Follow The Money


Biologist radio tracking wolves in Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

Years ago, I was in a graduate wildlife biology seminar where we discussed major issues of the day. At one of the meetings, the topic was finding work in wildlife research. There were three wildlife biology professors presenting that day. After they each gave a short talk, I naively noted that it appeared that hunting could have a significant impact on hunted wildlife. Yet, it seemed no one in wildlife biology ever researched the topic of hunting effects on wildlife.

All three professors glanced at each other and began to smile. Finally, one of them answered my question. He was blunt and told me, “Look, George, you have to understand who funds wildlife research. Most of our funding comes from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks or organizations like Ducks Unlimited, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, and even the Safari Club. The truth is that if we questioned whether hunting had an impact on wildlife, our funding sources would dry up. No money. No research. No research. No Graduate Student Support. No published papers. No advancement as a professor.”

He rationalized his position (with the other two professors nodding in approval) that there were plenty of relevant research topics that furthered the understanding of wildlife issues, including research that promotes wildlife protection without going there.

I asked him when one could ask such questions–and he quickly replied, “after you retire.”

I can readily agree there are many research questions one can pursue that are likely to be non-controversial and still promote better wildlife management outcomes.

I know of a friend who studied mountain lions while employed with a western state wildlife department. His research suggested that hunting caused social disruption of the big cats. He advocated against hunting the animals but was not permitted to publish his recommendations–until he retired.

Hunting can impact wildlife in numerous ways including changing age structure, removal of prime productive animals, killing of predators (like wolves) and selection for large horned/antlered which may alter the genetics of the species. Photo George Wuerthner 

Nevertheless, the response from my professors was a seminal moment for me and one reason I never sought a job in wildlife biology. I didn’t want to wait until I retired to ask questions.

Nevertheless, his honest answer provided insight I’ve used ever since that time with all kinds of issues—follow the money.

While scientists who worked for tobacco companies to show cigarette smoking wasn’t linked to cancer are an apparent conflict of interest to most people, when it comes to natural resources, there is still a naivety about the pronouncements that seemingly support resource extraction like logging, grazing, hunting, and other activities.

Part of the problem is with the media. Many journalists have no ecology or conservation history training. As a result, they don’t even know the right questions to ask.

Plus, they are not sufficiently skeptical of the authorities they quote. Just because a person has a Ph.D. in forestry or Range Science doesn’t mean they understand ecosystem function entirely. And in many cases, these authorities are so immersed in the starting assumptions of their disciplines that they have trouble even imagining there could be alternative viewpoints.

Most foresters tend to view a high severity blaze where the majority of trees are killed by wildfire as a “disaster” but such snag forests are critical to many wildlife species. Indeed, some research suggests the second-highest biodiversity in forested landscapes occurs after such a blaze. Photo George Wuerthner 

For example, many forestry professionals believe a “healthy” forest is one with limited tree mortality. The green forest ideal is an Industrial Forestry paradigm that most foresters are immersed in while in school and even once they get a job either with industry or an agency like the Forest Service. Bark beetles, wildfire, drought, mistletoe, or any other source of mortality are indicative of a “problem.” And while trees dying from natural causes like beetles or fire are looked upon as an indication of “unhealthy” conditions, most foresters have no qualms about killing the trees with chainsaws to promote “forest health.”

Trees killed by bark beetles are typically viewed as a problem by foresters, but some ecologists believe beetles are “key stone species” because so many other plant and wildlife species depend on the dead trees they create. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the first things I do when I read any published paper is look at the affiliation of the researchers and who funds their research. When I read a published article from a range professor, I know that their continued funding depends on them not criticizing livestock grazing. Range professors typically try to do research that promotes cattle grazing.

That doesn’t mean their results are inaccurate or that they have “cooked the books.” It’s just that some questions are not asked or avoided, or the research question is framed in such a way to get specific findings. You won’t last long in a range department if you question livestock grazing and its impacts.

I encountered years ago an excellent example of this sleight of hand when it comes to research. The BLM had a brochure in their offices with a title something like “Riparian Improvements with Cattle Grazing.” After a brief introduction about the ecological importance of riparian areas, the brochure featured ten examples from around the West where riparian areas “improved” with grazing.

I found the idea that grazing benefited riparian areas contrary to everything I knew about cattle grazing and riparian areas. So, I phoned the various offices and researchers featured in the brochure to find out how this contrary evidence could be factual.

