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Grand Teton Culls 3 Dozen Mountain Goats, Stops After Governor, Feds Object

in News/politics
Mountain goats
3191

By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

Aerial sharpshooters at Grand Teton National Park partially eradicated a herd of invasive mountain goats last weekend as Wyoming and federal officials asked the National Park Service to halt its plans.

In an email on Tuesday, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said 36 animals were killed in a helicopter operation Friday. There were approximately 100 mountain goats in the park herd. Germann said there are no additional operations planned.

Later Friday evening, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reportedly ordered the National Park Service to “stand down” on the mountain goat cull.

In a Monday news release from Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, officials said Bernhardt halted the operation after reading a “strongly worded” letter Gordon had sent Friday to acting Grand Teton superintendent Gopaul Noojibail.

“I appreciate the excellent working relationship we have with Secretary Bernhardt and that he is willing to discuss this issue in more detail without the pressure of ongoing aerial hunting,” Gordon said in the release. “I look forward to a more fruitful conversation about better ways to address this issue in a more cooperative manner.”

Germann said Noojibail and Gordon met Tuesday to “discuss efforts to protect the native Teton Range bighorn sheep herd from going extinct.” The mountain goat cull is meant to remove the invasive species, which Germann said could potentially transmit fatal pathogens to the native bighorn sheep or compete with the sheep for territory and resources. 

“It was a productive meeting and we greatly appreciate the governor’s time and interest,” Germann said.

The aerial hunt, which was carried out by contractors, has been the subject of controversy for some time. Last month, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission passed a resolution condemning the National Park Service’s plan. At the time, agency director Brian Nesvik said Game and Fish had “communicated several times, in multiple ways” to the National Park Service that it disagreed with the plan.

Nesvik again criticized the aerial cull on Friday in a call to Grand Teton’s Noojibail. Rather than killing the mountain goats by aerial sharpshooter, Nesvik and the agency proposed allowing hunters on the ground to remove the invasive species. Last year, Game and Fish helped thin the mountain goat herd with a hunt outside park boundaries.

On Tuesday, Nesvik said his agency would be willing to collaborate with the National Park Service moving forward.

“We remain prepared to work with Grand Teton to meet their management objectives using methods that align with the value Wyoming people have for wildlife,” Nesvik said through a spokeswoman.

Germann, the Grand Teton spokeswoman, said hunters may have a chance to further thin the herd as soon as this year.

“The National Park Service is continuing to develop a skilled volunteer culling program that could be implemented as early as this fall,” she said. “This culling program will utilize trained volunteers to remove non-native mountain goats via ground-based methods.”

Grand Teton initially planned to remove the goats in January but had to delay the operation due to snow and high winds.

Gov Gordon Applauds Halt to Mountain Goat Shoot

in News
3161

(Press Release) Governor Mark Gordon expressed his gratitude to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt after the Secretary intervened to call off a planned mountain goat culling through aerial gunning in Grand Teton National Park. The culling was scheduled to begin last Friday.

Bernhardt’s order to “stand down” came in a phone call to Gopaul Noojibail, acting Grand Teton Park superintendent late Friday. The call was made after Governor Gordon shared with Bernhardt a strongly-worded letter sent to Noojibail Friday afternoon. In the letter the Governor criticized the Park Service’s choice to “act unilaterally aerially executing mountain goats over the State of Wyoming’s objections.”

“I appreciate the excellent working relationship we have with Secretary Bernhardt and that he is willing to discuss this issue in more detail without the pressure of ongoing aerial hunting,” Governor Gordon said. “I look forward to a more fruitful conversation about better ways to address this issue in a more cooperative manner.”

The aerial gunning operation targeted a population of mountain goats that potentially pose a threat of spreading disease to the native bighorn sheep population and compete with the sheep for habitat. 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission passed a resolution last month condemning the use of aerial gunning to remove mountain goats from the Targhee herd and urged Grand Teton to use skilled volunteers as the removal method. In a letter dated Jan. 28, 2019, the Department formally recommended the Park use skilled volunteers for mountain goat removal. Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik also made a third request to stop the plan on Friday, citing public disapproval.

“We remain prepared to work with Grand Teton to meet their management objectives using methods that align with the value Wyoming people have for wildlife,” Nesvik said.

Wind, Winter Storm Force Grand Teton to Delay Mountain Goat Cull

in News/wildlife
2694

By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

Several days of wind and snow in western Wyoming forced National Park Service officials to delay plans to eradicate non-native mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park, according to park spokeswoman Denise Germann.

