Posts Tagged ‘deer’

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.
 
 
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.
 
 
Feb10

Deer, Bears and Pigs: the Apples, Oranges and Pumpkins of Ecology

By Bob Ferris
 
In the mid-1980s I served as an ecological consultant for the University of California, Santa Cruz when they compiled their 20-year development plan.  I was making my living as a wildlife ecologist at that time and was excited by this Banana_slug_closeupdeparture from my normal set of consulting projects such as critter surveys for housing or energy developments.  I also was happy to be working both for my alma mater and on one of the wildest college campuses in America.  The campus at this point not only had live versions of UCSC’s banana slug mascot, but had habitats supporting coyotes, foxes, bobcats and an occasional mountain lion.  My job was to help keep these natural features and functions in the face of planned development.  
 
As I was writing my recommendations I received a phone call from a local reporter.  She kept asking me about deer: What was I going to do about the deer?  The 2001-acre UCSC campus is a little like a lop-sided bowtie with wildness at the top, open spaces at the bottom and a “knot” of development focused at the center.  In light of that I was most concerned about creating wildlife corridors that would allow predators to move freely from the upper campus to the lower to provide a biological counter-point to the burgeoning deer and ground squirrel populations.  
 
My frustration grew as the interview continued.  And, unfortunately, I had recently watched Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and loved the line about pigeons being likened to hungry rats with wings.  Thinking that hyperbole would get us back to talking about fence design, light pollution, and dedicated vegetative corridors, I substituted deer for pigeons and earned one of my first memorable and controversial quotes as an ecologist. The episode taught me much about dealing with the press and educating the public about complex concepts and relationships.
 
Nearly a decade later in 1992 Jared Diamond wrote much more sensitively about the biodiversity tragedy unfolding in the Fontenelle forest near Omaha, Nebraska.  In his seminal article he asked the question on the minds of many in the conservation community: Must We Shoot Deer to Save Nature? (Natural History August 1992).  Now some at the time rightfully debated management approaches and methodologies, but the writing was on the wall in terms of ungulates in the absence of controlling factors degrading habitat for themselves and other species.
  
Over the intervening years these problems persist.  They linger and worsen largely because they are often very complicated and they call on society to make decisions and take actions that make many uncomfortable.  Moreover, the natural manifestation of the problems themselves are much like X-rays and CAT-scans in that the “fractures” and “tumors” are obvious to the trained and practiced eye, but little more than blurred images to others who might not understand, for example, the promise of migratory geese versus the peril of resident honkers. 
 
All of this comes to mind because my wife recently told me of an article about problem wildlife in Time magazine.  In the December 9, 2013 issue award-winning journalist David Von Drehle wrote an article called “America’s Pest Time CoverLrProblem: Why the rules of hunting are about to change.”  I read Von Drehle’s piece and was happy that he raised many of these same issues once again.  But there were also parts of the article that I was bothered by.
 
“Gray wolves have rebounded so robustly from near destruction that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to removed them from the protected list of endangered and threatened species.” Von Drehle, page 42
 
My sense is that Von Drehle’s comments could have been more surgical in regards to apex predators, clearer in identifying comments about wild populations in wild places versus those in urban or suburban settings, and differentiating between native species and forms as opposed to those that are neither.  How so? First off his characterization that wolf populations are expanding so quickly that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is considering delisting the species, for instance, is problematic for anyone paying the least amount of attention.  A little research would show that wolf populations are declining in some areas, are not an urban or suburban issue because they have a low tolerance for humans and that the USFWS’s decision to propose delisting was driven more by wildlife commissions packed with agricultural interests and trophy hunters than by any population-driven imperative or crisis (please see peer review post).  
 
While we are on the topic of numbers, the piece also contains a quote from Dr. Maurice Hornocker that is a little sensational:  There may now be more mountain lions in the West than there were before European settlement.  Wow. That is a quote guaranteed to capture attention, but should it?  Right now elk populations in the West—in spite of protestations from chicken-little trophy hunters—are certainly near an all-time high and much higher than what was observed during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  At the same time competing predator populations (i.e., wolves and grizzly bears) are seriously depressed hovering just above historic lows.  Then you take away 30-60 million migratory bison and throw in more than 20 million relatively stationary cows and a bunch of low IQ sheep and you have a recipe that results in more mountain lions.  
 
But all of this is more about the problems with predator control programs and public management of forests and grasslands than it is about exploding mountain lion populations near concentrations of humans.  Granted this quote by one of the foremost experts on mountain lions is true and there are issues with mountain lion populations near human settlements but mountain lions (panthers) are also an endangered species in Florida and missing from most of their historic habitats in the East.  My concern is that folks “reading” by looking at pictures and highlighted quotes might walk away from this piece thinking that a war on mountain lions in wild areas is justified when it is not (please also see blog about delisting peer review). 
 
