How do you define “wild” in the West?

 

Our most memorable excursions often involve glimpses of wild creatures: “It was amazing, we crested the hill and the bear was as startled as us. …” Or “The beaver was dragging a giant branch and never noticed us” and “first we heard the bugling, then the elk appeared … huge.”  

We all revel in these encounters, but what makes wildlife “wild”?  Is it simply lack of human control? Perhaps we assume a scale of wildness in animals, with some animals considered less wild because they are more heavily manipulated; the most-managed species often leave the greatest impact on wild places.

Managers now grow game species like crops -- planting more fish, fowl or mammals to raise revenue via hunting licenses. State boards add exotic species here, take away predators there, seemingly indifferent to connectivity, yet with deference to the harvest. 

Ptarmigan, pheasants, bass, pike and perch are just a few of the alien species we transplant without the curb of significant predators. There’s also buffalo in the Henry Mountains and mountain goats on the La Sal Range of Utah, as well as elk along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. These exotic strains can transform habitat similar to invasive plants or livestock.

Moreover, federal agencies work under mandates that conflict with state directives: “States manage the critters and feds manage the land,” is the maxim. The result creates an artificial situation, in which fauna and flora are politically segregated yet ecologically integrated.

Who, then, is responsible when animals outpace available resources? Western state wildlife agencies, for example, have engineered four decades of exponential growth of elk, while often overlooking the animals’ impacts on moisture-holding aspen, willow and cottonwood communities. On the Colorado Plateau, in the Southern Rockies, and in high-desert broadleaf oases, mature trees edge toward death as their offspring are browsed to the ground by elk. 

Recent monitoring in the remote Book Cliffs along the Utah-Colorado border, for example, found no new tree recruitment on 70 percent of aspen forests. Only 6 percent of locations were judged to be sustainably reproducing. The signs are most clear where livestock are prohibited -- on national parks, reserves and some private lands -- and decades of aspen recruitment are absent. Through time, particularly along the drying fringe of aspen’s range, collapsing groves deprive myriad dependent species of much-needed habitat.

This wildland damage marches on unrecognized in the absence of the usual extractive villains.  Some believe animals can’t harm systems they are part of, but is this the case when they are moved, manipulated and managed beyond the limits of an ecosystem? To address the West’s overabundant herbivores, there are at least three options: direct culling, encouraging predators, or going to court.

Culling presents challenges because of the decline in hunter numbers and the growing resistance from animal-rights activists, though a determined wildlife agency -- in partnership with willing sportsmen -- could theoretically prevail here. The surplus meat might even find needy recipients. Wildlife contraceptives could supplement culling, yet this option also has many critics.

Bringing predators back is already underway. Wolves and grizzly bears, however, are politically DOA outside federally designated recovery areas. In the conservative West, ranchers and sportsmen lobby state governments to oppose predator releases.

The court option is intriguing, but possibly the most incendiary. The Kaibab deer story, well known among conservationists, is instructive. After early 20th century deer herds in Arizona grew beyond carrying capacity, so many deer trails lined hillsides that their impact was reminiscent of the overstocked sheep of the pioneer era.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case originally brought by Arizona Gov. George Hunt and others, eventually ruled in 1928: “When the numbers of wild deer on a national forest and game preserve have increased to such excess that, by over-browsing upon and killing young trees, bushes, and forage plants they cause great injury to the land, it is within the power of the United States to cause their numbers to be reduced by killing.” Thus, the law restricts state and local authorities from prosecuting federal employees who, in their official capacity, kill some wild animals to save landscapes. Elk, in many places, are the modern Kaibab deer, but bringing federal courts into play will surely ignite howls of protest, just as it did nearly 90 years ago.

Aldo Leopold, the pioneer in wildlife management who cut his teeth in the Southwest, evolved within two decades from a “game management” approach to adopting a “land ethic.” This progression was mirrored in the education of wildlife professionals over the next half-century. Today, wildlife management is still largely trapped in an agricultural paradigm, and agencies find it challenging to “think like a mountain.” Exceptions involving non-game and endangered species exist, though efforts by managers to take holistic approaches still don’t enjoy political backing or robust budgets.

Playing God is tricky stuff when the lion’s share goes to single-species plotting. So, how wild is wildlife? Apparently, it’s as wild as we choose.

Paul C. Rogers is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is the director of the Western Aspen Alliance (www.western-aspen-alliance.org) at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.