The Park Service initially planned to close portions of Grand Teton from Jan. 5 to 12 in order to remove the mountain goats by shooting them from helicopters. Wind earlier in the week created unsafe flying conditions, Germann said on Thursday, while snow from a winter storm later in the week created further issues.

Germann said the removal will be rescheduled, though no dates have yet been determined. An environmental impact study on the removal determined efforts should be completed by early March, when park visitation is low.

Approximately 100 mountain goats dispersed into Grand Teton National Park in recent years. Germann said the animals are descendants of mountain goats released south of the park by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for hunting purposes in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“We’ve been looking at this for the last few years,” Germann said.

National Park Service officials said the mountain goats carry pathogens that can cause pneumonia, posing a potential threat to a herd of bighorn sheep native to Grand Teton.

“(Disease transmission) has not been documented, but it is a primary concern,” Germann said. “The bighorn sheep have low genetic diversity … because they’re isolated from neighboring herds.”

Germann said using firearms from a helicopter was determined to be the most efficient way to eradicate the mountain goats.

“We’re trying to rapidly reduce their numbers,” she said.

According to the environmental impact study, National Park Service officials believe the entire population of mountain goats can be eradicated in one to five years.

“The National Park Service has a responsibility to arrange for native populations,” Germann said. “When there’s something that jeopardizes that native population, we take action.”

The National Park Service is not the only agency to address the encroaching species. Last year, Wyoming Game and Fish Department opened a new mountain goat hunting season on the west side of the Teton mountain range in an effort to allow hunters to thin the herd. Forty-eight licenses were issued.

State, national park work to limit mountain goat population

in News/wildlife
Mountain goats
2405

By Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily

Doug McWhirter wants people to understand several things about Wyoming’s iconic mountain goat populations.

They’re cool. And they don’t belong everywhere.

“Mountain goats are fascinating, cool, and there are places we want to manage for thriving mountain goat populations,” said McWhirter, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife management coordinator in the Jackson region. “We want thriving mountain goat populations in the Snake River, Palisades and Beartooths areas.”

“We want to manage for hunting and viewing opportunities in these areas. In other places, we want to favor the core-native bighorn sheep herds in our management,” McWhirter continued. “Bottom line, we don’t hate mountain goats.”

Wyoming game managers share a concern with the National Park Service concerning a relatively new, expanding, non-native mountain goat population in Grand Teton National Park. 

The Teton Range is home to a small herd of native bighorn sheep, one of the smallest and most isolated populations in Wyoming.

The Teton Range bighorn sheep population is about 100 strong, while this new non-native mountain goat population has eclipsed 100 animals and is still growing.

The new mountain goat population is believed to have expanded from the Palisades area and into the Teton Range. The first documented reproduction of mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park was recorded in 2008. 

Now there are concerns that the mountain goat population threatens the native Teton Range bighorn sheep herd through increased risk of disease transmission, which the Palisades goats are documented to harbor, and the potential for competition for limited resources.

“The Teton Range herd of native bighorn sheep is of high conservation value to the park, adjacent land and wildlife managers, and visitors,” said Denise Germann, Grand Teton National Park public affairs officer. “Our intent is to remove the non-native population of mountain goats and to maintain and improve viability of the native Teton bighorn sheep herd.”

The Game and Fish Department, assisted by hunters, is doing its part to manage the park’s mountain goat population in 2019. Liberalized hunting seasons were implemented outside of the park, in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s Jedediah Smith Wilderness.

“We’re doing what we can to address the situation in goat hunt area 4,” McWhirter said.

In the hunt area, the once-in-a-lifetime draw for mountain goat licenses was set aside. Instead, to help manage the mountain goat population, the department set a quota of 48 licenses for the 2019 season.

McWhirter checked a harvested mountain goat last week from area 4, and it marked the 21st harvested goat of the season. 

“Without exception, the hunters I have encountered have been very supportive,” McWhirter said. “They have appreciated the opportunity  to harvest a mountain goat, and to try to conserve bighorn sheep populations in the Tetons.”

The Teton bighorn sheep herd, “during the times we’ve been monitoring numbers, has never been huge. There’s about 100 to 125 sheep there,” McWhirter said. “They don’t migrate. They live at high populations all year, and they are subject to harsh conditions. These new non-native mountain goats are bringing additional mouths to the landscape, and we believe this peer competition could adversely affect the sheep.

“The bighorn sheep are doing OK in the Tetons,” McWhirter continued. “They’ve always been living on the edge, and besides the non-native goats, there are issues, too, with expanding backcountry winter skiing. The pressures on those sheep are making it tougher for their survival.”

