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Retiring An Old Dog

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Guardian sheep dog
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

We’ve spent the past four years trying to convince an old range dog to retire. Old Mama is a fine old livestock guardian dog that has traveled many, many miles with her flocks. She’s not much to look at, and her face and body carry many scars of battle, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.

Born on the range to working guardians, she’s lived all her 13+ years of life there, migrating with the flocks from the sagebrush-covered low country in winter, to the high country of the Wind River Mountains as the flocks move for summer grazing. Her hard pawpads carried her over more than 200 miles of trail each year, moving slowly with the seasons.

As she aged, we gradually placed Old Mama with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range four years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.

One dark night in the fall of 2017, a pack of wolves attacked our sheep flock on its bedground, and Old Mama was one of three livestock guardian dogs injured in the brawl. With the help of a dedicated local veterinarian, Old Mama recovered from severe wounds, but the attack and her advancing age led to the decision to end her free-ranging days out with the main sheep flock. Old Mama had always enjoyed leading her flock out to graze for the day, sticking her tail straight into the air and stepping daintily as the sheep followed along. But those days were over.

By this point, Old Mama was still in great physical condition, but her teeth were so worn with age so she could no longer defend herself. The other guardian dogs would surely come to the defense of their comrade, but with wolves coming in so close to the sheep night pen, and confrontations escalating, I didn’t want to risk losing such a magnificent creature as Old Mama to wolves.

It was a tough decision to slip a leash over her neck and hold her back that cold morning, standing with the old dog as she watched her flock go forward without her. I turned her head and directed her into a large pen of lambs we’d kept from that spring, and Old Mama seemed happy enough to be with these youngsters.

There are always at least a few sheep around the ranch headquarters, and in the wintertime we feed hay nearby, so Old Mama always has access to the thing she loves most – her sheep. Last winter, Old Mama stayed close to the house, sometimes seeking shelter in the barn, but more often than not sleeping in the haystack next to the flock’s night pen.

Old Mama is going deaf, she can’t see well, and now she’s a little wobbly on her feet. It’s lambing season again, and I’ve got a small pen of orphan lambs for her to keep company.

One afternoon last week, I looked out to see a livestock guardian dog leaving the headquarters, headed into our lambing pasture. The dogs guarding the lambing flock burst into action, barking and racing to face the intruder, but then breaking into excited body wiggles when they saw the grand old girl was once again joining the flock. Everyone in our family cheered for the old dog and her determination.

Old Mama’s body may be weakening, but she still has a booming bark that broadcasts warnings to tell predators to stay away. She parked herself in the middle of the flock, staying close to a ewe that gave birth later that night. The other guardian dogs kept a respectful distance, knowing that this elderly guardian belongs wherever she wants. She’s earned this range.

Once the ewe moved off with her newborn lambs the next morning, Old Mama began her slow journey back to headquarters, where her new crop of orphan lambs was waiting. She spent the night with these wee ones, then set out again in her slow lumber for the lambing flock.

This noble old dog has earned the right to make her own decisions. We’ll try to minimize her risk of injury, but in the end, she’ll decide how she wants to leave this life. At the very least, we owe her that.

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.

The Decline of the Whiskey Mountain Bighorns

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Big Horn Sheep
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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.

Range Writing: The Push to Build a Predator Disneyland

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Rocky Mountain Wolf Coalition
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

If one were to believe the spiel, wolf advocates are benevolent custodians of the public interest, and ranchers suffer from “the myth of the wolf” and “a fear deeply ingrained” that can be cured with education. A few recent examples of this custodial role show that the advocates propose “a wolves for thee, not for me” landscape – one in which decisions are made by unaffected residents of population centers on behalf of uneducated rural serfs (serfs whose work feeds the nation and are most impacted by ever-expanding wolf populations).

For example, soon after the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife issued a letter supporting the Trump administration’s proposal to remove gray wolves in the Lower 48 States from the list of federally protected species, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued a letter “to clarify and correct” the state position, noting that “the State of Oregon and its agencies do not support the delisting of wolves ….”

Citing the statewide wolf population count of 137 animals, Brown noted that the success of wolf recovery in Oregon “is unquestioned,” but added: “Our collaborative work and its success cannot protect imperiled wildlife beyond our borders in other states. Our commitment to the Oregon way gives me great confidence that wolves are on the path to recovery and do not warrant a listing within Oregon, but their listing under the federal Endangered Species Act affords them some protection across their range.”

Thanks Governor Brown, for trying to mandate wolf protection outside your state’s jurisdiction. I’m sure your neighbors to the south – northern California sheep and cattle producers – appreciate your benevolence.

Colorado’s example is even worse. Failing to gain support from state wildlife officials, national park officials, or residents who stand to be impacted by a proposal to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, wolf advocates – led by Mike Phillips of the Turner Endangered Species Fund – now plan to take the proposal to the ballot box.

