Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Beetle hysteria strikes again

Beetle hysteria has raised its head again, and I am not talking about the Fab four. A prominent article in the New York Times titled “Tiny Beetle Adds New Dynamic to Forest Fire Control Efforts” quotes many foresters and others who suggest that beetle-kill trees across the West will create larger wildfires and by implications are “destroying” our forests.

For instance, Montana’s State Forester Bob Harrington said as much at conference recently, as in the article. While it may seem “intuitively obvious” that dead trees will lead to more fires, there is little scientific evidence to support the contention that beetle-killed trees substantially increases risk of large blazes. In fact, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

At the heart of this and many other media reports are flawed assumptions about fires, what constitutes a healthy forest, and the options available to humans in face of natural processes that are inconvenient and get in the way of our designs.

For instance, one study in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula looked at 2,500 years of bark beetle events, and wildfires and could find little correlation between the two. Similarly a study that looked at burn patterns of the 1988 Yellowstone fires found little evidence that recent bark beetle outbreaks had substantially increased fire spread in the Park (though an earlier beetle event did seem to increase fire spread slightly—more on why below).

In fact dead trees don’t automatically lead to more fires since climate/weather events, not fuels, largely controls large blazes. If the climate/weather isn’t conducive for fire spread, it doesn’t much matter how much dead wood you have piled up, you won’t get a large fire. As an extreme example, think of all the dead wood lying around on the ground in old growth west coast rainforests—lots of fuel, but few fires—because it’s too wet to burn. But it’s even more complex than that generalization.

First to understand why beetle-killed trees don’t necessarily lead to large fires, one needs to know more about how bark beetles affect forests. Younger trees are not killed by beetles, and remain in the forest to fill the void created by the death of more mature trees. In effect bark beetles “thin” the forest but typically there are still lots of trees growing on the site--some large mature trees and a lot of smaller ones. So the “forest” is not destroyed, nor does it “disappear” as may be implied from the hysterical statements coming from logging proponents, and others connected to the timber industry.

Furthermore, mature trees are not hapless victims. When a bark beetle attempts to bore into the tree, the tree uses its sap to push out the beetle and any eggs. A strong healthy tree with sufficient resources can often flush beetles out. It is not unlike the ability of a healthy moose to deter a wolf attack. Indeed, wolves are seldom successful in taking down a healthy mature moose unless circumstances give them the upper hand. Trees under stress from drought or damage from other causes are more vulnerable, just as a moose suffering from lower nutrient as a result of drought is more likely to be killed by wolves. So while beetles do kill trees, they aren’t able to “destroy the forest”—many smaller trees and even a significant number of mature trees survive.

Since bark beetles tend to focus on larger trees and not all trees are killed, this has important implications for fire risk. Fine fuels—not large snags—are the prime ingredient for sustained fire. So what you have after a major beetle outbreak is a lot of standing upright big boles. You can’t get big logs to burn unless you have fine fuels beneath them to sustain the heating process. That is why one uses small kindling and other fine fuels to start a campfire and must continuously feed small wood under the bigger logs to keep the fire going. Assuming you have the right conditions for a fire in the first place, a forest fire will spread more rapidly and with greater intensity in a totally green forest than a sea of dead boles, in part because the green forest possesses a lot more fine fuels in the form of resin-filled needles and small branches.

Furthermore, tree flammability is not constant, but varies over time. It is highest immediately after beetles kill the tree, and brown needles and small branches remain on the tree. However, after a winter or two, the needles and smaller branches are knocked from the trees and their flammability goes way down since the remaining upright snags are actually quite resistant to flames. It is generally only after understory trees released by the death of more mature canopy trees grow taller and provide a ladder into the canopy that fire hazard again increases. These ladder fuels, along with any dead snags that have toppled to the ground, can potentially lead to greater fire hazard. But this process takes decades. Thus the immediate threat from bug killed trees is not likely to be great, especially if the climate/weather is wet.

Of course, if you have the right conditions for a big burn, the dead trees will burn, but typically not at any greater potential than a forest of green trees. Green trees, after all, with their flammable resins in needles and branches are highly combustible under extreme drought and high temperatures. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that green trees will burn even hotter and with greater intensity than say a dead snag.

Potential is not the same as absolute. Most lodgepole pine, the primary species attacked by beetles in the Rockies, tend to be found at moister, higher elevations which simply do not dry out enough to burn well in most years. That is why lodgepole pine forests typically have long rotations between burns—on the order of hundreds of years in some places. Thus the presence of dead trees does not necessarily lead to fires. The probability that any particular bug-killed stand will be ignited by lightning or humans during the few years out of a hundred when they are dry enough to carry a large blaze is actually quite small. So even if there is a lot of dead wood on the ground, that doesn’t mean you will have large blazes. Probability is important—and the probability is low.

Even more importantly the news media often neglects to educate the public about the ecological value of bark beetles as “ecosystem engineers”. Beetles are essential to maintaining biodiversity in our forests. One study of bark beetles in Europe found that bark beetles created habitat for a wide array of other insect species, including many pollinating bees and warps, whose numbers increased in the forest gaps created by bark beetles.

But it’s not just insects that increase as a consequence of beetle kill. Dead trees created by bark beetles are used by cavity nesting birds, bats, and many small mammals. When dead trees fall to the ground, they provide hiding cover for insects, mammals, and amphibians from salamanders to frogs. Dead trees that fall into streams create aquatic habitat for fish. Of course dead trees are utilized by fungi, lichens, and as a source of new nutrients for new plant growth. Thus if we grant that an increase in biodiversity is important to the long term forest health, beetles are actually a sign of “forest health”.

Even the way a tree dies radically affects its future decay trajectory. A tree killed by wildfire, for instance, decays much slower than one killed by beetles. Beetles by penetrating the outer bark of a tree permit other organisms including other insects as well as fungi to enter the tree and begin the decay process. While fire killed trees, charred black by fire, are more resistant to decay. Bark beetles in addition to wildfire, wind throw and other natural events all contribute to different future forest dynamics.

The current spate of beetle outbreaks and dead trees in and of themselves is nothing to be alarmed about. However, there is another reason to be concerned. The current beetle “outbreak” may be harbinger of climate change that may radically alter future forest ecosystems. Warmer temperatures due to climate change may be responsible for the expansion of bark beetle outbreaks in the West (though there is historic evidence to suggest that past outbreaks affected as many or even more acres than what we see today). Cold winter temperatures, for instance, tend to kill beetles and keep their numbers under control.

Warmer temperatures not only increase the survivorship of beetles, but permit beetles to attack trees at higher elevation than in the past, and this has led to the death of many whitebark pine which, though occasionally attacked by beetles, usually are not affected to any great degree by bark beetles due to the whitebark pine’s preference for high cold elevations.

Yes bark beetles are killing many trees, but that necessarily won’t lead to large fires. Even if it did, there’s not much humans can do directly to forests to influence fire risk, except to begin reducing human causes of climatic change. Logging the forest will not significantly influence fire spread, and removal of dead trees has many negative impacts on forest ecosystems. Logging itself creates many additional environmental impacts such as greater sedimentation of streams, invasion of weeds, and so on that are far too often ignored by proponents of active forest management.

Nor can humans have much influence on the spread of beetles. To effectively reduce forest susceptibility to bark beetles, 50-80% of the trees have to be removed. Since that is typically as much, or in many cases even more trees than are killed by bark beetles, such let’s cut the trees to save them seems unwarranted. Plus there is no guarantee that the particular stand of trees that are treated with thinning are the same ones that will be attacked by beetles.