Details aren’t certain yet, but Grand Teton National Park is considering removing the non-native mountain goats from within its boundaries — specifically, between Cascade and Snowshoe canyons — by lethal and non-lethal methods this winter.

“Without swift and active management, the mountain goat population is expected to continue to grow and expand its distribution within the park,” Germann said. “The mountain goat population is at a size where complete removal is achievable in a short time, however, the growth rate of this population suggests that complete removal in the near future may become unattainable after a period of about three years.”

Mountain goat hunting inside the park itself, or what the National Park Service refers to as the “use of skilled volunteers,” is the newest idea for mountain goat removal in the Tetons. 

“Qualified volunteers is a tool that may be used, but we have not developed this program,” Germann said.

Where Grand Teton National Park currently authorizes hunting, park officials refer to the practice as a “reduction program.” 

Rules are generally more restrictive for hunters in Grand Teton National Park, but the hunting is done by hunters licensed by the state Game and Fish Department.

The concept of using “skilled volunteers,” or hunters, is new since the national park issued an environmental assessment on the issue last December. Plans then called for National Park Service staff or contractors to kill goats from the ground with rifles, and from helicopters with shotguns. These early plans called for leaving the carcasses where the animals fell.

In March, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act passed Congress. Part of the bill addressed wildlife management in national parks.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stated, “if the (Interior) Secretary determines it is necessary to reduce the size of a wildlife population … the Secretary may use qualified volunteers to assist in carrying out wildlife management on [park] system land.”

Grand Teton National Park officials cited the Dingell act in their “finding of no significant impact” decision, which was signed by Acting Park Service Regional Director Palmer Jenkins in September.”

The desire is to quickly and efficiently remove non-native mountain goats from the park,” Germann said.

“Our big things, in our comments, are that we would like to see all efforts exhausted before ‘agency lethal removal’ is the answer,” McWhirter said. “We really appreciate the Park Service addressing our concerns, and allowing skilled volunteers to participate and help with the conservation of these goats. It’s all about trying to make a bad situation more tolerable.”

The Decline of the Whiskey Mountain Bighorns

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Big Horn Sheep
1458

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The Whiskey Mountain bighorn sheep herd has made Dubois, Wyoming an international stop for people interested in this species of mountain royalty, with many residents keep spotting scopes trained on the hillsides above town for constant sheep viewing. This rustic western community also hosts the National Bighorn Sheep Center.

Whiskey Mountain once held the largest concentration of wintering bighorn sheep in the country, but the herd began to decline in the 1970s. In 1975, researchers found the sheep herd was consuming more than 90 percent of the annual vegetative growth on its wintering grounds, and herd members were afflicted with poor health, indications that there was inadequate forage and the herd had overpopulated its range.

Those researchers (led by the late and sorely missed wildlife veterinarian Dr. Tom Thorne of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department) predicted that any added environmental stress could result in a catastrophic disease outbreak, which came true in the early 1990s. The population has continued to struggle since that time, with the herd currently numbering about 400 animals.

Although the herd is now only utilizing less than half the annual forage growth on its winter range, there continue to be indications that the herd is subject to some unknown nutritional stress on its summer range.

According to the draft management plan for this herd, “Underpinning the nutritional issued identified in this herd is now the persistence of bacteria and other pathogens believed to have serious health repercussions for the population.”

The herd has multiple species of bacteria related to pneumonia in bighorn sheep, as well as sinus tumors, and other diseases and parasites.

“At this point managers do not know if poor sheep health in the Whiskey Mountain Bighorn Sheep herd is strictly due to pathogens and parasites or if the persistence of pathogens and parasites is the result of nutritional stress,” according to the draft plan.

Domestic sheep and goats have traditionally been blamed for bighorn sheep die-offs, regardless of whether there was any documented contact between wild and domestic sheep.

In this case, “when and how bacterial pathogens were introduced to the bighorn sheep population is unknown, but it is likely environmental stress associated with severe winter conditions resulted in the disease outbreak and die-off event.”

The last known record of domestic sheep use in the Whiskey Mountain area was in the early 1960s, and all domestic sheep and goat grazing has been banned on the area of the Shoshone National Forest used by this herd – even the use of pack goats. Despite there being no domestic sheep in the herd area for decades, the draft plan calls for the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WG&F) to work with the National Bighorn Sheep Center to “develop a strategy to provide educational materials to domestic sheep or goat owners” and to coordinate with federal agencies on the need to maintain separation between wild sheep and domestic sheep and goats.