Rocky Mountain Wolf email pushing a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves in Colorado.

Phillips headed the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program for the National Park Service, and currently serves in the Montana legislature. Phillips’s Rocky Mountain Wolf Project includes a “science advisory team” that will seem familiar to those involved in the wolf reintroduction program to Yellowstone National Park. Joining Phillips is Ed Bangs, Carter Niemeyer, and Rick McIntrye. Of course, none of these men reside within the area of impact, but the serfs are to accept their superior wisdom.

The Colorado ballot initiative will allow the heavily populated Front Range metropolitan areas east of the Continental Divide in the state to vote to require state wildlife officials to reintroduce gray wolves to Colorado – but further requiring “such reintroductions being restricted to the public lands west of the Continental Divide” by the close of 2023.

It’s a classic case of “wolves for thee, but not for me” by the benevolent custodians of the public interest.

This isn’t the first time for Colorado residents: In 2016, Defenders of Wildlife and Earthjustice proposed that Mexican wolves should be released in Colorado, to which Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) responded that not only was Colorado not within the historic range of the species, “the cost of living with predators are not borne  by most of our citizens. Agricultural producers and sportsmen will bear the brunt of the cost. Conversely, the benefits will largely accrue to those who advocate for introducing wolves.”

That benefit is the pleasure of knowing that wolves are there, to maintain Colorado’s healthy ecosystems. But as CPW notes, “We are unaware of any scientific studies that indicate Colorado needs another large predator in order to restore balance to our natural systems.”

Since the Mexican wolf proposal didn’t fly, and Rocky Mountain National Park rejected the idea of wolf reintroduction there, those proposals have been replaced with the ballot box proposition to release gray wolves into western Colorado. That gray wolves from the north would be placed closer to the Mexican wolf population to the south, perhaps promoting interbreeding between the two and diluting the Mexican wolf genetic pool, isn’t a concern to wolf advocates.

It’s worth taking a look at the “science advisory team” for the Colorado wolf project. In addition to the old guard from the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, there are numerous others, with their professional affiliations listed. Is this to imply that their agencies support the Colorado wolf project? They don’t.

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project claims to be a “grassroots organization dependent on small-dollar contributions from concerned individuals like you,” yet notes at the bottom of its webpage that it is a “fiscally sponsored project of the Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) organization and the nation’s largest fiscal sponsor.”  The Capital Research Center describes the sponsorship as “using its nonprofit status as a legal umbrella for left-wing groups that have not or cannot apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS. The Tides Center does not directly fund these infant groups; instead, it operates as a feeder, accepting outside donations and redirecting them towards its numerous ‘projects’ with the goal of developing them into standalone organizations.”

CRC notes that Tides is a left-leaning enterprise: “Using a sophisticated funding model, Tides has grown into the leading platform for laundering away ties between wealthy donors and the radical causes they fund—while generating hundreds of new organizations along the way.”

With smug satisfaction, these wolf promoters can be confident their decisions on behalf of the uneducated pastoral populace are justified, never doubting that the negative impacts of wolves on rural residents will be greatly overshadowed by their benefits.

Presenting a Disneyesque worldview while courteously accusing ranchers of being uneducated hicks is modus operandi, rather than facing the reality that when it comes to wolves, things aren’t as rosy when viewed with open eyes.

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.

Cooperation, or Coercion? Navigating the minefield of stewarding rare animals

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Western Wyoming burrowing owls
A pair of burrowing owls at their nesting burrow on a western Wyoming ranch.
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Monitoring comes naturally to ranchers, even though we may not consider much of our daily habits as such. We monitor a variety of natural resources or resource components on a regular basis, from irrigation levels, weather, grazing distribution and utilization, and plant diversity, to breeding dates, conception rates, and desirable herd characteristics.

Many ranchers participate in structured rangeland monitoring in conjunction with federal land managers – a program that began as a cooperative venture for some, but expanded due to threats from anti-grazing activists. Instead of volunteering to work together toward a shared goal of sustainable use of vegetative resources, grazing permittees and agencies were effectively coerced into participation.

But ranchers monitor many other resources independent of agency support or oversight. The popularity of camera traps (trail cameras, game cameras) has opened up new realms for monitoring. Cameras are now used to monitor vehicles accessing ranch-owned gravel pits, and to document trespassers ignoring posted property boundaries. 

With increased public concern about rare species in Wyoming, some ranchers have developed their own monitoring programs to inventory for species occurrence, seasonal use, and habits of these species on their properties. It’s good to know and understand the wild species that share your range, but sadly, ranchers have little incentive to share that data with wildlife managers. That’s because rather than celebrating the occurrence of previously undocumented sage grouse leks, breeding pairs of short-eared and flammulated owls, nesting long-billed curlews, small populations of pygmy rabbits, or any of a long list of federally listed, proposed, or candidate species of concern, private landowners fear that acknowledging the presence of these species only opens the door to more coercion.