As far as community protection is concerned, it is far more cost effective to reduce flammability of homes than to attempt to reduce the flammability of forests. Focus fire risk reduction in and near homes, not out in the backcountry.

The important take home message is that we need a paradigm shift in our response to bark beetles. We cannot significantly influence large scale ecological processes like bark beetles and wildfire. Rather we must adapt ourselves and communities to learn to live with them. If climate change is ultimately the reason for changing tree vulnerability to beetles, than we should deal with reducing human sources of green house gases.

Secondly, beetles are not destroying our forests, rather are creating new ecological opportunities, increasing biodiversity, and creating greater ecosystem health.

Sunday, June 21, 2009



Representative Raul Grijalva, Chair
House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands

Representative Grace Napolitano, Chair
House Subcommittee on Water and Power

Joint Oversight Hearing on "Mountain Pine Beetle: Strategies for Protecting the West”

Dear Representatives Napolitano and Grijalva:

Thank you for allowing me to provide testimony on the mountain pine beetle issues in the western United States. I believe I can bring an ecological perspective to the concerns and I ask that my comments be submitted as part of the hearing record.
First let me introduce myself. I have lived in a number of western states either for school or work. These states include Wyoming, California, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and Oregon and have visited many others in the course of my work which I will discuss below.

I attended the U of Montana in Missoula for my undergraduate degrees in wildlife and botany, and was enrolled in three separate graduate programs at Montana State University, University of California, Santa Cruz and the U of Oregon.

For quite a few years after leaving academia, I earned my living as a writer and photographer and have published 34 books covering national parks, conservation history, geography, environmental and ecological topics. Two of particular relevance to the topic of pine beetles and wildfire issues are Yellowstone—the Fires of Change, and Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

In researching these books I have had the luxury of traveling extensively across the West to view the aftermath of major wildfires, and the time to read the latest scientific literature related to wildfires, beetles, and other issues. Indeed, at one time or another I have visited every national forest in the West, which, along with my ecological training, gives me a geographical perspective few can provide.

I will address some of the common misconceptions and provide some alternative viewpoints on specific issues. I encourage you to view a recent powerpoint talk I gave that covers many of the major points I will make below.


I would also encourage you to review the paper by Romme el al.
Recent Forest Insect Outbreaks and Fire Risk in Colorado Forests: A Brief Synthesis of Relevant Research for a good overview of beetle ecology and relationship to wildfire.

I want to highlight a few of their major points here.

First they conclude that: “There is no evidence to support the idea that current levels of bark beetle or defoliator activity are unnaturally high. Similar outbreaks have occurred in the past.”

Second, the idea that dense stands of trees are a consequence of fire suppression is very dependent on the forest type. Higher elevation forests are naturally dense and have not changed significantly due to fire suppression or any other human activities.

Finally, their concluding remarks are worth keeping in mind. They state: “Although it is widely believed that insect outbreaks set the stage for severe forest fires, the few scientific studies that support this idea report a very small effect, and other studies have found no relationship between insect outbreaks and subsequent fire activity.”

And they go on to say … bark beetle outbreaks actually may reduce fire risk in some lodgepole pine forests once the dead needles fall from the trees.”
I will elaborate on all these points below.

Let me start my testimony by suggesting that many of the phrases and words used to describe natural ecological processes like episodic pine beetle events and wildfire are pejorative in tone. We heard a lot of people testifying in this hearing that pine beetles were destroying the forests and/or wildfires were catastrophic and so forth. From the perspective of human values, these words might resonate—certainly if a wildfire burns down someone’s home, it is a devastating experience. However, it is less clear that these terms are appropriate in describing natural ecological events like pine beetle events or large blazes. (See my comments on this in Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy or Rocca and Romme (2009).

Indeed, pine beetle events, wildfire, and killing droughts are natural ecological processes that are critical to the maintenance of forest ecosystems. To the degree possible, I try to avoid using words with regards to wildfire and beetles such as “destroyed”, “damaged” “unhealthy”, and so on.

As we shall see later in my testimony, dead trees may be more important to the long term “health” and sustainability of forest ecosystems than live trees. There are even some ecologists who believe we do not have enough dead trees to sustain forest ecosystems.

As many of those testifying alluded to, climate/weather may be a big factor in current beetle population increases as well as wildfire size and occurrence (Meyer and Pierce 2003; Whitlock 2004, Westerling, et. al. 2006, Heyerdahl,E. et al. 2008). As has been noted warm winters tends to increase survival of pine beetle allowing their populations to grow rapidly.

Warmer summer temperatures, combined with drought, increases tree vulnerability to beetles, and is a key ingredient in wildfire spread. The importance of climate and large scale oceanic influences on wildfire are obvious from this graph below has the Pacific Decadal Oscillation superimposed over the acreage burned annually by wildfire.

Source: Dave Peterson USFS
This graph shows how the Pacific Decadal Oscillation may have affected wildfires. Cool, moist weather in the 1945s-1980s would have limited fire ignitions and spread. This is the same period that we attribute fuel build up to “effective” fire suppression. But it’s just possible that the conditions were not favorable for fire spread, thus the influence of fire suppression may be exaggerated and overrated.
There several messages to take home from this graph.

The first is when it’s cool and moist, fires don’t spread. It doesn’t matter how much fuel you have, you still won’t get a big blaze. Most fires go out without burning more than a few acres. To illustrate this point, think about the rainforests found in the Coast Ranges of Oregon and Washington. There’s more “fuel” sitting on the ground in those forests than you will find any place in the Rockies but in most years there are no fires. Why? Because the forest is too wet and cool to burn well.
Take home point: Fuels alone do not necessarily lead to massive fires. Thus the fact that pine beetles are killing lots of trees does not, in itself, portend large wildfires.

The key ingredients in all large fires are long term drought, low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly wind. In the absence of these factors, you might get an ignition, but the fire will remain small and likely go out quickly. The mere presence of fuel does not imply that you will have a major wildfire. Since the probability of these climatic/weather factors converging on the same geographic point at the same time is very low, not surprisingly large blazes (pejoratively called catastrophic) are relatively infrequent and rare events.

The interpretation that fire suppression is largely responsible for “dense” tree stands is also being challenged. First in some tree species like lodgepole pine and high elevation spruce-fir forests, recruitment after fires and/or insects tends to create even aged dense stands. Thus it is not “fire suppression” that has created dense forests and these forests are not “overstocked” but display the exact kind of tree age and density that occurred historically.

But more intriguing idea that is getting some traction is that periodic moist, cool periods may also lead to high rates of seedling germination and survival leading to episodic events of tree establishment. In other words, favorable weather for tree survival may be as responsible for “dense” tree stands in some tree species such as ponderosa pine as much as fire suppression (Brown and Wu 2005).

A common misconception is that dead trees will increase fire hazard. For instance, one study on beetles and wildfire occurrence that span the last 2500 years, found little correlation between wildfire and beetle events (Berg and Anderson 2006).

Another study (Lynch 2006) in Yellowstone on recently beetle killed lodgepole pine found that susceptibility to wildfire was not necessarily increased, though an earlier beetle event did appear to increase fire occurrence (the reasons are not due to dead trees, however, as I will explain below). Similar findings were reported for subalpine forests elsewhere in the Rockies (Bebi et al. 2003, Schoennagel et al. 2004, Biger et al 2005).

