David Dobkin's epiphany occurred in New Jersey in 1989, as he drove down a road in the Pine Barrens. At each turn he encountered another trash heap of wrecked automobiles and abandoned refrigerators. The Rutgers University zoology professor knew he was in the wrong place.
"Here I was in the largest
contiguous forest between Massachusetts and northern Virginia, and
humanity's impact was everywhere," he recalls. "It seemed it was
too late for the East. Where I thought I could make a difference
was in the Intermountain West."
So Dobkin spent
his 1990-91 sabbatical year in Bend, Ore., developing research
projects. The following year he quit his job and moved his family
to Bend. There he established the High Desert Ecological Research
Institute to bring credible scientific research to bear on
land-management decisions. Its mandate: to "confront the
assumptions by which many of those decisions were being made."
Dobkin saw a disconnection between credible
research and management on the ground. "There are a lot of good
biologists in the agencies, but their work was getting ignored," he
Since moving West, Dobkin has found the
road rocky and mostly uphill. Time after time, he says, federal
agencies have failed to follow through on his initial research -
especially when that research indicts livestock
His four-year project monitoring
streamside vegetation and bird populations at Hart Mountain
National Antelope Refuge ended in acrimony. His report on the loss
of sage grouse habitat, the product of a seminal conference which
he organized, was not widely circulated by federal agencies. And
the Bureau of Land Management cut short a bird survey he helped set
up on the rangelands of eastern Oregon after just one year of
Dobkin holds strong opinions
about the past, present and future of the Great Basin. Though he
denies that he is hostile to cattle grazing, he firmly believes
that "removal of livestock is highly compatible with dramatic
There's no question
Dobkin possesses the credentials to push federal land management
into the 21st century. An international authority on the ecology of
birds and ecosystems of the Western United States, he has a
résumé that includes a Ph.D. in zoology and ecology from
the University of California at Berkeley, work as senior ecologist
at Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology in the
1980s and service on several national and regional scientific
advisory teams. He has published four books on the conservation of
birds and is working on a fifth.
But his sharp
criticism of federal agencies, and his occasionally abrasive style,
have rubbed some traditional land managers the wrong way. Even many
of those who support his research often disagree with his assertion
that land-management agencies simply don't want to see evidence of
the devastating toll overgrazing has exacted in the
"Our managers would be appalled if they
heard that was the claim," said Eric Campbell, wildlife program
manager for the Oregon BLM. Campbell blames budget cuts, misplaced
priorities and bureaucratic inertia for the frustrating dead-ends
Dobkin has encountered.
Wherever the truth lies,
it also points to a discouraging lack of vision on the part of the
nation's land-management agencies. In Bend, Dobkin set about
developing ideas for ecological research that might interest
federal agencies. He chose the Hart Mountain Refuge as an ideal
place to establish a research project.
"It was a
happy coincidence," he says, that then-refuge manager Barry Reiswig
had recently barred cows from the overgrazed refuge. Dobkin
realized that Hart Mountain offered a unique opportunity to study a
high desert ecosystem coming back.
part of his research involved measuring conditions in fenced
exclosures from which cows had been absent for decades, then
contrasting those with plots where cows had recently grazed.
Because these fenced exclosures provided strong visual evidence of
the difference between grazed and ungrazed stream banks, they had
been controversial with local ranchers and some range scientists
When he returned to Hart Mountain in
1994 for his fourth year of data-gathering, Dobkin discovered that
the fences around the exclosures were gone. Astounded, he contacted
refuge headquarters in Lakeview and demanded to know why. He has
yet to get an answer that satisfies him.
refuge manager Dan Alonso and his boss, Mike Nunn, deny that the
fences came down under pressure from ranchers. They say the removal
was part of a refuge-wide project to get rid of barriers to
wildlife movement. Now that the fence around one plot near refuge
headquarters has come down, "antelope do come closer to
headquarters," Nunn says. "Deer and antelope can use these areas
now. Somehow that seems appropriate on an antelope refuge."
Dobkin had hoped to continue monitoring stream
habitat for several more years, but the Fish and Wildlife Service
ended funding for the project after 1994. Again, Dobkin suspects
political motives. "The difficulty is the Fish and Wildlife Service
doesn't have the vision to want to continue with the work," he
contends. "They may not have the political will to follow where the
Nunn talks about "bad blood"
between Dobkin and the agency. Tara Zimmerman, regional non-game
bird coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, won't say
whether she would contract with Dobkin again. But she concedes that
the hard feelings started with the removal of the exclosure fences.
"On everybody's side it could have been handled better," she
Another disappointment came after Dobkin
organized a symposium to discuss what land managers could do to
stem the loss of sage grouse habitat. The November 1993 conference
attracted state and federal game biologists from across the West.
The game bird, closely tied to the shrub-steppe grasslands of the
Great Basin, once inhabited more than 90 million acres across 14
Western states and three Canadian provinces. But by 1950, soil
erosion, depletion of scarce water sources, and the invasion of the
range by exotic plants - all associated with livestock grazing -
had reduced its habitat by more than half.
game agencies had been studying the bird for a half-century, but
their data were inconsistent. Dobkin was convinced that only broad
landscape-level changes in land management could reverse the
"I was given carte blanche to
develop proposals for research, management and monitoring," Dobkin
said. The BLM promised to publish a booklet summarizing the
symposium discussion and to distribute it widely to BLM and Forest
Service managers throughout the West.
text Dobkin prepared for the booklet sat on a disk, printer-ready,
for a year. Then the 104th Congress took over and the project was
quietly shelved. In the end, the BLM printed 50 copies but prepared
no distribution list.
The report cites
"drastically altered fire frequencies, livestock overgrazing,
invasion by exotic plants, and agricultural development" for the
decline in sage grouse
"Everyone is sensitive to attacking the
livestock industry," says Alan Sands, at the time the BLM's
national specialist on the upland game bird. "A lot of public
agencies suffer backlash when they raise these issues," though he
says that's hard to prove. But it's more likely, Sands says, that
the report didn't get widely distributed because of BLM budget
Even so, he considers Dobkin's project a
success. "It stimulated a lot of people to look at sage grouse a
lot harder. Idaho Fish and Game has developed a coordinated program
with the Forest Service, BLM and the Idaho Cattlemen's Association.
Colorado is also doing good work with sage grouse."
Hoping to widen the scope of his Hart Mountain
work, Dobkin also launched a study of neotropical migrant birds on
grazed BLM land. With biologists from the Oregon BLM office, he
visited three eastern Oregon districts, established survey plots
and gathered data. The project was to be expanded to two more
districts the following year. Then funding mysteriously dried up.
Dobkin was told that decision-making in the agency had devolved
from the regional office to the districts, and that district
managers had little interest in tracking
The BLM's Eric Campbell admits
follow-up has been "real hit or miss because of the workload on our
management." He says he still considers Dobkin's research a high
priority. But it keeps coming up against the political reality of
lawsuits and appeals over fish and wildlife protection, and those
crises always rise to the top of the list.
Dobkin hasn't given up his dream, and is seeking
foundation funding to replace lost federal support. He says he now
understands why most academic biologists shy away from federal
agencies in their research.
"But to me that was
the challenge, and still is the challenge," he adds. "If we can't
undertake and apply good science on public lands and use that as
the driving force for management and long-term sustainability here
in the U.S., then how can we presume to be the world leader in
dictating the use of good conservation to other countries?"