That’s a shame, because the detection of rare species on private property should be celebrated – these landowners should be proud that their stewardship includes sustaining these species. Instead, property owners keep quiet, fearful that detection of these rare species only brings restrictions on their property rights and use.

I’m part of a small group of ranchers who work together in an informal wildlife monitoring program for our neighboring parcels, using camera traps as its main component. Our program aims to help in protecting our livestock herds by knowing and understanding the movement and frequency of large carnivores in our neighborhood.

Every year ranchers get requests from wildlife managers or researchers requesting permission to access private property to observe wild animal numbers, survey for rare species, document migration routes, etc. Although we may be inclined to want to cooperate, often we need to say no, and that’s because what is being requested isn’t actual cooperation. Sometimes the data collected is later used to impose restrictions on private property.

I’m a member of an international network focused on human-wildlife conflict research. Last week one network participant explained in a group email that a non-governmental organization (NGO) had installed an electric fence to prevent black bears from preying on goats held in the pen. One of the cameras installed on the fence captured a video of a mountain lion jumping the fence and killing a goat. Not surprisingly, the farmer wants a copy of the video. Also not surprisingly, the NGO is now questioning how it should handle such a request.

I suspect that the NGO wouldn’t be asking such questions had the fence succeeded in deterring predators, and would instead be happily sharing video footage of a predator getting zapped by the fence and running from the scene. 

Instead, the NGO wants to learn if there are protocols or guidelines for the sharing of such information with the public. While none of the researchers who responded offered such a guideline, one Canadian-based researcher noted, “I can see potential ethical issues (e.g. would sharing induce some sort of conflict or misuse of the data by the landowner, could it be used as evidence to illicit intensified predator control, etc.).”

This researcher’s response provides a prime example of why some ranchers won’t cooperate in wildlife research and monitoring programs. The notion that data should be controlled or censored because it had an undesirable outcome to the researcher is appalling. That the livestock owner could use the data to seek intensified control shouldn’t be viewed as a negative – the negative is that despite increased efforts at protecting his livestock, predators continued to succeed at killing his goats.

I also noticed the researcher’s Freudian slip in the use of “illicit” (as in forbidden), when the proper verbiage is “solicit” (as in to ask for or try to obtain) when suggesting predator control.

Cooperation is the process of working together to the same end. It’s not cooperation if it’s one-sided.

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.

Unread U.N. Global Extinction Report Creates Panic

in Column/Range Writing
Extinction Report Unverified
1379
World Falls For Unchallenged Authority of Unpublished Extinction Report

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The global extinction crisis made headlines and became worldwide front-page news last week with the claim that one million species are at risk of extinction. That is one of the many claims of a yet-unread report produced by a United Nations-affiliated organization. The report is unread because it is expected to be published sometime later this year. Instead, the group issued a press release and a 39-page “Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” – otherwise known as the IPBES report.

The summary does not include any scientific citations or descriptions of scientific methodology, but the public should rest assured that what is claimed must be true, since “145 expert authors” relied on “15,000 scientific and government sources.”

The purpose of the global biodiversity assessment is to measure progress toward commitments under the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed to by 193 UN members nations in September 2015. 

The United States has Sarah Weiskopf listed as our national lead on the IPBES group. Weiskopf is a biologist with the National Climate Adaption Science Center for the US Geological Services in Virginia. She achieved her bachelor’s degrees in 2014, and her master’s degree in 2016 – the same year she came on board with USGS and the IPBES began its global biodiversity assessment, for which she now serves as our U.S. delegate.

IPBES was created in 2012, and has been subject to numerous criticisms including infighting, lack of diversity, and exclusionary and overly political tendencies – so much that its critics have taken to the pages of academic journals. As the journal Nature reported last August, “its critics argue that IPBES has become a vehicle for what its member researchers want, rather than offering up practical science that can spur and inform upcoming decisions….”

Ironically, IPBES will undergo an external assessment later this year, after its biodiversity report is finally released. The credibility of the group remains in question as we await that review and the release of the biodiversity report that is making headlines.

The IPBES claims that there are 8 million plant and animal species on Earth, including 5.5 million insects, and “one million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.”

But the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species – includes an assessment of 98,500 species of the world’s 1.5 million identified species, with 27,000 classified as threatened with extinction.

The number of species in existence was long estimated to be between 3 million and 100 million, but in 2011, it was announced that the new number was calculated at 8.7 million. That meant that 86 percent of all species on land, and 91 percent of those in the seas, had yet to be discovered, described, and catalogued. IBPES’s extinction estimate includes these yet undetected species, and even claims that the global rate of extinction “is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating.”