In my view, that’s pretty much a waste of time and money: As if there is a domestic sheep producer in the West that hasn’t heard this refrain before. It would be far more suitable to invite wool growers to the table rather than having bighorn sheep advocates trying to tell domestic sheep producers how to manage their flocks. Sheep producers know that there are a variety of ways of keeping bighorns and domestic flocks separated, but some bighorn advocates view ridding the range of domestic sheep as the only way to ensure separation, setting the two up for conflict rather than working together.

In addition, new research on a pathogen known to cause pneumonia in bighorn sheep has been recently been documented to occur in moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope, and caribou. But WG&F maintains that these other species are not a component of the bighorn problem.

The presence of a new wolf pack on Whiskey Mountain has added a new pressure to the mix for the bighorn herd. The increased wolf activity has changed the behavior and distribution of the bighorn herd on its winter range, with the herd shifting up the mountain, into higher-elevation, less accessible, and more rugged terrain as the wolves have moved onto the lower-range winter habitat for the sheep, and the area elk population has also moved down onto traditional sheep winter range. The draft plan notes that while direct predation on sheep hasn’t been observed to be an issue, “the displacement being caused by wolves adds another potential stressor to an already nutritionally and conditionally stressed population.”

WG&F has started a three-year research project aimed at understanding lamb mortality and assessing summer habitat conditions, with the WG&F Commission kicking in $350,000 for the first year. Since much of the herd’s summer range is within the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service has agreed to approve the study components, including backcountry camps, experimental habitat treatments, and the use of a helicopter to capture bighorns in the wilderness area.

WG&F will hold two workshops this week to discuss the draft plan, which can be found at this link. The first workshop will be held June 5, at 6 p.m. at the Dubois Headwaters Arts and Conference Center, and the second will be June 6, at 6 p.m. in the WG&F’s Pinedale office.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Colorado Wolf Reintroduction: Why it Doesn’t Make Any Sense

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
2830

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Wolf advocates are celebrating the 25-year anniversary of transplanting wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho, at the same time the campaign heats up for the ballot-box measure to conduct a similar transplant program on Colorado’s western slope.

It’s my view that to support such efforts requires either a blissful or willful ignorance of the Endangered Species Act and the science underlying its application.

I’ve long been a fan of the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) purpose to provide programs for the conservation of imperiled species, just as I am also a critic of efforts that leave species under federal protection long after the biological justification for doing so has ended.

The ESA isn’t meant to be a popularity contest for charismatic species; science is to be the driving factor for conservation of truly imperiled species. The act defines species to include “any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

It’s with the act’s noble goals in mind that I became fascinated with the distinction of unique ecological units, and how such units are defined and managed. We find these distinct ecological units in populations here in Wyoming, from the Kendall Warm Springs Dace (a fish), to the Big Piney Milkvetch (a beautiful high-elevation cushion plant).

But in terms of defining unique ecological units, definitions exist in two worlds – one in science, the other in policy. When it came to the wolf reintroduction program for Yellowstone, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brazenly proclaimed “a wolf is a wolf” in selecting wolves from northern Canada to be placed in Yellowstone park.

The Canadian wolves came from packs located some 550-750 miles north of Yellowstone, and from a different subspecies of wolf than was native to the Yellowstone region. The National Park Service (the same agency now aerial gunning mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park because they are non-native) fully supported the move.

Wolf managers purposefully ignored the biological implications involved in selecting Canadian wolves. Since wolf reintroduction is now 25 years behind us, why should we care now? Because what comes next may have huge impacts.

There is no doubt that Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, is a distinct ecological unit. It primarily inhabits Mexico, but our nation’s recovery program is focused in Arizona and New Mexico.

Should voters force the release of northern gray wolves into Colorado, those transplanted wolves could pose a threat to the survival of the truly endangered Mexican wolves found to the south.

Female wolf with pups at a den in Sublette County, Wyoming in 1906. Photo by Vernon Bailey. Wyoming State Archives.

It’s a concern that scientists have written about long before the ballot measure became an issue: “Interbreeding of Northwestern wolves from Canadian sources and Mexican wolves does not represent the historical cline of body size and genetic diversity in the Southwest.

If Northwestern wolves come to occupy Mexican wolf recovery areas, these physically larger wolves are likely to dominate smaller Mexican wolves and quickly occupy breeding positions, as will their hybrid offspring. Hybrid population(s) thus derived will not contribute towards recovery because they will significantly threaten integrity of the listed entity.”

So if you are an animal advocate concerned about upholding the integrity of the ESA and actually conserving critically threatened species, you won’t be supporting the transplantation of northern wolves within such close range to Mexican wolves.

While I doubt that we will ever recover Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico (Mexico provides its habitat stronghold and that is where hope resides), I have no doubt that transplantation of a more abundant and widespread northern gray wolf type into Colorado will hasten the decline of the Mexican wolf population in America.

