Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The hearty ingredients of Canis soup

The wolf is iconic and charismatic. We see him on t-shirts, on posters, and in fantasy novels. Conservationists do battle with ranchers to preserve populations of wolves. The coyote, on the other hand, is neither iconic nor loved. A newcomer to suburbia, he is feared as a suspected predator of cats, small dogs, and even small children. He is rarely seen on t-shirts; his name is not used to designate a rank of Boy Scout.
But now that we have the genetic tools to look at these animals’ genomes, it turns out that many of the populations of coyotes in North America are actually coyote-wolf hybrids, as are many of the populations of wolves. Unable to draw clear lines between these species, biologists have dubbed the populations of hybrids “Canis soup.”
What’s a Canis?
The term “canid soup” has also been used for this mess of wolf, coyote, and even dog genes that we find in some populations of canids. So what does Canis mean, and what is a canid?
These are terms related to the scientific classification of the species in question. Going through the hierarchy, we have Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora, Family Canidae (canids), and Genus Canis. Wolves, dogs, jackals, and foxes belong to the family Canidae, but only wolves, dogs, and jackals (not foxes) belong to the genus Canis. We call the wolf-like canids “canines” and the fox-like canids “vulpines.”
As foxes do not interbreed with wolves, dogs, or jackals, what we’re talking about here is correctly Canis soup, or perhaps canine soup, but not canid soup.
Is it Canis or is it soup?
The more you dig into wild canines in North America, the more unclear it is where any species lines should be drawn. So who makes up our cast of characters?
The first ingredient in Canis soup is the charismatic North American gray wolf or timber wolf, Canis lupus, sometimes known as Canis lupus lupus to differentiate it from the dog and the dingo, who belong to subspecies. The gray wolf is the largest wild canine, at a 79 pound (36 kg) average weight. (Domestic dogs of some breeds, of course, weigh more than that.) Its coat coloring can vary from white through blond, brown, grey, and black. It is found in the western parts of North America.
Next is the Western coyote, Canis latrans. This animal is also known as the American jackal or prairie wolf, suggesting that there has been some confusion about how to distinguish canine species for some time. The Western coyote is a significantly smaller animal than the gray wolf, weighing in closer to 20 pounds (7-14 kg). Its coat color is less varied than the gray wolf’s, almost always a grey-brown as you see in the image here.
The range of the Eastern wolf or Algonquin wolf, Canis lycaon, is Ontario, Canada. This wolf is smaller than the gray wolf, and has a distinctive grey-red coat with black hairs along its back. We believe that this wolf was the original North American canine, and that Canis lupus and Canis latrans immigrated over the land bridge from Europe. There’s a lot of debate about the species status of C. lycaon, as many Eastern wolves appear to have significant C. latrans heritage. Some people suggest that the Eastern wolf is in fact a C. lupus/C. latrans hybrid, or, alternately, a subspecies of the gray wolf, C. lupus lycaon.
The Eastern coyote, spreading along the east coast of the United States, is significantly larger than his Western counterpart. It turns out to be a coyote/wolf hybrid, and it has been argued that it should more accurately be called a coywolf. His wolf ancestors seem to be Canis lycaon —  but then again, there is debate about whether C. lycaon is really different from C. lupus at all.
The red wolf or Southeastern wolf is subject to truly intense debate about species status. Is it his own species, Canis rufus? A subset of the gray wolf, Canis lupus rufus? Or a population of Eastern wolf, Canis lycaon? It has a beautiful red coat, and is smaller in size than the gray wolf. Its range was historically the southeastern U.S., but it went extinct in the wild by 1980. A founder population of 19 animals survived in captivity, and a reintroduction project in North Carolina was begun in 1987. Here the red wolf is today enthusiastically interbreeding with coyotes, leaving conservationists to wonder what they are conserving.
The three species of wild canines in North America today, then, are Canis lupus, Canis latrans, and Canis lycaon. But we really have just two soup ingredients, wolf and coyote. There are pure wolves (Canis lupus) and there are pure coyotes (Canis latrans), and there are populations that are mixtures of more or less wolf and more or less coyote (Eastern wolves, Eastern coyotes, and red wolves). There appears to be some dog mixed in there, too. You can think of gray wolf and Western coyote as ingredients, and everything else as soup.
Coyote flavor versus wolf flavor
The 2011 paper “A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids” analyzed the various soup flavors out there and presented their findings in some easy-to-understand charts (below). Here, the different colors represent different amounts of each ingredient. The first chart describes the Eastern wolf, here referred to as the Algonquin wolf, which is mostly gray wolf (green) and joint wolf/coyote (yellow), but also has significant coyote (red). The second chart describes the red wolf; at a glance, it is obvious that the red wolf has a much larger percentage of coyote genes (again, red in this chart). These charts both use τ to denote the number of generations since the most recent admixture with another species.

The two coyote recipes pictured below describe two subpopulations of what I have described as the Eastern coyote; this particular paper considers them split into Northeastern and Southeastern coyotes. At a glance, these populations are mainly pure coyote (red), with big dashes of mixed coyote/wolf (yellow), and small but notable amounts of our friend the dog (dark blue, light blue, and pink).

Wild canine populations challenge us to let go of our obsessive need to categorize. Instead of slotting a canine population into a single species category, we might instead think of it as existing on a spectrum from “wolf-like” to “coyote-like.” A strongly wolf-like canid would be larger, sixty to ninety pounds. It would require a larger range, and would be a deerivore, subsisting off of larger game. It is likely to be a shyer animal, found only in more rural or wild areas. Conversely, a strongly coyote-like canid would be much smaller, fifteen to thirty pounds, with a smaller range. It might eat deer as well as rabbits and et cetera (probably a lot of et cetera, as coyotes are more willing to scrounge than wolves are). It would be more likely to be found in suburban areas, with a greater tolerance for human proximity. A given population of canines might fall anywhere on the spectrum between the two. The fact that a spectrum actually exists is beautifully demonstrated by the Eastern coyote, who has mixed coyote/wolf ancestry, is mid-sized between coyote and wolf, and has a mid-sized range.
What’s your preferred flavor?
Does the intermixture of various ingredients in the formation of soupy populations matter as more than a gee-whiz story? To some people, the answer is very much yes. The conservationists who are committing significant resources to the preservation of the red wolf don’t want to see the wolves that they reintroduce interbreed with coyotes. If the reintroduced wolf population blends into a coyote population, then are these resources actually being spent just to support a bunch of coyotes (who have been doing fine on their own)? At the same time, evidence shows that the founder population of 19 red wolves was already significantly coyotified, and we’re not sure how long it’s been since there have been any pure Canis rufus specimens in North America.
It is, of course, possible to think about the problem without asking for genetics to provide the complete answer for us. The red wolf is a red wolf, a beautiful, iconic animal that has lived in the southeastern United States throughout living memory. We know what the red wolf looks like (and that hasn’t been changing much, no matter what is happening to his genes). We also know that it is important in a particular environmental niche, and that hasn’t been changing much either.
Practically, the mixture of coyote genes into fragile wolf populations may be a good thing. Because coyotes are better at living on smaller ranges and in closer proximity to humans than wolves are, they are better adapted to the realities of North America today. As their genes mix into wolf populations, these populations become demonstrably more robust, more able to tolerate human presence, and able to survive on smaller ranges. It is possible, in fact, that coyote genes are exactly what are eventually going to allow a red wolf population to flourish without human assistance.
Conclusions, if we can make any
Does it matter that some of what we think of as wolves have coyote genes? I think the answer comes down to a cultural perception of the wolf as a romantic and charismatic creature, and of the coyote as a pest. Perhaps any mixture of the two is perceived as diminishing the wolf. A friend of mine once made this analogy: if you have an entire bottle of fine wine, and you pour just a teaspoon of sewage into it, now you have a bottle of sewage. Does any amount of coyote, no matter how miniscule, make the wolf impure, and less worth conserving than it was?
As a culture, I hope we can come to appreciate the strengths that the coyote brings to Canis soup, in its ability to coexist with humans in the modern world. It may be what saves populations of charismatic wolves from permanent loss. As we look at populations of canines in North America, we should learn to say that one is more coyote-like and another more wolf-like, on a spectrum from one flavor of soup to another, and appreciate the benefits of both.
Canis soup has been used before as an example of the blurriness of some species lines and the inadequacy of many existing definitions of a species, but it also provides some interesting insights into the fluidity of canid morphology and behavioral characteristics. How did something as large and wild as a wolf become something as variably-sized and tame as a dog? Moreover, how did this change happen (presumably) without a carefully planned breeding program? Why is it so easy to breed types of dogs with such different behavioral and physical characteristics, especially compared to the much more limited variety of breeds of cat, horse, or cow? The canine genome clearly has the capacity for expression across a startlingly wide array of phenotypes. The evidence of this variety has always been right before our eyes, but we are just beginning to understand its implications.
· Adams J. R., Leonard J. A., Waits L. P. Widespread occurrence of a domestic dog mitochondrial DNA haplotype in southeastern US coyotes. Molecular Ecology. 2003;12:541-546.
· Adams J. R., Kelly B. T., Waits L. P. Using faecal DNA sampling and GIS to monitor hybridization between red wolves (Canis rufus) and coyotes (Canis latrans). Molecular Ecology. 2003;12:2175-2186.
· Hailer Frank, Leonard Jennifer A. Hybridization among three native North American Canis species in a region of natural sympatry. PLoS ONE. 2008;3:e3333+.
· vonHoldt Bridgett M., Pollinger John P., Earl Dent A., et al. A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids. Genome research. 2011;21:1294-1305.
· Way Jonathan G., Rutledge Linda, Wheeldon Tyler, White Bradley N. Genetic Characterization of Eastern ”Coyotes” in Eastern Massachusetts. Northeastern Naturalist. 2010;17:189-204.
· Wilson Paul J., Grewal Sonya K., Mallory Frank F., White Bradley N. Genetic Characterization of Hybrid Wolves across Ontario. Journal of Heredity. 2009;100:S80-S89.
· Zimmer Carl. What Is a Species? Sci Am. 2008;298:72-79.
Images: Gray Wolf (Image courtesy of vargklo at Wikipedia and Flickr); Western Coyote (Image courtesy of Rebecca Richardson at Wikipedia and Flickr); Eastern wolf (Image courtesy Christian Jansky at Wikipedia); Eastern coyote/coywolf (Image from Eastern Coyote Research); Red wolf (image from True Wild Life); Two recipes for wolf flavored Canis soup (vonHoldt, 2011); Two recipes for coyote flavored Canis soup (vonHoldt, 2011)