But as Stewart Brand writes on Aeon, “the fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has increased dramatically for 200 million years, and is likely to continue.”

A 2013 paper in the journal Science, Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct? noted: “Some people despair that most species will go extinct before they are discovered. However, such worries result from overestimates of how many species may exist, beliefs that the expertise to describe species is decreasing, and alarmist estimates of extinction rates.” The authors argued that the number of species on Earth today is 5 million, of which 1.5 million are named, and extinction rates are poorly quantified, ranging from 0.01 to 1% (at most 5%) per decade. The authors noted: “Overestimates of how many species may exist on Earth and the rates of extinction are self-defeating because they can make attempts to discover and conserve biodiversity appear hopeless. As we show here, they are also inaccurate …”.

The IBPES claims can’t be fully assessed until the complete report is released, but we have ample reason to view its findings as exaggerated. That’s unfortunate, since maintaining biological diversity is a worthy global goal. I predict that when scientists are granted access to the full report later this year, they will find numerous flaws in its methodology and findings – but those faults won’t make international news.

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.

Conservation Contrasts: What Are You Supporting?

in Column/Range Writing
Range Writing Conservation Contrasts
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

There are major differences in the way conservation organizations accomplish their missions.

For example, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) has long made grizzly bear recovery in this region a top priority. In addition to traditional environmental advocacy work, this group “puts its money where its mouth is” by helping to bearproof public campgrounds, trailheads and backcountry camps. Its sponsors and support efforts to understand the causes of carnivore conflicts, and performs field work in minimizing conflicts, both with individuals and in communities. GYC installs electric fencing, provide funding for range riders, and helps members of the public learn how and why to use bear spray. It also helps to fund wildlife crossings of roadways.

To do this much on-the-ground conservation must take a lot of money, right? Not so much. In 2015, GYC quietly launched a 5-year, $10 million grizzly bear fundraising campaign (already raising more than $8 million and hoping to raise the remainder of the balance before the end of the year). According to GYC’s audited financial statement, the organization has about $12.6 million in assets, with 2018 revenues totaling $5.2 million, and personnel costs of less than $2 million, with their highest-paid employee receiving about $150,000 per year in total compensation and benefits.

Founded in 2012, Muley Fanatics of Wyoming is a relatively new organization, but it has used funding (generated primarily through events and gun raffles) to create partnerships to benefit mule deer and mule deer habitat, and in support of hunting. One such project focused on research to understand deer population declines. The group raised just over $400,000 in revenue in 2017, and paid out nearly $145,000 in grants, while spending $252,000 for salaries and other employee benefits, according to its 2017 tax report.

For years the Lander-based Water for Wildlife® Foundation has invested in providing supplemental water sources for wildlife, with more than 430 water projects in 12 western states. According to the organization’s 2016 tax filing, this nonprofit generated about $175,000, spent $185,000, and has nearly $1 million in assets.

Contrast these groups, their funding, and how they conduct business with another environmental group that seems to be in the news every week: the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Center for Biological Diversity has a $23 million budget, according to its 2017 audited financial statement, and spends about $12 million in salaries and payroll expenses. The CBD has expanded from its modest New Mexico origins (think Mexican spotted owl controversy) to having dozens of full-time staff meddling in issues on an international scale, and generating enough revenue that the organization can now afford to pay up to nearly $1.8 million “in deferred compensation payable to the founders of the organization and a select number of long-term employees.” Three of its top employees are each making about $300,000 per year – more than top congressional salaries. The group brags how it uses species to shut down commercial enterprises, such as leveraging protection for a protected bird into orders to remove livestock grazing, and their campaigns to protect raptors were used to shut down timber operations and industrial-scale logging throughout the Southwest.

Unlike some of the other groups I’ve mentioned, the Center for Biological Diversity isn’t a conservation organization that is out in the field working to recover imperiled species. CBD is an advocacy group using specific tactics to get species listed (and keep them listed) under the Endangered Species Act through “petitions, lawsuits, policy advocacy, and outreach to media.”

According to a report by the General Accounting Office, the federal government was sued 141 times in 10-year period for failing to meet statutory deadlines for making findings on petitions to list or delist species under the Endangered Species Act. Half of these “deadline suits” were filed by two groups: CBD, and WildEarth Guardians. These slam-dunk lawsuits over failure to meet required deadlines have become formulaic, and give groups bragging rights for their wins, as well as nets them awards of attorney fees. These are paper-only victories, keeping the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service busy with an overwhelming amount of listing paperwork rather than focused on actual species recovery efforts.

The CBD claims it has 1.5 million members and online activists. I doubt many people really know what they are supporting. It’s not conservation, it’s litigation.

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.

Range Writing: Endangering Success

in Column/Range Writing
Range Writing: Endangering Success
1289

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem achieved biological recovery goals nearly two decades ago, but the animals remain under federal protection – after more than 40 years of such protection.