“And some scientists theorize that the resurgence of grizzly bears in the wilderness helps explain why black bears are now suburbanites.” Von Drehle, page 42
 
Likewise the proffered argument about bullying grizzly bears driving black bears into settled areas seems almost silly in its insignificance and relevance in that there are so very few of these bigger bears in the lower 48 states and black bears are so readily and broadly recolonizing suburban habitats in the absence of their bigger, more aggressive cousins.  This is not to say that grizzly bears do not displace black bears and that there is not some readjustment taking place where recovering grizzly bears are reclaiming past haunts, but brown bear re-colonization happens at a relative snail’s pace so this is hardly in the nature of a black bear stampede.  
 
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881)
 
I also found the graphic on page 41 of the piece entitled “Beasts on the Rise” disturbingly simplistic to the point of being misleading.  Take the deer element of that graphic.  While some deer species in some areas such as white-tailed Time Graphicdeer in suburban areas may be on the rise and a problem, other deer species including mule deer and black-tailed deer in the West are on the decline.  
 
Also these numbers themselves—out of context—are meaningless without addition information.  The fact that wolves have increased six-fold since the 1970s is interesting, but relatively pointless unless we understand what historic populations were or what current capacity for the species remains.  The 618% increase in wolves does not, in fact, support the article’s central thesis that wildlife are superabundant in certain urban and suburban areas and therefore additional management steps—including hunting—need  to be taken.  
 
While on the topic of “deer” it is interesting that elk were not covered in this piece.  Elk populations have gone from zero to 60 in a number of places through natural increase aided by habitat modification (e.g., timber cuts and fires) and aggressive reintroductions with significant impacts to agriculture, private property and human safety.  My sense is that most homeowners, farmers or drivers would much rather deal with a testy tom turkey occupying their backyards, visiting their fields or landing on their hoods than they would a bugling bull elk in the same circumstances.    
 
The piece and the page 41 graphic blur the lines in terms of native species and ecological function as well.  Wild pigs are not a native species and strike me as an entirely different issue than abundant or even superabundant native wildlife in urban and suburban settings.  In addition, wild pigs are not cousins to domestic pigs they are directly descended from domestic pigs that we released into the wild.
 
Moreover, while Canada geese have increased and are a problem in many areas, this is certainly not an issue of abundance or numbers, but rather one of behavior.  We have a shortage of migratory geese and an overabundance of resident geese that are polluting water systems and lowering the carrying capacity of wetlands by cropping aquatic vegetation at times and at levels that interfere with food supplies needed by migrating waterfowl during late fall and winter.  Here is where the informed lens sees peril in the US goose swimming in summer and that same heightened understanding prevents some from seeing the non-native, invasive mute swan as in any way equivalent to a migrating trumpeter swan.  
 
And beavers too.  The piece does beavers a disservice in terms of the ecological services they freely provide to characterize their increases solely as detrimental.  When we look at the drought-challenged West, restoring a critter that helps slow cascading water down on its rush to the sea so that it can sink down and recharge surface waters or even aquifers—while creating badly needed habitat for fish and waterfowl at the same time.  And as much as I like Microsoft folks, it seems of more value than some ornamental trees in Redmond.   That is not to say that I have never been angry when seeing a beaver-girdled tree in my backyard, but this is a case of making slight adjustments so that the much better benefit can be achieved across a larger landscape.  We do not live in Disneyland after all and we must take the good with the bad.
 
Now I have heaped a lot of criticism on this piece, but I am also glad that it was written.  I am glad, because we must talk and think about these issues.  Good and bad articles in this context become teachable moments in a world badly in need of teaching.  In recognition of this, we all need to recommit ourselves to education and not view environmental education, science and math as expendable as some view these important species.  
 
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.
Jan31

Crony Capitalism on the Tongass

by Gabe Scott

Where is the Tea Party when we need them?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with two thick Environmental Impact Statements — for the Tonka Timber Sale, and the Big Thorne Timber Sale — out of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. These fellas are a blast from the past, a nostalgic but savage reminder of why our work continues to be so necessary on Cascadia’s northern forest.

The Tonka and Big Thorne timber sales target thousands of acres of old-growth for clearcutting. Trying to stay clear of controversial roadless areas, they’re logging mostly “leave” areas between past clearcuts, on places like Prince of Wales Island and Lindenberg Peninsula. The result would be huge, continuous clearcuts. Sacrifice areas, really.

One big problem is these huge swaths of land will be worthless to deer during hard winters. In good weather, even a clearcut can be good habitat for a deer. But when deep snow comes deer seek refuge in the shelter of big trees, and rely on the lichens beneath them to avoid starvation.