Cattle tend to congregate on riparian areas because they have green vegetation and water. However, riparian areas support 70-80 percent of the wildlife in the West, thus livestock grazing has a disproportionate impact on wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner

In every case, what I discovered is that riparian areas did improve, or at least that is what they claimed. But, putting that aside, here’s the catch.

In all cases, livestock grazing in the riparian area was reduced. Maybe the season of use was shifted from 6 months to 2 months. The total number of cattle permitted on the allotment was significantly reduced, or new range “developments” like pipelines and fences moved the cows out of the riparian area. So in effect, the riparian area improvement was due to a REDUCTION in grazing pressure. If a reduction in livestock grazing improved the riparian areas, it would naturally lead one to ask if the termination of grazing in riparian zones would be the best public policy.

I have seen the same kind of approach in forestry. Most Forest Service researchers and forestry professors get their funding from the timber industry or the Forest Service, which, despite its name, is generally a handmaiden to the timber industry.

The same “follow the money” applies even to conservation groups. Groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wild Montana, The Wilderness Society, Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, among others, often promote and support logging and ranching on public lands, either due to ignorance of the real impacts or a dubious commitment to “collaboration.”

Sign “closing” road on the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. Most road closures are ineffective. Photo George Wuerthner 

For instance, I had a staffer for Wild Montana tell me that they supported some logging because the Forest Service promised to close logging roads and remove culverts after they finished a timber sale. He asked me with a straight face (meaning he didn’t get it) why I didn’t support closing roads and removing culverts? I replied that one didn’t have to log and build new roads to remove them later.

I suspect (but have no proof) foundation funding was pushing Wild Montana to participate in collaboratives so they could all claim to have a “win-win.”

Again, not all forestry, range, or wildlife biologists avoid controversial topics, but funding influences findings.

And while peer review of published research is supposed to ensure accuracy, keep in mind that almost all the researchers involved have adopted certain starting assumptions within many disciplines.

For example, consider you submit a paper to a forest ecology journal for review that promotes the idea that our forests are a mess and need fixing by chainsaw medicine. In that case, you are unlikely to get any resistance to the concept from peer reviewers since they all hold the same basic assumption that a “healthy” forest is one without a significant amount of mortality.

Peer review is a good thing, but keep in mind that contrary viewpoints may not be cited in a paper’s literature review or addressed.

All this suggests that if resource extraction by “happy coincidence” is labeled a “benefit” to the environment, one should scrutinize the underlying assumptions. The first step is to see who is funding the research, then see the affiliations of the researchers.

I hasten to add that most scientists, even those promoting resource extraction, do not purposefully distort or lie, but as my graduate seminar professors noted, they may avoid uncomfortable questions to keep their funding sources happy.





  1. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Does following the money include academic and market indoctrination conflating conservation with preservation, including most environmental employment (Big and grass root greens, too)?

    My money says a resounding yes.

    I mean, there’s a field of and degrees in Conservation Biology. There is are such things for Preservation.

    Ask yourself why.

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      *no such thing*

      Side note: not certain why I even bother any more.

      1. Mark L Avatar
        Mark L

        Ah, i see. ‘Préservation biology’?

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    This is not a big surprise – it sure does matter where the money comes from – big business & its influence upon any government agency matters!
    The whole grazing thing? Just wrote yet another comment to my favorite gov. agency regarding the North Landers HMA which seems to be next on the list for every contraceptive the agency has & destruction to herds that are not in the public eye – which is so sad. There are a couple Congress people who are aware & pushing to do something constructive, but after decades of year after year of removing Wild Horses from their homes? AND watching the slaughter of wolves & other predators? What does it take to stir up the public when there is so much crap going on?

  3. Linda Avatar

    Which makes me wonder which conservation groups I ought to support with my hard earned money. I don’t want to support the green washing where some groups claim to be working for the health of the environment but are just corroborating with others to look good.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Linda: There are quite a few wildlife groups that rise to the top of my favorites list. They are highly focused, are leaders – not followers, know environmental law backward and forward and are un-afraid to go to court. In politics, they are partisan only toward preserving our natural lands and waters and the fish and wildlife they support.

      My favorites are: (not in any particular order): Center For Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Wild Earth Guardians, Alliance For The Wild Rockies, Wilderness Watch, Alaska Wilderness League.

      There are also many more regional or local groups that are fabulous, and also groups focused on saving certain types of wildlife like Project Coyote, that is trying to save our valuable predators.

      1. Ricardo Small Avatar

        Ed Loosli, I agree 100%. Before I read your reply to Linda, I typed Center for Biological Diversity to start a list. You already did that in your comments. Good job!