After a beetle event, there appears to be significant variability in fire susceptibility of forests that varies over time—assuming you have the prerequisite drought, wind, and low humidity that drives all large fire. Flammability is increased immediately after a tree is killed by beetles in what is known as the “red needle phase.” However, after the passage of one or two winters and the needles and small branches fall from the tree, the flammability goes way down. Thus if there is no ignition in those first few years (which as we noted earlier is very unlikely), the fire risk is significantly reduced.

It is only after the passage of several decades that susceptibility to fire increases, but not as much due to fuels, but as a result of rapid growth of small trees and shrubs that occurs after the forest canopy is opened by beetles. These small trees provide a ladder for flames to reach up into the forest canopy.

Nevertheless, even this period passes as the forest canopy once again closes, reducing forest fire susceptibility for many decades, even hundreds of years. (See Romme et al. 2006)

Another misconception held by many is that dead trees will increase fire hazard. As explained earlier fire hazard varies over time. But it is fine fuels that carry fires, not large boles. We see that easily after a wildfire. What do you see? Lots of snags. The needles and small branches burn off, but the core tree boles remain. One intuitively understands this from camping. When you try to start a campfire, you gather up “kindling” and small branches to start a fire. If you pile up a bunch of large logs and try to light it, you will likely get nothing for your efforts.

So while dead trees may not increase fire hazard, in reality the presence of green trees may. So in effect the large occurrence of dead trees killed by beetles may actually be reducing the fire hazard for nearby communities.

Let me explain. Green trees are often more flammable than dead trees, especially compared to dead trees (snags) where the needles and small branches are gone. The reason has to do with fine fuels. A living tree has a lot of fine fuels in the form of needles, branches, etc., plus at least for many conifer species, the needles and branches are full of flammable resins. Under drought conditions the internal moisture of these living trees often drops to very low levels. In Yellowstone NP during the 1988 fires, the internal moisture content of green trees was reported to drop below that of kiln dried lumber. Under such conditions of low humidity, drought, and high temperatures, combined with high winds, some green trees with high resin content will burn exceedingly well. (Bunting 1983, Perry 1995)

There’s a natural assumption that logging, by removing fuels, will reduce fire hazard. However, the evidence for this is inconclusive at best. There are examples of where thinning appears to have slowed the spread of fires and increased the ability of trees to survive stresses like beetles, drought, and fire (Youngblood et al. 2009), and in some cases reduce fire severity, but fires were not necessarily stopped or controlled as a result of fuel treatments (Pollet and Omi. 2002).

There as many examples of fires racing through previously thinned or logged stands. Indeed, logging can actually increase the likelihood of fire spread by opening up the forest to increased solar radiation and drying. Wind penetration is also increased by thinning. Wind increases drying of fuels, and pushes flames through a forest.

Though fuel treatments may appear to reduce fire spread and severity under “moderate” fire conditions, under severe climatic/weather conditions, particularly with high winds, fuel treatments do not appear to have significant influence on fire spread.

Fuel treatments could even create a false sense of security, much as the levees in New Orleans created for residents. Just as the Mississippi levees were breached when confronted by a category five hurricane, forests with fuel reduction treatments are often “breached” by wildfire under the equivalent of a “hurricane” force wildfire with high winds, low humidity and high temperatures.

The presumption that thinning forests is always a positive influence on forest ecosystems can be challenged as well. Trees growing under dense conditions tend to have tighter growth rings and are by nature stronger, and more resistant to decay as well. This has important implications for the long term biomass residency time of dead and down logs on the forest floor. Also there is some evidence to suggest that dense forests may inhibit fires due to greater shade and moisture—for instance on the Biscuit Fire in Oregon, dense forest stands tended to burn less severely than more open stands.

Thinning, by creating more surface fuels, can increase fire hazard. Unless such surface fuels are removed, a subsequent fire can burn more severely. Thinning, combined with prescribed burning to remove surface fuels is often the most effective treatment, however, burning often does not follow thinning projects.

Furthermore, the effectiveness any fuel reduction treatment declines over time. Typically within 10-20 years, fuel loadings often approach pre treatment levels, thus thinning requires continual maintenance. This is one reason why thinning, if it is used, should be focused on the areas immediately adjacent to communities. Unfortunately, most FS fuel treatments so far are located well beyond that zone. According to a recent review of 44,000 fuel treatments implemented under the National Fire Plan only 3% were in the Wildlands Urban Interface (Schoennagel et al. 2009).

One of the assumptions implicit in much of the angst over beetle events are the fact that many believe beetles “destroys” the forest. In reality, dead trees may be more important to forest ecosystems than live trees. Dead trees are biological legacies that are critical to ecosystem function. For a short overview see my articles in Forest Magazine Let us praise and keep the dead. http://www.fseee.org/forestmag/1102wuer.shtml

Dead trees serve many functions in the forest ecosystem and their removal can jeopardize future ecosystem sustainability (see Hutto 2006). Dead trees are a reinvestment in the next forest stand. For instance, one study found that 2/3 of all species depend on dead trees at some point in their life. Most of us are aware of the use of dead trees by woodpeckers, but up to 45% of all bird species use dead trees for roosting, feeding and nesting. Other species from amphibians to mammals depend on dead trees as well. Dead trees are important for invertebrates as well.

For example, ants are among the most important invertebrates in forest ecosystems, responsible for protecting trees from other insects to transporting and planting seeds of some flower species. Plus important pollinators like bees and wasps also utilize dead trees. Another study found that lichens were more abundant on dead trees and some species were solely dependent on dead trees for their habitat. And when dead trees fall into streams, they provide much of the habitat for aquatic ecosystems. Indeed, the studies to date do not show any upper limits on the value of dead trees in aquatic ecosystem. In short, the more dead trees, the better for fish and other aquatic life. There are even new studies that show that beetle outbreaks create higher biodiversity (Muller et el. 2008) and beetles may be a “keystone” species in some forest ecosystems.

Even if thinning were able to slow or prevent fires, such a policy would not be desirable. The vast majority of fires burn a very small acreage—most ignitions burn less than ten acres. The bulk of all acreage charred by fires is the result of a handful of blazes annually. If indeed one believes that fires are ecologically important to forest ecosystems, than we have to learn to tolerate large blazes since they are the only fires that do significant ecological work. For more on the ecological need for large blazes see my chapter in Wildfire Logging and Wildfires—Ecological Differences and the need to Preserve Large Blazes (http://books.google.com/books?id=tnW7iYyp2wYC&pg=PA178&lpg=PA178&dq=wuerthner+on+wildfire&source=bl&ots=oB)

It’s important to note that fires do not consume all biomass. Most fires leave a significant amount of dead wood on the site. This wood acts as a carbon storage mechanism. Indeed, charcoal resulting from wildfires stores carbon for thousands of years, and considerably more carbon than is released by combustion. One could argue we need more wildfires, not less, to store carbon in the soil.

When we are considering any management schemes, we must always weigh the presumed benefits against the costs. There is no evidence that logging “improves” the forest ecosystem except by using very narrow definitions of “improvement”. In the long term, logging always is a negative impact if all costs are considered. Thus we should attempt to minimize logging impacts to as small an area as possible.