This threatened-species success story is due to the extraordinary efforts and tolerance of the human communities that share the landscape with the great bear in this region, including affected individuals, businesses and local governments, federal and state bear managers, and local conservation organizations. No credit should go to groups whose only action is to file lawsuits that prolong federal protection for wild animal populations that are no longer in jeopardy. One such group has its Trump Lawsuit Tracker (currently at “122 and counting”) displayed prominently on the homepage of its website.

When a federal judge reinstated federal protection for the Yellowstone-region’s grizzly bear population of at least 700 bears last fall, the judge ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had “erred in delisting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear without further consideration of the impact on other members of the lower-48 grizzly designation.”

Federal officials had argued that delisting the Yellowstone region’s grizzly bear population would leave any other grizzly bears located in the lower 48 states with full protection as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But the court ruled that argument wasn’t enough “because decreased protections in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem necessarily translate to decreased chances for interbreeding” with grizzlies in other populations such as the 1,000-bear Northern Continental Divide population in north-central Montana. The court faulted FWS for its lack of recognition that the long-term health of the grizzly population depends on the introduction of new genetic material (as in genetic interchange between grizzly populations).

While the Yellowstone grizzly decision makes its way through the appeals process, bear advocates continue to pretend that this grizzly bear population is in jeopardy. It’s not.

From the original goal of 15 breeding female grizzlies in a 9,200-square mile recovery zone, the population has increased to at least 58 sows with cubs occupying more than 25,000 square miles. Scientists tell us that the ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for the big bruins – more than 60 percent of occupied grizzly bear range occurs outside the original bear recovery zone, in a more human-dominated landscape.

We’ve learned to coexist with grizzlies, but it’s a somewhat uneasy coexistence. With grizzly bears under federal protection for four decades, they no longer have a fear of humans. Thanks to bear-jams in our national parks, some grizzlies become habituated to the presence of humans, and human-habituated grizzlies can be a problem when those bears are located outside the national parks. 

It’s no longer unusual to have grizzlies show up in western Wyoming communities like Dubois, Cody, and Thermopolis. Farmers encounter grizzlies in their corn and bean fields miles from mountain ranges; campers no longer use soft-sided tents; skiers now carry bear spray; hikers, fishermen, hunters, and picnickers no longer use traditional recreational areas because of the risk of encountering grizzly bears – far outside of the grizzly bear recovery zone.

We have more bear-human conflicts in the ecosystem because we have more bears in areas with humans. We have more livestock conflicts because we have more bears sharing the range with livestock. It’s not because of a human failure to adjust to the presence of bears; it’s because we all share the same range. And lest anyone forget, the grizzly bear is a top-of-the-food-chain predator. People are injured in conflicts with grizzlies every year. Some shoot and kill grizzlies in self-defense. Beloved human beings have been killed in tragic encounters with grizzly bears.

The Endangered Species Act is meant to serve as a safety net to ensure the survival of species teetering on the brink of extinction – a worthy goal endorsed by most Americans. By insisting on continued protection of recovered animal populations, animal advocates wield the ESA as a weapon to hinder management of recovered species, and to limit human activities for which they disapprove.

The FWS’s job is to protect threatened and endangered species. It is not the agency’s job to push for ever-higher populations of recovered species as some bear advocates desire. That would be a waste of limited federal resources that should be freed for use with species that are truly threatened or endangered. To insist on continued federal protection for animals that are no longer threatened only succeeds in eroding support for the Endangered Species Act.

Cat Urbigkit is the author of the book “Return of the Grizzly: Sharing the Range with Yellowstone’s Top Predator.” Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Range Writing: Colorado Wolf Project’s Deceit

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Range Writing: Colorado Wolf Project’s Deceit
1260

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP) has gone into full-steamroller mode in pushing for wolf reintroduction to western Colorado, recently publishing “Nine myths about gray wolves you shouldn’t believe.”[1]

But readers should beware that RMWP isn’t telling the whole truth when it responds to these supposed myths. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only tackle a few points, but rest assured that RMWP’s response to each of its nine points is oversimplified and misleading.

RMWP: “Gray wolves are extremely wary of humans. They are shy and retiring around people and will avoid them at all costs.”

Reality: Wolves that have no reason to fear humans are not shy and wary. While wolves were under federal protection, our family had wolves in our yard in rural western Wyoming, hundreds of miles south of Yellowstone National Park. That’s not odd for residents living in areas impacted by wolves: wolves created problems by hanging out in residential areas in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Ketchum, Idaho. Even the International Wolf Center acknowledges that human-habituated wolves are a problem.[2]

National park and state wildlife officials have killed wolves because of their bold or aggressive behavior towards humans in the Northern Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes states, as well as in Canada. And although rare, wolves are known to have killed humans in North America and in other countries (with the most recent reported attacks occurring last month in Tajikistan[3]). There are numerous other confirmed attacks on humans in which people were injured, but not killed, throughout the range of wolves.[4]

RMWP: “The truth is, wolf depredations on livestock still accounts for less than 0.1% of all livestock losses in the Northern Rockies, which includes Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Nearly all cattle, 99.9%, die from causes other than wolves. It’s simply a myth to believe that ranchers have much to worry about.”

