Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Elk, Wolves and Grazing

Over at the
Black Bear Blog, Tom Remington has a couple of posts on wolves, and also one in which a young man asks a very good question: Why Aren’t Ranchers Upset About Elk Eating Crops?

Reading these posts tonight made me recall an email I got back in January in response to a post I made about Idaho Governor "Butch" Otter's suggestion that 500 wolves be shot in his state.

The not-so-subtle title of my January post was "Why Stupid on Stilts Is Good for the Environment."

A bit harsh, to be sure, and my post generated an email from a reader who is a US Forest Service rangeland management specialist in Montana. He had a couple of objections to my original post. They were:

  • Ed Abbey was writing a long time ago (the 1960s, 70s and 80s);

  • There are still some grazing problems out west, but on the whole the land is not as wrecked as it used to be because of better (and integrated) land management plans, and professional science-based rangeland specialists;

  • People like Butch Otter are saying we need to shoot wolves in order to save elk, the hunting of which is a big business in Idaho.

  • Everything done in the National Forest system is subsidized, and in this respect cattle grazing is no different than recreation.

  • Points one and two are readily conceded on this end. Sometimes, when I am writing, it's easier to pull up the old stuff in my head than it is to track down the latest quote, picture and data set. Western lands are still over grazed, but it is true that they are not as bad as they were (or as good as they are going to get, I will venture).

    As I noted in the last line of the original piece in question, America does wildlife management pretty well, and it's thanks to a lot of Good Government Guy and Gals, hunters, and environmentalists working together that this is so. I am a pretty enthusiastic supporter of the younger, college-educated and science-based public lands managers coming up. I truly believe the best is yet to come.

    That said, I disagreed with points three and four, and I detailed why in a missive back to my Forest Service friend. Because my response is "on point" as to why Elk are given a pass for eating alfalfa while wolves are not given a pass for killing an occasional calf, I append it below:

    Dear M -

    Thanks for the note. I see you are working in the ___ National Forest in Montana. I know nothing about Montana National Forests, but I do know about land management problems in Idaho.

    The good news, is that some of the major problems in the Nolo and Clearwater are getting fixed. In fact, the good news across the board is that we have much better science and much better public lands administrators now than we used to have. It used to be that a USFS guy would mark his career by how many big timber sales he could put together. Now, in part due to litigation and in part due to education and attrition in Forest Service and BLM personnel, different values are in competition with each other. That's a good thing for all sides. Who knew truth to suffer in a free and open debate?

    There is, of course, a place for sensible private business use of public lands, but I think you would agree that it's an easier mission to achieve in theory than in reality. The Clearwater, for example, needs more prescribed burns, but the timber folks are not all that enthusiastic about that -- they would rather skid out the big trees and leave the trimmings for beetle bore infestation. Burning up their profits? Are you mad?

    The same is true for mining, drilling and grazing. I think you and I would probably agree that there are a lot of places in the West that could benefit from a little less grazing (especially around riparian areas), but try to get the cattle folks to agree to that, much less the cattle. When we talk about free range in this country, it's not just free of fencing -- it's free of human oversight too, which is why wolves are an issue. Not only could the cattle guys not be bothered with owning land, or building fences, they generally cannot be bothered to put someone out there 24-7 to watch the herd.

    The good news, as you note, is that a great deal of National Forest rangeland has improved through the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better management practices. A very big problem remains, however: The Western range is vast, the herds of cattle grazing on them are numerous, and the Forest Service has too few personnel to do very much on-the-ground oversight.

    That said, I concede that things are better than they used to be, and I have little doubt they are not as good as they are going to get. I am, basically, a huge fan of our public lands professionals.

    OK, that said, let's look at the wolf-cow-rangeland-elk-hunter nexus that Governor Otter speaks of for a second.

    The first question is this: Are wolves actually having a serious negative impact on elk populations in Idaho or Wyoming?

    The short answer is NO.

    In Wyoming, where wolves were first introduced in the West (outside of MN where they have always been extent) the state reports that their elk populations are 91,555 -- more than 9,000 head over capacity.

    "We would like to get the elk down to our population objective," Game and Fish spokesman Al Langston said. "But overall in the state, the elk population is doing well."

    In Idaho, The Idaho Statesman (hardly a liberal rag) notes that : "In 2005, hunters harvested 21,523 elk - the largest number in a decade and the seventh-largest harvest since 1935."