What is seldom articulated by advocates of fuel treatments and other active management are the real ecological and economic costs of such management. For instance, most fuel management (thinning) involves use of logging roads which are notorious for causing sedimentation, and causing disturbance to wildlife. Logging roads by cutting across slopes interrupt water drainage and hydrology of a watershed. Logging equipment and roads spreads weeds and compact soils (Gelbard and Belnap 2003). (Entire books have been written about the impacts of roads, but for short overviews see Foreman and Alexander 1998 and Trumbulak and Frissell 2000)

Removal of dead and/or live trees can affect forest biomass, which in turn may affect things like watershed integrity and aquatic ecosystems. Disturbance of soils can increase the release of carbon. Logging fragments wildlife habitat. And we should not forget the carbon used in transporting trees to biomass converters or sawmills is yet another release of carbon.

In addition, foresters have no idea which trees will be best suited genetically for survival under changing climatic conditions. It’s possible that the very trees that foresters will choose to remove are those that are best able to cope with ecosystem and climatic variability. Letting nature “choose” which trees live or die is the only way to ensure the long term health and resiliency of the forest ecosystem.
Despite self interested assurances from the timber industry, logging is not an ecological analogue for wildfire (See G. Wuerthner 2004 Logging and Wildfire Ecological Differences) and substantially alters forest ecosystem function and ecological processes.

Restricting construction of homes in fire prone areas is a key way to address human safety and fire-fighting costs. But for those homes already in fire prone landscapes, by far the most cost-effective way to reduce losses to wildfire is by reducing the flammability of homes. Removal of flammable materials for 100-200 feet from homes is all that is required to vastly improve the chances that any structure will survive a major wildfire. Jack Cohen at the Missoula fire lab has written a lot about this topic (Cohen 2000). But mandatory metal roofs and a few other modifications to homes can go a long ways towards reducing vulnerability to wildfires at far less cost than attempting to protect communities by widespread logging/thinning fuel treatments.

There are a number of major points worth reiterating here. First, beetle and wildfire events are desirable and important ecological processes that sustain, not destroy, forest ecosystems. As a society, we should be striving to find ways to maintain these important processes. Rather than viewing such events as a “negative” , we need to find ways to “live” with such natural and ecologically important processes.

Second, the scientific evidence that actually shows fuel treatments can prevent large insect and wildfires is inconclusive. It appears that under severe climatic/weather conditions, these natural processes (beetles and wildfire) are not significantly influenced by treatments. Plus even under less than severe conditions, fuel treatment effectiveness declines rapidly and may even increase fire hazard. In any event, since the large wildfires and insect events are the only ones that we are concerned about, this raises important questions about the wisdom of applying fuel treatments across the landscape.

Third, forest management is not benign. We should limit forest manipulation to as small an area as possible.

Fourth, the majority of fire hazard is located on private lands (see Schoennagel, T. 2009) for a review on this. Any fuel treatments should be focused on the private lands where it will do the greatest good. Furthermore, by focusing strategic attention to these lands where existing roads create easy access for treatment as well as follow up maintenance, the cost-benefits are maximized.

Fifth, keeping people from building homes in vulnerable locations is another key factor. Just as we discourage people from building homes in the flood plain of a river, we ought to discourage people from constructing homes in the “fire plain”. We are not hapless victims.

Thank you.
George Wuerthner
POB 719, Richmond, VT 05477

Berg and Anderson. 2006. Fire history of white and Lutz spruce forests on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, over the last two millennia as determined from soil charcoal www.elsev Forest Ecology and Management 227 (2006) 275–283
Bebi, P., D. Kulakowski, and T.T. Veblen. 2003. Interactions between fire and spruce beetles in a subalpine Rocky Mountain forest landscape. Ecology. 84 (2): 362-371.
Bigler, C., D. Kulakowski, and T.T. Veblen. 2005. Multiple disturbance interactions and drought influence fire severity in Rocky Mountain subalpine forests. Ecology. 86 (11): 3018-3029.
Bunting, S. et al. 1983. Seasonal Variation in the Ignition Time of Redberry Juniper in West Texas Journal of Range Management, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Mar., 1983), pp. 169-171

Cohen, Jack D. 2000. Preventing disaster: home ignitability in the wildland-urban interface. Journal of Forestry 98(3): 15-21.
Forman, R.T., & L.E. Alexander. 1998. Roads and their major ecological effects. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29: 207-231+C2.
Gelbard, J., & J. Belnap. 2003. Roads as conduits for exotic plant invasions in a semiarid landscape. Conservation Biology 17(2): 420-432.
Heyerdahl,E. et al. 2008. Climate drivers of regionally synchronous fires in the inland Northwest (1651-1900), International Journal of Wildland Fire
Hutto, R. L. 2006. Are current snag management guidelines appropriate for post-fire salvage logging in severely burned forests? Conservation Biology 20
Lynch et al. 2006. Insect–Fire Interactions in Yellowstone National Park: The Influence of Historical Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) Activity on the Spatial Pattern of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. Ecosystems 9: 1318-1327.
Meyer, G.A., and Pierce, J.L., 2003, Climatic controls on fire-induced sediment pulses in Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho: a long-term perspective: Forest Ecology and Management, v. 178, p. 89-104
Pollet, J. and P. N. Omi. 2002. Effect of thinning and prescribed burning on wildfire severity in ponderosa pine forests. International Journal of Wildland Fire 11: 1-10.
Perry, D. 1995. Forest Ecosystems page 110
Rocca, M. and W. H Romme. 2009. Beetle-infested forests are not “destroyed”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 71-72.
Schoennagel, T., T. Velben, and W. Romme. 2004. The interaction of fires, fuels, and climate across Rocky Mountain forests. BioScience 54(7): 661-76.
Muller et al. 2008. The European spruce bark beetle Ips typographus in a national park: from pest to keystone species.

Romme, W. et al. 2006 Recent Forest Insect Outbreaks and Fire Risk in Colorado Forests available on line http://www.cfri.colostate.edu/docs/cfri_insect.pdf
Schoennagel, T. 2009 Implementation of National Fire Plan treatments near the wildland–urban interface in the western United States. www.pnas.org
Trombulak, S., & C. Frissell. 2000. Review of ecological effects of roads on terrestrial and aquatic communities. Conservation Biology 14: 18-30.
Westerling et al. 2006 Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity Science Magazine, 18 (8)
Whitlock, C., 2004. Land management: Fire, climate, and landscape response. Nature 432, 28- 29.
Wuerthner, G. 2004. Logging and Wildfire—Ecological Differences and the Need to Preserve Large Blazes. In: Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, Island Press, G. Wuerthner Ed.
Youngblood, A. , J.B. Grace, J. D. McIver (2009) Delayed conifer mortality after fuel reduction treatments: interactive effects of fuel, fire intensity, and bark beetles. Ecological Applications: Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 321-337.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Factory Farming's Long Reach

The impact of factory farming upon the American land and native biodiversity is seldom discussed, but animal protein production has a significant impact upon the Nation’s land and water. The direct environmental problems like air or water pollution associated with large factory farming operations may be clear, but less obvious are the environmental impacts associated with the agricultural production of feed crops and other consequences associated with large factory farming operations.

According to the Animal Feed Manufactors’ Association, one third of the world’s grains are fed directly to animals. In developed countries the percentage of grains fed directly to livestock rises to 60%, with 80% of the grains in the United States fed to livestock.

Since the United States is the leading producer of beef cattle in the world, it is also the top animal feed producer in the world, with more than double the acreage in animal feed production than its closest rival China . This means the majority of cropland in the United States is not growing food for direct human consumption as many presume, but is used to grow forage crops for domestic livestock, including chickens, hogs, and cattle. In fact, in the United States, domestic livestock consume 5 times as much grain as the entire American population.

