“Wild horses are a rare sight, so for the overwhelming majority of lands that are in poor condition, the domestic livestock are the cause when land health and wildlife suffer.”
Photo Source DieselDemon | CC BY 2.0
Public lands managed by the federal government loom large in western politics, a defining topic dictating the political debate. Corporate interests – logging, grazing, and mineral extraction most prominently – have often succeeded in dominating that debate through their good-old-boy network of legislators, county commissioners, lobby groups, and captive agencies. This powerful group largely controls the imaginary “custom and culture” of the West, a myth which reflects an attitude of dominion over nature, an anti-regulation mindset, and an obsession with economic profit regardless of social or ecological consequences. But in reality, westerners in large numbers don’t actually share these values. With the influx of tech companies and professional workers from other regions, this extraction-centric worldview is becoming a tinier and tinier minority viewpoint in a West that increasingly prizes unspoiled scenery, abundant wildlife, and recreational values above extractive uses of public lands.
As they sense their deathgrip on the public debate slipping, those seeking to maximize exploitation and marginalize conservation on western public lands are becoming increasingly strident in their insistence on a variety of fictional assertions about the West. Here is a list of some of the most outrageous misinformation being peddled through the media and via political channels.
1) Industrial oil and gas drilling is compatible with healthy wildlife populations
Big Oil has been trying for decades to sell America on the idea that it is not a dirty industry, and that whatever its latest environmental disaster happened to be, it was a rare occurrence that will never happen again. Drilling rigs, pipelines, and the spiderweb of dusty access roads can exist side-by-side with abundant native wildlife, they assert. But we know better. An onslaught of scientific studies demonstrates conclusively that converting undeveloped habitats into industrial oil and gas fields decimates sage grouse and mule deer populations, interferes with pronghorn migrations, and harms native wildlife from the tiny sage sparrow to the majestic golden eagle. It no longer matters how many slick paid television ads show pumpjacks against the backdrop of purple mountains’ majesty, the public – from hunters to wildlife viewers to local westerners worried about their deteriorating quality of life – just aren’t buying it anymore. And this spatial incompatibility doesn’t even begin to address the broader problems of burning those fossil fuels and adding to climate change’s impacts on native wildlife species.
2) Nobody wants to see the sage grouse (or anything else) listed under the ESA
The Endangered Species Act is one of the nation’s most popular laws, enjoying 90% support from American voters, but that doesn’t seem to deter anti-environmental interests from claiming that nobody wants to see it used. Sen. Barrasso (R-WY) is currently pushing legislation to gut the ESA by turning over key decisions to states that don’t want the law enforced, while the Trump administration is trying to change the regulations to loosen protections for our rarest wildlife.
It just isn’t true that, “No one wants to see the sage grouse listed under the Endangered Species Act,” no matter how many politicians or bureaucrats say it. While it’s true that most sentient beings are opposed to extinction and don’t want to see species plummet to the level of ESA listing, the majority of westerners do want to see highly-imperiled species like sage-grouse gain federal protection under the law. A 2004 Central Colorado College survey found that on the conservative West Slope of Colorado, 68% thought the Gunnison sage grouse ought to be listed under the ESA. The Gunnison sage grouse was listed as a ‘threatened species’ in 2014, and a 2016 poll of West Slope voters found that 66% thought the bird should continue to be listed under the ESA until they are fully recovered. A 2014 poll commissioned by Defenders of Wildlife found that 67% of westerners supported listing the related greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, including 57% in Wyoming, traditionally considered an anti-ESA state. So, when western good-old-boys say that nobody want to see endangered species listings, they’re speaking for themselves, not for westerners.
3) Logging, grazing, or fuelbreaks can stop big fires
This Big Lie started with Smokey the Bear and his Forest Service admonition, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” This myth, assuming all fires are human caused and unnatural, has been spreading from forests to deserts to grasslands ever since. The reality is that fire is often a natural event, and most western conifer forests naturally burn as hot, uncontrollable conflagrations every 200 to 700 years. Lodgepole pine – a colonizer forest type that the timber industry deliberately re-establishes for through clearcutting – is actually fire-dependent and burns even more frequently.
Out in the western deserts, overgrazing has created vast monocultures of cheatgrass, an invasive weed that destroys habitat values for wildlife and burns as often as every 5 years, and this is unnatural. In both forests and deserts, the really big fires happen during the driest, windiest weather, when wind can carry burning embers a quarter mile or more, and even interstate highways and the mighty Columbia River have been jumped by advancing flames. For both fires within their natural range of size and intensity, and those that are unnaturally large or frequent, it is foolish to think we can “control” them.
On arid rangelands, federal agencies and local conservation districts propose “greenstrips” a few hundred yards wide in the face of flying brands that carry for a quarter mile or more to start spot fires ahead of the flame front, in full knowledge that the “greenstrips” will be brown and combustible by the late-August peak of fire season. Federal and state agencies are fond of funneling millions in taxpayer dollars into fuel breaks in the backcountry despite science showing serious environmental impacts and a complete absence of reliable evidence that they work, for the political purpose of saying “we did all we could” and securing plausible deniability when uncontrolled fire inevitably burns into residential communities. The same is true for logging in forested backcountry – it just doesn’t work to stop or slow fires. Once a fire gets started and local topography and wind direction are understood, fuel breaks can be a very useful tactic. Instead of pretending they can control fire on the open range or in fire-adapted forests, officials would be better off focusing prevention efforts on defensible space immediately next to homes and communities, and educating the public on fire-wise methods to make homes as flame-resistant as possible.
4) Wild horses are the real threat to western rangeland health
Western public lands are so uniformly overgrazed that the degradation seems normal. The livestock industry likes to blame this abuse on wild horses. But in reality, most of the West has no wild horses at all. For example, only 12% of sage grouse habitats have any wild horses. Wild horses are a rare sight, so for the overwhelming majority of lands that are in poor condition, the domestic livestock are the cause when land health and wildlife suffer. Even where wild horses do occur, the impacts of horses are vastly outweighed by the damage caused by the domestic livestock that graze on public lands, which outnumber wild horses on the range by more than 36 to 1. Like any herbivore, wild horses can damage their habitats when overpopulated, but given the aggressive program of federal roundups, horses rarely reach these densities.
Read the rest of this article HERE.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.