By Bob Ferris
I am always a little leery of the term political science—not because of anything about this important discipline—but because the two elements of the field (i.e., politics and science) act so often like matter and anti-matter. We have certainly seen this with the climate change debate. And we constantly see it with the scientific and political discourse surrounding the wolf and other predators.
Why is this particularly on my mind? The answer to that is the recent forced resignation of Nevada Department of Wildlife’s director Ken Mayer. Mr. Mayer was pushed out of his job because he essentially stood up for science and wildlife.
While all personnel issues are difficult and complicated, Mr. Mayer’s plight and his conflicts with the wildlife commission and state legislators from rural districts are emblematic of what is happening all over the country in our wildest and most precious areas. And we should be paying attention to this because it materially impacts wolves and other predators and is part of a phenomenon that keeps ranchers on public lands, chainsaws in ancient forests, and oil derricks on grasslands.
“Director Ken Mayer and his dedicated NDoW staff through innovative and aggressive habitat improvement, water development, translocation and other conservation measures as well as industry leading collaborative efforts with sportsman’s groups, landowners, livestock producers, and other stakeholders, has restored Nevada’s bighorn populations to levels only dreamed of in other western states,” noted WSF President & CEO, Gray N. Thornton during the award presentation. “Nevada Department of Wildlife and Director Ken Mayer have set the pace for all other western sheep states to follow”
I do not know Mr. Mayer personally but have great empathy and respect for this award winning scientist and wildlife leader. Mr. Mayer follows a path set by conservation giant Aldo Leopold and others who have put science and wildlife before their own welfare. It is a tough path but the right one and it takes real courage to stand by your convictions when the villagers crest the rise and you can see their burning torches and pitchforks clearly.
So who are these proverbial “villagers” and who leads them? The key players in this anti-science and anti-wildlife construct are unfortunately the very folks who are supposed to represent our interests in regard to wildlife—wildlife commissioners and elected officials. Let’s start with the commissioners. These civic leaders are traditionally appointed by the state’s governor and are predominately people with an interest in hunting or angling. Some are very principled public servants who hold science dear but too often—as we saw with the Wedge Pack in eastern Washington—they also have strong ties to the livestock or extractive industries. And far too often in this equation science, wildlife, and biodiversity pay a price for these conflicting loyalties.
"I've had problems with Ken Mayer for a long time," Carpenter said in a telephone interview. "I've been talking and corresponding with the governor for a long time about this."
And what about the legislators? In the case of Ken Mayer the legislator leading the mob is a rancher, realtor and former state Assemblyman named John Carpenter whose formal education ended with high school in the 1940s and whose resume claims ties with our friends at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He and others in his camp objected to Mr. Mayer’s hesitancy to employ predator control to aid deer populations in favor of habitat enhancement and Mr. Mayer’s “collusion” with the Bureau of Land Management to protect the imperiled sage grouse. While I certainly understand why the above would be a problem for a director of an agricultural agency charged with protecting cattle, sheep and public lands grazing, Mr. Mayer was being criticized here for following the most prudent course for wildlife indicated by the science. Is that really a problem?
4. The majority of science-based publications within the last 25 years have indicated that wildlife
predation generally had not been and were not now the limiting factor controlling most free-living ungulate populations.
5. These publications have provided data indicating that the primary factor limiting populations of bighorn, mule deer and pronghorn were the quality and quantity of forage and survival vegetation cover conditions. All other factors were generally secondary.
6. These reports support the contention that one of the most effective expenditure of current public wildlife management funds should generally be to improve vegetation conditions for forage.
Is there scientific support for Mr. Mayer’s resistance to employ predator control and emphasize habitat quality? The simple answer to that is a resounding: Yes. The 2008 review article cited above is just one article of hundreds talking about the importance of habitat conditions (greatly impacted by grazing, timber and resource extraction) over issues of predation. In the case of deer and sage grouse declines in Nevada most investigations point to a complex set of factors that including the general impacts of grazing, domestic livestock spreading invasive cheat grass, lack of cover and changes in wildfire regimes. Yet we continue to see an emphasis on predator control in Nevada and throughout the West. And we will until the public finally understands the science and politics involved in these decisions and the importance of standing up for people like Ken Mayer who are trying to do the right thing for wildlife and biodiversity. It is unacceptable on so many levels that these scientists are suffering the slings and arrows of from people claiming to represent the best interests of wildlife while carrying the water for interests that are diametrically opposed to the very idea of conservation. Thank you, Ken, and good luck.
“Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half of its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying that “game belong to all people.” So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The “greatest good for the greatest number” applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from the wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all of our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.” Theodore Roosevelt 1916