It takes a huge amount of grain crops to support livestock production. For instance, to produce 1 kg of beef requires 7 kg of feed grain. Though chickens are more efficient at converting grain to meat, the ratio is still two to one with 2 kg of grain required to produce 1 kg of meat.

According to Cornell University’s David Pimentel, if the cropland currently used to grow grain fed to livestock were directed towards growing crops for human consumption, we could feed 800 million additional people or more likely provide a descent meal for those whose diet is inadequate.

In order to feed concentrated, confined animals, huge acreages of America’ s best farmland have been converted into monocultures of often genetically modified crops that stretch for miles. The major feed crops are corn, soybeans, and hay/alfalfa with smaller amounts of other grains like oats, barley and even wheat.

For instance, 22% of all wheat grown in the US ultimately ends up as animal feed, rather than in food products like bread or cereal consumed directly by humans.

While it’s difficult to determine how much of any crop is used to feed confined animal operations as opposed to diverse small farming operations, the total impact of animal agriculture of any kind is significant. Consider these statistics.

Globally, production of livestock feed uses a third of the Earth’s arable land In the United States farmland production is even more skewed towards animal feed. In 2008 American farmers, primarily in the Mid-west, planted 87 million acres to feeder corn.

Part of that acreage figure was due to demand for corn created by ethanol, but the bulk of the corn acreage is used for animal feed. By comparison, farmers only planted an average of 234,000 acres across the entire country to fresh market sweet corn, the plant we consume directly for corn on the cob, and other food.

To give some comparison, Montana , the fourth largest state in the Nation is 93 million acres in size. So imagine nothing but corn stretching east and west across Montana’s 550 miles and north and south by 300 miles. This is a huge area to be plowed up, and planted to an exotic grass crop that requires huge inputs of pesticides and fertilizer to sustain.

Similarly the acreage devoted to soybeans is huge. According to the USDA, some 74.5 million acres was planted to soybeans in 2008. And despite the popularity of tofu and other soy based food products, less than 2% of the soybean crop is used for production of food for direct human consumption—with most of the annual soybean crop going for animal feed.

Hay and/or alfalfa are yet another significant crop for confined livestock production, primarily dairy cows and beef cattle. In the United States, approximately 59 million acres are planted to hay/alfalfa annually.To put this in perspective, Oregon is 60 million acres in size.

Though slightly better than a row crop like corn or soybeans as wildlife habitat, hay/alfalfa fields still represent a net loss in native biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Hay/alfalfa replace native vegetation, and often require excessive amounts of fertilizers, and are cut frequently destroying even their temporal value as hiding and nesting cover for many wildlife species.

Taken together these three animal feed crops cover a minimum area over 200 million plus acres. To put these figures of animal feed cropland into perspective, the amount of land used to grow the top ten fresh vegetables in the US ( asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, head lettuce, honeydew melons onions, sweet corn, and tomatoes) occupies about a million acres.

If you fly over or drive across Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and other Mid-western states, you’ll pass mile after mile of corn and/or soybean fields. Growing these crops has led to the near-extirpation of native plant communities like the tall grass prairie . Less than 4% of the native tall grass prairie remains and in some states like Iowa which has less than 0.1% of its original tall grass prairie left, tall grass prairie is functionally extinct.

Plus “clean” farming eliminates what little natural vegetation used to remain as woodlots, fenceline strips, wetlands, and other natural areas that in the past supported native species with the agricultural matrix.

Destruction of native plant communities has had serious impacts on native biodiversity. Agriculture, including livestock production as well as crop production combined, is the number source for species endangerment in the country , and this number would be higher if you were to add in the species that are negatively impacted by exotic species, many of which increase due to habitat modification by agricultural production.

Agriculture is also the largest user of US water resources, with confined animal operations the largest per capita consumer of water.

Grain fed beef production uses 100,000 gallons of water to produce every kg of food. By comparison, a similar kg of water-hungry rice uses only 2000 gallons of water, while potatoes require a mere 500 gallons. The primary mission of most western reservoirs is water storage for irrigated agriculture. Even in California which grows the bulk of the Nation’s vegetables and fruits, the largest consumers of irrigation water in the state by acreage is irrigated hay/alfalfa production.

Thus the environmental impacts associated with these dams and reservoirs such as barriers to salmon migration salmon, changes in water flows and flooding, are one indirect cost of factory farming operations. Add to this the direct dewatering of rivers for hay and other forage crop production is the loss of ground water supplies by pumping, particularly of the Ogalla aquifer. It’s easy to see why some argue that livestock production is the leading causes of water degradation.

Agriculture also degrades water in other more direct ways. Livestock produce 130 times the waste of the entire human population of the United States, and unlike the human waste which tend to be treated in sewage plants; most animal waste winds up on the land or in the water. Not surprisingly, livestock production is the leading cause of non-point surface water pollution accounting for 72% of the pollution in rives and 56% of the pollution in lakes.

Agriculture production is also the number one source for groundwater contamination in the Nation, with 49 states reporting high nitrates and 43 states reporting pesticide production attributed to agricultural practices.

Agricultural production is the largest source for soil erosion in the United States with current rates exceeding soil production rates by 17 times with 90% of US croplands losing soils above sustainable rates.

Since the majority of the nation’s cropland is growing animal feed, the majority of soil erosion is a direct consequence of this production.

Another indirect consequence of factory farming is the energy used to grow and transport feed. Animal protein production uses eight times the fossil fuel energy as growing vegetables or grass fed livestock Beef production was particularly energy costly, requiring 54 times the fossil fuel equivalent of non-grain fed sources of protein.

Lest we forget, livestock are a significant contributor to global warming. The world’s livestock produces 25% of the global greenhouse gases, with the waste lagoons of factory farms contributing another 5%.

And according to a UN report, the global livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport.

Much, though not all, of these environmental impacts would be reduced or avoided altogether if factory farming and other kinds of confined animal production were eliminated. A shift to smaller, diverse farms, and a reduction, if not outright elimination of meat consumption, would both contribute to a huge reduction in environmental impacts of animal agriculture.










. http://www.nass.usda.gov/Newsroom/2008/06_30_2008.asp






See Wuerthner, Guzzling the West’s Water in Wuerthner, George and Mollie Matteson, ed. Welfare Ranching—The Environmental Impacts of Public Lands Grazing. http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/wr_guzzling_water.htm








Vermont Going in Wrong Direction with ATVs

The Douglas administration has proposed a rule change that would permit all-terrain vehicles to travel on state lands — parks, forests, and wildlife management areas. Presently these lands are closed to ATVs, as are federal lands in Vermont, such as the Green Mountain National Forest.

Ironically this proposal to open state lands to expanded ATV abuse comes at a time when most other states and the federal government are either banning ATVs outright, or attempting to greatly restrict their use. Why would Vermont go in the opposite direction?

If the administration had talked to more of the public or done its homework, it would have discovered that many states and federal agencies are trying desperately to restrict the growing off-road vehicles threat. For instance, New Jersey banned off-road riding by ATVs on all state park, forest and wildlife lands. Why? Because of a growing awareness that ATVs create unacceptable resource damage, increase conflicts with other public lands users, and that restriction on use is impossible to enforce. Currently in New York state there is legislation proposing to ban ATVs on the Forest Preserve and other state lands for the same reasons.