Monday, December 26, 2011

New Parks For Northern NM & Southern Colo.?

Interior: Region's Hispanic heritage worth honoring, preserving

By MATT HILDNER | The Pueblo Chieftain

ALAMOSA — When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar comes to Adams State College on Jan. 4, he'll come armed with a report he hopes can convince Congress and the National Park Service that Southern Colorado's Hispanic heritage is worthy of their attention.

The 56-page survey argues that the settlement of a 5,100 square-mile area, once part of the Mexican frontier, made up a significant chapter in American history that has left a legacy found today in the region's, language, art, religion and agriculture.

The area includes parts of Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla and Saguache counties, reaches across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to take in parts of Huerfano and Las Animas counties and extends south into two northern New Mexico counties.

It would be up to the Park Service, with direction from Congress, to determine whether it would be feasible or suitable to bring the area into the park system and whether it required direct management from the agency.

But the report looks at the history of the region, noting the impact of the five large land grants that were issued by the Mexican government to lure settlers to the area and fortify Mexico from Texan encroachment and threats from Native Americans.

While the Sangre de Cristo land grant remains very much in today's headlines as heirs continue the legal process to gain access to a portion of it east of San Luis, the report highlights the settlement patterns that sprung from all of them.

Often settled around a plaza, the communities included irrigation ditches, known as acequias, that watered long narrow lots.

San Luis, founded in 1851, would become the state's oldest town, while the People's Ditch that runs across the town's southern end to neighboring farms would mark the state's first water right.

The settlements also included common grazing areas and communal rights for settlers to gather firewood and take game.

And at the center of each plaza was often a church.

Salazar's study area includes the state's oldest parish — Our Lady of Guadalupe just north of Antonito and the oldest church in the San Acacio Mission just west of San Luis.

Moreover, the religious laymen's fraternities that sprung up across the region and were home to the Penitente Brotherhood, are still active in some places.

The report notes that if Congress were to authorize further study it could look to the management example found in the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor, which honors the birth of the industrial revolution in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

It might also look simply at the creation of a commemorative center in the area that could host a museum, research center or cultural events.

But there are also other recommendations in the survey that don't involve the Park Service.

The report encourages the use of conservation easements in the region, particularly in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where three large ranches dominate the landscape.

The largely undeveloped terrain that make up the Trinchera and Cielo Vista ranches in Colorado and the Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, could provide an important wildlife corridor, linking eastern prairies and the high mountain valleys.

Research May Revive Park Proposal
By Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board on Sun, Dec 25, 2011

A new National Park Service study may revive efforts, abandoned 30-odd years ago, to turn the Vermejo Park Ranch into a national park. In addition, the study could give new impetus to efforts to preserve historical Hispanic settlements and other sites in both northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, as well as link Vermejo Park and several other very large ranches north of there into a wildlife migration corridor.

In all this, it must certainly have helped that the current Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is native to the area in question. But the fact that the big man — and the guy who initiated the study — is a homeboy doesn’t mean that parks and historical and habitat preservation across the San Luis Valley in Colorado and along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo range in northern New Mexico aren’t good ideas in their own right.

For northern New Mexicans, the study makes amusing reading. That’s mainly because Hispanic settlements on the Colorado side of the border, including the acequia systems, homesteads and historic churches that the study identifies as important evidence in the tale of what it calls “Latino settlement,” are so much younger than the same on this side the state line, farther south.

Colorado’s oldest church and its first recorded water right, plus its land-grant ranches — all hard by that border — date back only a couple of hundred years. Here, of course, when we talk about the first European settlements, we’re talking in terms of four centuries. But, as the study rightly notes, the whole area is culturally, geographically and demographically of a piece, representing “the northernmost expansion of the Spanish Colonial and Mexican frontier,” with a “distinctive and exceptional concentration of historic resources associated with Hispano settlement.”

A national historical park might be in order, the study notes. At the very least, the National Park Service could help the two states involved develop “heritage tour routes” that would include historical information and identify landmark sites.

Noting that conservation easements already exist on some of the big ranches that were once Mexican land grants in the area, the study recommends that these be expanded so that wildlife migration could be better protected. “There are few other places in the southwestern United States,” the study says, “where such an open and unchanged landscape exists.”

The study also recommends revisiting the previous Vermejo Park ranch study that was completed in 1979 and concluded that the ranch merited inclusion in the National Park System.

All of this will require more than just Salazar, however. Only Congress can authorize the more in-depth reviews needed to look at just what, and how much, might be required to designate sites as parks or landmarks.

Salazar will be back home in the San Luis Valley with two Colorado senators and the state’s governor to talk about it after the first of the year.

Maybe New Mexico’s congressional delegation can find a way to generate enthusiasm for these ideas on this side of the state line, too.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not so home on the range

The Old West tradition of using national forest lands for grazing isn't completely dead in the Roaring Fork Valley, but it could be on its last gasp.

For the first half of the 20th century, the Forest Service's primary duty in the Roaring Fork River basin was to manage the range for livestock grazing and, to a lesser extent, oversee timber sales.

Now, instead of supervising the grazing of large flocks of sheep on Independence Pass and huge herds of cattle in nearly all the lower-elevation drainages, the Forest Service is focused on protecting natural resources in the wake of an expanding number of recreationalists. (Oil and gas development has emerged in the past decade as a leading issue on the west side of the White River National Forest.)

The decline in the use of forest lands for grazing mirrors the slow decline in the overall health of ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley. As Aspen built its reputation as a world-class resort and land prices soared, many ranchers discovered they could get richer selling their land for real estate development than by spending years wrangling cattle.

Declining number of grazing permits
As a result, the demand for grazing allotments has plummeted in the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts, which combine to total about 720,000 acres.

“At the present time, there are approximately 202,000 acres of the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts open to domestic livestock grazing. In 1985, there were nearly 100,000 more acres open to grazing than there are now,” said Wayne Ives, the range technician on the two districts since the early 1980s.

“The number of permittees has definitely declined,” he added.

Sheep grazing used to be prevalent in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen native Stirling “Buzz” Cooper, 80, recalls Bleeker Street being used as a route to take sheep from west of town to the railroad depot, which was located near what is now Rio Grande Park.

Cooper also recalled cattle being grazed as far up as the Weller Cut on Independence Pass when he was a kid. His family lived in a cabin east of Aspen. His mother got upset when the cattle were driven down in the fall one year and trampled the family garden and yard.

Even into the mid-1980s, there were two herds of sheep grazing in the Aspen area, one in Grizzly Creek and another in East Snowmass Creek. There were four herds using the Marble area for summer pasture, Ives said.