The Northern Rockies wolf reintroduction program has become so “successful” that the transplanted wolf population has expanded to other states in the northwest, including Washington and Oregon.

Wolf expansion into Washington has become complex in that the wolf population in Washington is now composed of a combination of two specific wolf ecotypes: the coastal rainforest wolf (from coastal British Columbia and southeastern Alaska), which is declining in numbers; and the more abundant Northern Rocky Mountain (interior forest) wolves resulting from the Yellowstone reintroduction program.

The coastal wolves (sometimes called the Pacific Northwest wolves, or Alexander Archipelago wolves) are known for behavioral, morphological, and genetic differences that separate them from inland wolves. The wolves have gained fame for their reliance on salmon as a primary food source.

To further complicate the plight of distinct wolf populations like that of the Mexican wolf are red wolves – a distinct wolf species more commonly known from the failing recovery program in North Carolina, but originating in Louisiana and Texas.

While red wolves were declared functionally extinct in the wild, there have been recent discoveries of red wolves surviving in wild enclaves in both Texas and Louisiana in the last few years – survivors of remnant populations.

As the researchers note, “rediscovery of red wolf ancestry after almost 40 years introduces both positive opportunities for additional conservation action and difficult policy challenges.” But we can’t even discuss those policy challenges while wolf advocates continue with the cavalier “a wolf is a wolf” policy in public discussions.

It is possible to support wolf conservation by opposing transplants of wolves without a full understanding of the complexities involved. To learn more about the intricacies of wolf subspecies and hybridization, don’t look to propaganda presented by advocates, but check out the work of the National Academies of Science Wolf Taxonomy Committee.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Elk hunting outlook good, deer hunting ‘mixed bag,’ says G&F report

in News/Recreation/wildlife
2021

By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily

Fall is in the air and it’s the time of year when hunters around Wyoming are finalizing their plans for a successful hunting season. The Wyoming Game & Fish Department  has prepared a fall forecast of its eight regions to make planning much easier. 

The WGFD uses a map to define the eight regions identified as Cody, Sheridan, Jackson, Pinedale, Lander, Casper, Green River, and Laramie. 

The hunting season outlook in each region for the big three game animals — pronghorn antelope, deer and elk — is covered in the forecast, along with information on other species. 

Antelope

According to the report, pronghorn populations are up in the Casper, Green River, and Laramie regions, while in Sheridan and Cody, the populations remain stable. Although lower populations have been recorded in Pinedale, the limited number of licenses issued should mean success rates will be high, the report said. In Casper, populations are average. A GPS collar tracking program is set for the winter of 2019-20 to provide better information to Pronghorn Managers.   

Deer

The outlook for deer hunting is a “mixed bag,” according to the WGFD forecast. Although a successful hunting season is expected for the Big Horn Basin, most deer populations in Wyoming are down due to the severe winter of 2016-17. However, the Pinedale and Cody regions are seeing large populations and high quality hunting opportunities, with Cody herds expanding into new areas and habitats.

Elk

Elk hunting should be good, the report said. Populations increased in Casper, Cody, Green River, Laramie and Sheridan, with Sheridan’s populations being high due to limited hunter access to private land. The Lander and Pinedale populations remain steady in almost all areas.

The WGFD Fall 2019 Forecast also has information on moose, big horn sheep, mountain goats, bison, upland game birds and small game, including turkey and migratory game birds. 

For complete information you can read the full forecast at the WGFD website.

Cat Urbigkit: The Ringing of the Bells

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
3577

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The gentle ringing of bells is heard by those who listen. Pastoralists around the globe have used bells on their livestock for thousands of years, and in many regions the tradition continues substantially unchanged.

I’ve heard the bells wherever I’ve traveled to rural areas of the world, from Portugal to Turkey, in Africa, Mongolia, and the American West. The bells are attached to sheep, cattle, goats, and horses, and to the livestock guardian dogs that accompany these flocks or herds. Some bells are attached with elaborately decorated collars while others dangle from simple rawhide straps. The bells may be small, made from copper or brass, or huge bells draped from the neck of an oxen or horse. The bells vary in musical tone and relay constant messages to those tending the livestock, and to others who listen.

The seasonal movement of livestock with their human tenders is called transhumance, which is practiced throughout the world. In Italian, it’s called transhumanza. Although the English language lacks a word for the multi-species social group of a pastoralist with a flock or herd and its equine and canine partners, Italians have a word for it: the morra. The bells sing the song of the morra. The sound of the bells is the music of transhumanza, and of the landscape.

