No way to run Wyoming

  Imagine, for a moment, that some kooky politicians in Washington, D.C.. decided they wanted to invade Iraq with feather dusters .

Now, imagine a colonel in the Army warned them that this was a bad idea, and they need would need real tools of war, helicopters and tanks and such, to execute such a plan.

Next, imagine the feather duster war went ahead, anyway. Whose fault would it be when the plan failed? The politicians’ or the colonel’s?

It seems obvious. Politicians hire experts to tell them the facts, even if they don’t like those facts. But let’s just be thankful the sorry politicians in Wyoming aren’t in charge of the United State military.

What the heck is going on in Wyoming? Let me tell you about it.

First, let’s talk about wolves -- those controversial wild dogs that eat elk, deer and the occasional cow. Wyoming legislators are partial to cowboys, so they wrote a wolf-management plan that basically lets cowboys plug wolves at will, anywhere outside a few cold, high and remote wilderness areas.

From a biologist’s perspective, the plan is a nonstarter. Wolves simply spend very little time in the rugged wilderness. If Wyoming is serious about getting wolves off the endangered species list, it must face that fact.

Wyoming’s lead wolf biologist -- Dave Moody -- made that observation out loud at a recent meeting of wolf experts. Like our imaginary colonel, Moody stated the obvious. The politicians had a conniption fit. Moody’s boss at Wyoming Fish and Game suspended the award-winning, 25-year agency veteran. Outside observers caught the familiar scent of political retribution.

After the suspension was publicized by the Billings Gazette and other papers, Moody was reinstated. Retribution is a familiar odor. There’s plenty of it wafting in and around Yellowstone National Park. On the southern end of Yellowstone National Park is place called the Thoroughfare. It’s about the most remote spot in the lower 48 states. It’s a favorite of hunters and the guides who pack in on horseback to hunt elk.

Elk, being no dummies, tend to spend hunting season in Yellowstone Park, where they won’t get shot. Hunters, being no dummies, put out salt blocks just outside the national park border, luring their prey out of the park and onto national forest, where the elk can be legally slain.

Now, I like elk hunting and understand the frustration of those hunters south of Yellowstone. But there are a few problems with using salt blocks for bait. One, it’s unethical and generally considered poor sport. Two, it’s illegal on national forest land. Third, the unnatural concentration of elk guts left by the shooting attracts an unnatural concentration of grizzly bears in the direct vicinity of highly armed dudes. This has lead to deadly trouble for the grizzly bears, which are, after all, an official, threatened species.

Riding high in the saddle, literally, comes Bob Jackson, a veteran park ranger from Yellowstone. For 30 years, his job was to protect the rugged, beautiful land and wildlife of the Thoroughfare country. Jackson was alarmed by the whole mess surrounding the elk hunters, the salt blocks, the gut piles and the grizzly bears. Being a conscientious public servant, Jackson spoke up about it.

The outfitters and their political toadies didn’t like that much. They did their best to make Jackson’s life miserable.

The result? Well, the short version is that Jackson’s 30-year National Park Service career ran into a bureaucratic brick wall. No one knows the Thoroughfare better than Jackson, but agency bureaucrats have refused to rehire him. He says it’s retaliation, and I imagine he is correct.

Whether you’re managing wildlife or warfare, this is no way to run a government. A military needs honest field assessments. If the "recon" scouts sneaking around the front lines see an obvious problem that is going to spell trouble for the folks that follow, it’s their job to report it. Ignoring the truth because higher-ups won’t like it is a recipe for disaster. It’s the same concept for wildlife biologists and rangers. They aren’t hired to simply follow political orders. They are professionals, hired to call it as they see it and protect and defend our public resources. To forget or ignore this is a recipe for trouble.

Evidently, the folks running Wyoming and Yellowstone have forgotten this. They act as if the bureaucrats and politicians surgically attached to their desks know more than the guys out on the ground. Get out the feather dusters, they shout: Charge!

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is a writer and conservationist in Kalispell, Montana.

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 [email protected].

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