The number of sheep grazing permits issued by the Forest Service for the Aspen and Sopris districts fell from five in 1987 to one in 2011. The last remaining herd grazes on public lands in the Marble area. A typical herd had about 1,000 head of sheep, Ives said.

The number of cattle grazing permits in the Aspen and Sopris districts fell from 28 in to 16 in 2011.

Conflicts contribute to decline
The grazing allotments range in size from 2,000 acres for 46 cow-calf units permitted to 32,000 acres with nearly 1,000 cows with calves. The fee, set by Congress, varies with beef prices. It cannot be lower than $1.35 per cow and calf per month.

Ives said grazing allotments have historically been held by the same families for generations or have carried over with different owners of a piece of property. When a ranch surrenders an allotment, it often expires these days because there are so few ranches remaining in the valley.

Ranchers face additional challenges. Some national environmental groups oppose grazing on federal lands because of the degradation to streambeds, water quality and natural pastures. Other groups complain that the fee that is charged is too low and amounts to a subsidy for ranchers. In the Roaring Fork Valley, there are conflicts between cows, climbers, cyclists and hikers.

Ives noted that cows and backpackers both are attracted to Capitol Lake, which is a popular base for climbers going up Capitol Peak, one of Colorado's mountains above 14,0000 feet. Camping spots are highly coveted around the breath-takingly beautiful lake.

“People don't expect to see cattle there,” Ives said.

Grazing patterns get messed up
Carbondale rancher Tom Turnbull has held grazing permit on federal lands for more than 50 years. Lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management aren't really the land of many users any longer, as once billed, he said. Mountain biking has become a dominate use outside of designated Wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited.

“Look at the impact that it's had in areas like the Crown,” Turnbull said, referring to BLM land between the Roaring Fork River and Mount Sopris in the midvalley. The Crown has become a hot spot for mountain biking in the last decade.

“All the good main cattle trails have turned into bike trails,” Turnbull said.

His beef with biking is the effect it has on grazing patterns. The key to effective grazing is to spread the herd over the entire allotment. When cyclists regularly ride through lands used by cattle, it tends to encourage the animals to congregate.

Rory Cerise has helped move his cattle up from his family's ranch in Emma to the Crown for more than four decades. His family has held a grazing right up there since 1944. He has witnessed the effects of the recreation boom on his family's operation. Hikers and bikers on the Crown often leave gates open, forcing Cerise to track straying cows. He's also witnessed equestrians chasing cattle, considering it harmless sport.

Conflicts became so bad on Basalt Mountain, another popular mountain biking site, that the permit holder asked the Forest Service to allow greater utilization of nearby lands in Cattle Creek. The allotment on Basalt Mountain hasn't been used for a few years.

“The permittee just didn't want to fight the battles anymore,” Ives said.

Grazing still big in Rifle, Meeker
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the forest used to be “one giant pasture.” While livestock grazing has declined in the Aspen, Vail and Summit county areas, it still thrives in the Rifle Ranger District and Meeker's Rio Blanco Ranger Districts.

In 2010, Fitzwilliams' office issued permits for 16,270 cattle and 43,290 sheep on 92 grazing allotments throughout the forest. The White River collected $103,917 for grazing permits.

Fitzwilliams said he believes it is important for the forest to continue to provide summer grazing lands to help keep the ranching industry economically viable. The private lands of the ranches provide the public benefits of open space, wildlife habitat and checks on urban sprawl.

“I see it well into the future. Public land grazing is going to be part of the West,” Fitzwilliams said.

How much it remains a part of the Aspen and Sopris districts after the current generation of ranchers retire remains to be seen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Grazing strategy could be key to reducing wild land fires, researchers say

New Mexico State University researchers and experts from other universities are looking into the possibility that a targeted grazing strategy for range cattle could significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. "Behavior of wildfires is affected by the abundance of what we call 'fine fuels,'" said NMSU rangeland expert Derek Bailey. "Our assumption is that moderate levels of grazing can be used to strategically reduce the levels of fine fuels and correspondingly limit impacts and economic losses of wildfire."

Bailey teaches in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences and is the director of NMSU's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center north of Las Cruces. He and other investigators are halfway through a three-year study on targeted grazing.

In some areas, the grasses that fueled normal and periodic low-intensity surface fires in the past have been replaced by densely packed trees and brush that fuel the raging prairie and forest fires seen in recent years, including record-setting 2011 fires in the Southwest.

The Albuquerque Journal ( ) reports the study is based on the premise that cattle tend to graze unevenly. Their natural tendency is to stay close to water sources, which can lead to deterioration of riparian plant life while leaving an abundance of forage material in more rugged areas or areas away from water. In some cases, the neglected forage exacerbates fire danger.

Targeted grazing at four locations in New Mexico and Arizona involves manually herding cattle into more rugged and remote areas of fuel buildup and determining if the availability of forage, along with the strategic positioning of protein supplement blocks, encourages the animals to spend a higher percentage of their time away from the overgrazed areas around their water source.

To track cattle, Global Positioning System collars are being used to monitor where the cattle in both the control group and the experimental group spend their time.

The project has been implemented at NMSU's Corona Range and Livestock Research Center in central New Mexico and on a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona.

Preliminary results suggest that the combination of herding and strategic supplement placement can effectively reduce biomass of fine fuels, Bailey said.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Aging Sagebrush Rebel Keeps up Fight Against Feds

A 75-year-old lawyer who fought private property rights battles alongside Idaho U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth and her Nevada rancher husband Wayne Hage in the 1990s is still cultivating the Sagebrush Rebellion's roots.

Fred Kelly Grant has been slowed by age and heart surgery, but he's in demand from counties — and tea partyers who attend his $150-per-person seminars — as conservative elements in the West's continue to clash with the federal government.

California's Siskiyou County is paying Grant $10,000 to help block removal of four Klamath River dams. Montana and Idaho counties have enlisted him to trim hated wolf populations and thwart U.S. Forest Service road closures.

What Grant preaches is "coordination," the theory that federal agencies by law must deal with local governments when revising their public land travel plans or protecting endangered species. Grant insists he's not reviving the discredited "county supremacy" movement, in which a Nevada county once threatened federal employees with prosecution.

"This is not nullification," simply ignoring federal mandates, he told The Associated Press. "Coordination is working within the system to try and make the system work."

Hage, who died in 2006, epitomized the Sagebrush Rebellion by battling the federal government over water rights. Chenoweth, killed the same year in a car crash, worried that federal agents would arrive aboard black helicopters to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Grant is promoting a strategy for counties that he says will help them take on the federal government, on hot-button issues including wolves, U.S. Forest Service road closures and the removal of dams on the Klamath River in California. (AP Photo/John Miller) Close

Grant, a former federal prosecutor in Maryland who once helped guide Stewards of the Range, the Hage family's property-rights nonprofit, started his own foundation last year. He, a son and daughter-in-law now give seminars, often to tea party groups, on how locals can demand coordination when Washington, D.C. isn't listening.

Grant insists he's no radical, but he's not above fanning the flames. In 2009, he told a crowd angry about road closures in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest that he once dismissed those who claimed the United Nations and U.S. government sought to eliminate people from public land as crackpots who saw "a communist behind every sagebrush."

"I thought it was a conspiratorial theory," Grant said, in video footage. "It's not."

Some environmentalists are dubious of Grant's "coordination," saying it's so much fodder on the conservative rubber-chicken circuit for a restive Western audience long unhappy with federal management of vast tracts of public land.

"He's saying a county should adopt its own plan, and the federal government is obliged to make sure its plan is consistent with the local plan," said Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project director in Hailey, Idaho. "It's nullification by another name."

Grant insists federal courts side with him.

In 2001, a U.S. District Court judge in Utah ordered the Bureau of Land Management to remove wild horses resettled in Uintah County, in part because the agency didn't coordinate with local officials.

"Coordination does not mean the county gets its way," Grant said. "What it means is, the federal government should be discussing policy with the county, and considering alternatives."

He cites Idaho's Owyhee County, where he says coordination between locals and the BLM beginning in 1990 resolved grazing disputes — and led to ranchers' support for 500,000 acres of federally protected wilderness created here in 2009.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cattle group counters Interior grazing claims

The Public Lands Council is commissioning a study to determine the true economic value of public lands grazing.

The study seeks to scrutinize a Department of Interior report that claims grazing is only responsible for a miniscule amount of the jobs and economic impact created by the agency's programs.