Italian communities have been devastated by the coronavirus disease, and Italian citizens remain under lockdown. They’ve found wonderful ways to connect with each other even as they remain in isolation, singing from balconies and windows. In the Tuscan village of Siena, beautiful harmony was heard coming from the windows above an empty, dimly lit street.

At mid-day on Saturday, shepherds in Italy joined together in their isolation to provide the sound of hope, of thankfulness, and of mourning, as pastoralists rang their livestock bells. As word of the Italian bell-ringing spread, pastoralists, churches and communities in France, Switzerland, and Austria joined in, each in their own exile.

The bells signal locations and serve to unify those who are dispersed. They ring within a universe regardless of distinctions in religion, language, race, or ethnicity.

The timing of the pastoral bell song was somewhat symbolic. It came at the start of spring, agriculture’s season of renewal and birth. Pastoralists rang their bells from their places on farms growing food for people throughout the globe. The ringing of the bells reminds the world that they still exist and continue in this necessary mission, even as their individual messages varied.

Some rang bells in solidarity, and to thank those who work to help the sick. Some rang bells of mourning. Some rang bells to drive away the danger and sense of foreboding caused by the pandemic.

The bells rang out from the mountainsides, their sound cascading across quiet valleys and plains. Other bells rang out from balconies, bell towers, and front porches. I hear their bells here on the ranch in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe.

I hear them, and our bells ring out in return.

#suoniamolecampane

#WeRingTheBells

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Increased timber harvest could play role in diversified approach to wildfire prevention

in News
wildfires
2485

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As catastrophic wildfires become more frequent across the West, people are looking for a single culprit, but it’s not that simple, Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said.

“People like to blame Smokey the Bear — that we extinguished every fire for 100 years. People like to blame lack of management from the U.S. Forest Service, saying they let our forests get into an unhealthy state. People like to blame climate change and the list goes on,” Crapser said. “Like everything, the easiest thing is to blame a single villain, but the reality is it’s probably all of that.”

A series of wildland fires racing across California caught the nation’s attention in October. 

The New York Times reported the fire threatened 90,000 buildings. 

CNBC reported 10 of the Golden State’s worst fires occurred in the last decade. 

But it was a viral “Smithsonian” magazine article about goats that caught the eye of Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.

“Goats — grazing goats — saved the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California,” Driskill said. “This whole country was sheep and goat country once, but nobody grazes anymore.” 

Additionally, he said reductions in timber removal allowed by federal agencies overseeing Wyoming’s public lands could put the state at risk of suffering California’s fate.

“There’s no doubt we’re in a dry cycle and fires are affected by climate change,” Driskill said. “But this was not an earth-shattering drought year in California. Our (U.S.) Forest Service logs less and less, and as they do, we’ll have larger and larger fires.”

State-owned lands

While no forest is fireproof, a healthy forest is less likely to suffer catastrophic fire damage, Crapser said.

Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Forest Service, Crapser’s Forestry Division is a state agency.

Counting seasonal firefighters, the division has about 50 employees to cover approximately 280,000 forested acres of state-owned lands. 

A significant portion of managing forest health is targeted timber harvests, which are usually handled by private contractors, Crapser said.

“We try to do a lot of thinning to reduce the basal area — the square foot of tree cover per acre,” he explained. “That promotes wood growth, helps grasses for grazing and makes the stands more fire resistant.” 

While the division promotes the use of grazing to manage fine fuels when consulting with private land owners, cities and counties, Crapser said it does not oversee grazing on state lands.

Yellowstone

Grazing isn’t a part of the Yellowstone National Park fire management plan, but the park is warming up to the idea of using private contractors for timber management, said John Cataldo, Yellowstone’s Fire and Aviation Management officer.

“This year, we started using a masticator — it’s got a drum head that basically mulches trees up to 6-8 inches in diameter,” Cataldo said. “We were able to treat about 60 acres around the government area in West Yellowstone (Montana). That’s going to buy us about 15 years of defensibility around that community.”

By mulching smaller fuels, the masticator creates a fuel break, which could cause a crown fire in the tops of trees — widely considered the hardest fire behavior to control — to drop down to the ground where fire crews can battle the blaze.

For about $35,000 and a few months of work, the masticator completed a timber management project that could’ve taken park staff years to complete with a much higher price tag, Cataldo said. 

Masticators are in high demand throughout the National Park Service, but the agency only has one operator and a couple of machines in the region. So Yellowstone is looking to private industry for future mulching efforts.

