Wilderness and the Value of Doing Nothing

Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

Along the high-elevation, wind-swept ridges of the West, a long-lived, gnarly-branched pine is in trouble.  A species of stone pine known for its high stress tolerance and adaptability, whitebark pine is slow-growing and can live between 500 – 1,000 years.  Lacking wings for wind-dispersal, its calorie-dense seeds are spread primarily by Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the crow family with a specialized bill for extracting large seeds from pinecones and a pouch under its tongue for stashing and carrying seeds long distance.  Those seeds are a prized food source for a range of species, including the imperiled grizzly bear. 

As tough as the species is, whitebark pine is facing mounting pressures from climate change, decades of fire suppression, blister rust, mountain pine beetles, and competing conifers migrating to higher elevations in response to warming temperatures.  Already found at high elevations, many worry that whitebark pine will have nowhere to run. 

This cocktail of stressors has landed whitebark pine on the short-list for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.  Unfortunately, the proposed listing rule allows logging and other “forest management” activities in whitebark pine habitat, and is, per usual, loudly silent on actions that might address the underlying causes of global warming.  Instead, it focuses heavily on intervention and manipulation strategies—like selectively breeding and planting blister rust resistant trees, pruning and thinning stands, fighting back other migrating conifers with logging, applying insecticides and pheromones, and even wrapping pinecones in wire mesh to keep red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers from getting at the seeds.

This is a familiar story.  Humans are exceedingly bad at exercising restraint and simply not doing things.  Rather than drastically reducing consumption, travel, recreation, and development—things that take real personal and political sacrifice but create space for other species to exist—we put an enormous amount of effort into developing technologies that enable us to continue with business as usual or at least provide a veil of plausible deniability regarding our impact on the world.  Slap enough windmills on the hilltops, and we’ll never have to slow down.  Gather enough data on wildlife, and we can invade their space with abandon.  Or, worst case, fire up the helicopters, pluck the critters from their homes, slap tracking collars on their necks, and drop them elsewhere.  There is a deep tendency to treat everything as if it is merely an engineering challenge that is solvable with enough data and ingenuity (and money). 

This is not to say we shouldn’t pursue things less harmful than our current things—we’ve dug quite an overwhelming hole with climate change, and we need to be creative in how we deal with it.  But too often our efforts are tunnel-visioned on maintaining the status quo, and the tougher conversations about how we exist on this planet are altogether muted. 

Take for instance grizzly bears.  A widely cited research paper states that “[h]umans are the primary agent of death” for grizzlies.  We know this.  When humans and bears mix, bears end up dead.  So, areas with less human access and activity (e.g. recreation, logging, fast-moving cars and trains, etc.) are areas with fewer dead bears.  And in areas with greater human activity, we sorely need greater tolerance (and compassion) for bears.  As with so many other species reacting to rapidly changing conditions, we need to provide grizzlies with the space to move and adapt, and we need to keep open minds about what that might look like.  Yet, in the whitebark pine listing rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service downplays the importance of whitebark pine as a food for grizzlies calling them “opportunistic feeders.”  But whitebark pine is often found in remote, high elevation sites away from humans.  When whitebark pine seeds are scarce, bears search out other food, which often brings them into lower elevations and in closer contact with humans.  We don’t much care for the idea of sharing our favorite creek-side trail with a berry-munching grizzly or dealing with potholes in our golf courses from a bear digging up earthworms, so when an “opportunistic” bear ends up in our space, we trap the bear and move him back to his allotted “recovery zone.”  And if the bear crosses our line in the sand again—looking for food, or a mate, or a new home—we kill him, and we go to great pains gathering more data and rationalizing all the reasons why this is the way of things, why we don’t need to change our own behavior or ask, “What gives us the right?”

These tendencies toward control and entitlement make our collective agreement on Wilderness pretty remarkable.  Wilderness is a conscious reflection of human restraint—a place where we decided there is value in Nature’s own wild order, in the autonomy and freedom of the wild, and in allowing the land to play whatever hand it is dealt without our intentional interference.  It is a recognition that we don’t and can’t know everything and that we might learn something if we step back and observe what happens when we don’t impose our will.  Because of this, unsurprisingly, Wilderness is some of the best habitat left for species trying to eke out an existence alongside humans.  

