The Self Preservation of Land and Wildlife Managers

The art of land and wildlife management has fallen into the hands of political actors who are beholden to powerful interests who only care about how much money they can squeeze out of our wildlife and public lands. When faced with making tough decisions, these professional bureaucrats have learned special skills to move up through the ranks of their peers to the top of the decision making chain.

First, they learn a special language some refer to as “bureaunese”. It involves, first and foremost, happy talk designed to put the listener and general public at ease but is, at its core, substanceless and lacking of any real commitment Or information. This language is most often heard in the media but also heard in public meetings, private meetings, and in response to letters containing tough questions about policy matters.

In the public context, the foes of conservation are often commended for their hard work and commitment to not destroying what they are clearly destroying. The personal sacrifice of those whose sole interest is to avoid any regulatory oversight of their exploitation of public lands is often lauded while the agencies are handing them money hand over fist to develop or manipulate habitat to make it easier to exploit the landscape. Ranchers seem to be the most common target of this praise because the public sees them as rugged individualists with a romantic lifestyle despite their abject dependence on government handouts.

In the more or less private context — because meeting notes can be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests — the agency people often go to great lengths to avoid saying anything that might upset the apple cart. I find this especially true when a rancher is within earshot. Occasionally you may encounter someone who is willing to speak candidly and make the right decisions but those people and situations are rare and those people either have to hide their feelings lest they be moved to some basement office in Washington DC or left in the cold by their superiors. Most of the time they are trying to deflect taking responsibility for the condition of a blasted landscape or their responsibility to protect a certain resource. I’ve stood next to many livestock blasted streams and landscapes and listened to agency people explain that the destruction is due to “historic grazing” or some special circumstance that doesn’t have anything to do with the obvious culprit standing and shitting in the creek.

Another way that bureaunese manifests itself is when the straight forward meaning of a phrase seems to be misinterpreted by the agency and they are asked to define it. Two recent, and especially crafty, examples of this come to mind.

One involved the meaning of the phrase “near natural rate of recovery” in the context of livestock damaged streams containing Endangered Species Act threatened bull trout. When asked about this the agency sent a letter defining the phrase in very vague and nonspecific terms that completely contradicted an earlier definition we were able to dig up.

Another example occurred just recently when U.S. Forest Service people were questioned about the meaning of the phrase “predator control”. Apparently there are two kind of predators, one with a capital “P” and one with a little “p”. I’m unclear about the difference but one is the kind that kills livestock and the other is the kind that kills elk. After this meeting one of the agency people said they had a lot of work ahead of them when they will be faced with an important decision. I replied that “yes, it takes a lot of work to come up with contorted definitions for simple phrases”. I don’t think they appreciated that.

The second most important skill of those who want to ascend the agency ladder is to avoid making tough decisions altogether. It’s easier for agency people to just keep making the same decisions over and over again as long as it doesn’t offend those who benefit from the exploitation of the land and wildlife.

In my experience dealing with livestock issues, if there is some kind of problem meeting certain standards, it is always easy to either lie or blame the failure to meet the standards on something other than livestock. The most commonly turned to excuse is, as referenced above, “historic grazing”. It’s a vague term that can be taken to mean many things.

First is to mean grazing that occurred before the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which reigned in unregulated grazing on public lands that caused immense long term damage to arid landscapes. It could also mean grazing that occurred more recently such as anytime after the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and before the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA which requires the BLM to manage grazing to meet Standards for Rangeland Health. It could also refer to grazing that occurred during the last 10-year permit. The term is sufficiently vague to mean any of those scenarios and gives the agency an easy way to continue with the status quo or to find a rationale for building new “rangeland improvements” such as wells, pipelines, water troughs, and fences — usually barbed wire to show you who really controls our public lands by killing wildlife and ripping your favorite pair of jeans.

When the law and the science is clear and a hard decision has to be made, it is still easier to make a bad decision than to make the right decision. We saw an example this week with the decision to withdraw the proposal to list bi-state sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Sally Jewell, President Obama’s Secretary of Interior, and who has been seen praising those who are causing the most damage to sage grouse habitat, especially ranchers, has made the reckless decision to punt the decision to the courts so as to avoid looking like the bad guy. She has learned the most important skill of “passing the buck”.

The pressure to avoid Endangered Species Act listing for the three populations of sage grouse, Greater sage grouse, Gunnison sage grouse, and Bi-state sage grouse has been immense. Each of these populations has suffered massive declines recently and their habitat has been pounded by and grazed to oblivion by livestock, developed by energy companies, and burned because of the livestock proliferated cheatgrass that is as flammable as gasoline.

Because listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act would impose crucial restrictions on the use of public lands, Congress has stepped in to block listing for one fiscal year and there is a new bill to block listing for six more years.

Sally Jewell knows that she made the wrong decision for bi-state sage grouse but she also knows that she will be sued by the coalition of groups who have pressed for their protection. If they win in court then she knows that thy will be perceived as the bad guys and she won’t. That’s passing the buck.