Just a few years ago, the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire came out against opening up these federal lands to ATV use. The National Forest managers concluded that ATVs caused unacceptable damage to other resources, and that the agency did not have the funds or manpower to mitigate damage or enforce route restrictions. Rather than allow a use that would be impossible to regulate, the agency rightly concluded not to open forest lands to ATV use. But the problem isn't just local. The former chief of the Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, called ORVs/ATVs one of four major threats to Forest Service lands nationally and urged all national forests to update travel management plans so as to reduce/manage or prohibit ATV use.

It's not just federal agencies that are alarmed by the growing ATV threat. A survey of state wildlife agencies by the Isaak Walton League found no agency personnel disagreed with the statement "that ORVs negatively impact hunting and habitat in your state." And 83 percent said that ORVs did resource damage to wildlife habitat.

A committee of the state legislature of New Mexico released a review of ATV use this winter and concluded, among other things, that "off-road vehicle recreation on public lands increases user conflicts between motorized recreationists and other recreationists and public land users, including ranchers, hunters and anglers." And that these "conflicts tend to be one-sided, with motorized recreationists being less adversely affected and other public land users more adversely affected."

Contrary to assertions by ATV proponents that their use of public lands "benefits" the economy, the New Mexico study found that "ORV recreation incurs substantially higher costs per participant due to natural resource damage, trail maintenance, enforcement, and accident and injuries. The cost of displacement of non-motorized recreationists (including tourists) due to conflicts with ORV recreationists … could be significant in terms of the loss of economic and associated benefits."

In other words, ATVs drive away other users of the land, and this, combined with the higher costs of enforcement, fixing resource damage, and accidents/injuries, means that expanding ORV use of public lands has a net negative economic impact.

There is an outlaw mentality that pervades ATV users' behavior, and it's not just a few riders, as proponents suggest. The New Mexico report noted that "studies show that roughly half of ATV and motorcycle riders prefer to ride off of designated routes" and that enforcement was nearly impossible. Indeed, one study in Colorado found that the majority of ORV riders regularly flaunted authorities by riding off of designated routes. Another Utah study found that of the ATV riders surveyed, 49.4 percent prefer to ride off established trails, while 39 percent did so in their last outing.

In 2004, state lands director Mike Fraysier wrote to a governor's study committee on ATVs, "As you know, state lands in every district are seeing increased illegal ATV use. With this use comes extensive damage and impacts." Fraysier went on to write: "How can the agency, in good conscience, open up its lands to ATVs in light of such abuse?"

How indeed? Some behaviors are just not acceptable in public places. We don't allow smoking in public airports, schools, or restaurants. And we don't allow boom boxes in our libraries. Most of us would never allow ATVs to tear up our yards and lawns. Why should we permit ATVs to destroy our public spaces? Vermont should just say no to ATVs. Keep the riders and their impacts on private lands, but let's protect our public lands for appropriate and compatible uses.

George Wuerthner of Richmond is the editor of "Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation," published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Fish and Game Agencies Can't Manage Predators

By George Wuerthner, 4-17-09

In the past month or so, helicopters with gunners skimmed over the Alaskan tundra and forests shooting wolves to “protect” caribou herds. In Nevada, the state Fish and Game agency wants to kill more mountain lions to increase mule deer numbers. In Idaho, the Idaho Game and Fish wants to kill more than a hundred wolves in the Lolo Pass area to benefit elk. In Maine, the state agency encourages hunters to shoot coyotes to reduce predation on deer.

Without exception, state game and fish agencies do not treat predators like other wildlife. Even though state agencies are no longer engaged in outright extermination of predators, persecution and limited acceptance of the ecological role of predators is still the dominant attitude. State wildlife agencies only tolerate predators as long as they are not permitted to play a meaningful ecological role.

In general, they seek to hold predator populations at low numbers by providing hunters and trappers with generous “bag” limits and long hunting/trapping seasons. For some predators, like coyotes, there are often no limits on the number of animals that can be killed or trapped. The attitude of many hunters towards predators is not appreciably different than what one heard a hundred years ago, despite a huge leap in our ecological understanding of the role top predators play in the ecosystem.

Beyond the general hostility towards predators that many hunters hold, state wildlife agencies are not the objective, scientific, wildlife managers that they claim to be. Wolves, mountain lions, bears, and other predators are a direct threat to state wildlife budgets because top predators eat the very animals that hunters want to kill. Because state wildlife agencies rely upon license sales to fund their operations, maintaining huntable numbers of elk, deer, moose, and caribou is in the agencies’ self interest.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti hunter, I want to make it clear that I hunt, and most of my close friends hunt. We value the wildlife success stories created by past and present wildlife agencies actions. And to give credit where credit is due, hunters and anglers have been responsible for many successful wildlife recovery efforts, and through their lobbying efforts, sweat, and money, they have protected a considerable amount of wildlife habitat across the Nation for many wildlife species, not just the ones hunted. Well known early conservationists and wilderness advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Charles Sheldon and Olaus Murie were all hunters. But that doesn’t mean hunters are beyond criticism when it comes to wildlife management policies, particularly when it comes to predator policy.


With the delisting of wolves by the Secretary of the Interior Salazar, several states are poised to begin managing wolves. Proponents of wolf control suggest that Americans should let state wildlife agencies manage predators “just like other wildlife.”

The problem is that top predators are not “just like other wildlife.” Indeed, they play a crucial ecological role in maintaining ecosystem stability and integrity. In addition, predators, more than most other species, have well developed social structures that demand a much more nuanced approach to human/wildlife relationships than most wildlife agencies are prepared to deal with, much less even acknowledge.


Much recent research has demonstrated many ecological values to predators. As top-down regulators of ecosystems, predators like wolves, mountain lion, and bears help to reduce herbivore numbers to slow or reduce over-browsing or overgrazing of plant communities.

Perhaps more importantly, predator shift how prey animals use their habitat. For instance, it is well documented that the presence of wolves in Yellowstone has changed how elk use the landscape, with less browsing on riparian vegetation as one consequence.

But wolf-induced habitat shifts by elk has had other benefits as well. Since the road system in Yellowstone tends to follow the river valleys, movement of elk away from streams to adjacent uplands increases the likelihood that a certain percentage of the animals will die further from a road. This has important consequences for grizzly bears that have been shown to avoid feeding on carcasses located close to roads. Finding even one more elk carcass in the spring in a place that is “safe” for feeding is like winning the lottery for, say, a mother grizzly with several cubs to feed.

Some scientists have even postulated that wolves may ameliorate the effects of climate change on scavenger species by providing carrion throughout the year.

Predators can also limit the effects of disease, like chronic wasting disease found in elk, deer, and moose since infected animals are more vulnerable to predators.

The presence of a large predator has a cascading effect on all other predators as well. For instance, the present of wolves results in fewer coyotes. Since coyotes are among the major predators on pronghorn fawns, presence of wolves, has led to higher pronghorn fawn survival.

And because of the single-minded bias of state wildlife agencies for maintaining large numbers of huntable species, they fail to even ask whether predation might have a positive influence on ecosystem sustainability.

For instance, in certain circumstances, top predators like wolves, bears, and mountain lions will hold prey populations low for an extended period of time, especially if habitat quality is marginal for the herbivores. These “predator sinks” provide the long term “rest” from herbivory pressure that plant communities may require on occasion to reestablish or recover from past herbivory pressure. Almost universally when predators begin to “hold down” prey populations, state agencies want to kill them so the targeted populations of moose, caribou, elk, deer, or whatever it might be can “recover.” That is the justification, for instance, for the proposed slaughter of approximately 100 wolves near Lolo Pass by the Idaho Fish and Game.