The idea of Wilderness as a self-willed landscape has been a difficult one for land management agencies.  They have an ingrained history of modifying public lands to achieve “desired conditions,” an idea laden with value bias even in the best of times.  Throw climate change and all of its uncertainties into the mix, and the increasing urge to actively maintain static conditions becomes all the more problematic. 

Even though the agencies often resist it on the ground, their policy guidance reflects the value in Wilderness.  Agency guidance states, “Wilderness areas are living ecosystems in a constant state of evolution[,]” and “[i]t is not the intent of wilderness stewardship to arrest this evolution in an attempt to preserve character existing” at some prior time.  And, “A key descriptor of wilderness in the Wilderness Act, untrammeled refers to the freedom of a landscape from the human intent to permanently intervene, alter, control, or manipulate natural conditions or processes.”  And, “Maintaining wilderness character requires an attitude of humility and restraint. We preserve wilderness character by … imposing limits on ourselves.”  In Wilderness, we “[p]rovide an environment where the forces of natural selection and survival rather than human actions determine which and what numbers of wildlife species will exist.” 

Agency policy is taking a notable turn.  One agency stated its “policy prior to climate change was to take a ‘hands-off’ approach where overt human influences were not the primary reasons for population fluctuations.”  It now believes its role is shifting to  adaptive management to maintain “natural conditions,” and this conversation is growing across the agencies.  This—at its core—is a conversation about whether we will allow Wilderness to persist into the future. 

This shift is reflected in the proposed whitebark pine rule.  It lists Wilderness under “Challenges to Restoration,” setting the stage for conflict between an imperiled species and an imperiled landscape.  But this is likely a false conflict.  Roughly 29 percent of whitebark pine habitat is in Wilderness.  Given the variables and unintended consequences inherent in manipulations, that 29 percent should be set aside as an important baseline for comparison to our tinkerings elsewhere.  The listing rule acknowledges “a high degree of uncertainty inherent in any predictions of species responses to a variety of climate change scenarios. This is particularly true for whitebark pine given it is very long lived, has a widespread distribution, has complex interactions with other competitor tree species, relies on Clark’s nutcracker for both distribution and regeneration, and has significant threats present from disease, predation, and fire.”

It also acknowledges “[t]here is no known way to control, reduce, or eliminate either mountain pine beetle or white pine blister rust…particularly at the landscape scale needed to effectively conserve this species.”  In fact, “the vast scale at which planting rust-resistant trees would need to occur, long timeframes in which restoration efficacy could be assessed, and limited funding and resources, will make it challenging to restore whitebark pine throughout its range. One estimate indicates that if planting continues at its current pace, it would take over 5000 years to cover just 5 percent of the range of whitebark pine[.]”

This does not appear to be a scenario where we have to grapple with fine lines.  There is no discrete, human-caused disruption in Wilderness that can be corrected with a discrete, short-lived intervention.  This is not an errant patch of spotted knapweed along a stock trail that can be pulled.  But it is illustrative of the moral and ethical questions coming our way.  Climate change will continue to cause vast changes in the world as we know it, and we will see more attempts to mitigate the effects through ongoing, counterbalancing manipulations.  The question will be whether we lose Wilderness in the process. 

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Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

 

Big Whitebark Keith Hammer


Photo: Keith Hammer

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The otherwise good article omits the elephant in the closet which is that humans cannot curtail their propensity to breed. Unless... Read More
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All so true, Dana Johnson! Wilderness Watch, you are my favorite group these days because your philosophies are spot on. We must p... Read More
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North Cascades Grizzly Recovery: Looking for an Alternative that is Good for Grizzlies and Good for Wilderness

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

Wilderness Watch recently asked the National Park Service (NPS) to develop a new alternative in the planning for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades of Washington State. Our suggested proposal would both benefit grizzlies and protect designated Wilderness, something that none of the existing alternatives in the NPS’s current plan do. Wilderness Watch has requested that a natural recovery alternative be thoroughly developed and studied for grizzly restoration.

