich made his ascendancy in the House and we all were taking panicked breaths at the attacks and risks before us.  Had he been there he would have likely had a seat at the table organized by Helen Sevier CEO of BASS and eventually called the Natural Resources Summit of America.  He would have seen—like I did as the representative for Defenders of Wildlife—the true value of open and candid dialogs between organizations as diverse as Safari Club International and the Humane Society.  While we certainly differed on some details, these conversations exposed a great many commonalities and opportunities for future collaboration and respectful disagreement.

Certainly there are times when going boldly by one’s lonesome is absolutely the way to go, but doing it in a fashion that burns bridges and builds walls through vitriolic public disagreements is reflective of poor leadership.  What is the risk?  The most tangible illustration that comes to mind is RMEF’s endorsement and then backtracking on the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, H.R. 1581 in 2011.  Simply stated, this was a terrible bill for elk and RMEF’s initial endorsement of the legislation baffled and angered the organization’s supporters and past partners.

Though the organization eventually got praise for listening to their constituency and taking a policy U-turn, the action raised a fundamental question: Is an organization that has to rely on their members and the interested public to keep them from making bad decisions functioning properly?  The simple answer to that is: No.  I have never in my more than 20-year career as a conservation leader had to reverse my position publicly.  My practice is to do my homework—some of which is consulting with my colleagues in other organizations—prior to taking a public position.  Of course these dialogs become less frequent and natural if you have alienated your potential allies in the various camps and no longer have access to those differing points of view that help you refine and allow you to test-drive your own point of view.  

Perhaps more important here are the concepts of programmatic responsibility and resource stewardship.  Organizations should lead and be the best informed and most protective of the resources under their care.  In my mind they do not live up to their obligations on both these fronts unless they are informing their memberships on the best positions rather than putting their constituencies in the awkward position of helping the “experts” be the experts they should already be.

I know Mr. Allen has a vision for the organization and it seems to be working for him, but I wonder if he has ever read the mission statement of his organization which reads “to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat.”  I wonder if he understands that the “other wildlife” includes wolves and other predators.  I wonder too if he is familiar with the work and philosophy of Olaus J. Murie who is celebrated each year by the RMEF through an award named in his honor.  Olaus Murie along with his wife Mardy and his brother Adolf were all hugely supportive of predator restoration and protection.  My strong sense is that they as well as others in the family would be shocked and disgusted by RMEF recent offer of funds to the state of Montana to kill wolves and other predators.  

As I am on a roll here I will also say that folks who refer to Theodore Roosevelt casually often do not understand him or what he stood for.  For one thing Mr. Roosevelt was a very learned man so Mr. Allen’s lack of scholarship regarding the natural world and ecological relationships would probably bother the former president.  Moreover, Teddy was a fair-chase man who reportedly would not shoot a bear tied to a tree.  Therefore, he would likely take a dim view of folks who would call themselves conservationists and sportsmen while at the same time advocating shooting wolves from a plane and gassing wolves in their dens.  And I fully acknowledge here that Teddy hated wolves—but there have been a whole lot of paradigm-shifting developments in regard to predator science since his time.

"Natural balance is a Walt Disney movie," he [Allen] said. "It isn't real."

 

So let’s talk about science.  One of my pet bugaboos is non-scientists righteously calling for sound-science because the prevailing science does not agree with their view of the world.  We see this in the climate change “debate” and we see it in regards to predators.  Natural systems are notoriously complicated and many people have trouble with complicated, multi-faceted systems.  And while it seems perfectly logical that predation should lower game populations and life is linear, it simply is not.  In fact, the more you study natural systems the more complicated they seem to become.  

While Mr. Allen seems a consummate marketer and has nailed messaging that certainly attracts an audience, nowhere in his impressive resume do we see anything that indicates the scientific grounding necessary to sort out the often mysterious and sometimes counter-intuitive world of predator-prey relationships.  People are absolutely able—as he probably has—of stuffing information into their heads, but it is more than that.  Science—unlike marketing or nearly any other discipline—is less about working until you get an answer and more about looking at everything you can to get the answer and then questioning it.   Science begins and ends with curiosity and doubt.  This is not the realm where David Allen apparently lives.

Mr. Allen seems perfectly satisfied with taking a position, finding a study that supports his proposition, and then calling it a day.  A perfect example of that was his recent promotion of a paper that argued that the presence of wolves lowered reproductive hormone levels in female elk.  Mr. Allen is perfectly correct that study claimed to demonstrate that happenstance, but a handful of other studies observed different results as well as suggestions for sampling or classification errors that could have accounted for the discrepancies in the Creel et al. study from 2007 he cited.  But instead of examining the issue more thoroughly, Mr. Allen charged ahead once again and used this “evidence” in a letter to an elected official.

 

The Elk Foundation's mode of operation can be explained in a single word: partnerships. We are proud of our reputation as a voice of reason, authority and integrity, as a facilitator capable of bringing opposing viewpoints to the negotiating table and then mediating creative and beneficial solutions and forging partnerships for the future.” RMEF Website

 

I can only conclude from all of this that Mr. Allen has not embraced all that RMEF has represented over the years, but is setting a decidedly different course for the future.  His stance of maximizing elk everywhere from ecological and economic perspectives seems myopic and is less than respectful of the collective ownership of public lands and the spectrum of desires of the owners—which includes both pro-wolf factions and ranchers who think elk herds are too large.   

When I was in graduate school and we wanted to describe someone who was really, really smart we would say that person had a ten-pound brain.  From an outside perspective the RMEF appears to currently include a whole lot more ten-gallon hats than ten pound brains.   Not that ten-gallon hats are inherently bad, but if the RMEF is going to be a vibrant and respected institution far into the future there must be a fundamental change in leadership and messaging that will attract the more heavy headed and less knuckleheaded among us.  I hope they do a little soul searching because there are a lot of us who would love to see them represent once again the best and not the worst that conservation community has to offer.

Bob Ferris

Executive Director 

Cascadia Wildlands

 

P.S. Please sign the Aflac petition and ask them to stop supporting this type of biological bigotry.  Thank you.

 

Additional Supporting Literature:

With Elk and Wolves Someone is Fibbing Todd Wilkinson 2012

The Truth About Wolves is Hard to Find Christina Nealson 2012

Undetected species losses, food webs, and ecological baselines: a cautionary tale from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA Joel Berger 2008

Linking wolves and plants: Aldo Leopold on trophic cascades. William Ripple and Robert Beschta. 2005

 

 

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