A week ago, eight prominent scientists sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) declaring that the agency’s proposed Tri-State Fuel Break (TSFB) is flawed and will endanger sagebrush ecosystems.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (“FEIS”) and other project documents are available on the agency’s website at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/42341/510.

To quote the scientists: “If implemented as proposed (and as already approved in the Idaho-side Record of Decision), the project will likely degrade the biological diversity and ecosystem services provided by these landscapes.”

The BLM’s proposes creating up to 1,539 miles of fuel breaks (enough to travel halfway across the United States). Fuel breaks by mowing, mowing and seeding, seeding within the fuel treatment zone, and blading, hand cutting, or herbicide application to remove vegetation within the existing roadbed. Besides, the BLM plans to use “targeted grazing” to reduce fuels further.

Cheatgrass invasion of fuel break in Oregon. Photo by George Wuerthner

The scientists contend the BLM ‘s proposal will likely fail to contain large fires, and the collateral damage will result in: “(1) fragment large areas of intact sagebrush ecosystems; (2) facilitate the invasion of exotics due to the disturbance created by the breaks; (3) supplant native communities with exotic dominants; and (4) destroy or degrade biological soil crusts and any native species in the sites.”

The scientists’ other problem is the BLM.’s failure to acknowledge that climate/weather is the fundamental force driving large blazes. Under extreme fire conditions of high winds, high temperatures, and low fuel moisture, fuel breaks are ineffective.

The scientists noted that the BLM failed to consider the effect of livestock grazing in the deterioration of the West’s sagebrush ecosystems.

To quote from their letter: “The E.I.S. does not address the ultimate and only controllable cause of the degradation of the biodiversity of the Sagebrush steppe –livestock grazing.”

Cheatgrass invasion into sagebrush, Nevada. Photo by George Wuerthner

The letter goes on to critique four main points of the BLM’s proposal.

The first is that there is little evidence that fuel breaks can preclude the spread of large fires under extreme fire weather conditions. As Shinneman et al. (2019) acknowledged in their review of fuel breaks, while fuel breaks are likely ineffective for preventing fire spread, they create edge effects and fragment sagebrush habitat. They often serve as a vector for the movement of exotic plants (cheatgrass) and wildlife.

Fuel break on BLM lands in Idaho was created by plowing up native vegetation, creating the perfect site for the establishment of cheatgrass, and fragmentation of the sagebrush ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner

One consequential disruption caused by fuel breaks construction is the destruction of biocrusts. Biocrusts cover the soil surface between native bunchgrasses. They not only add nitrogen to the soil, but they also help to inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass and other non-native species.

Ironically one of the justifications for the fuel break treatments and targeted grazing is to save sage grouse habitat. However, Wuerthner (2020) questioned the assumption in a recent column in the Wildlife News.

The scientists noted that “extreme soil trampling and overuse of the native grasses and forbs (occurs) before cattle would begin to graze the less palatable exotic grasses and shrubs. This overuse/overgrazing of the native species would be deleterious to other resource values such as Greater sage-grouse habitat.”

The scientists also note that climate change and the resulting extreme fire weather are primarily responsible for the larger blazes occurring in sagebrush ecosystems. And they chastise the BLM. for its failure to do anything about livestock grazing when GHG emissions from livestock are among the factors contributing to climate warming.

The scientists also disparaged the BLM’s happy talk about proper livestock management. The FEIS repeatedly states that grazing “is managed to meet” land health standards, and improvements are predicated on grazing to be conducted properly. However, the scientists noted that in Southeast Oregon, as an example, over 75% of the allotments currently do not meet standards.

An allotment in SE Oregon apparently not meeting standards. Photo George Wuerthner 

While the BLM recognizes that the spread of cheatgrass is an on-going threat to sagebrush ecosystems, they do nothing to reduce the leading cause of cheatgrass colonization—livestock grazing.

For instance, Condon & Pyke (2018) report that livestock grazing is the principal cause of reduced site resistance to cheatgrass invasions. Furthermore, trampling reduces biological soil crusts, which can inhibit cheatgrass establishment (Root et al. 2019), while Williamson et al. (2019) report that grazing corresponds with increased cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence.

Even more important, the analysis by Williamson et al. shows no support to the contention that livestock grazing, in conjunction with fire, can suppress cheatgrass.