“This year and future years as these mastication treatments expand, we’ll be going to contracts,” Cataldo said, explaining the park has not previously used private contractors for timber management outside of emergency response. “We’ve used private industry when a fire is bearing down on a community, but these are proactive, pre-planned projects.”

Private industry

In recent years, the Forest Service has ramped up timber harvest projects, but nowhere near to the levels seen prior to the 1990s, said Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association. 

The association is a collective of private industry leaders advocating for forest management, in part, by way of timber harvests.

“During the ‘90s, we had an administration that wanted to reduce timber harvest, and it did,” Wudtke said. “The Forest Service used to harvest 12 billion board feet annually, and that dropped to 2 billion board feet.”

Under the current administration, he said the Forest Service is allowing the harvest of about 4 billion board feet a year, but 30 years later, the damage to the logging industry was done.

Driskill said, “Look around, we hardly have any sawmills around the state anymore.”

According to Crapser, about nine mid-sized sawmills operated in Wyoming prior to the harvest reduction. 

Now, there are three.    

Wudtke said the federal government’s increased interest in timber harvesting is largely due to public outcry.

“A lot of that is seeing first-hand what happens when we’re not out there working together with these agencies to take care of these lands,” he said. “We have things like catastrophic pine beetle epidemics. We have stand- and forest-replacing wildfires. We have houses and lives being lost.”

Forest management requires human intervention, Wudtke said. 

“If we don’t, mother nature will,” he added. “And we don’t always like how she goes about it.”

Mounds of data exist in support of forest management through timber harvest, Wudtke said, but preventing future catastrophic wildfires in Wyoming isn’t a one-step solution.

“I’m not sure I’d put my finger on one thing and say if they change this, it would fix things,” Wudtke said. “It’s going to take a lot of work in a lot of areas from both government agencies and the public.”

Medicine Bow

In Medicine Bow National Forest, the Forest Service uses both targeted grazing and timber management projects as preventive measures against wildfire, Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said.

“We just finished a vegetation project in the Lake Owen area, and we’re getting ready to start some work in the Rob Roy area as well as Fox Park,” Voos explained. “Some of it was timber sales, some was working with public utilities around water sheds to protect from impact of wildfire as well as opening access to recreation areas.”

Voos said he could only speak to Forest Service practices on the Medicine Bow National Forest, Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland. As to the federal agency’s historic timber management practices, Voos said he could only discuss what he personally observed during his time employed.

“What I’ve observed on the Medicine Bow and Routt is we are responding to changing forest conditions,” Voos said. “That hasn’t always been the case, largely because we’ve never seen a beetle infestation of this size before.”

The Forest Service is working on the Medicine Bow Landscape Vegetation Analysis project, dubbed LaVA, through the National Environmental Policy Act process. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the project is slated to treat up to 360,000 acres of beetle-kill affected areas in the national forest with a variety of methods, including private contractors.  

“Right now, we are very fortunate there is still a market for a certain amount of the beetle-killed timber that is still standing and still available,” Voos said. 

Medicine Bow also uses grazing allotments to manage fine fuels where fires can spread wide and fast. 

“There’s constant analyzing of those grazing allotments, and it is impacted by the potential for wildfire,” Voos said.

Even with numerous federal and state projects in play statewide, Crapser said Wyoming is on course to experience increasingly disastrous wildfire seasons.

“We’re probably going to see more fires in the future and rising costs of battling fires,” he said. “We’re also seeing a lot more people in the urban-wildland interface, and that creates a lot challenges for wildfire management.”

Are “Guard Coyotes” A Thing?

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
Guard coyotes
A coyote paruses the Wyoming range. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
1993

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Predator-prey systems (including predator-livestock conflicts) are complicated, multi-faceted, and site-specific, but an Oregon Extension publication has provided a broad solution for those of us in animal agriculture, virtually eliminating the need for lethal control of predators: Keeping well-behaved breeding pairs of coyotes in place in their territories to exclude other coyotes that may kill sheep. Thus, keeping these “guard coyotes” and “guard wolves” in place serves to protect our livestock.

Using Coyotes to Protect Livestock. Wait. What?” is the title of an article posted by the Oregon State University Extension Service that has garnered much attention (and is widely shared among animal activists) but its claims have received little scrutiny. The Oregon paper is rife with oversimplification and omissions, but I’ll limit myself to a few points that are important since they form the premise of the entire piece.

Oregon Extension dives into the issue by citing a USDA study as claiming “researchers found that as more predators were removed, more livestock were killed.” Now that’s an interesting slant, and it’s absolutely true: the researchers did find that more predators were removed and more livestock were killed. To Oregon Extension writer, that apparently means that when you remove predators, more livestock are killed. So the message given to the masses is that “Coyotes can protect your livestock from predators” and we should all be protecting our livestock with these “guard coyotes.”