According to the "Department of Interior's Economic Contributions" report, which was released in June, the agency's programs were responsible for 2 million jobs and $363 billion in economic activity during fiscal year 2010.

The report makes much ado about the estimated 388,000 jobs and $44 billion in economic activity generated by recreation and tourism on DOI-managed lands and the 1.3 million jobs and $246 billion in economic activity created by energy development and mining.

But it barely mentions the impact of public lands grazing, estimating it is responsible for 2,500 direct jobs and less than 5,000 indirect jobs and has an economic impact of $640 million.

The PLC, which consists of state and national cattle, sheep and grasslands associations, believes those numbers are way off and has hired an outside company to do an independent analysis of the report.

"This report talks about recreation from beginning to end," PLC Executive Director Dustin Van Liew told Idaho Cattle Association members Dec. 15 during their annual meeting in Sun Valley. "Grazing was basically an afterthought in this report."

He pointed out the BLM administers 18,000 federal grazing permits. The fact that the report credits grazing for only 2,500 direct jobs shows that ranchers themselves weren't counted as direct jobs, he said, despite the fact that most "of those jobs don't exist without access to federal forage."

He also noted that the report's 5,000 jobs total for gazing works out to less than a third of a job per permit.

"We all know common sense wise that doesn't pass the smell test," Van Liew said. "Those are grossly under-reported figures in this study."

He said the PLC will use county and state tax data and case studies "to show exactly how much economic activity is created by grazing."

ICA Executive Director Wyatt Prescott said the industry welcomes PLC's independent analysis and agrees with its criticism of the DOI report.

"As an industry, we know the economic difference we make in communities by being on rangeland," he said. "The biased nature of this report was appalling to our industry. We were extremely disappointed to see that because it was so misrepresentative of our industry."

BLM officials could not be reached for comment Nov. 15. But the report's executive summary admitted that some DOI services can't be fully counted in terms of output or jobs.

REVA (H.R. 3432) Would Provide Cash Option for Grazing Permittees

Conservationists hailed the introduction of the Rural Economic Vitalization Act (H.R. 3432) in Congress, a bill that would allow federal grazing permittees to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits back to the managing federal agency in exchange for compensation paid by a third party. The bill was introduced by Representative Adam Smith (D-WA-9th) and six original cosponsors.

“When enacted, this legislation will help resolve endless conflict on public lands, while providing ranchers with opportunities to restructure their operations, start new businesses, or retire with security,” said Mike Hudak, author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching and leader of the Sierra Club Grazing Team.

Domestic livestock grazing is the most pervasive and damaging use of federal public lands. On public land across the West, millions of non-native livestock remove and trample vegetation, damage soil, spread invasive weeds, despoil water, deprive native wildlife of forage and shelter, accelerate desertification and even contribute to global warming.

Unfortunately, antiquated federal law generally prohibits closing grazing allotments to benefit fish, wildlife and watersheds. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act would authorize federal agencies to permanently retire grazing permits if requested by ranchers.

“Grazing permit retirement has been implemented in a few places around the West with marked success, but there is much greater need—and demand from ranchers—to retire grazing permits,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians.

One landscape that has benefited from grazing permit retirement is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where grazing allotments have been closed to reduce conflicts with wolves, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, and to expand winter range for bison outside Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone bison, the last remaining genetically pure wild herd in the U.S., are subject to intensive management and control based on the irrational fear that they will transmit disease to domestic livestock.

“Bison are hazed, captured, shot and slaughtered to protect grazing interests on public land in Yellowstone country,” said Josh Osher of the Buffalo Field Campaign. “REVA is the tool we need to finally, permanently address these conflicts.”

Whether it be bison, sage-grouse, big game, wolves, fish, wild horses, clean water, or any number of additional environmental values which prompt conflict in the west, REVA opens up a new opportunity for stakeholders to come together and utilize an innovative, free-market tool to resolve natural resource conflicts.

In addition to being the source of immeasurable environmental harm, the federal grazing program is a fiscal boondoggle for federal taxpayers. The Government Accountability Office reported that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service annually spend $132.5 million on grazing management, but collect only $17.5 million in grazing fees for a net loss to taxpayers of $115 million.

“The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest service run an annual deficit administering grazing permits and managing private cattle grazing operations. My bill eliminates wasteful spending, gives ranchers the choice to retire permits, allows public lands to recover natural habitats and fosters the return of native plants and wildlife,” said U.S. Representative Adam Smith (WA-09).

“We want to save public lands and do our part to solve the deficit,” said Brian Ertz of Western Watersheds Project. “We just need Congressional approval to buy out willing ranchers and retire their grazing permits.”

Grazing permit retirement is a voluntary, non-regulatory, market-based solution to public lands grazing conflicts. Permittees determine if and when they want to retire their grazing permits. Permittees and third parties separately agree how much a permittee will be paid for relinquishing their permit. And federal agencies facilitate the transaction by immediately retiring grazing permits received from a permittee. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act caps the total number of grazing permits that may be retired each year at 100.

“This is a win-win-win for ranchers, the environment, and taxpayers,” said Rose Chilcoat of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “Let’s pass this bill so that we can finally take some common sense steps to ensure healthy public lands.”

Rural Economic Vitalization Act (H.R. 3432)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Protecting the Path of the Pronghorn

Conservation groups defend ancient critical migratory corridor

Western Watersheds Project, represented by Western Environmental Law Center, has taken legal action to protect a 6,000-year-old, critical migratory corridor necessary for the survival of North America’s fastest land animal, the pronghorn. The groups allege that the Forest Service unlawfully authorized the building of structures for private livestock on the public lands, which have the potential to impede pronghorn migration and block the movement of other large mammals.

The structures -a permanent corral, holding pasture, and additional fencing – are to be located at the confluence of Slate Creek and the Gros Ventre River in Wyoming. This area is a critical link in the “Path of the Pronghorn,” an annual migration corridor for the species between the Upper Green River Valley (near Pinedale) and Grand Teton National Park. The Path of the Pronghorn is the longest remaining migration of any land mammal in the lower 48 states.

Numbering only a few hundred, this dwindling herd relies on the ancient Upper Green River Valley migration corridor for its very survival. In 2008, in recognition of the importance of this corridor to the pronghorn, the Forest Service designated this area as the nation’s first wildlife migration corridor. At the time, former Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton proclaimed, "This migration is an important part of Wyoming's history and we want to do all we can to maintain it."

But while Ms. Hamilton was announcing with much fanfare a plan to protect the “path of the pronghorn”, the agency was simultaneously authorizing the building of livestock facilities in the migration corridor behind closed doors, facilities it readily admits “have the potential to impede pronghorn movements through the corridor.”

The Forest Service authorized the facilities pursuant to two internal “categorical exclusion” decisions and deferred action on additional fencing in order to avoid input and the need to conduct an alternatives and environmental analysis. “This isn’t allowed” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing Western Watersheds Project. “The Forest Service can’t break its plans up into small, component parts in order to circumvent the law and avoid a meaningful environmental analysis. If it wants to authorize new facilities and other projects in the Path of the Pronghorn it must first take a hard look at the overall, cumulative impacts to the migration corridor.”

“We tried to get the agency to preserve unbroken landscapes to protect the ‘Path of the Pronghorn,’” said Jon Marvel, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service didn’t want to listen to the public, to other wildlife managers, or to science. Instead, they made an end-run around important environmental laws. We intend to hold them accountable.”

The “Path of the Pronghorn” is one of the longest large mammal migration corridors in North America, and spans over 100 miles. Numerous land management agencies, including the Forest Service, have signed a, “Pledge of Support for the Conservation and Protection of the Path of the Pronghorn.”


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lizard loses a vote

SANTA FE — The region's most controversial reptile lost a vote Monday at Capitol, but the decision by New Mexico legislators may not carry any weight.

Ten members of the natural resources committee voted to publicly oppose listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. They will send a letter expressing their sentiment to Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Four Democrats on the committee dissented. They included two from southern New Mexico, Rep. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and Sen. Mary Jane Garcia of Dona Ana. Their objection will be added to the end of the letter.

Ashe is to decide by Dec. 14 whether the dunes sagebrush lizard should be designated as an endangered species.

State Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, led the opposition to federal protection for the reptile.

He said such a move could hurt businesses, especially ranchers and oil and gas producers.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is found in a total of eight counties in the oil-producing Permian Basin. Four are in southeastern New Mexico and the others are in West Texas.

Bandy's letter, endorsed by a mix of Republicans, Democrats and an independent, asks that the decision on the lizard be delayed for a year.