A related problem comes when clearcuts grow back into densely stocked second-growth. This shades out undergrowth, killing the herbs and shrubs that deer eat. A second-growth forest in the “stem exclusion phase” is worthless to deer from about 30 years after logging out. The condition lasts about a century, nobody is really sure.

Loss of deer winter habitat has spiraling negative effects to wolves and humans who eat them. If this sacrifice areas strategy goes forward, the ecosystem won’t just be damaged — it will be destroyed, thrown fundamentally out of whack. Places like Prince of Wales Island and Lindenberg Peninsula will no longer be able to support deer, human hunters and wolves. One of the three will have to give.

It’s pretty clear how this story plays out. The last few winters have been hard, and the places that have been heavily logged have seen huge declines of deer. On Lindenberg Peninsula, where the Tonka sale is proposed, the Alaska Board of Game voted this month to limit the deer season and bag limit. Worse, they are considering “predator control” plans to kill off 80% the wolves in the area, in a desperate effort to leave enough deer to hunt.

These are the consequences of logging, so why are we still doing this? The thing is, the Forest Service sees it as their job to prop up and grow a timber industry in Southeast Alaska. These massive logging projects are based on the idea that if enough forest is sold cheaply enough, new mills will rise from the ashes.

The facts aren’t there to support the scheme. The truth is, not being able to find enough trees was never the reason behind the old-growth industry’s decline. The reasons are obvious: the price you can sell trees for went way down, and the cost of logging went way up. There’s only one mid-size mill left in business (just barely).

The fact is this: it is not profitable to log and mill Tongass old-growth on any large scale.

There are all sorts of gimmicks used to disguise the fundamentally unsound economics. The Forest Service builds, maintains and repairs a vast network of logging roads with taxpayer money. They try to hide the millions of dollars it costs to design, lay out, and do environmental analysis for timber sales.

The strategy doesn’t even obey its own logic. The Forest Service routinely issues exemptions allowing loggers to bypass the local mill and export logs overseas. If the point is to save the local mills, then why are these sales geared to export markets?

What is going on here is exactly the kind of “crony capitalism” that Sarah Palin rails against. We have a few dozen people in the logging industry, a Forest Supervisor, and local politicians co-enabling each other by peddling a tired old narrative. There’s a veneer of rugged individualism, but really these are government-made jobs. Taxpayers are paying over a quarter-million dollars for each logging job being created.

The “jobs versus environment” debate has become so entrenched that most politicians don’t know how to think any other way. Eventually the facts will catch up, and Tea Party folks will realize Tongass logging for the wasteful government program that it is.

Until then, we’ll have to keep fighting these big timber sales like it’s 1999.

 

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.

 

Jun12

Alone in the Rogue

         

Have you ever felt like you were being watched? All logical sense reassures you that you’re alone but an eerie feeling persistently creeps in that you’re not. I had that eerie feeling a dozen times this week while I backpacked through the Rogue River area. When you spend three days in solitude, it is easy to let your mind wander to unsettling places. Just before dusk on the second day I got that feeling while making dinner so I looked up as I had done many times already. This time, I wasn’t alone. I saw two sets of eyes reflecting my headlamp beam; it wasn’t my mind playing tricks on me again, as it had done all day. I could easily see my new companions were deer. Though they ventured close to camp, they were always aware of my every move. I am sure they knew I was there long before I saw them.

They weren’t the only deer I encountered on my trip; thirteen miles down river from the Grave Creek trail head. I went to this area to explore the proposed wilderness area that Cascadia Wildlands, among others, is working hard to protect. Because of the spring rains, the tributaries were flowing at full force. At every crossing I would try to look as far up the creeks as I could. They carve pathways into the unknown forests too thick to explore.

The dense forest and steep terrain don’t offer a lot of overlooks or vistas into the woods other than looking down the main river corridor, so it is hard to know what actually lies in the proposed area. On the second day, I decided to venture off the main trail, to truly experience the wilderness. It wasn’t easy going uphill through dense forests or trying to navigate up a rushing creek, but I made it away from the main Rogue River valley and stumbled onto an undocumented trail.

As I hiked through the woods, I couldn’t help but wonder why this trail was built, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. That question was answered after about a mile when I came out, through the dense forests, into a large meadow. It was completely unexpected considering the density of forest that defines the area. Lush green grasses painted the gently rolling hillside. As I made my way to the middle, I finally had a vista of the proposed wilderness. Again, I wasn’t alone; about two-dozen deer were grazing and spooked when I came out into the open.

Even though I went on this trip unaccompanied, my brief but frequent interactions with wildlife provided re-assurance that I was never truly alone. It is miraculous wilderness and I am glad groups are actively trying to protect it as such.

Andrew Van Dellen
 

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