The scientists conclude their letter and analysis by arguing if the BLM is genuinely interested in restoring sagebrush ecosystems, then “passive restoration, achieved by reducing cumulative cattle grazing impacts is the most effective means of achieving these goals.”

here’s a link to the full letter: https://onda.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Scientist-Letter-Tri-State-Fuels-Project-12-18-20.pdf  

The scientists signing the letter are:

J. Boone Kauffman, Ph.D.
Robert L. Beschta, Ph.D.
Clait Braun, Ph.D.
David Dobkin, Ph.D.
Marc Liverman, Ph.D.
Don Mansfield, D.A.
Patricia Muir, Ph.D.
Roger Rosentreter, Ph.D.
Eric Yensen, Ph.D.

References

Condon, L.A., and D.A. Pyke 2018. Fire and Grazing Influence Site Resistance to Bromus tectorum Through Their Effects on Shrub, Bunchgrass, and Biocrust Communities in the Great Basin (U.S.A.). Ecosystems 21: 1416–1431, available athttps://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-018-0230-8.

Shinneman, D.J., Germino, M.J., Pilliod, M.S., Aldridge, C.L., Vaillant, N.M., and Coates, P.S. 2019. The ecological uncertainty of wildfire fuel breaks: examples from the sagebrush steppe. Front Ecol Environ 2019; 17(5): 279–288, doi:10.1002/fee.2045.

Root, H.T., J.E.D. Miller and Roger Rosentreter. 2019. Grazing disturbance promotes exotic annual grasses by degrading biotic soil crust communities. Ecological Applications, pp. 1-10.

Williamson, M.A., Fleishman, E., Mac Nally, R.C., Chambers, J.C., Bradley, B.A., Dobkin, D.S., Board, D.I., Fogarty, F.A., Hornig, N., Leu, M., and Zillig, M.W. et al. 2020. Fire, livestock grazing, topography, and precipitation affect the occurrence and prevalence of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) in the central Great Basin, U.S.A. Biological Invasions 22: 663–680, available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-019-02120-

Wuerthner, George 2020 Does Cattle Grazing Preclude Large Blazes? The Wildlife News. http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2020/12/14/does-cattle-grazing-preclude-large-blazes/

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

16 Responses to Scientists Critique BLM Tri-State Fuel Breaks Proposal

  1. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    Hope someone at the BLM reads and comprehends this letter from actual scientists that KNOW whereof they speak. For this agency (& others) to continue to do the same thing over & over and expect a different result? Idiocy!
    Thank you George – keep on pushing the real information out there – we, who read this, believe.

  2. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I hope that under the new administration these things can be addressed and hopefully reversed. And seeding – seeding with what, I wonder.

  3. avatar Ed Loosli says:

    Here is an excellent thorough report on the on-going spread of Chronic Wasting Disease that is being helped along by the benign neglect of the State of Wyoming. It is time that the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT takes back its trust powers when it comes to the conservation-management of wildlife on our Public Lands. The State of Montana is responsible for the current slaughter of wild bison on our Public Lands and Wyoming is responsible for the declining health of deer, moose and elk on our Public Lands. Hopefully, the Biden administration’s Director of the US Fish & Wildlife Service will finally take action to conserve and protect all our Public Land wildlife.

    https://mountainjournal.org/experts-say-yellowstone-could-be-hit-by-superspreading-wildlife-disease

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Ed, I also get the Mountain Journal emails. It was only a matter of time for this awful disease to get to the elk – drawing in huge herds of wildlife to one spot like this is much like the game farms where this disease originated. And like you, I really hope the new administration will conserve and protect – which is after all what should happen.

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      Frightening. 🙁

  4. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    ^^You can just envision an entire domino effect of problems resulting from this.

    If anyone is interested, there’s a documentary about the interconnectedness of the wolves and buffalo of the Canadian plains called “Cold Warriors” on PBS tomorrow night at 8 pm EST. I’ve seen it before I think, but I always watch it whenever it is on.

  5. avatar Beeline says:

    Greetings: With regard to the firebreak project the seed that will be used will include but not be limited to Prostrate Kochia (non native), Sandberg Bluegrass (native), Bottlebrush Squirreltail (native), Crested Wheat (non-native) and Siberian Wheatgrass (non-native). Kochia species are of concern because Kochia scoparia for example is a known host plant for beet leaf hoppers that carry a virus disease that infects sugar beets, potatoes, dry beans, and peppers. Kochia scoparia can also be poisonous to herbivores in dry conditions or at the seed production phase. BLM should have dug a little deeper into their scientific well on this one.

    CWD: I noticed that the Yellowstone CWD Surveillance Plan states that “No strategy has been effective at eradicating CWD from areas where the disease is present”. OK. Why not?