Citing no sources or scientific data, Bandy wrote that listing the lizard as endangered would "delay or even curtail livestock grazing and oil and gas development in southeastern New Mexico..."

State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, left the meeting before the vote, but he criticized Bandy's letter on his way out the door.

"Typical sky is falling, scared of science, nonsensical position," Egolf said.

Conservationists say that the dunes sagebrush lizard occupies about 1 percent of the Permian Basin, and listing it would have minimal or no effect on the economy. But the oil and gas industry has closed ranks and is unanimous in opposing federal protection for the reptile.

Rep. Andy Nunez, an independent from Hatch, voted against protection for the lizard. One reason was his distrust for a particular conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Whatever they say, I don't believe," Nunez said.

Two Democrats, Sen. George Munoz of Gallup and Rep. Thomas Garcia of Ocate, stood with Republicans and Nunez in opposing the reptile.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is about the size of a human hand. It can live only in dunes with the shrub shinnery oak.

Bandy in a September special session sponsored a memorial calling for a delay in listing the lizard. Democrats killed that proposal in another committee, but he rebounded for a smaller win Monday.

How much weight Bandy's letter will carry is anybody's guess.

The federal government's deadline for public comments on the lizard expired in May.

As for a delay in the listing, Tom Buckley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said that would be unlikely.

A decision on whether to list the lizard as endangered would be postponed only if experts were stalemated on scientific data, Buckley said.

The dunes sagebrush lizard exists in the New Mexico counties of Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt. It also is found in Andrews, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties in Texas.

Santa Fe Bureau Chief Milan Simonich can be reached at or 505-820-6898. His blog is at

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Far Reaching Court Victory for Western Watersheds Project


Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has won a great court victory !!!

Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s Orderpdf of today (9/28) rules in favor of Western Watersheds Project's challenge to 16 Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plans (RMPs) in 6 western states covering over 30,000,000 acres of public land.


This Order addresses the WWP challenge to two of the RMPs that are serving as test cases for all 16 Resource Management Plans being challenged. These two test cases are for the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve RMP in Idaho and the Pinedale RMP in western Wyoming.

The federal court has granted summary judgment to WWP on both FLPMA and NEPA claims and denied all summary judgment claims by the BLM and intervenors.

This case will resonate in many ways including, in particular, the failure of the BLM to consider overall cumulative effects of all permitted activities and all impacts on Greater Sage Grouse. The Order also strongly addresses failure of the BLM to comply with its own sensitive species policy and its national sage grouse conservation policy.

WWP’s excellent legal representation in this case is by Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West
in Boise.

All-in-all this is a very important win for western public lands management and all native sage-steppe wildlife including greater sage grouse.

Monday, September 26, 2011

‘Driest Year Ever’ Continues In N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Weather forecasters and water managers had little good news to share Thursday about the prospects of Mother Nature helping New Mexico overcome a year of drought.

Members of New Mexico's Drought Monitoring Workgroup met in Albuquerque to talk about the lack of moisture over the past eight months and projections for fall and early winter.

"We're well on track for this being the driest year ever in New Mexico," Ed Polasko, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, told the group.

Polasko's grim statement followed his listing of dozens of communities around New Mexico that have fallen inches behind in their precipitation.

Some of the biggest precipitation deficits are along the Middle and Lower Rio Grande, but he also pointed to Carlsbad and Tatum in southeastern New Mexico, which have missed out on anywhere from six to 10 inches of their normal annual precipitation. Alcalde, Cloudcroft, Glenwood, Las Cruces and Deming are also behind.

Nearly every corner of New Mexico has been affected by drought this year, and the conditions are so bad that about two-thirds of the state have been classified as extreme and exceptional — the two worst levels of drought.

This summer was one of the driest on record and that helped compound a problem that has been brewing since last fall and winter, when storms brought little more than freezing temperatures to New Mexico.

The La Nina weather pattern that repelled moisture from much of the state was to blame. The bad news is that La Nina seems to be rearing its head once more, Polasko said.

New Mexico has also just wrapped up one of its hottest summers ever. This summer ranks just slightly behind the summer of 1980, which was filled with numerous triple-digit days.

"Here we are 30 years later and we're having one of the hottest summers ever and one of the driest," Polasko said. "Things go in cycles and it just happens to be our turn in the dry and very warm cycle."

From farmers along the Pecos River to ranchers in central New Mexico, months without any measureable rain have been difficult to bear. Farmers have been forced to pump groundwater to supplement this year's minuscule irrigation allotments, while ranchers have been trying to decide between selling off their herds or paying higher prices for feed.

In Albuquerque, residents rejoiced this summer when afternoon clouds would yield even a few raindrops.

With the combination of relentless heat and drought, members of the work group said this summer felt as if it would never end.

Thursday was the last day of the season, but the experts said New Mexico can expect more hot and dry weather.

Polasko described the outlook for rain and snow from October to December as "particularly distressing," as models predict storms tracking way to the west and north of New Mexico.

Forecasts show a 40 percent probability of below-normal precipitation for parts of the state, which is consistent with the return of the La Nina weather pattern.

As for temperatures, there's as much as a 50 percent probability that New Mexico will see above-normal temperatures through at least the end of the year.

"Nobody is really putting much stock in the fact that El Nino will return. That's been pretty much washed off the charts," Polasko said.

Raymond Abeyta, a hydrology technician with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in New Mexico, reviewed with the group water storage levels in reservoirs around the state.

While the Rio Grande is far below normal, he said things are worse along the Pecos River.

"If those models prove true, we're going to be in a heap of trouble next year," he said.

September has seen some scattered rainfall around New Mexico, but New Mexico Department of Agriculture range resources specialist Les Owen said it's too little too late for production of any grass on New Mexico's rangelands.

He said ranchers are paying $100 more per ton this year for feed and placement of cattle in feedlots in the Panhandle and Midwest this summer have been the highest on record because of the dry conditions plaguing New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

"The impacts on the ranching community are continuing to mount," Owen said, adding that rural counties that depend on taxes derived from ranching operations will also soon feel the hit.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Forest Service Probes Road Grading in Catron County

By Rene Romo / Journal South Reporter on Sat, Sep 17, 2011

LAS CRUCES - Federal officials are butting heads with Catron County over the county's unauthorized grading of parts of a 13-mile stretch of road that runs alongside, and sometimes across, the San Francisco River south of Reserve in the Gila National Forest.

The grading project, carried out by a bulldozer, appears to have crossed the river more than two dozen times within an area designated critical habitat for the loach minnow, which has been designated a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It's a terrible place for a road," said Cyndi Tuell, Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, who called the early August grading project the county's attempt to "thumb their noses at the federal government."

Catron County Commission Chairman Hugh McKeen could not be reached for comment. But in an Aug. 17 letter informing the Gila National Forest supervisor that the grading had occurred, McKeen and two other commissioners described the project as an effort to improve public access and the road's quality. County commissioners said three landowners asked for the road to be graded.

Catron County also asserted its jurisdiction over the road, which the county calls Historic Highway 12, through a grandfathered easement under

federal Revised Statute (RS) 2477, an 1866 public lands law aimed at encouraging Western development by granting rights of way over public land.

Some Western communities that have bristled at federal management of public lands have cited RS 2477 in claiming rights of way through national forests or wilderness.

"Maintenance of the original road has removed the in-stream travel of vehicles; they are limited to river crossings only," the County Commission's letter states. "Being aware of the ecology of the area, all material was pushed away from the live streambed. We have made every effort to retain the overall beauty of the road with its many trees and overhead shaded areas."

In a written response to Catron County's letter, Gila Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell disputed the county's claim of jurisdiction over the old road, which the county has not established in state District Court.

Private property owners have blocked the road at its northern and southern ends with locked gates, but grant Forest Service personnel access, Russell said.

Even if the road had been conveyed to Catron County, Russell said, the county failed to comply with federal laws and regulations under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said Friday that agency law enforcement officers are cooperating with the Forest Service to investigate the incident. The U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet become involved in the matter, a spokeswoman said.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lawmakers go west for hearing on public lands

The perennial conflict over public lands will surge again Monday in Sacramento, Calif., as congressional Republicans showcase their unhappiness over environmental restrictions they consider excessive.

Carpenters will complain about logging restrictions, motorcycle riders will plead for more off-road access and conservative lawmakers will hope to build momentum for bills whose long-term prospects remain uncertain.

"All of the West is under attack from radical environmentalists, so we'll have to move legislation," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in an interview. "Jobs are being destroyed."

The Sacramento field hearing, and others like it, provides a stage for competing political narratives. Republicans can emphasize jobs; one of their witnesses Monday is from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Democrats can stress the vulnerable environment; one of their witnesses is from Trout Unlimited.