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  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    I see that while the politicians and the bureaucrats pat each other on the back that this population of sage grouse was not listed, back in the real world the truth was just underlined.

    Sage grouse numbers plummeted after 2007, study shows” By Rocky Barker. Idaho Statesman

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Good post, Ken. All the articles are only concerned with keeping the Sage Grouse off the endangered list – whatever they are doing, the populations are still declining. All talk – ‘sound science’ is becoming another one of those vague throwaway phrases. I’m utterly disgusted.

  3. Ricardo Small Avatar

    Thank you very much for writing such a cogent piece about environmental politics and commercial livestock grazing’s special treatment by agencies and politicians. Jewell certainly isn’t much of a Secretary, is she?

  4. Gail Avatar

    Thanks for this, Ken – insightful and articulate. You certainly have their number!

  5. ramses09 Avatar

    Thanks Ken for a great article. While all of the “buck passers” are praising each other, the wildlife in our country is disappearing. Sad to say the least.

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Corey Gardner Introduces Act To Delay Endangered Decision on Grouse

    “The act would give states at least six more years to implement state-created conservation and management plans to save the grouse without federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (emphasis mine). It would require federal biologists to share scientific data with states and help states craft and carry out plans. States would still have an option of deferring to the federal government.”

    I guess I’m confused as to whether anything has actually gotten off the ground yet, and if not, the ‘wisdom’ of delaying any action even further? Don’t ‘federal biologists share scientific data with states and help states craft and carry out plans’ already?

    Birds on the Divide: Sage Grouse Ruffles Resort Plans

    1. Elk375 Avatar

      ++ Don’t ‘federal biologists share scientific data with states and help states craft and carry out plans’ already?++

      The state fish and game have many times the scientific data that the federal biologists have. The states have been studying and managing their wildlife for over a 100 years. The federal biologist are a recent entry.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Well, I sure hope for the best. I have more concerns about development, energy and human expansion, than anything.

        1. Gary Humbard Avatar
          Gary Humbard

          The USFWS and the all of the state wildlife agencies are working together to reverse the downward trend of the greater sage grouse (see first paragraph).

          Due to the potential ESA listing of the greater sage grouse, the BLM is updating their resource management plans (BLM manages the vast majority of its habitat along with some minor areas of USFS) to be completed summer of 2015.

          There are completed conservation plans throughout the range of the greater sage grouse that are implementing measures to reduce the threat to the bird and one of them was the link I sent earlier regarding the bi-state sage grouse.

          Because there are numerous threats and that the sagebrush ecosystem where they live is a harsh environment, it will undoubtedly take a long time to see a definitive upward trend for the bird and that is why politicians need to stay out of the way and “quit kicking the can down the road”.

          1. Ken Cole Avatar

            What I’ve seen so far has been a disaster and they really, really don’t want to do anything about grazing. I wrote about this in 2011 and not much has changed since then.


            1. Bob Mc Avatar
              Bob Mc

              “I wrote about this in 2011 and not much has changed since then.”

              While not directly related to sage grouse, James Duce wrote about impacts of cattle grazing on some aspects of Colorado’s landscape about a century before your 2011 piece. One might fairly say, “Not much has changed since then.”

              SCIENCE [N. S. VOL. XLVII. No. 1219 MAY 10, 1918]


              The development of these arroyos seems to have been, therefore, contemporaneous with development of ranching. To what must we ascribe them then? The writer believes they are caused by cattle. Cattle influence erosion in two ways: first by the wearing of trails; second by the destruction of vegetation.

              We may, therefore, summarize the effect of cattle by saying that they increase the rapidity of the run-off and the rate of erosion by destroying vegetation, by compacting the soil and forming channels for the passage of water.

              Its economic effect is not as great as that of deforestation, but it will result in the ultimate abandonment of many small farms along some of the streams. For these reasons it is deserving of further investigation.
              JAMES TERRY DUCE

      2. Marc Bedner Avatar

        We don’t know what a federal wildlife program would look like, because the states have been allowed to continue to manage wildlife as they see fit. The role of a federal biostitute is to issue a memorandum of understanding to authorize and support state policy.

        The Mexican wolf reintroduction program is an example. Although nominally under the auspices of US Fish and Wildlife, the federal biostitutes, starting with David Parsons, put Arizona Game and Fish in charge of the program.

  7. Susan carter Avatar
    Susan carter

    When will true wildlife and wild-lands proponents realize that wild horses and wild horse Advocates are their friends? There are tens of thousands of such advocates who are willing to join forces against the cattlemen.
    Herd Management Areas were established for Wild Horses and Burros.

    prev | next
    § 4710.3-1 Herd management areas.
    “Herd management areas shall be established for the maintenance of wild horse and burro herds. In delineating each herd management area, the authorized officer shall consider the appropriate management level for the herd, the habitat requirements of the animals, the relationships with other uses of the public and adjacent private lands….”