Unfortunately for predators if their numbers are sufficiently high for them to have these ecological effects on other wildlife as well as the plant communities, state wildlife agencies tend to view them as too high for their “management objectives.”


I won’t dwell on it here, but top predators have sophisticated social interactions that state wildlife agencies completely ignore in their management. For the most part, state agencies’ management of predators is based on numbers. If there are enough wolves or mountain lions to maintain a population, and they are not in any danger of extinction, than management is considered to be adequate.

The problem is that top predators have many social interactions that complicate such crude management by the numbers.

Many social animals pass on “cultural” knowledge to their young about where to forage or hunt. Researcher Gordon Haber has found that some wolf packs in Denali National Park have been passing on their prime hunting territory from generation to generation for decades. Loss of this knowledge and/or territory because too many animals are killed can stress the remaining animals, making them more likely to travel further where they are vulnerable to conflicts with humans.

For instance, predator control can shift the age structure of predator populations to younger animals. Since younger animals are less experienced hunters, they are more likely to attack livestock than older, mature predators. (Young animals are more likely in rare instances, to even attack people. Nearly all mountain lion attacks are by immature animals.)

Furthermore, predator populations that are held at less than capacity by management (i.e. killing them) also tend to breed earlier, and produce more young, increasing the demand for biomass (i.e. food). Both of these factors can indirectly increase conflicts between livestock producers and predators.

Wolves, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and other predators all possess such intricate social relationships. Yet I have never seen a single state wildlife agency even acknowledged these social interactions; much less alter their management in light of this knowledge.


Despite the self serving propaganda coming hunting groups that hunters are an adequate “tool” to control herbivore populations, research has demonstrated sufficient differences in the animals selected by predators compared to human hunters. In general, hunters take animals in the prime of life, while predators disproportionally take out the older, younger or less fit individuals. As poet Robinson Jeffers has noted, it is the fang that has created the fleet foot of the antelope.

Human hunting has other long term genetic consequences as well. As was recently reported in PNAS, sustained human hunting has led to universally smaller animals, as well as other suspected genetic impacts that may affect their long-term viability.


Despite the long history of hunter conservationists, when it comes to predators there are two major reasons for the failure of state wildlife agencies to adopt objective and biologically sound predator policies. The first is that most hunters are ecologically illiterate. Though there are some sub-groups within the hunting community who put ecological health of the land first and foremost, the average hunter cares more about “putting a trophy on the wall or meat in the freezer” than whether the land’s ecological integrity is maintained. The focus is on sustaining hunting success, not ultimately on the quality of the hunting experience, much less sustaining ecosystems as the prime objective. Such hunters are the ones using ORVs for hunting, use radio collared dogs to “track” predators, object to road closures that limit hunter access by other than foot, employ more and more sophisticated technology to replace human skill, and not coincidently they tend to be the hunters most likely to be demanding predator control.

On the whole, I have found most state wildlife biologists to be far more ecologically literate than the hunters and anglers they serve. In other words, if left to the biologists, I suspect we would find that agencies would manage wildlife with a greater attention to ecological integrity.

However, curbing such impulses by wildlife professionals are the politically appointed wildlife commissions. While criteria for appointments vary from state to state, in general, commissioners are selected to represent primarily rural residents, timber companies and agricultural interests—all of whom are generally hostile to predators and/or see it as almost a God-given requirement that humans manage the Earth to “improve” it and fix the lousy job that God did by creating wolves and mountain lions.

The other reason state agencies tend to be less enthusiastic supporters of predators has to do with funding. State wildlife agencies “dance with the one that brung ya.” Most non-hunters do not realize that state wildlife agencies are largely funded by hunter license fees as well as taxes on hunting equipment, rather than general taxpayer support. This creates a direct conflict of interest for state wildlife agencies when it comes to managing for species that eat the animals hunters want to kill. Agency personnel know that the more deer, elk, and other huntable species that exist, the more tags and licenses they can sell. So what bureaucracy is going to voluntarily give up its funding opportunities for “ecological integrity?”

Adding to this entire funding nightmare for agencies is the decline in hunter participation. There are fewer and fewer hunters these days. Many reasons have been proposed for this—a decrease in access to private lands for hunting, decrease in outdoor activities among young people, and fewer young hunters being recruited into the hunting population, a shift in population from rural to urban areas, and a general shift in social values where hunters are held in less esteem by the general public. Whatever the factors, state wildlife agencies are facing a financial crisis. Their chief funding source—hunter license tags sales are declining, while their costs of operations are increasing.

This creates a huge incentive for state wildlife agencies to limit predators. Most agencies are beyond wanting to exterminate predators, and some even grudgingly admit there is some ecological and aesthetic value in maintaining some populations of predators, but few are willing to promote predators or consider the important ecological value of predators in the ecosystem.

Yet these inherent conflicts of interest are never openly conceded by the agencies themselves or for that matter few others. It is the elephant in the room.


With the exception of killing predators in the few instances where human safety is jeopardized as with human habituated animals, or to protect a small population of some endangered species, I find little good scientific support for any predator management. Predator populations will not grow indefinitely. They are ultimately limited by their prey. Leaving predators to self-regulate seems to be the best management option available.

In general, predators will have minimum effects on hunting. Even now in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, most elk populations are at or above “management objectives.” Climatic conditions and habitat quality typically have a far greater impact on long-term viability of huntable species than predators.

Arguments that people will “starve” if they can’t hunt are bogus. Alternative foods are usually far less expensive and more easily acquired than a moose or elk. Furthermore, in our society where food stamps and other social security nets are available, no one will starve for want of an elk dinner or caribou steak.

In my view, we need to restore not only token populations of wolves to a few wilderness and park sanctuaries, we ought to be striving to restore the ecological role of top predators to as much as of the landscape as reasonably possible. While we may never tolerate or want mountain lions in Boise city limits, grizzly bears strolling downtown Bozeman or wolves roaming the streets of Denver, there is no reason we can’t have far larger and more widely distributed predator populations across the entire West, as well as the rest of the nation. But this will never happen as long as state wildlife agencies see their primary role to satisfy hunter expectations for maximized hunting opportunities for ungulates like deer and elk rather than managing wildlife for the benefit of all citizens and ecosystem integrity.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

There’s an old cliché that one can’t see the forest for the trees. It is used to describe people who are so focused on some detail that they fail to see the big picture. Nowhere is this failure to see the forest for the trees more evident than the rush to utilize dead trees for biomass fuel s and/or the presumed need to “thin” forests to reduce so called “dangers” and/or “damage” from wildfire and beetle outbreaks.

Contrary to popular opinion, we probably do not have enough dead trees in our forest ecosystems. And this deficit is a serious problem since dead trees are critical to the long term productivity of forests, and perhaps more important to forest ecosystems than live trees. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. It is questionable whether we can we remove substantial quantities of live or dead wood from the forest without serious long term biological impoverishment to forest ecosystems.

An abundance of dead trees, rather than a sign of forest sickness as commonly portrayed, demonstrates that the forest ecosystem is functioning perfectly well. For far too long we have viewed the major agents responsible for creation of substantial qualities of dead trees--beetles and wildfire—as “enemies” of the forest, when in truth; they are the major processes that maintain healthy forest ecosystems.

Recent research points out the multiple ways that dead trees and down wood are critical to the forest. One estimates suggests that 2/3 of all species depend on dead trees/down wood at some point in their lives.