But what the USDA paper actually stated was this: “There is a strong correlation (probably causative) between predator-livestock conflicts and the subsequent removal of predators.” That makes sense: predators are removed in response to conflicts. It doesn’t claim that because predators are killed there are increased conflicts with livestock.

And what both the USDA paper and the Oregon Extension article fail to mention that the wolf population that was the subject of the USDA paper had increased 336% during that same time period, from 152 to 663 animals. The truth is that as the predator population increased, so did the number of livestock killed by wolves, as did the number of wolves killed in response to depredations. Leaving out this important fact changes the entire narrative.

It reminds me of the fun research paper published in a major medical journal last year in which researchers concluded that parachute use did not significantly reduce death or major injury when compared with an empty backpack if you have to jump from an aircraft. What’s important to know about the parachute study is that the people who jumped from the aircraft in the study did so while the aircraft were parked on the ground, jumping about two feet. If we omitted this fact, the entire narrative would be different.

The Oregon writer then focused on a 13-year study at the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center, claiming “researchers found that trapping of coyotes did not reduce sheep losses.” What the researchers actually found was this: “the number of sheep killed and kill rates decreased with increasing numbers of coyotes removed.”

But the Oregon writer then added, “In fact, scientists found that as trappers worked more hours, more lambs were killed by predators.” What the researchers actually found was “There was a positive correlation between the number of lambs killed per year and number of trapper hours worked” per year, and “There was also a positive correlation between the number of coyotes removed per year and number of trapper hours worked” per year. Sounds a lot different when all the facts are presented, doesn’t it? Context is important.

Coyote in Wyoming. (Photo credit Cat Urbigkit)
Coyote surveys a snowy meadow in Sublette County, Wyoming. (Photo credit Cat Urbigkit)

But the Oregon writer plucks a few sentences from a detailed research paper, while ignoring the all-important context. Broad statements, including “Most coyotes do not kill sheep” are not accompanied by citations or context. And although the Oregon writer claimed that sheep are “usually ignored by adult coyotes in an unexploited, stable population,” the Hopland researchers found “All breeding pairs in territories with access to sheep eventually killed sheep” – regardless of whether these pairs successfully bred or whelped pups. The researchers also noted that at Hopland, “all pairs with access to sheep eventually killed sheep, suggesting it is unlikely that there are nonkilling pairs when sheep are present year-round.”

But according to Oregon Extension, with the use of a proper nonlethal program, “lethal control should not be necessary except as a last resort to selectively target and kill a demonstrably habituated, dangerous, or chronically depredating individual.”

Such broad statements lack credibility. Even the scientific literature cited by the Oregon author don’t make such claims. One paper noted regional differences in sheep production and coyote depredation, suggesting “preventative, selective removal of breeding female coyotes prior to whelping, but too late for replacements to breed, may be the most effective lethal control strategy” in the Intermountain West where the spring-summer lambing season coincides with pup-rearing. In contrast, “corrective, selective removal of breeders in response to depredations may be the only effective approach to coyote control” in north-coastal California where sheep are present in pastures year-round and the lambing season begins in late fall.

When I read the Oregon Extension piece, I wondered how such a piece had made it past fact-checkers. I hadn’t heard of the author, so I did an online search and found he is a member of the Benton County, Oregon team advising area ranchers on nonlethal methods of predator control.

Four of the six program advisors are affiliated with Project Coyote, the California “compassionate conservation” organization seeking to change human attitudes towards coyotes, wolves “and other misunderstood predators by replacing ignorance and fear with understanding, respect and appreciation.” These are the people telling livestock producers how we are to successfully coexist with predators.

I am offended when those who know little or nothing about animal agriculture and specific conditions in the field try to tell me how to run my ranch. Now consider how my fellow producers will feel when they learn their advisors weren’t being entirely truthful in the first place. Lying by omission is knowingly peddling a storyline to drive a false narrative.

Now that I’ve added some context to the “guard predator” hypothesis, I’ll add that there is some validity to the concept, which has been oversimplified nearly to the point of unrecognition by the Oregon Extension piece. We’ve left non-depredating coyotes in place on our home place, and watched their numbers grow to a pack of seven adults that hunted pronghorn antelope on their crucial winter range. We left the pack in place until the next spring when they took to killing lambs on our lambing grounds. We’ve done the same with a local wolf pack – they’ve left our well-guarded sheep alone for now, but I know it’s only a matter of time before the quiet is once again broken.

I’ll take livestock guardian dogs over guard coyotes and wolves any day.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

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