    In Montana, nearly 60 percent of Montana's original elk management units exceed their elk-population objective and the folks that write the outdoor columns in your neck of the woods openly laugh at the fear mongers who say wolves are a problem, noting that Montana's elk-harvests are very fine, thank you.

    Where elk populations have gone down, it turns out wolves have been less of a factor than the drought -- the same drought that drives beetle bore infestations, and which has always resulted in swings in elk and deer populations in the west.

    The bottom line is that, so far, the presence of wolves does not appear to have had a noticeable, significant or unwanted decline in the average Elk population of Idaho, Wyoming or Montana -- despite the rise in wolf populations in all three states.

    If there had been a noticeable, significant or unwanted decline in Elk populations, would the proper response be to shoot large numbers of wolves, or would it be to cut back on private ranching on public lands?

    My answer: Cut back on cattle and sheep grazing on public lands. Here's why:

    As a general rule, wild land can support more wild animals than domestic animals for the simple reason that wild animals (like elk and deer) are native to the land and pretty efficient at converting forbs and grass into flesh.

    As you can see from the data (gleaned from GAO), land that can support one cow can support more than 7 mule deer, more than 2 elk, and more than 10 pronghorn.

    The Governor of Idaho wants to shoot 500 wolves, each of which can be expected to consume about 20 elk a year (according to Yellowstone biologists who track this kind of thing).

    To put it another way, 500 wolves can be expected to eat about 10,000 elk a year across Idaho.

    If we want to replace those 10,000 elk in Idaho, we do not need to shoot wolves. All we need to do is dial back on the Animal Unit Months (AUMS) of grazing we are now allowing on public land in Idaho. The AUM data for state land (and federal lands by agency) is available here, but from what I can see, if we want to see an increase of 10,000 elk in Idaho, all we have to do is dial back on public lands grazing in Idaho by 5,000 head.

    Now, of course, the subsidized grazers will object to this, but remember they also object to Elk being in our National Forests. As far as some ranchers are concerned, the National Forest system is something they own, and it's there for their use -- not for elk, wolves, back country packers, fly fishermen or even hunters.

    The "beef cow vs. bull elk" debate is not a new one, of course, but it is important to note that it predates the rise of wolf in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

    On the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's web site, for example, there's a pretty good article detailing how livestock grazing in the Elkhorns negatively impacted the elk herds up there until they began putting together an integrated land management plan. Fish, Wildlife and Parks area coordinator Mike Korn is quoted as saying:

    "The combination of elk and cattle on public land allotments has always been the point of contention in the Elkhorns. The general feeling from livestock permittees is that there are too many elk using the forage, and their cattle are suffering because of it."

    "Too many elk"?

    Well sure, you can have too many elk if you put a lot of beef cattle on the land and also have no wolves to keep things in balance.

    But let's remember who the foreigner is here. The elk and the wolf are native to the landscape, but the cattle showed up yesterday and are now claiming all the rights. If something has to give, it has to be the last arrival.

    Especially since the last arrival is costing America's taxpayers quite a bit of money -- $500 million a year in direct costs according to one study.

    Before the wolves showed up, the cattle guys were being painted as the bad guys. Now the cattle guys are only too happy to change the story and point to the wolf as the bad guy, just as the timber guys are only too happy to change the story and point to forest fire as the bad guy.

    There's just one problem with that equation, and that problem is what's left unsaid: that what made Montana, Idaho and Wyoming the great states they are today was not subsidized free-range cattle, strip mining, and clear cutting of timber, but God-driven natural forces.

    And three of those natural forces are elk, wolves and fire.

    For the cattle guys, the wolf is a convenient distraction from what I think is the real story, which is that elk and cattle are in direct competition with each other. The cattlemen want us to forget that every cow stands where two bull elk should be bugling.

    The good news in the American West is that we can still field-test our theories against reality. Most of the west is under "new management" of one form or another -- Wall Street Executives, PhD scientists, rangeland experts, farmers, ranchers, Forest Service and BLM officials, etc. Some of these folks are managing their lands better than others, but what's truly interesting is that very few of them seem to be managing their land better than God did.