    Most of the people that write on this subject believe that prions have to be the sole infectious agent. However, there is a substantial body of evidence which suggests that mis-shaped prions do not necessarily constitute the whole disease process. A good scientist should not simply give in to some louder hierarchical authority.

    The is evidence which indicates that glyphosate inhibits the enzyme process necessary to replicate healthy prions in mammals. If the supplementary feed for the elk has been treated with glyphosate it could enhance the elks susceptibility to CWD. Other researchers have noted that the incidence of CWD in deer and elk is much less in areas where the soil content of copper is high. Why? There is additional research which suggests that copper ions are necessary in the enzymes necessary for proper prion synthesis. Glyphosate is a chelating agent. It strips metalic ions from biological systems. Go figure.

    And the veterinary team from LSU has found a tiny bacteria classified as a Spiroplasm in samples of brain tissue from deer, sheep and humans (all from samples with their species type of CWD). This tiny bacteria is unusual in that it shares some of the traits of Brucella, is very small (smaller than some viruses) and is very hardy, difficult to kill and is very difficult to identify. If this Spiroplasm is part of the disease process it could be spread by arthropod vectors like hay mites, horse flies etc..

    Simply accepting that prions are the infectious agent has not produced a cure/treatment. ALL the data should be reported in one place and thoroughly analyzed.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Appears that its past time for some actual scientific research on this subject and that there should be funding for it! Time to push for that now.

    • avatar Patrick says:

      You might consider the difficulty of treating prion diseases – they don’t have a genome because they are misfolded proteins. Thing of them as like sticky gum that replicates. These can be treated with antibiotics or Antivirals that target cellular machinery, because there is no cell. The only way you could block it is by developing inhibitors that impair its ability to induce misfolding of the native (properly folded) form of PrP. That’s not an easy task, but people are working in it. Because such an inhibitor would target a self protein, there is a risk of side effects too.

  6. avatar Chris Zinda says:

    Again: DoD’s Red Rock Biofuels needs feedstock.

    GW & WWP could have helped stop it. Alas, their hands are tied by settlement. Is this still true with projects like the tri-state fuelbreak? Can/Will WWP even litigate?

    • avatar Rich says:

      With all due respect it is not clear to me how GW and WWP are involved in DoD’s decision to create a biofuels industry. Perhaps you can provide some insight. I am inclined to support the use of waste biomass such as sawdust, milling and construction debris, slash, waste fats and crop residue rather than just burning it as we continue to do every year. A house that was recently constructed nearby has a huge pile of waste wood waiting to be burned. And burning forestry slash piles is extremely wasteful and occasionally results in forest fires. If the plan is to just foul the air by burning construction debris and slash piles, I would rather see the piles hauled off to be converted into useful products.

      Also I don’t see how destroying and poisoning large swaths of sagebrush and native grasses throughout the west are of benefit to the biofuels industry or how GW and WWP are somehow conspirators in that proposal. Again it would be helpful if you would provide some insight.

      • avatar Chris Zinda says:

        It’s all explained here: https://link.medium.com/820zqZZpJcb

        Be sure to scroll to the end for Molvar’s response.

        • avatar Chris Zinda says:

          The meat: ”

          I told Ketcham of my five years worth of conversations with George Wuerthner, a WWP board member appearing in his book who lives in both Oregon and Montana, a frequent editorial contributor on wilderness and wildland fire, a self described Deep Green Foundation Lorax with tremendous street cred supported by the Earth Island Institute that in 2018 had $14 million revenue, again largely from foundations. About how George told me their hands were tied and could not litigate the Red Rock project due to the settlement, one they were forced to make because of the demands of their former major benefactor, made to maintain WWP’s solvency and get AW attorneys paid. In the case of Pew Foundation’s ONDA, they rejected my appeals for assistance so that they may maintain their collaboration with Oregon ranchers and wildfire industry politicians like Ron Wyden.”

  7. avatar Beeline says:

    checkout http://www.redrockbio.com/feedstock/#:

    They claim and I quote “Red Rock Biofuels was founded to help address the growing problem of catastrophic wildfires in the western United Sates”.

    I think we should use our remaining wood to build a huge for sale sign and stick it on the earth.

    ‘One pre-used planet; plenty of room for expansion; presently only inhabited by ants, centipedes and scorpions; Note- buyer may have to re-establish atmosphere and plant life but humanoid pests are no longer a problem’.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      frankly sounds more logical after the past four years, and I know, all the years before – appears to be a bi-partisan issue, doesnt it? I do hope there begins to be a push back towards actually doing the work it will take to repair the damage done before & recently to maybe save thisplanet!

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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