Nothing yet beats leaving things alone

  Dear HCN,

As a not-so-recent graduate of Utah State University's College of Natural Resources, I've known and respected Fred Wagner for years. His June 13 op ed on Yellowstone elk should be read by every environmentalist. However, a few points should be addressed.

The Yellowstone Northern Range situation is not analogous to areas where livestock have overgrazed on public land. This point was brought home to me on a field trip a few years ago. I went on that trip, armed with my university and BLM range experience, convinced the Northern Range was devastated. I left with my arrogance shaken.

While I still believe there is some concern over woody plants (willow and aspen), the range still retains native grasses and similar plants in near climax condition, unlike similar riparian areas on public land where livestock have overgrazed. Research seems to suggest this is because most grazing (browsing) takes place in winter, causing less damage, and because elk, being native ungulates, do not graze with the same impact as cattle. The Northern Range watershed is in far better condition than public-land riparian areas which have been severely overgrazed by livestock.

The article also fails to note that much of the Yellowstone Northern Range was plowed and converted to exotic pasture for bison early in this century. That disturbance likely affects range studies in those areas.

The article chides us environmentalists about our concern over public-land grazing while we are supposedly blind to the Yellowstone situation. Even though groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition have addressed this topic and continue to do so, the point is well taken. However, as Ed Marston has clearly shown, strong accusations of the reverse can be made about land grant institutions like Utah State.

I've worked on public-land grazing issues in Utah for over a decade. I've been in many meetings where Utah state range extension specialists usually (not always) take the side of the livestock industry on areas in far worse condition than the Yellowstone Northern Range. The justifications offered by the USU experts, in those majority of cases where they defend the livestock industry, are similar to those Wagner disparagingly ascribes to the Park Service.

While I recognize the problems in Yellowstone, I am not ready to give up on natural regulation. It is a valid control study. Perhaps hunting outside the park congregates elk on the Northern Range and should be stopped. Maybe a severe winter will regulate the elk who, unlike livestock, aren't fed hay on base property. Perhaps fencing off mile segments of Slough Creek and the Lamar River should be done for scientific study, unlike the minute and meaningless range exclosures on grazed public land. In any case, Yellowstone is a success. It still has grizzlies, wolverines, trumpeter swans and an occasional wolf. No place in Utah, regardless of how well livestock are managed, can make that claim.

Gary Macfarlane

Salt Lake City, Utah