      2. Rich Avatar


        I like your list especially CBD and WWP. I would add Earthjustice because the earth needs a good lawyer and they have a dedicated legal team to take the environmental bandits to court when necessary. They often work with conservation/preservation organizations like the ones you list as well as communities, Indigenous tribes and environmental groups. I will check out the other organizations you mention.

    2. Anotherview Avatar

      I would suggest organizations actively acquiring leases and land. Advocacy is good, but doesn’t generate very many wins for the money invested. Actual land protection does. Ask the critters which approach does them the best good, and follow that money.

  4. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Today, our self identified conservation environmental movement is reactively mitigating instead of proactively preserving, not since the early-90s death of Earth First! pressing for large scale preservation, perhaps in response to Sagebrush Rebel and logger violence after passage of the 70s Federal Lands Policy Management Act and 90s Northwest Forest Plan, both coinciding with the growing foundational professionalization of the once vocational, often grass roots, sometimes radical, environmental movement.

    1. Michael Kellett Avatar
      Michael Kellett

      Yes, “reactively mitigating” is a good term for almost all of what the mainstream environmental movement does today.

  5. Dr. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Dr. Ralph Maughan

    I am now a professor emeritus (retired) of political science at Idaho State University. Idaho has always had a bad reputation for intellectual inquiry and anything that violates conservative dogmas. However, I think things are worse now than 30-50 years ago.

    I did speak and write freely despite informal warnings from some other professors. From the beginning I wanted to talk about wildlife, wilderness, dams, timber, etc., and I did with just a couple state legislators going after me from time to time (JoAnn Wood and LeNore Barrett).

    It is maybe strange that I could talk and write about these things and, of course, politics in general, but maybe these wildlife professors were unnecessarily timid. It might also be that wildlife might be more political than other topics, even those that are flat out political. Also, maybe ranch and farm interests have more power than other groups, but other professors did speak out with little overt interference. It does seem to me though that those in Biology seemed to worry about these things quite a bit.

  6. Oscar Mace Avatar
    Oscar Mace

    This article describes how environmentalism is caught within a diminishing loop because when ecosystem integrity has been completely eroded by the money trail all that will remain are the empty and meaningless concepts of conservation and preservation for an economic abstraction of nature. In order for a paradigm shift to occur it will be necessary to employ more ecologists such as Mr. Wuerthner working outside the stream of the money trail.

  7. Makuye Avatar

    THe Forest Service was initially placed under USDI, until Roosevelt (you remember him? The guy who killed over 4,000 charismatic fauna in Africa in a SINGLE summer’s “vacation.”
    Vacation, indeed, vacating life for egotism, as Chairman Mao noted when young, adoring the power of mass killing to inflate one’s self, disguised as “cause”, “out of the barrel of a gun.”)
    in 1905 firmly placed it under US Dept of Agriculture, as if crazed chimapnzees had tilled and fed the world to produce its 4 billion years of ecological symbiosis.

    Notice the following narcissistic solipsism, piously and forever, it seems, violently embraced:
    “The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

    NOT to generously preserve the lives, ancient or ephemeral, that change important parts of the Sun’s electromagnetic radiation into complex, abundant life.

    SOLELY to reap, rape (an interesting and telling rearrangement of the four letters), eradicate. gain meaningless green paper with dead presidents’ head pictures.

    We live in a geologically short moment of escaped chimp dominance. As we continue to persist in exceeding Earth’s ecological/habitat carrying capacity – it’s july when we exceed the entire primary production of an entire year. – we get a few minor signals from viruses that our ecplipsing of ALL other lives on the planet (excepting only some commensals, some rodent s, a couple horribly torutred bird species, a few herbivores, an omnivore we place in horrendous conditions in order to gobble up.

    I have touched terees 1000, 2400, 4,500 years old while traveling about a bit more humbly than those hoteling, cruise shipping (with attendant dumping of excrement just outside 3-milelimits, inundating benthic organisms and pools withing oceans, but never mind)individuals typical of this particular “if bothered, tear limb from limb” gun-toting timorous monkey species.

    Life is finely poised, vulnerable. Coming upon porcupine-girdled young trees, dead among bigflats of Sitka Spruce, one realizes how easy it is to kill redwoods, individuals older than human civilizations. What are we to kill for fences and hot tubs, burl geegaws, inconvenience?

    “Generations” – what of generations NOT yours?