"There's been a full assault on any effort to stop rampant resource development," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said of congressional Republicans.

However it's characterized, there's certainly been no shortage of legislative proposals concerning public land use.

Prompted by President Bill Clinton's designation of the 328,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument in 2000, Nunes authored a bill to slow the creation of additional national monuments. His is one of a number of GOP bills likely to win favor in the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, which organized the Sacramento field hearing.

Some pending bills would specify that presidents cannot establish new national monuments in Montana, Utah or Idaho without congressional approval. Others would give state legislatures a veto over national monuments in their state or, like the Nunes bill, let the monument designations lapse without subsequent congressional approval.

Several different federal agencies currently administer some 100 national monuments nationwide, including the California Coastal, Carrizo Plain and Muir Woods monuments in California.

Republican presidents designated five of California's 10 national monuments, including one that commemorates the Tule Lake camp that incarcerated Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Beyond national monument controversies, the House subcommittee led by tea party favorite Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is considering several broader public lands bills, including one by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The legislation by McCarthy, the House majority whip, would lift current interim protections from 6.6 million acres of Bureau of Land Management property.

Still other bills are designed to open up Forest Service land for multiple uses including grazing and mining.

Republicans run the House panel on public lands with a 13-10 margin, giving them the power to set agendas, dominate witness lists and move bills through the House over the objection of Democrats.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, though, poses a potentially serious impediment to the House's public lands efforts, and Garamendi predicted the House's most aggressive proposals won't go far. The Obama administration, too, has already stressed its opposition to a number of the House bills, including the national monument bill written by Nunes and the Bureau of Land Management bill written by McCarthy.

"Through our wilderness decisions, we demonstrate a sense of stewardship and conservation that is uniquely American," Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey told the House subcommittee earlier this year.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Elko County wants end to 15-year-old trout case

RENO, Nev. — Never one to back down from a fight with the U.S. government, northern Nevada's rural Elko County has been feuding with federal land managers for decades over environmental protections they say go too far.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to lawyers for the government and the environmental groups they've been battling for 15 years that the county's district attorney thinks it's time to end a legal skirmish over protecting a threatened fish and controlling a national forest road.

"There is nothing left to fight about," Deputy District Attorney Kristin McQueary said about the dispute that pitted a citizen work crew called the Shovel Brigade against the Endangered Species Act.

Mother Nature started the whole thing in 1995 when the Jarbidge River flooded its banks and washed out the final 1.5-mile stretch of the remote road that winds up a steep narrow canyon. The road dead-ends at a wilderness area where motorized vehicles are prohibited in the rugged mountains near the Nevada-Idaho line, about 70 miles west of Utah.

The Forest Service initially made plans to repair most of the road, but backed off when Trout Unlimited objected based on concerns about the impact erosion from the road work would have on bull trout.

The agency abandoned the idea altogether when then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared the fish threatened in 1998 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Nevada. That's when the Elko County commissioners decided to take matters into their own hands and make their own repairs to the road they claimed belonged to the county in the first place, not the feds.

The Justice Department filed suit against the county and Shovel Brigade leaders in 1999, winning an injunction forbidding any unapproved repair work, and the battle for the South Canyon Road was on in what was proudly proclaimed the republic of Elko.

"It never should have been closed in the first place," Grant Gerber, an Elko lawyer and founding member of the Shovel Brigade, said in an interview last week. "That's why the citizens went up there and opened it up."

At its height, the controversy that is as much about principal as a gravel road became a symbol of conflict between private property rights and wildlife protections in the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws under assault in Congress at the time by a number of Western Republicans.

State Assemblyman John Carpenter, another Shovel Brigade leader, likened the uprising to the Boston Tea Party. Supporters shipped 10,000 shovels to the town in a symbolic gesture and a giant shovel was erected in front of the courthouse for the county bigger than the state of Maryland.

A parade down main street took aim at Forest supervisor Gloria Flora, who later resigned citing an "anti-federal fervor" in the state where she said "fed-bashing" had become a sport.

But things have changed in the ensuing decade, according to McQueary, who has filed a formal motion arguing the lingering case in U.S. District Court in Reno should be dismissed because it is moot. She said the relationship between the county and the Forest Service has been downright "cordial" since the agency agreed to reopen all but the last half mile of the road into the Jarbidge Wilderness.

"It is 16 years after the flood that caused the (road's) damage, almost 13 years after the Shovel Brigade made repairs, almost 12 years after this lawsuit was filed, 10 years after the parties settled, more than six years after the road was fixed," McQueary wrote in court papers.

"There is no dispute between the Forest Service and Elko County," she said. "There is no longer a cause of controversy."

Not so fast, says The Wilderness Society and the Utah-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness. They argue the settlement agreement that reopened most of the road is illegal and have won a pair of favorable rulings from the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that have kept it from being formally implemented.

Michael Freeman, a Denver-based lawyer for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who has represented the two conservation groups from the beginning, said the federal appellate court in San Francisco has made it clear - most recently in 2006 - the Forest Service had no authority to cut the side deal without regard to the impact on the fish.

Keeping the last half mile closed is a "definite improvement," he said. "But the rest of the road is still open. We think it should be closed."

Freeman said the latest move is the county's attempt to declare victory, continue its defiance of federal jurisdiction and run roughshod over U.S. environmental protections.

"The broader question here is whether the Forest Service is going to manage public lands that belong to the entire American people for the public, or be allowed to give away that authority away to a small group of people who have flouted the federal government and defied its authority," he said.

Justice Department lawyers acknowledge that the Forest Service and the county "have developed improved relations, in part through cooperation on a number of watershed improvement projects."

"In short, the county is correct that there is no longer a dispute between the county and the United States. However, that does not mean the case is moot," according to court papers by David Gehlert, a lawyer in the Environmental & Natural Resources Division. He said that's because the status of the proposed settlement "remains unresolved."

McQueary said the only reason the agreement is unresolved is because the two environmental groups "don't like it."

"The interveners got what they wanted, but it wasn't enough," she said.

"No matter the semantics, the federal government and Elko County have agreed to not waste any more time fighting about the road, opting instead to expand taxpayers' resources on more productive projects."

Surviving leaders of the famed Shovel Brigade are among those backing the motion to dismiss.

"The Forest Service and county shook hands and agreed the road would stay open," Gerber said.

The county's claim to the road is based in part on a Civil War-era law, R.S. 2477, that allows for use of historic highways across federal lands in the West if the lands are not in federal use.

Under the settlement agreement, the Forest Service declined to formally recognize the South Canyon Road as an RS-2477 road, but agreed not to challenge the county's claim that it is.

Twice over the past eight years, federal judges in Reno have given their stamp of approval to the deal only to be told each time by the U.S. appellate court in San Francisco that the deal didn't pass legal muster.

While the government formally opposes the motion, Forest Service spokeswoman Christie Kalkowski said the agency remains "fully committed to our relationship with Elko County."

"While differing opinions will occur during our ongoing conversations about resource management, we remain engaged and ready to work towards sustainable solutions," she said.

The Justice Department recently entered three dozen new documents into the record, including rules governing forest reserves dating to 1897, mining claims in the Jarbidge area in 1912 and Humboldt National Forest sheep and cattle boundaries in 1917.

Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert McQuaid granted a request to extend deadlines for the latest round of response briefs into November before he decides whether to hold another evidentiary hearing.

Carpenter, another of the original Shovel Brigade leaders, never dreamed the legal battle would continue this long.

"Them enviros, they can't stand to lose," said the 80-year-old rancher and realtor who retired from the legislature this year. "The people have won, that's the main thing."

"The road is open and it is going to stay open. They're not going to get it closed no matter what because we'll just keep opening it."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The monumental fight over Otero Mesa

The decade-long tussle over energy development in New Mexico's Otero Mesa has been reinvigorated recently, as hardrock mining claims now threaten the region for the first time.

The area, sometimes referred to as the "Southwest's Serengeti," is a 1.2 million-acre stretch of undisturbed Chihuahuan Desert grassland. The sprawling but sensitive expanses of black grama are home to over 1,000 species of native wildlife including a genetically-pure herd of pronghorn antelope, the endangered northern aplomado falcon, mountain lions, mule deer, bald and golden eagles and hundreds of species of plants, insects and migratory birds.

Otero Mesa is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which is mandated to facilitate exploration, development and production of energy on appropriate public lands. During the second Bush's administration there was a push to advance oil and gas extraction on the Otero Mesa.