Reality: {Excuse me while my head explodes.} First, not all livestock in the Northern Rockies graze on range inhabited by wolves, and it is well known that some ranch operations are impacted more than others. And confirmed livestock losses are only a small portion of the true numbers of livestock killed or injured by wolves.[5]

Since I live in the predator zone of Wyoming where wolves can legally be killed at any time, I do not receive reimbursement for livestock killed by wolves, so there is no incentive for me to have depredations confirmed or to report those losses. 

Lastly, the indirect but substantial economic cost of wolves is never discussed by wolf advocates,[6]but I know that after our last surplus-kill event (involving more than a dozen dead sheep and three injured livestock guardian dogs), the weights on our market lambs decreased by 10 pounds per lamb. That was an added economic blow, in addition to the direct losses, vet fees, added labor, and overall stress to both the flock and our family.

RMWP: “Many Coloradans don’t know that there are no established gray wolf packs in Colorado. Indeed, in Colorado, even wide-ranging lone wolves from the Northern Rockies are exceedingly rare.”

Reality: This is the oft-repeated refrain used to justify the release of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, even though a hunter shot and killed a wolf in Wyoming while the reintroduction program was being debated.[7]Colorado may not have any “established gray wolf packs” but every now and then, a wolf gets killed or photographed to prove their presence in the state.[8]Recognizing that dispersing wolves are how wolf populations expand into new areas, Colorado wildlife officials issue public reminders that “it is increasingly likely that the growing wolf populations and range in nearby states will eventually expand across state lines.”[9]

Myth: Gray wolves kill for sport.

RMWP: “Nope, not true. Wild carnivores do not kill for fun; they kill to survive, which typically is very hard for gray wolves. It’s worth remembering that only humans kill for fun.”

Reality: While we can’t tell for sure if the killing is “fun” or “for sport,” wolves – like other wild carnivores (think weasel in a hen house) – do surplus kill. For example, wolves killed 120 rams in one event in Montana,[10]more than 150 sheep in Idaho,[11]and 19 elk in one night in Wyoming.[12]Although some claim that surplus killing is rare, our family has experienced wolves inflicting surplus kills on our domestic sheep flocks twice in the last eight years, so it doesn’t seem all that rare.

RMWP: “Colorado has more public lands and a bigger prey population for gray wolves than anywhere in the world. There is no doubt that Colorado can not only accommodate gray wolves, but we can allow them to peacefully coexist with hunters and ranchers.”

Reality: Peaceful coexistence? That is a fantasy. We coexist, but it is not peaceful, and coexistence is not bloodless (see surplus killing section above). By the very nature of the predator-and-prey relationship, that will never change.


[1]https://blog.rockymountainwolfproject.org/blog/9-myths-about-the-gray-wolf-you-shouldnt-believe

[2]https://www.wolf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Too-Close-for-Comfort.pdf

[3]https://www.rferl.org/a/wolves-kill-two-women-in-tajikistan-after-villagers-hunting-rifles-confiscated/29808983.html

[4]https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/wolfrecovery/27/

[5]https://www.jstor.org/stable/40801500?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[6]https://www.beefmagazine.com/pasture-range/wolves-economic-bite-cattle-goes-way-beyond-predation

[7]https://www.amazon.com/Yellowstone-Wolves-Chronicle-Animal-Politics/product-reviews/093992370X

[8]https://www.outtherecolorado.com/are-there-wolves-in-colorado/

[9]https://cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/News-Release-Details.aspx?NewsID=5845

[10]https://missoulian.com/news/local/wolves-kill-sheep-at-ranch-near-dillon/article_5ff01772-938f-11de-9aca-001cc4c03286.html

[11]https://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/newshound/2013/08/two-wolves-kill-176-sheep-1-night-near-idaho-falls

[12]https://www.idahostatejournal.com/wolves-kill-elk-but-didn-t-eat-any-meat/article_ee494313-5c20-5353-8452-86477ad7c777.html

Words Matter: Manipulative Messaging

in Agriculture/Column/Energy/Range Writing
1220

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

U.S. Congressional members DeFazio and Gaetz hosted a “briefing” session in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, aimed at educating their colleagues of the need for policy reform for USDA’s Wildlife Services, the federal agency charged with animal damage control. Invited to give presentations to educate congressional members were a family from Idaho whose dog was killed by a M-44 device, and representatives from the following organizations: Predator Defense, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Western Watersheds Project. The goal of the session was to gain support of a bill that would ban lethal poison devices.