    WHEN will BLM and Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service,be placed in their PROPER Mission and Mandate – to PROTECT Life and Lives from nonessential killing?

    Recently a number of nations began to follow Ecuador’s lead – to asert Constitutinal rights at least for spooky imagined proxies for vulnerable life, for “nature.”

    Having seen first sprouts of inty trees from severe forest fires by February following theOctober burn, from noting the print of bear, right now persecuted lethally in nearly EVERY state and nation, passing throughthe ashes, telling no one until you of his or her passage, I, too, experienced the predominant crowding of gun-toy-crazed lethal exploiters into Wildlife Departments of any University.

    Ihave NOT seen substantial difference with such malignantly narcissistic psychopathy among my kind, male or female. Money is passed to comfortable mendicant organizations opulently ensconced in DC or Capital cities, claiming “victory” as if momentary lessening of the death on a few vulnerable acres has saved more than a few months or years for a tiny proportion of the organisms damned by human evil.

    Too many memories of momentarily and few free wolves or coyotes, calling as their species were meant to, before condemned to hails of gunfire (and I have seen this too; bragging automatic war weapon-carrying chimps. I have REALLY had enough), frsh, boiled skulls of bears dead before 1/4 of their natural lives were passed.

    I get near 200 emails daily asking incessantly for all my social legal tender, while NOTHING was done to cease the assaults.

    WHAT makes humans delusional that this world is “modern?” It is mere repeat of mass buffalo jumps wherever convenient to kill, dump, extinguish.

    YOU do not see the horizontal dead forests piled up awaiting shipment of East Asia daily. I have to avoid this area, as it preys like some serial-killer, which nearly all humans are, on the innocent.

    I suddenly note the quote from Abbey below. BEFORE he was active, BEFORE he wrote of it, BEFORE , we children, disgusted beyond rapprochement, loaded up dredging equipment and earthmovers with sugar and salt, as we were told these destroyed engines of the monsters, the humans, who had killed acres to miles of innocent invertebrates, fish, mangroves we had swam among, wondering the years before they did this – this was 1961, when adult chimps were concerned solely with “commies” et cetera, , who perpetrated the SAME crimes.
    You have NO diea of teh immensities of beauty of life ther, alone, on that coral and mud-flat, mangroved reef water. gone in a year(they never caught us, but installed security guards to continue their atrocious pursuit of death in service of the uberchimpchen

  8. Beeline Avatar

    Money gathering and all the propaganda that goes with it make for quite a bread and circuses world. A world now in accelerating decay for sure.

    EG: The BLM now spends almost as much money on a single species the feral horse as it does on terrestrial wildlife habitat management for all wild species on public land. And the organization known as PETA has objected to the way in which pythons are being killed in the everglades even though these huge invaders have killed off most of the native wildlife. It appears that single minded money driven goals have “TRUMPED” ecological management almost totally. This single minded, tunnel vision “I have to be right” anti-learning approach is killing the planet but humans are too slow to get it.

    Those of us, called ecologists or wildlife biologists that gave of our lives in hopes that we might leave the earth in better shape than we found it have been marginalized and essentially disappeared.

    It looks like it is up the earth and the celestial consciousness now. Great Grandfather Sun just took out 40 of Mr. Musks satellites. A sort of solar tap on the shoulder. Will it take a cosmic 2 x 4 on the head to get our attention?

  9. Nancy Ostlie Avatar
    Nancy Ostlie

    Exactly right. Timber money buys fancy new buildings for the University Forestry Departments, as in Missoula

  10. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Great post!

  11. Rich Avatar

    Why Does Lauren Boebert Want to Annihilate the Sage-Grouse? Follow the Money

    “Earlier this week, far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert went on a diatribe against Greater sage-grouse conservation efforts but neglected to mention that her husband raked in nearly $1 million over a two-year period from a fossil fuel corporation that stands to lose out if the Biden administration strengthens federal protection of the threatened bird species’ sagebrush habitat.”

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Wasn’t it promised that in lieu of an endangered species listing, the ranching community/fossil fuel industry would step up and take protections of their own?

      To date, what has been done? Nothing but suing the USF&W for their protection plan as far as I know! So they don’t inspire a lot of confidence.

  12. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Just as a little aside:

    Is anyone taking part in the Audubon/Cornell citizen science bird survey?

    It’s always amazing to take part, but this year seems a little different. Who needs Groundhog Day! It appears that spring is coming early from my observations – migrants returning, pairs already. 🙂


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George Wuerthner