 

A natural recovery alternative doesn’t mean do nothing as some of its critics contend, but instead would call for real action in British Columbia and the U.S. to facilitate natural recovery. That could mean many things, such as changes in black bear hunting regulations in both countries, facilitating passage across highways, reducing road densities, guidelines for human behavior in the areas most likely used as connecting corridors for grizzly expansion, building social tolerance, and the like. In other words, it would be a cooperative plan between the U.S. and Canada for grizzly recovery. If this kind of cooperation can’t be obtained, then grizzly recovery in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades is likely to fail, regardless of the number of bears that are translocated there. And without linkages across the border with British Columbia, the long-term genetic viability of a relatively small grizzly population on the U.S. side of the border would also be at risk.

 

We recognize at least some of the current challenges to facilitating grizzly movement across the border from Canada, but we also believe it is imperative for the NPS to rigorously study, analyze, and disclose such an alternative. Sometimes grizzlies can confound even the experts. Twenty years ago, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a plan (which died after the election of George W. Bush) to reintroduce 25 grizzlies into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness but as an “experimental, nonessential” population that would receive lesser protections under the Endangered Species Act. Most experts said there was absolutely no way that grizzlies could get into the Selway-Bitterroot on their own. But now, 20 years later, grizzlies are indeed moving in there on their own. The North Cascades ecosystem has differences with the Selway-Bitterroot regarding potential grizzly movement, of course, but the NPS has not seriously looked at the possibilities and pitfalls of a natural recovery option for grizzlies in the North Cascades.

 

The current plan by the NPS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to translocate grizzly bears into the North Cascades in Washington raises many concerns about the harms posed to individual bears, who will be snared or culvert-trapped or pursued by helicopters and shot with tranquilizers, removed from their familiar home territories, poked, prodded, and collared with electronic surveillance devices. The environmental analysis indicates bears would be taken “from source populations in northwestern Montana and/or south-central British Columbia” where, at least in Montana, grizzly bear populations are still struggling and suffering record high mortality rates. The heavy-handed capture and translocation methods proposed—as well as continued monitoring and handling methods—could result in death or injury of the bears, which are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. And if that weren’t enough, the DEIS ignores the literature describing the negative effects—including severe stress responses and avoidance of important habitat—of all this helicopter traffic on wildlife, including grizzlies

 

And, as we’ve unfortunately seen again and again in Idaho and Washington, politically controversial predators with electronic tracking devices around their necks are regularly targeted for “removal actions.” Freedom of Information Act documents in Idaho showed that Idaho Fish and Game (and possibly the federal management agencies involved before delisting) regularly supplied Wildlife Services with GPS data from wildlife collars to locate and kill wolves, oftentimes through aerial gunning. Washington also has a long, sordid history of killing wolves at the behest of cattle ranchers. The environmental analysis here indicates “all released grizzly bears would be GPS-collared and monitored. If a bear frequents an allotment area, the FWS and WDFW would work with the USFS and livestock owners to determine the best course of action to minimize bear-livestock interactions.” We are sympathetic to the desire to move quickly if there are only a few bears left in the North Cascades, but what of the bears that are dropped there against their will? What of the struggling source populations? And, are we simply creating another island population that cannot survive without ongoing, heavy-handed intervention? Is this really good for the bears? For Wilderness? We think these are questions that deserve serious analysis and public disclosure.

 

The current plan is misguided in the many ways that it would violate the 1964 Wilderness Act. None of the current action alternatives in the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) are compatible with Wilderness. The proposed recovery area of 6.1 million acres includes North Cascades National Park and 2.6 million acres of Wilderness in the Pasayten, Mt. Baker, and Stephen Mather Wildernesses. All, or almost all, of the proposed helicopter landings would apparently be in Wilderness, either in North Cascades National Park or in surrounding national forests, despite the fact that 60 percent of the project area is outside of Wilderness. The plan proposes anywhere from 50 to 400 helicopter landings and twice that many flights (though the DEIS is somewhat inconsistent on the exact numbers) to move up to 160 bears, again all or mostly all within Wilderness despite more of the project area being outside of Wilderness. The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers.