DeFazio and Gaetz call M-44s “cyanide bombs.” But M-44s are not bombs. Rather, they are spring-activated ejector devices that are staked to the ground and deliver a dose of cyanide powder (an EPA restricted-use pesticide) from the capsule holder when the holder cover is triggered by the bite-and-pull motion of a canid. In contrast, a bomb is a device designed to explode on impact, or when detonated by a time mechanism, remote control, or lit fuse.

The renaming of this predator control device as a “cyanide bomb” originated with animal activists, but some members of the media have adopted the term, and members of congress are using the same messaging framework. It’s one in a recent cascade of “reframing” examples I’ve noticed, as marketing tactics have expanded from products to influencing general public opinion in the last few decades, and media organizations become willing participants.

See Image 1: Both Wyoming Public Media and WyoFile use the term “cyanide bombs” in reporting.

Maya Khemlani David, a professor of language and linguistics, has studied the use of rhetoric to maintain political influence, and wrote: “By way of an indirect manipulation of language, skillful speakers have traditionally been able to influence the preconceptions, views, ambitions and fears of the public, to the extent of causing people to accept false statements as true postulates, or even to support policies conflicting with their interests.”

We see manipulative messaging examples every day. In food production it ranges from the use of terms such as factory-farmed animals or organic products, to the clean meat and meatless burgers (which are neither meat nor burger, and by the same token, just as milk comes from an animal with mammary glands, not nuts or beans).

Another recent example comes from people opposed to the winter feeding of elk in western Wyoming. Elk are fed pelleted or loose hay at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, as well as 22 elk feedgrounds operated by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. Originally established to keep wintering elk from starving to death, and to keep the elk out of ranchers’ stored hay, the state elk feedgrounds were started after the creation of the elk refuge in 1912. Wildlife advocates concerned about disease transmission from congregating elk have called for the closure of the state’s elk feedgrounds, but have taken to calling them “feedlots” in an explicit attempt to cast the feedgrounds on par with livestock feedlots. While feedlots are confined animal feeding operations, elk feedgrounds are not feedlots – the elk come and go at their own desire, and consume native vegetation in addition to the supplemental food provided by wildlife managers.

See Image 2: Wyoming Public Media adopts the use of the term feedlot in reporting.

The introduction of new words or phrases into the public lexicon is nothing new. Linguist George Lakoff writes in the journal Environmental Communications: “Introducing new language is not always possible. The new language must make sense in terms of the existing system of frames. It must work emotionally. And it must be introduced in a communication system that allows for sufficient spread over the population, sufficient repetition, and sufficient trust in the messengers.”

Recently retired from wolf watching for Yellowstone National Park, Rick McIntyre wrote a piece for Outside Online last month that describes the history of a wolf pack. But he cleverly interchanged the word pack with “family”: “He died from the wounds they inflicted, but he had saved his family,” “Her family is carrying on,” and “I did it for her family.”

Cognitive science and psychology are used to develop effective messaging that is used in political, cultural, and economic contexts. Messaging attempts to influence not just what brand of product you may buy, but how you feel about an object, person, or industry, with the goal of prompting you to take action.

For example, we don’t hear much about “global warming” anymore – it’s been reframed as “climate change.” A group called ecoAmerica is at the forefront of climate-change messaging, identifying our moral foundations, the emotions and virtues associated with those morals, and suggesting messages that apply to each audience.

See Image 3: From Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication

Robert Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science who warns against such widespread messaging efforts to manipulate the public. Brulle writes: “To mobilize broad-based support for social change, citizens cannot be treated as objects for manipulation. Rather, they should be treated as citizens involved in a mutual dialog.”

Instead, we hear anti-fossil fuel advocates calling permits to drill natural gas wells “fracking permits,” oil and gas leases have become “fracking leases,” and drilling rigs are “fracking rigs”– whether hydraulic fracturing technology is used or not.

See Image 4: Environment News Service has renamed gas drilling as fracking.

Language can be used to manipulate, but it can also just be a reflection of personal experience. I’m involved in agriculture, so when you hear me refer to bull markets, and diversified stock, it’s within a completely different context than someone on Wall Street using the same words. Same words, different meaning – but no manipulation.

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.

Range Writing: Our Public Lands Aren’t Killing Us

in Column/Range Writing
Your Public Lands Aren't Killing US
A Hereford cow with her newborn calf on private property in Wyoming, with a drilling rig on public land nearby. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
1191

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I’ve enjoyed several nonfiction books by writer Timothy Egan, including his detailed accounts of the survivors of the Dust Bowl era, and chronicles of the massive wildfire complex that swept through several western states in the early 1900s. Ergo it was with great disappointment that I read his recent New York Times editorial “Your Public Lands Are Killing You.”

