All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Wolves, grazing rights, and climate change

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Wyoming has decided that wolves no longer need protection.  As of October 1rst, 2012, unlimited hunting will be allowed.  There will be no restrictions because the animals are considered predators, rather than game.

Of course hunting groups are elated with the decision (see here), while environmentalists are aghast (see here for background).

In another item of news, the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” has been dealt a blow, possibly fatal, by the Supreme Court.  About time, one would say: this is a holdover from the Reagan era, and the particulars (here) make for interesting reading.  Here are some excerpts:

Over the past 21 years, firebrand Nevada rancher Wayne Hage and his survivors waged a legal war against federal land managers who were seeking to restrict cattle grazing on public lands and became a heroic symbol for those who yearned for bygone days and bridled at the growing reach of government.

Then in a little noticed decision on July 26, a three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned Hage’s hard-fought multimillion-dollar legal victories.

It was a quiet rebuke to a legal saga that began in 1991 after the government impounded some of Hage’s cattle. The rancher had defied grazing restrictions in Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and refused to pay fines for grazing permit violations.

What these news items have in common is the conflict between public land users, ranchers in particular, who want to do as they please, and government jurisdiction.  But what could this possibly have to do with climate change?

In my opinion, quite a bit.  First, there are the obvious implications about government intervention.  The climate is changing, and we have barely scratched the surface of the consequences.  But from drought to flooding and hurricanes, it is clear that no mitigation is possible by individual action only.  Only collective action – that is, government, along with extensive consultation – can have any positive effect on avoiding the worst; and never mind the thornier problem of who decides how to apportion the costs and damages.  Caught as it is in its heroic pioneers myth, this is something that the western US is particularly ill equipped to do, and western Canada isn’t far behind.

But how we’ll be dealing with the impacts of climate change, and who will decide, isn’t the only implication of these two news story – there is something much more concrete and immediate, and it has to do with water supply.

It’s no secret that degraded land holds water poorly.  Cattle can be amazingly destructive to small creeks, because of the erosion caused by their trampling of the creeksides, and the removal of vegetation.  The effect of cattle drinking goes far beyond a mere muddying of the water; some creeks actually go dry during summer, because of the loss of hydraulic integrity (that is, the trampled soil can no longer act as a sponge and slowly release water during the dry periods).  The simple expedient of fencing alongside creeks to exclude cattle has been show to be enough to restore year-round flows in dry areas.

It is not as well-known that wolves can have exactly the same impact as barbed-wire fencing.  Where there are wolves, deer and elk avoid streambanks, spending as little time drinking as possible, because of their exposed and vulnerable situation.  Absent wolves, these animals hang out near the creeks and rivers, munching on the lush and well watered plants that grow there.  Eventually cottonwood saplings and tall grasses disappear from overgrazing, and with them the good soil structure that holds water over the dry spells.  One of completely unexpected effect of re-introducing wolves in places where they had been exterminated has been the restored health of creeks and rivers.

Which is why the Wyoming decision is such an unfortunate one.  It is true that there are now many more wolves that just a few years ago.  This attests to the success of the re-introduction program, but of course there are now numerous conflicts between ranchers, sheep herders, and wolves.  A limited, controlled hunt may have been justified; but this is a case of an all-or-nothing law, and it will be open season on Wyoming wolves this fall.

Oh yeah, what about climate change?  Well, there is an unprecedented drought over the whole prairies, and climatologists expect that things may worsen.  Which means that we need to become smarter with our resources, and in particular with water.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. (Aldo Leopold)

Even if he didn’t link the wolf with water, Leopold’s thinking was remarkably prescient.  We need to think like a mountain, he exhorted us; we need to consider the whole ecology.

This has never been more true than now, when we are facing a drastically changed climate.


Written by enviropaul

September 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This is so horrible to kill these beautiful animals. All animals on this earth are predictors to some degree. That is surviva

    Bonnie-jean webber

    September 2, 2012 at 8:29 pm

  2. […] sink, and the fertilizing effect it has is important for carbon sequestration.  Likewise, the presence of wolves scares deer away from tree saplings, allowing for forest re-growth, with the carbon sequestration that that […]

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