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.
Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.
Photo: Keith Hammer
It is time for the US and its states commit to protecting, supporting and promoting wilderness value for generation after generation and all its benefits to our economy, health, environment, strategic national interests, etc. and stop personal and political power plays.
I do not understand why we kill the animals.. They have just as much right here as we do..and i do wonder about a few humans...they have just as much right on this earth as we do.. maybe more...You cut down their living areas.. where do they go??? if people come and destroyed your home where would you go.. it is not fair..you cut down beautiful forests and poison lakes. now we can not enjoy the lakes
and beautiful forests..it is not right.. you need to think before you act and do something stupid....there is a lot of that going around in the government and their organizations ....
Nothing is more priceless than protecting our animals, water, land and air. Nothing can compete with that. The ecosystem must be intact for our survival. Economic resources mean nothing compared to our survival.
Such a wise article. Leaving things alone has never been a human response. This point of view needs to be spread broadly along with protect and defend.
Bravo. Humans must humble themselves enough to realize they aren't superior to other species or that the earth was put here merely for their squandering. I'm not sure why humans are so quick to allow their anger, egoism, feeling of entitlement, and boredom to ravage the earth and its creatures. If I only had a brain :-/
people need to do all we can to help all the animals. thank you for helping them through your organization.
animals are our best friends. may the lord bless all who help them
I live in the Sierra Mountains, age 73 and a zoology major in college. Humans seem to be that rare species that does not correlate reproduction with resources. In fact we use the resources of other plants and animals to such an extent that we damage them. Yet COVID comes along and kills us and we don’t understand,
It is likely human won’t survive very long, because of our behavior. That will be good for the planet.
Hello, I am 65, and have watched the degradation of the planet my entire life. I live on Vancouver Island and was lucky I had a father whom was a boater and loved the ocean, and was witness to the beauty back in the 60's. I chose not to have children, as I saw then, the problems humans make. I, too, believe humans will write their own demise and the planet will come back to its former lushness with life.
I get a little bit frustrated with a do nothing approach to managing Wilderness. I cleared trails in the Lincoln-Scapegoat, spent 6 years wandering around in the Boundary Waters, spent a winter in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and worked in the Selway for three years. i published two 20 year records of plant production and a 5 year record of bighorn forage use in the "Frank". My wife Patricia wrote a book on our experiences in the "Frank" and another on a homesteader in Big Creek, a big trib to the Middle Fork. We have published on the condition of shrub steppe in the "Frank" and it is steadily improving from the times people impoverished it with grazing, so that is a case where just letting things go is appropriate. But when Wilderness areas are altered through human transgressions, then I maintain that humans have an obligation to correct this transgression. In the Selway-Bitterroot, we have dams at higher elevations, one example. On Isle Royale, humans with dogs introduced canine parvovirus that reduced the wolf population and more wolves were introduced to correct this situation. Perhaps the most egregious example is the spread of knapweed in the Selway, originally from livestock and hay. Here, USFS decided to do nothing. We had data on plant species composition in White Cap Creek showing the diversity of the community. After the knapweed came in those areas were almost devoid of native plants. Now USFS is trying to rectify this, after decades of doing nothing. Wolves had to be introduced into their original range in the "Frank". Grizzlies are being restored to the Cabinets and the North Cascades. So there is a case to be made that if we have screwed up a Wilderness, we have an obligation to correct it. Another issue I have has to do with the 1964 Wilderness Act. It specifies that man's presence will be fleeting and the area will be untrammeled. However we now know that there was no such thing as an untrammeled area since aboriginals were present. I'm guilty of ignoring this with a 1980 publication, but nevertheless that Act could be updated with the newer knowledge we have. Not that I think we need to run around in loincloths and atlatls in wilderness, just that I think it appropriate to acknowledge reality.
Yours for truly restoring and maintaining Wilderness,
Jim - thanks for your comments, they are interesting. As a career USFS employee (wildlife biologist, who also worked in Wilderness), I agree with some of what you said. Some wildernesses have indeed been impacted/degraded by man, and could possibly benefit from man's intervention to help correct the problem. Reintroduction of native wildlife species (wolves, grizzly bears) that once occupied the wilderness may be a case where intervention is appropriate. Dams on rivers that flow through Wildernesses are another case where removal of the dam may be appropriate, if it would help restore the river to the way it existed before the dam. I would also concur that it is often appropriate for the agencies to remove invasive species from Wilderness (that humans helped to introduce), if that can be done using methods not involving motorized access and herbicides. We did that kind of thing in the Sylvania Wilderness here in Michigan, where I worked. You mentioned Isle Royale. I am very familiar with Isle Royale, having worked on a National Forest in Michigan very close to Isle Royale, and I have also been to I.R. several times. The Nat. Park Service is now attempting to bolster the wolf population on I.R., but the main reason this is necessary is because the existing wolf population there became genetically unfit over time (due to isolation and lack of breeding with wolves from the mainland). Introduction of parvovirus by humans with dogs was another factor that harmed the wolf population there, but the main reason wolves were disappearing from I.R. was related to the decline in their genetic fitness. In any case, NPS decided eventually that new wolves should be brought to the island, and I supported that decision (even though it is not clear that man's activities resulted in the problem with wolf inbreeding). Regarding your "untrammeled" comment......even though aboriginals were present across much of the country, I would argue that their impact on some (perhaps many?) of our current Wildernesses was likely pretty minor. Here in Michigan, where I worked, there is not a lot of evidence that aboriginals had a significant impact on our Wildernesses, for example. So I think the use of "untrammeled" in the 64 Wilderness Act is appropriate, as it does provide some guidance for human use of these areas going forward. I still think that Dana makes some very good points in her essay. My guess is that she would agree that there are some instances (as those described by both you and me) where limited human intervention may be appropriate, especially if the intent is to correct a problem created by humans. On the other hand, there are instances where human intervention is not appropriate. I am not that familiar with the proposals for forest management/logging/planting of rust-resistant trees in Wilderness whitebark pine forests, but it sounds to me like that may be one situation where it is best to just leave things alone.
FOR A KIND, SAFE, HEALTHY AND J U S T WORLD>>>
EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US...IS RESPONSIBLE>>>
The most DESTRUCTIVE force of nature is...HUMAN NATURE...because it can choose>>>
Without REVERENCE for ALL LIFE and ALL THAT GIVES LIFE there can be no PEACE...only pain, suffering, misery, fear and death>>>
OUR M O R A L progress depends on how WE treat ALL LIFE and ALL THAT GIVES LIFE...TRAGICALLY...WE HAVEN'T PROGRESSED...yet>>>
Having camped and hiked throughout west and far west most dangerous predators are two legged—fish and game are not part of the solution they are a big part of the problem—they are aligned with ranchers, farmers, hunters, outfitters and poachers —keep the wild in wilderness
We are the stewards of our environment. It is not only in our best interest to protect and nurture wilderness, but our responsibilities as the most greedy and destructive predators.