I’ve concluded Egan’s opinion piece is an exercise in hyperbole – the deliberate use of extreme exaggeration. It’s unfortunate that naïve members of the public will not recognize Egan’s overuse of literary device and will instead take his assertions literally. As in this case, hyperbole can be used to take a factual grain and twist it into something unrecognizable, whether coming from left-leaning zealots or from right-wing fanatics.

Seattle-based Egan writes of “out in the way beyond” of “a vast kingdom now being used to hasten the demise of the planet.” As a rural resident in Wyoming (our nation’s least populated state), I live in the “way beyond” Egan writes about, but I know that the Big Empty isn’t empty. It is home to thriving human and animal communities. We may have more elk and livestock on the landscape than people, but that’s the way we like it. We are the stewards of America’s public lands.

Public lands: home of national parks and landmarks, forests, mountains, wild rivers, wilderness, historic sites, the sagebrush sea, flowing grasslands, just to name a few characteristics. Some are set aside for protection from development, or place limits on human uses, while others are multiple-use landscapes in which mineral and energy development, logging, and livestock grazing are allowed, along with hiking, biking, camping, hunting, skiing, and other recreational pursuits. This glorious mixture is our national heritage.

The Wind River Mountains serve as the backdrop for a drilling rig on public land in Wyoming.
The Wind River Mountains serve as the backdrop for a drilling rig on public land in Wyoming. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)

The Bureau of Land Management manages one of every 10 acres of land in the United States, including about 30 percent of the nation’s minerals. Public lands provide a quarter of the nation’s domestic supplies of oil and natural gas. Egan asserts that public servants “have been busy giving away drilling rights on your land for next to nothing,” but we know that the BLM’s competitive oil and gas leasing allows the private sector to make deep investments in energy development in oftentimes remote lands that have limited utilization, and that other human use of these areas is not excluded. These investments provide for economic output and employment for local communities and state government budgets, as well as funding to the U.S. Treasury. Public lands are used not just for fossil-fuel energy, but for renewable energy, and non-fuel mineral development.

Competitive oil and gas lease sales are based on lease terms of a minimum of at least $2 per acre. That sounds low, but a review of recent sales in Wyoming shows leases in the $10,000-$12,000 per-acre range. A lease sale in Wyoming last month netted $88 million, according to press accounts, with that revenue split about even between state and federal coffers.

These onshore oil and gas leases are based not just on the annual rental fee that Egan appears to take issue with, but holders of those leases then pay 12.5 percent of production value in royalties, in addition to corporate income taxes and other taxes and fees. That money fuels federal, state and local budgets.

Leases are offered with a variety of restrictions or stipulations and are subject to protests and further environmental analysis before development commences. If exploratory drilling on a lease reveals an economically recoverable field, the cost for preparing an environmental impact statement (which takes years to complete) can be in the range of $3-$8 million before full-field development can proceed. It takes years to develop a lease, and then there are a variety of restrictions, inspections, monitoring, and reclamation that takes place.

A recent US Geologic Survey report (commissioned by the Obama administration) found that fuels produced from federal lands in Wyoming had were responsible for the highest CO2 emissions (57%) from fuels produced on all federal lands, which is no surprise since Wyoming produces so much of the nation’s energy from its federal lands.

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s public lands carbon emissions, but since the coal industry has already undergone drastic decline, Egan’s piece focuses instead on the “Trump administration plan to drill till we drop.”

An E&E News piece in Scientific American last fall noted the USGS report “showed emissions peaking around 2009 before decreasing about 6 percent. The Trump administration has overseen a bounce in coal mined on federal lands – but the amount mined in fiscal 2017 was still less than all but one year under Obama .…”

We do need to address global climate change, but hysterical calls that our public lands are killing us create a false narrative. Wyoming is home to what much of the nation holds dear: abundant wildlife populations, breathtaking landscapes, wide open spaces, and places where although the towns may appear to be small, the sense of community is huge. Our public lands are the places outsiders dream about. And it’s these places that also produce energy for our nation.

Productive dialogue, investments and advancements in technology, and addressing energy demand as well as supply are needed. We need to do better in terms of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, and in sustainably utilizing natural resources. We also need energy that people across this nation can afford – being careful that energy policy not further impoverish already underprivileged people.

Egan has joined environmental advocates in calls to halt to oil and gas leasing on federal lands (lest your public lands kill you), but an economical and efficient energy option is not offered in these ploys. Likewise, opposition to David Bernhardt as Interior Secretary sound eerily similar to the “sky is falling” calls when James Watt was appointed to the same position. Egan and his cronies survived Watt, we survived Bruce Babbitt, and I’m confident our western lands, with its Big Empty inhabitants, will survive whatever D.C. throws at us. It’s our nature, as stewards of our heritage.

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.

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