    Former Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president Bob Munson helped start the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which gives us some very interesting numbers about roadless forest land in Idaho -- land where there is no timber cutting, no fire suppression, no mining, and (as the name suggests) no roads. There is also not too much grazing of cattle. This is land still under the "old management plan," i.e. God's Original Design (or GOD for short).

    As the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership notes:

  • 88% of the land in hunt units that yielded more than 90% branched-antler bull elk is roadless;

  • 94% of the land in hunt units yielding both 70% bucks and 40% 4+ point bucks in the mule deer harvest is roadless;

  • 58% of westslope cutthroat trout habitat is found in roadless areas. And, 83% of the of the westslope cutthroat populations rated as "strong" are found in roadless areas;

  • 74% of chinook salmon habitat is found in roadless areas; and

  • 94% of sediment-impaired (degraded) streams are located outside of roadless areas.

    Now, to be clear, I am not against all grazing on public lands any more than I am against all timber harvest on public lands. You are correct that, in theory, we should be able to cut timber and graze cattle on public lands under science-based supervision and with carefully crafted integrated management plans.

    That said, I am against allowing folks to exploit public lands for private financial gain while the American people lose money on the deal.

    And the American people DO lose money on the deal -- lots of money.

    Timber sales alone on public land results in a net LOSS to U.S. taxpayers of over a billion dollars a year. The unreimbursed costs of grazing on public lands appears to generate major losses as well.

    You suggest that everything in the National Forest system is subsidized, and ranchers, miners, drillers, and timber companies are no different in this regard than hunters, anglers or back country tourists.

    I disagree.

    The timber and cattle companies working public lands employ few people, put disproportionately high resource pressures on the land, and require far more management oversight, construction, and reclamation money than do hunters, anglers, bird watchers, or car campers. Extractor industries pocket the cash (hence the name "cash cow") and leave us with the bills.

    Hunters, anglers, bird watchers and campers are not a complete free ride, of course, but the cost-per-person-served is very low compared to the cattle and logging companies, and a tremendous number of jobs are generated by recreation -- far more than are generated by cattle and logging.

    Lumping these two groups together, I think, is to lump two very different things. One group is a largely benign presence on the land and a huge economic engine, while the other leaves a massive environmental footprint, but creates relatively few jobs.

    Ultimately, of course, all public land debates devolve into politics. Sadly, however, the elk, wolves, trees and bears do not vote -- people do.

    The good news is that Governor Otter's inane comments about killing off all the wolves are exactly the kind of thing that mobilizes people to take action, donate to groups, join political campaigns, and vote. In the year ahead, I suspect no one will have harmed the cause of public lands grazing -- or done more to help wolves and elk in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana -- than Governor "Butch" Otter.

    And for that, we give thanks -- not because we are against ranchers, but because we are for elk and wolves.

    Unlike Governor Otter, I think all sides can find room for each other out there in vast stretches of the American west. If push comes to shove, however, Governor Otter has just helped make sure that the wolf (and the elk) will not lose.

  • My friend working for the U.S. Forest Service objected to a few bits in my missive. As I recall (I am afraid I do not have his original email), he argued that there was a lot more grazing in roadless areas than I thought and that the $500 million grazing figure was too high.

    He may be right. Without a doubt there is no ending the debate and discussion on these issues.

    The good news is that in the discussion is the solution. At the end of the day, though we may not end up with a perfect policy that makes all sides happy all the time, we get a pretty good policy in which we end up being neck-deep in elk, deer, wolves, alfalfa, and all the rest.

    Whatever it is we get wrong, we are (more often than not) getting conservation issues rights. And for that, I remain a proud American.


    Sean said...

    There is a persistent myth out here in the West that the introduced wolves are a larger subspecies than the native population. This is not true as far as I can tell. One of the first packs introduced in northern Idaho was taken over by a native Montana alpha male. If the new wolves were so much more fearsome, a local would not have been able to become alpha. Any thoughts?

    PBurns said...

    There is a lot of size and coat-color variation in coyote, wolf and fox populations, and this seems to have always been the case.

    One thing we know for sure is that male wolves travel extremely long distances to find new territories (400 miles or more is very common), and have always done so. A lot of "our" wolves, in fact, simply repopulated themselves from Canadian migrant stock that drifted over the border.

    One factor in wolf, coyote, fox and deer populations is that the farther north you go the larger the animals *tend* to be. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however, but a general trend. See this post for notes on "Bergman's Rule" >>