 

The essential irony is that agencies recognize the best place to release bears is in the exceedingly rare wildness of the North Cascades. The best grizzly habitat is synonymous with Wilderness: space to roam, isolation, denning sites, safety from human-caused mortality, and distance from human conflicts and garbage. But the agency’s proposed methods of re-establishing grizzlies diminish all these advantages.

 

Wilderness Watch supports the recovery of grizzly bears and other native species where suitable habitat exists. The rugged North Cascades are historic grizzly bear habitat, and there are likely a few currently living on the U.S. side of border now, with a grizzly bear photographed there in 2010.

 

But recovery efforts must also meet the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act. This means restoring the area’s grizzly population without the use of motor vehicles and equipment, without endless landings of helicopters in Wilderness, without trammeling or manipulating the landscape or its wildlife. However suitable the habitat in the North Cascades is, we take issue with the methods proposed—the reintroduction plan is extremely intrusive, relies on activities prohibited by the Wilderness Act, and would come at a significant cost to Wilderness. What is good for Wilderness is good for bears, and those conditions are worth protecting.

 

It is precisely this type of heavy-handed manipulation of Wilderness that Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser warned against, even when done for seemingly good reasons. In 1963, for example, the secretary of interior’s wildlife advisory board of ecologists led by Zahniser’s friend A. Starker Leopold recommended extensive manipulation of the National Parks and their wildlife (and the wilderness in the Parks). The Leopold Report called for manipulating parks and wildlife to re-create a representation of “the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.” The report also stated, “Management may at times call for the use of the tractor, chainsaw, rifle, or flame-thrower but the signs and sounds of such activity should be hidden from visitors insofar as possible.”

 

Zahniser penned his classic rebuttal to this proposal. While some projects may have merit, he wrote, “it is certainly in contrast with the wilderness philosophy of protecting areas at their boundaries and trying to let natural forces operate within the wilderness untrammeled by man.” He continued, “Those who have advocated the preservation of wilderness by protecting at the boundaries the areas within which the natural community would be untrammeled by man have often been confronted with practical difficulties—the smallness of even the most extensive areas, for example. The ‘realism’ of their advocacy has been questioned.” But nonetheless, Zahniser urged us, when it came to Wilderness, to be “Guardians, Not Gardeners.” In the case of the North Cascades grizzly project, Zahniser would urge us to guard the Wildernesses of the North Cascades from manipulation, and to not manipulate (or “garden”) them for our own purposes, even for something as worthwhile as grizzly recovery.

 

If the Park Service adopts a translocation plan, it must be in line with the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act. Monitoring should take place in a way that’s respectful to Wilderness and bears, including using hair snags, camera traps, scat collection, and on-the-ground sightings to know whether the bears are thriving. It’s wrong to rely on intrusive helicopter use, radio-collaring and ongoing handling and tranquilizing of the bears.

 

The DEIS entirely lacks a natural recovery option. The best way to meet the goal of a viable grizzly population in the North Cascades would be to allow for and boldly promote the natural recovery of grizzlies. This is a very different approach than the “no action” option in the DEIS, which is to “do nothing.” A natural recovery alternative would require working with British Columbia to protect grizzlies over a larger land base and would provide for connectivity between populations in the U.S. and Canada using protected habitat corridors. It would also include other measures to ensure that grizzlies are not killed by humans, regardless of what side of the border they are on and whether they are in national parks, Wilderness, or other public or private lands. It will take longer and require more patience than the instant gratification of capturing and releasing dozens of bears, but it would ultimately create a more durable population sharing the landscape with a human population that is more likely to respect the bears that make it back to the North Cascades on their own.

 

Let’s have the NPS look at this alternative that is both good for grizzlies and good for Wilderness.


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kevin proescholdt

Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula and focused on the protection of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

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