    No one wants to see cattle removed more than wild horse advocates. To hear the ranchers tell it the horses are destroying the range. Don’t be fooled! There are less than 35,000 wild horses and burros compared to innumerable cattle.
    The HMAs are supposed to be principally managed for the horses and burros not cattle.

    prev | next
    § 4710.5 Closure to livestock grazing.
    (a) “If necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros from disease, harassment or injury, the authorized officer may close appropriate areas of the public lands to grazing use by all or a particular kind of livestock.”
    Please join forces with us before the horses are gone (like the Sage Grouse. The cattle need to go!

    1. Susan carter Avatar
      Susan carter

      That is … “Please join forces with us before the horses are gone! (Like the sage grouse.)
      The cattle need to go!

    2. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Susan carter:
      So true!! Well said and well reasoned…And thanks for including parts of this important law to help remind us of the government’s responsibilities…+1

    3. Linda Horn Avatar
      Linda Horn

      Yes, wild horse and burro advocates are ready to establish partnerships and armed with plenty of information. Please don’t think all of us oppose proper management. We understand it’s necessary to maintain a thriving ecological balance.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    This is the same old, expected route for State sage grouse protections the States would take, but not addressing the real problem of overdevelopment, energy exploration, recreation, and thousands of trampling cattle. Same as wolf/caribou, sea lion/salmon, and many others. Ineffective and poisoning the environment is completely unacceptable, and will probably harm the grouse and its habitat as well! Make the power lines inhospitable to bird perching, other places do that. I hope the Interior Dept. has something better than this, and the paltry $4M to protect sage grouse habitat:

    “Earlier this month lawmakers in Carson City were pressing forward with Assembly Joint Resolution No. 2, which would address one of the major causes of sage grouse population declines. The resolution asks Congress to remove or alter protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 for the common raven. Raven populations have exploded across the West because development of power lines and fences and pinyon and juniper give the birds higher perches from which to spy and attack sage grouse nests to eat the eggs.”

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      And undermining the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is completely unacceptable. I hope the weak leadership in the Interior will not allow it.

      1. Mak Avatar

        Areas in Mono County of sagegrouse habitat in some cases are near where logging took trees over 100 years ago. Little regeneration took place.
        It is probable that the lowering of water table by LA DWP had an effect.
        One must study the recorded history, and photographic record to assess this.

        Areas in NV had had BLM remove pinyon through “chaining” in order to open up cattle grazing, in the 20th century.

        Ida, I hope you do not imply that any regenerated places should be aggressively managed in this way.

        It is notable that recently USDA had changed their resources policies (in this case FS logging offerings) to place responsibility in the hands of individual NF Supervisors. This clearly has the effect of placing responsibility down lower on the bureautrophic scale, washing the Obama administration hands. Not dissimilar to the politics they play, from Tester onward to now, with the death of wolves.

        At this point, I cannot offer ideas on resistance to having USDA WS poison Ravens. A possible tactic of removal from protections and consequent opening of shooting seasons on Corvus in the bi-state could occur. NV would more likely ok such a thing, than CA. (I once lived smack among 3 leks, which were in BLM grazing leases.)

        Audubon Society is large and fiercely protective org.

        Right now we wait for results of a USDA FS salvage logging plan; one is curious as to what will happen to the KNF Supervisor who must either side with science and the aroused public, or choose to go with the latest administration effort to sacrifice forests for leverage with republican opponents:

        which contains the pdf of the recently awarded new wood products grant recipients. This 2014 policy could be construed as consistent with a strategy, rather than a piecemeal loss to an economy in which jobs are made paramount (Clinton brilliantly used this tactic for passing international trade (he succeeded economically, I believe, due to the rising of internet and explosion of tech industry), and Obama has now shown the same pattern of sacrifice – his advisers strategies are visible in the war industry and the continual attempt to offer remaining natural ecosystems to industry, while voicing lip service to alternative energy, etc.

        I hope you understand the appearance of political strategy; since supposed environmental advocate Jewell has differed insignificantly from the previous cattleman-in-charge, opposition or redirection of rhetoric, wresting it from either major party, will be necessary.

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Ida, I hope you do not imply that any regenerated places should be aggressively managed in this way.

    No, not at all! I only posted it to show that the so-called state plans to manage sage grouse are not anything new, just ways to not have to address the major problem of human impact. Believe me, pulling out trees in this way and killing birds is heart-breaking. And I cannot believe our Interior Secretary would support it. I think she just wants to turn the National Parks into a great big REI-type company and energy development, complete with stakeholders – possibly the most dangerous mindset of any. I had posted a study about how the pinyon-and-juniper forests are not invasives but natural and are not the problem; removing them will destroy an ecosystem. I do hope they are as aggressive with the cheatgrass, which created one gawd-awful mess, as our thinking we know better usually does:

    The Historical Stability of Nevada’s Pinyon-Juniper Forests (Lanner/Frazier 2011)


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole