Global warming prompts doubt about wildlife conservation in the West

Resistance to the scientific consensus of the existence of climate change is waning ~ politicized prescriptions for inaction and for the relaxation of public environmental laws takes its place.

Last week, federal and state wildlife and public land managers gathered to talk about global warming and the effects it will have on western land and wildlife management. The overwhelming theme, as conveyed to me by several in attendance and passed along by Rocky Barker in the Statesman was dismal. Federal and state managers are preparing to give up on many species in the west.

Warming world prompts change – Rocky Barker – Idaho Statesman

Related Update: Anti-science conservatives must be


The article and land managers’ presentations indicate an attempt is being made to slide back, to give up on environmental laws in response to climate change rather than recognize the need for urgent enforcement to protect what we can. This is the wrong direction, and just as with the listing of polar bears, this sudden willingness to allow open comment from land and wildlife managers, comment that was muzzled by this administration before, is tempered by the politically guarded message conservationists are hearing from them (at least one manager in attendance in Boise mentioned that they were told to defer questions about particular land uses up the chain of command) – a message contrary to the the public environmental interest at a time when critical regard for existing law ought be fervently sought and resolutely applied.

I’m not buying what they’re selling.

One thing is clear – state and federal managers are preparing themselves and attempting to prepare the public to give up on many members of wildlife communities dependent on our public lands ~ giving up on our wildlife and the laws in place to preserve and protect them. What is all too obvious is that these same managers and politicians are not willing to give an inch on the land uses overwhelmingly responsible for these species’ imperiled status in the first place. Not willing to give an inch on the industrial exploitation of resources – that if reduced or removed – might give these otherwise abandoned members of our natural community a chance at life into the future.

The reason: EITHER the reality of global warming with the laws now in place, properly enforced, will mean significant reductions of unsustainable land uses that disproportionately favor a few private interests – reductions necessary to comply with the existing or strengthened law – OR, as the article suggests and implicitly promotes, the significant weakening of the existing law will be necessary to bypass the consequences of the last decade of inaction – with the diversity of our natural communities being literally written-off.

I choose wildlife.

Who will decide which species live or die ? If we buy this hype and relax current environmental standards ~ it won’t be our children.

The message is clear – wildlife are being given the short end of the stick. Industrial use maintains priority. We will not read an article on the front page of the Idaho Statesman critically questioning the viability of industrial logging or livestock grazing on our public lands in the context of a warming west – nor hear it from land managers grappling for job security on the cusp of reprieve from the political muzzle in the next 6 months. Instead, the paper is critical of our law’s ability to protect every last species – and if we can’t protect every last member of our living community, we are led to believe we ought consider revoking or reducing those laws and regulations aiming to do so rather than making any attempt at reinforcing ~ or just enforcing them to begin with. Who will suggest we give up on public lands livestock grazing – a use of public lands that contributes to the loss of species at a rate close to logging and mining combined ? This is backward – the conversation is fixed.

The ‘agility’ promoted and employed by agencies for decades, as suggested in Barker’s article, has not worked and has instead been used to avoid confronting the blaring consequences of land uses that enjoy industries’ political support. “Adaptive management” is one such example used at a landscape level – a management regime that sounds nice and has plenty of lofty promises, but that ends up amounting to the avoidance of stringent compliance criteria, opting instead for subjectively vague goals. Managers document the degraded conditions and either “adapt” to degrading conditions by employing menial changes that grant another half-decade of inaction, or don’t adapt – because they haven’t been monitoring the condition of the landscape in the first place – so there’s no actionable baseline. That’s how bureaucracy absent oversight and stringent/specific compliance criteria works (or doesn’t work) and has (not) been working. Now, they’re looking to for the ‘agility’ to do the same on a more grand scale – your entire western public landscape.

Your Western public lands and our wildlife communities deserves stringent compliance criteria for protection.

The urgency given the now universally accepted existence of climate change ought make that clear.

This resistance to the blaring lessons of our changing climate is no different than Big Oil’s drumbeat suggesting that drilling more will alleviate the consequences of our hyper-dependence/addiction to fossil fuel. It is a politicized prescription for inaction – for more of the same – and now there’s the push to prepare the public for the natural consequences of such – extinct species, wildlife and plants that your children will never get to see nor experience.

We may not be able to save each species in the West – but when we work to protect one by mitigating/regulating the deleterious effects of land uses – that work benefits each species of wildlife within the range of that one’s community. Wolf advocates, sage grouse advocates, spotted owl advocates, desert tortoise advocates, bison advocates, systems advocates etc. etc. etc. become a powerful community of wildlife advocates that collectively mitigate the impacts of unwise use and mismanagement on the value that all of our wildlife communities throughout the West express and need to survive. When we use NEPA to question the prudence of an agency’s decision to rubber-stamp wind farms smack-dab in the middle of pristine, but imperiled, sage grouse or pygmy rabbit habitat ~ when there is plenty of private land for them nearby already degraded beyond restoration, or when a community rejects the nuclear radioactive waste inevitable in nuclear energy production, or decries the consequences to salmon populations of dam after dam ~ the public ensures future generations’ environmental interest – and the important idea that it is not wise to weaken public oversight of politicized land-use agencies.

Collectively – public land and wildlife activists have been forewarning the consequences of over and unwise use of natural resources to Western ecosystems for decades – now they say they need to streamline many of those same advocates – who have been doing the work while industry-represented government has been holding to inaction – out of the process. It’s wrong and it won’t work.

Change is indeed needed – better enforcement and more robust laws/regulation protecting our public lands and members of our natural wildlife communities in the West – not less.

Brian Ertz


  1. kt Avatar

    Great post, Brian! Here we have the same federal and state agency managers that 6 months ago in the Bush, Otter and other regimes weren’t allowed to murmur the words Global Warming suddenly rushing to embrace it.

    They have now realized they Global Warming can be spun to cover up their gross mis-management of our public lands, waters and wildlife. And to try to go after their really big Goal : the dismantling of environmental laws like the ESA, NEPA, the Clean Water Act.

    And it is quite alarming that the establishment NGOs are eagerly trying to help them out.

    I want to see the list of species that these folks and their enablers have already decided it is time to Triage out of existence …

  2. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    Well don’t go so fast. Here in Utah we had dumb and dumber running for the republican nomination for the Provo house seat. Both of these guys were fighting with each other on who could claim the loudest and fastest that global warming was a fraud. Some nimrods will never get it, and unfortunately the democrat running for that seat doesn’t have a chance regardless of his intellect because he is a demoncrat.

    I DO think that we need to try to fight harder to get grazing off public lands. I was interested to hear that global warming will not only decrease the rainfall in the west (making public grazing even less tenable than it already is) but that the midwest will be getting 20% more rain. While this may not bode well for building towns in the middle of flood plains it is positive for grass/forage growth in the midwest to maintain (or increase) cow numbers. So, in other words, no net loss. Somebody else can tell me if this is a bad, good or neutral thing.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Yes, some species will go extinct because of global warming. We don’t know which ones. How can we choose, as this meeting seemed to suggest?

    Many can be saved by establishing corridors for their migration north or south.

    Others will need to be physically moved by us, like the wolves were, although that was not a global warming move.

    You can bet that the conservation and/or creation of migration corridors wills be fiercely resisted. So will bringing species northward or southward where corridors are not effective.

    It was suggested that many areas that are now protected will no longer function to protect the wildlife for which they were created, at least in part. Perhaps. However, you can bet that undeveloped open space will be valuable for in-migrating plants and animals.

  4. kt Avatar

    I’m concerned that the focus is on corridors. It needs to be on maintaining as much public and wild so that things can sort themselves out as best as possible. In big blocks,and in as many places as possible.

    While corridors might work for wide-ranging carnivores, big blocks of land are essential for species like sage-grouse. All the Foundations are talking Corridors, a term that is too narrow and bounded for my liking.

    Corridors are becoming the new wilderness. Forget about everything else. Focus on these. That’s what Industry wants, so they can have pretty much a free hand to everything else that isn’t “special” in some defined way.

  5. TPageCO Avatar

    Nice op-ed Brian. It’s important to maintain the blocks of land AND have the corridors between them. I suspect one reason there’s been an emphasis on corridors recently is that most of the big blocks in the Northern Rockies are less threatened than the corridors subject to intense development pressure, oil and gas and all the rest. I haven’t seen any evidence that “industry wants” corridors. My sense is that corridor protection pushes into areas that have traditionally been free from any sort of regulation, so the resistance is coming from folks unused to the government hammer.

    The land doesn’t have to necessarily be public, either. Good private ground almost always has more biological benefit than nearby public lands anyhow.

    Moving species to combat global warming is something I would never support. It’s no better than deciding which ones should be removed from the ESA list.

    One area in Idaho where we may see these issues play out is the chunk incorporating Craters of the Moon and the Pioneer Mountains. Big elevation and habitat changes, no oil and gas, relatively few landowners, and a landscape that is in much better condition than most. The large mammals can move all the way from the Snake River plain up to the peaks. There’s also not many roads until one gets a long way north. That area’s been flying under the radar for a while, but with the proposed new transmission lines, this may change.


  6. Rocky Barker Avatar


    Good op-ed, though I disagree that my article promoted the idea weakening protection. the point of the story, especially to my mostly skeptical readership, is that scientists and environmentalists consider climate change such a crisis that it is challenging some of their basc beliefs. That should tell these people they may want to look again at their beliefs and priorities. I for one believe that climate change presents more serious implications than even most environmentalists can perceive at this time. One can recognize the need to make Noah’s choices without supporting changing the current laws because of politics. But like Ralph said there are major changes in store to protect wildlife and even wild values in general.
    If our goal is restoring our favorite place to its historic condition or even preserving current so-called pristine conditions, that train has left the station. Now is the time for deep thinking and for developing new ideas to protect we values we cherish.

  7. Brian Ertz Avatar

    Rocky ~

    I didn’t mean to suggest any agenda on your part – but that there looks to be an agenda emerging through as a natural consequence of the position that land managers, still under the thumb of politicized agencies, are relaying into the press. The direction is being framed with purpose. Protections that might implicate industrial use are being downplayed. Lower level scientists are still being discouraged to talk openly about land uses and the needed changes if we are to best promote restoration – to give the land the best chance at promoting wildlife communities that are diverse and abundant – whether they look like they did 100 years ago or not.

    I found your article fascinating, and look forward to engaging in the conversation into the future.

  8. SmokyMtMan Avatar

    TPageCo wrote: “Moving species to combat global warming is something I would never support.”

    You don’t need to worry about that happening. Species will be going extinct due to abrupt and profound changes to their habitats due to the effects of climate change.

    Moving them will, in most cases, accomplish nothing. Climate change is altering habitats and ecosystems very quickly, and this rate of change will far out-strip the wildlife’s ability to adapt.

    If the habitat is drastically altered, what good will it do to move them? If there is insufficient habitat, the species will disappear outside of zoos no matter what actions we take.

    No agency will be wasting money and time moving species when the habitat they require will be basically gone.

    How do you compensate for permanent droughts and altered rain patterns in the West? How do you compensate for wide-ranging plant community changes? How do you compensate for the increased diseases and exotic species that further climate change will bring?

    That is the power and the truly frightening nature of climate change: we are so incapable of mitigating its affects that we are at its complete mercy.

    There are no human solutions to climate change, except one: prevent it in the first place.

  9. Brian Ertz Avatar


    we can also attempt to mitigate its effect on wildlife by removing agitating land uses that compound the rate of extirpation ON TOP of global warming’s affect.

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    It might be possible to move species.

    Take the pika, for example. iIs habitat high on the mountain disappears as the climate warms. The pika cannot migrate across lowlands to higher and colder mountains, but we could move it there.

  11. kt Avatar

    Even with the pika, there are conflicts with public lands livestock grazing CONTINUING in many areas. Example: In the Sawtooths high above Smiley, Frenchman and Beaver Creek where Faulkner sheep run right up to the bottom of high elevation boulder piles. Pikas “harvest” grass /vegetation and make haypiles to survive the winter. What do thousnds of domestc sheep grazed right on top of the grass right by the boulder slopes do other than remove a signficant portion of the food esssential for pika survival. Here is a small mammal that lives in a very naturally confined area — and we have the audacity to annually remove half or more of the food it needs to survive. for a welfare sheep operation that depends on exploitation of herders to boot.

    Not only that, the trampling-caused erosion and veg changes from depletion of more palatable plants makes the pika habitat at a local level hotter, drier and more desertified.

    That is what was most dismaying about the Climate Conference in Boise – the assembled woebegone bureaucrats suddenly loving global warming because they now see they can use it as an excuse to give up – and blame all their management failures on climate. Rather than – say – getting rid of the Faulkner sheep welfare ranching on OUR LANDS and giving the pika a reprieve. Readers of Ralph’s blog know that particular sheep operation is also responsible for the deaths of many wolves …

  12. SmokyMtMan Avatar


    I agree with your statement 100%. We drastically require effective conservation programs that will lower water, oil, and gas demand. Obviously, public grazing’s negative effects will increase in a warmer and drier West, as the plant cover and dependent species will have a more difficult time recovering from intensive grazing (if they are even able to recover).


    The dilemma with moving species is that there are already a full complement of species living in the areas you hope to transplant certain animals to. Also, what if the animal you are moving is not native to that new area? What will be the effects of that introduction? And if that species is already in that area being considered for new habitat, then moving them is unnecessary.

    What I mean to say is that moving animals into habitats where they are not native constitutes serious problems and risks to the ecology of that area. We know from experience that exotic species, even one species, has wreaked havoc in habitats that they were not previously found in.

    I am very uncomfortable with people introducing new species all around the country. And how many species will be hard hit by by climate change? And how many of those affected will have a realistic chance of being successfully moved?

    I think it would be a very small percentage, and the potential repercussions of the introduction of new species into a habitat can be disastrous.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Brian Ertz