But whether or not the area's fragile ecology can withstand such activity became central to the ongoing row. Drilling opponents—which then included the State of New Mexico—fought industry all the way to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which, in 2009, found that the BLM's Resource Management Plan Amendment fell short in assessing the potential impacts of oil and gas development, including possible habitat fragmentation and contamination of the Salt Basin Aquifer which underlies the mesa.

The BLM is now working on a new management plan, which is expected to be released early next year.
 New to the debate is the discovery that Otero Mesa may harbor a cache of valuable minerals. A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study revealed that the Cornudas Range, including 7,280-foot Wind Mountain, may hold 200 tons of minerals, including highly sought-after rare earth metals. Seeing dollar signs, Colorado-based Geovic Mining Corp. staked 161 mineral claims (five square miles worth) this spring, nearby some of the most visited parts of Otero.

The General Mining Act of 1872 allows companies to develop staked claims but the BLM is required to do environmental reviews of all proposed actions. Conservationists say exploration and mining of the area could lead to destruction on the scale of the mountaintop removal seen in Appalachia. The company says digging for rare earths would mean only minor disturbances.

Regardless, the claims have led to a renewed push to declare Otero Mesa a national monument. While President Obama has yet to invoke his authority to establish monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a BLM memo leaked last year put Otero on a hot list of locations that qualify for nomination.

Although Obama has said that only places with local support for a monument in their backyard will make the cut, the designation is at the president's discretion; it requires no Congressional consideration or approval. Fifteen out of the past eighteen presidents have designated national monuments, some amid a firestorm of criticism.

An elevation to national monument would permanently protect the Otero Mesa from new mining and drilling claims. Existing claims, including Geovic Mining Corp.'s, would remain valid but would be scrutinized for their economic fruitfulness.

Adding their voices to those of environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts in the drive for monument status are members of the Mescalero Apache, a tribe that took refuge in the mountains of southern New Mexico in the 18th century and still assert ancestral ties to the mesa. In a letter to their tribal president, the group Mescalero Apache Advocates expressed their spiritual connection to Wind Mountain and to the archaeological artifacts that are among the area's attractions. "And on those massive stones that fell from the mountain top, our people expressed through rock paintings their challenges, their visions, and their stories, like their ancient ancestors who dwelled there before them," they said.

Last month, the Mescaleros met with Department of the Interior and New Mexican officials, expressing concern for the natural resources which they believe drilling and mining endanger, including the huge untapped aquifer underlying Otero, which may be the largest remaining in the state. They worry that the fractured geology that characterizes the area makes that reserve vulnerable to contamination.

Despite the desire of many local and national groups to award the mesa a higher level of protection, a monument designation will not come easily. Western lawmakers are particularly touchy about the subject, arguing that states and Congress should have more say in what happens to public land. This type of dissention goes as far back as western members of Congress opposing Theodore Roosevelt's establishment of large new reserves on federal lands.

Last May, the Otero County Commission passed an ordinance opposing national monument protection for Otero Mesa, likely at the behest of local ranchers who fear the status change will threaten their cheap grazing on public lands. While Susana Martinez, the state's new governor, hasn't voiced her stance, her coziness with oil and gas industries makes her an unlikely ally for conservation.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) has been an outspoken critic, and has actively campaigned not only to prevent protection of Otero Mesa but to change the way national monuments are designated nationwide. He is a co-sponsor of H.R. 302, legislation that would require the president—in direct opposition to the Antiquities Act—to secure state consent before declaring a national monument. "When conserving our natural resources, it is important to have a balanced approach that includes local priorities, such as jobs, the economy, private property and support," a Pearce spokesman told the Environment & Energy Daily.

The tired argument that conservation will mean economic paralysis wherever the magic wand of protection lands is a disingenuous one in the case of Otero Mesa. If elected officials in New Mexico are truly interested in acting in the best interests, now and in the future, of their constituents, they need to run the numbers.

An analysis of the potential impacts, on the southern New Mexican economy, of naming Otero Mesa National Monument was done recently by Headwaters Economics, an independent, non-profit research group.

"The short answer is that repeated academic studies have shown that investments in public lands conservation and restoration provide an immediate return through new employment and revenue," says author Ben Alexander. The study cites the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which recently found that "recreation and tourism development contributes to rural well-being, increasing local employment, wage levels, and income, reducing poverty, and improving education and health.”

Unlike the small-scale, short-term benefits of resource extraction that would be expected for Otero Mesa residents, protected public lands also help to promote long-term economic growth, says the Headwaters study, "because of their ability to attract and retain people, entrepreneurs, and the growing number of retirees who locate for quality of life reasons." Published research also shows that natural amenities help sustain property values and attract new investment.

While a national monument designation "would not harm agricultural uses or military employment" in the area, says the study, passing up an opportunity to diversify the economy of southern New Mexico and to boost its long-term resiliency by protecting its unique desert grasslands could be a bad move. "Looking at mineral wealth, the [BLM's] analysis showed little reason to believe that the local economy would benefit from projected fossil fuel extraction on Otero Mesa--and that the limited revenue from mineral extraction might not even cover the share of infrastructure and service costs," says Alexander.

It's difficult to hear amid the anti-environmental mewling that's overtaken Congress nowadays, but here it is loud and clear: conservation pays. If they are honestly focused on "local priorities, such as jobs, the economy, private property and support," as Rep. Pearce's camp purports to be, they would have to support national monument status for Otero Mesa. Anything less is playing politics with our public lands.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

National forests: Recreational payoff and grazing benefits

 by John Maday

Recreation and tourism bring dollars to communities near national forests, but ranching and public-lands grazing play a key role too.

A new report from the USDA’s National Forest Service shows that recreational activities on national forests and grasslands make large economic impacts on America's rural communities, contributing $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy. This week’s “National Visitor Use Monitoring report” indicates national forests attracted 170.8 million recreational visitors and sustained approximately 223,000 jobs in rural communities this past year.

"This data shows once again just what a boon our forests are to local economies," says Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "Because of forest activities, thousands of jobs are supported in hundreds of rural communities. We are proud of helping to put a paycheck into the pockets of so many hardworking Americans."

The report focuses on recreational use of these public lands, noting a high visitor-satisfaction rate and the money recreational visitors spend in communities near national forests and grasslands. These impacts surely are important, with tourism and recreation representing significant contributions to local economies, particularly in Western states featuring expansive public lands. This report, however, does not document the economic, environmental and social contributions of public-lands grazing.

Many ranchers in Western states rely on grazing allotments on Forest Service lands and other public lands for summer range. These arrangements allow them to maintain much larger herds than they could on deeded land alone. These ranches employ workers, pay taxes and spend considerable funds locally on equipment, supplies and services.

Another set of benefits often overlooked by the general public is that these ranches provide critical “buffers” around forest and grassland areas. Ranches adjacent to public lands protect the scenic, open vistas treasured by recreational visitors. They also provide critical wildlife habitat. Many of the ranches that graze cattle on public lands are located in the lower valleys surrounding the more mountainous national forests. While the ranchers winter their cows on their private land, deer, elk and other wildlife migrate to the same areas, benefitting from improved water sources and forage supplies.

Access to seasonal grazing on public lands helps keep these ranches viable, as without it, many could not maintain enough animals year-around to sustain the ranch. When ranches are not economically sustainable, we’ve seen what happens – ranchers sell and developers move in. A ranch becomes a collection of 20-acre “ranchettes,” complete with buildings, fences, pavement and a few horses or cows continuously grazing each property down to the bare dirt. Wildlife habitat and migration corridors are gone, along with much of the scenery tourists and recreationists pay for.

Over time, loss of grazing rights on public lands could lead to national forests becoming islands surrounded by development, and that visitor satisfaction rate, which USDA lists as 94 percent satisfied, would decline.

So, next time you hear someone complain about public-lands grazing, explain to them that ranchers are some of the best friends our national forests and grasslands have.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pressure resumes for trapping ban in wolf area

Now that state game officials have cleared the way for trapping to resume in southwestern New Mexico, environmentalists are renewing their calling for the federal government to do more to protect the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service received letters this week from the group WildEarth Guardians and its supporters. They asked that officials reconsider a 2010 petition seeking to end trapping throughout the wolf's range in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

Supporters contend trapping presents a threat to wolf recovery and that the agencies have a legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act to maintain fit wolves that can hunt for native prey.

"As a direct result of trapping activities in the recovery area, two wolves have had entire limbs amputated. Some wolves lost digits and others sustained different injuries," the group said in its letters.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, another pro-wolf group, said any additional injuries or deaths are "of grave concern just given the numbers and the genetic plight of the Mexican wolf."

The federal government has been trying to reintroduce wolves to the region since 1998. Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild within a decade, but that number is closer to 50.

Regulated furbearer trapping on the Gila and Apache national forests was banned last summer by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, a supporter of the wolf reintroduction effort.

The state Game Commission extended the ban last fall, giving researchers more time to study the risks of trapping and snaring to wolves. While the results of the study have yet to be made public, the commission voted last week to lift the ban.

Environmentalists want the Fish and Wildlife Service to amend the wolf reintroduction rule to ban the use of all traps and snares in the wolf's range. They want the Forest Service to impose emergency trapping closures on the Gila and Apache forests and amend any planning documents to ban trapping in the future.

Regional Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tom Buckley said Friday the agency isn't going to be doing anything differently in the area now that New Mexico has lifted its trapping ban.

"There's always a concern when there are additional threats in an area and this of course will entail an additional threat to the wolves, but they've had that before," Buckley said, noting that the ban had been in place for only a year.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there have been 14 incidents involving wolves caught in traps since 2002. In six cases, the animals were injured.

"It's something we'll keep an eye on," Buckley said. "We would encourage anybody who does any trapping out there to check their traps regularly so that any wildlife, including wolves, if they get caught they don't have to sit in the trap and suffer."

The Mexican gray wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 after it was all but wiped out due to hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns.

The reintroduction effort along the New Mexico-Arizona border has been hampered by illegal shootings, court battles, concerns from environmentalists and complaints from ranchers. Another blow came last month when the New Mexico Game and Fish Department voted to pull out of the project.

Buckley said the Fish and Wildlife Service is still trying to make progress on revamping the wolf's recovery plan and the agency is getting its new interdiction program up and running so ranchers who lose livestock to the wolves have another place to seek financial help.

In fact, the interdiction program had its first claim from a New Mexico rancher in June. The claim, which is being processed, sought $1,500 for a pair of calves that were confirmed to have been killed by wolves.

Buckley said wildlife managers are also hopeful after seeing pups with some of the packs during surveys in the wake of the Wallow fire, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Arizona and New Mexico.

"If they survive until the end of the year, they will be part of our count," he said. "But between now and then, we're just keeping our fingers crossed."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Obama administration debating care of U.S. national forests

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is crafting a new plan to manage the nation's 155 national forests, including six in Arizona, for the next 15 to 20 years.

At stake is the future of 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that are the nation's single largest source of drinking water and home to more than 15,000 species of plants and wildlife.

The U.S. Forest Service says the new plan, due by year's end, is urgently needed to replace the so-called forest-planning rule written in 1982 during the Reagan administration. That rule, which emphasized using the forests for logging, does not reflect the latest science on climate change and how best to protect wildlife and water, the Forest Service says.

The rule was never intended to last nearly three decades - about twice as long as expected. President Bill Clinton attempted to replace it in 2000, but his proposal was scrapped when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Efforts by the Bush administration to draw up its own plan were derailed when the proposals were challenged by environmentalists and thrown out by federal courts.

As President Barack Obama's administration takes up the crucial but contentious issue, it is under intense scrutiny from competing interest groups that hope to shape the plan to their liking. Neither environmentalists nor business interests are happy with the first draft of the new forest rule. Conservation groups say it lacks adequate protection for wildlife and water and gives individual forest managers too much discretion in how to carry out the plan. Business groups say some of its provisions to protect species could end up kicking ranchers, timber companies and others off the land.

Industry groups also point to this year's devastating wildfires in Arizona as evidence that more logging and grazing are needed to prevent forests from becoming overgrown and fueling fires. Environmentalists say the fires underscore the need to make the forests more resilient to climate change, which increases temperatures and decreases streamflows.

A planning rule is required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. It is intended to provide an overarching framework for the managers of individual forests and grasslands in the National Forest System to use in revising their own land-management plans, which they are supposed to do every 15 years. The rule is intended to provide guidance to forest managers on how best to protect forest health, water and wildlife while providing opportunities for recreation and economic ventures.

The first draft of the Forest Service plan focuses for the first time on how to strengthen the health of forests in the face of climate change and includes enhanced protections for water resources and watersheds, updated provisions for sustainable recreation, and a requirement that the land be managed for such multiple uses as mining, logging, energy production, outdoor recreation and wilderness protection.

The final plan, which does not require congressional approval, is expected to be published in November.

"We believe this is one of the most important conservation policies the Obama administration will undertake," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration and executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is land that belongs to all of us as Americans.

'Forests' appeal

The country's national forests attract more than 170 million people a year who hike, camp, hunt, fish, go boating or whitewater rafting, ride horses, ski, and drive snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Visitors spend an estimated $13 billion a year in communities surrounding the national forests, supporting more than 224,000 jobs.

In Arizona, visitors are drawn to the lakes in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (two forests managed as one), the Red Rocks of Sedona in the Coconino National Forest, the diverse "sky island" mountains in the Coronado National Forest, the bison herd in Kaibab National Forest, the Verde River headwaters in Prescott National Forest, and the saguaro-studded desert of the Tonto National Forest.

Nearly 3 million Americans have forest-related jobs in such fields as forest management, outdoor recreation and the forest products industry, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Protection urged

Environmentalists say the current rule has not proved to be strong enough to protect the watershed that carries drinking water to 124 million Americans.

Clark said about three-quarters of the forest watersheds are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be "impaired," meaning that federal water-quality standards are not being met. According to the Forest Service, the biggest causes of water-quality impairment include excessive sediment loads, habitat destruction near waterways and contamination from mercury and other metals.

The Forest Service unveiled the proposed rule in February, opening it up for a public comment period that lasted through mid-May. During that time, more than 300,000 individuals, groups, tribes and state and local governments weighed in on the plan, reflecting a strong interest in the issue, the Forest Service said.

Forest Service officials will consider those comments as they draw up a final rule and environmental-impact statement.

Environmentalists applaud the increased protections for water resources and watersheds, stronger requirements to provide habitat for diverse animal and plant species, and a plan to address the impact of climate change for the first time. But they say the plan undermines those goals by giving too much power to individual forest managers to decide how - or even if - to protect wildlife and water.

In Arizona, that means managers could choose whether to maintain healthy populations of bighorn sheep, turkey and elk, designated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department as priority species of concern.

Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, said he would like to see the new forest rule do more to preserve watersheds by preventing development in roadless areas and making it easier to designate new wilderness areas, where logging, mining and other resource extractions are banned. A wilderness area has not been created in Arizona since 1984.

"If you go back 110 years or so, Arizona's national forests were largely created out of an interest in protecting our watershed and our water supply," Skroch said.

View from business

At the same time, the timber, cattle and sheep industries complain that the proposed forest rule's protections for wildlife are too broad and unclear because they require the Forest Service to "maintain viable populations of species of conservation concern," which could lead to restrictions on grazing and logging. In 2010, about 2 billion board feet of timber was harvested from national forests, down from about 12 billion in 1980. The proposed new rule does not specify how much logging would be allowed.

"There is no scientific consensus on what level of any given species is 'viable' or how it is to be 'maintained,' " said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers, and director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "The viability standard will be impossible for the agency to meet. There will be a litigation feeding frenzy by the radical environmental groups bent on ending grazing and other multiple uses on federal lands."

Environmental litigation and complicated bureaucratic rules already have significantly reduced the number of cattle that Arizona ranchers are grazing on national-forest land, said Bas Aja, director of government relations for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.

There are about 100,000 head of cattle grazing in Arizona's six national forests today, Aja said, about 55,000 fewer than in 1993. That represents an estimated annual loss of $126 million to ranchers and to the larger Arizona economy, he said.

Ranchers typically acquire a 10-year lease to graze on public land, but that lease must be reviewed by the Forest Service each year, Aja said.

"You may be in the middle of your 10-year lease, but the Forest Service can tell you that they've identified a new species of concern and you can't graze your cattle anymore for who knows how long while they conduct studies and environmental reviews," Aja said.

The debate between environmentalists and ranchers mirrors a split in Congress, where lawmakers have sent dueling letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling for him to heed their calls for changes in the final forest rule.

A letter organized by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and signed by 59 House members asks Vilsack to start over. "Please do not lose this opportunity to produce a planning rule that is truly simple, understandable, flexible and (defensible) in court," the letter says.

A letter drafted by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and signed by 66 members of Congress, urges Vilsack to go further in protecting water and wildlife. "The course set by these sweeping new rules will determine the future of our national forests for generations to come," it says. "It is essential that we get this right."