Dead trees are very important for functioning aquatic ecosystems as well. Trees create structure in streams that shapes stream channels, reduces water velocity and erosion, and provides both food and habitat for many aquatic invertebrates. In general the more wood you have in the stream, the more fish, insects, and other aquatic life. Aquatic ecologists generally believe that there is no upper limit for dead wood in streams.

Once a tree falls to the ground and gradually molders back into the soil, it provides home to many small insects and invertebrates that are the lifeblood of the forest, that help recycle and produce nutrients important for present and future forest growth. For instance, there are hundreds of species of ground nesting bees that utilize down trees for their home. These bees are major pollinators of flowers and flowering shrubs in the forest.

Ants are among the most abundant invertebrates in the forest and many live in down trees and snags. Ants play a critical role in the forest, helping to break down wood, aeration of soil with their burrows, and protection of trees against the onslaught of other insects. One study found that ants killed 85% of the tussock moths that attacked Douglas fir and there are many other examples of how ants protect trees from tree predators.

And it’s not just wildlife that depends on dead trees. A recent review of 1200 lichen species found that 10% were only found on dead trees, and many others prefer dead trees as their prime habitat. Lichens, among other things, are important convertors of atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen important for plant growth.
Even the charcoal that results from wildfires burning up trees is important for soil productivity, helping to increase soil nutrients, water-holding capacity, and as a long-term storage mechanism for carbon.

Most beetle and wildlife events do not kill all the trees. Instead, they create a mosaic of age classes that actually increases biodiversity. Contrary to the popular opinion that beetles “destroy the forest” and fires “sterilize” the soils or create biological deserts, several recent studies have concluded that both beetle killed forests and the burned forests that result remain after stand replacement wildfires have among the highest biodiversity of any habitat type.

Notwithstanding, the fact that much new research suggest that both thinning or biomass removal are often ineffective at slowing or stopping large fires or insect outbreaks because these events are primarily driven by climatic/weather factors rather than fuels, there is the issue of whether the cure is worse than the so-called disease.

Logging, thinning, biomass removal and other forest management introduce all kinds of negative impacts to the forest ecosystem from the spread of weeds to soil compaction to alteration of water flow, disturbance to wildlife, creation of new ORV trails, increases in sedimentation, that all lead to the degradation of the forest ecosystem itself. Most of these negative impacts are ignored or glossed over by proponents of thinning and biomass removal.

In short, current efforts to thwart, and stop beetle outbreaks and wildfires create “unhealthy forests”. In fact, nearly everything that foresters do from thinning forests to suppressing fires degrades and impoverishes the forest ecosystem. Forest “management” is so focused on trees and wood products, that it represents a critical failure to see the forest through the trees.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Praise for the Dead (wood)


By George Wuerthner
Forest Magazine, Spring 2009

Dead. Most of us have negative associations with the word. After all how did Death Valley get its name? Not because it was a favorite vacation spot for prospectors. Is anyone interested in fishing the Dead Sea? And when we say someone looks like “death warmed over,” it’s not usually taken as a compliment. So it’s not surprising that most of us tend to view dead things as undesirable, unless we are talking about mosquitoes and rattlesnakes.

We impose this cultural bias about dead things to our forests as well. Public land management agencies spend billions annually trying to contain wildfire and insect outbreaks based upon the presumption that these natural processes are destroying the forest by killing trees. Even though there is now some grudging acceptance by land managers that wildfires and insect attacks may be potentially beneficial if they do not kill too many trees, stand-replacement fires, ice storms and large beetle outbreaks are still viewed as unnatural and abnormal—something to suppress, slow and control.

When these natural processes kill trees, managers propose logging to “salvage” the economic value of the downed trees. They operate on the tacit assumption that surplus wood can be removed without hurting the forest’s ecosystem, and until now that has formed the basis of scientific and/or sustainable forestry.

But a new perspective is slowly taking root among forest managers, based on growing evidence that forest ecosystems have no waste or harvestable surplus. Rather, it seems that forests reinvest their biological capital back into the ecosystem, and removal of wood—whether dead or alive—can lead to biological impoverishment. Large stand-replacement blazes and major insect outbreaks may be the ecological analogue to the forest ecosystem as the hundred-year flood is to a river. Such natural events are critical to shaping ecosystem function and processes. Scientists are discovering that dead trees and downed wood play an important role in ecosystems by providing wildlife habitat, cycling nutrients, aiding plant regeneration, decreasing erosion and influencing drainage, soil moisture and carbon storage.

“When you start to look at western forests outside of wildernesses and parks, you notice right away that they lack large quantities of downed wood—dead trees,” says Jon Rhodes, an independent consulting hydrologist in Oregon. “Ecologically speaking, there is a big difference between areas that have been logged compared to areas that are left alone.”

Chad Hanson, a University of California, Davis, researcher, agrees. “We are trapped by an outdated cultural idea that a healthy forest is one with nothing but green trees. An ecologically healthy forest has dead trees, broken tops and downed logs.” Such forests may not look tidy from the perception of a forester, he says, but it’s an indication that the forest is healthy and biologically diverse. “Pound for pound, ton for ton, there is probably no more important habitat element in western conifer forests than large snags and large downed logs,” Hanson says.

Studies have consistently concluded that most western forests have a deficit of large snags and downed dead wood. “Large standing trees are important,” Rhodes says, “but they shouldn’t be museum pieces. They should be part of functioning ecosystems.” When old-growth trees burn in wildfires, they aren’t completely lost, he says, but provide the ecosystem with large quantities of snags and downed wood. “While some say we can’t afford to have old growth burned by fire, it’s apparent that we can’t afford for old growth not to burn in fires, due to the importance of large snags and downed wood and its current lack in western forests,” he says.

Writing in a 2004 article in Conservation Biology, University of Montana ecologist Richard Hutto sums up the new thinking about the ecological value of dead trees. “I am hard-pressed to find any other example in wildlife biology where the effect of a particular land-use activity is as close to 100 percent negative as the typical post-fire salvage-logging operation tends to be,” he wrote. “Everything from the system of fire-regime classification, to a preoccupation with the destructive aspects of fire, to the misapplication of snag-management guidelines have led us to ignore the obvious: we need to retain the very elements that give rise to much of the biological uniqueness of a burned forest—the standing dead trees.”

Healthy Dependence

Dead trees are important to wildlife. Think woodpeckers. But many other species depend on dead trees and downed wood for food and shelter.

Hutto reports that upwards of 60 percent of species that nest in severely burned forests use only snags for nest sites. In addition, about 45 percent of all North American native bird species rely on snags for at least a portion of their life cycle.

Hutto has found fifteen species that are most abundant in forests with high numbers of snags resulting from high-intensity stand-replacement crown fire—the kind of fires that foresters pejoratively call catastrophic. Hutto notes it is doubtful that these species would have evolved such dependency on snag abundance if large stand-replacement fires and widespread insect outbreaks were uncommon or unnatural, as some suggest.

But it’s not just the use of snags for nesting, or even feeding as with woodpeckers, that attracts birds and other wildlife to recently killed forests. Burned forests also are used extensively by seed-eating species that are attracted by the abundance of new seeds shed by cones and colonizing plants.

Even the presumption that large blazes are a threat to spotted owls is being challenged. “There are several studies which indicate that spotted owls actually benefit from substantial patches of high-severity fire within their home ranges,” says researcher Hanson. “They selectively forage in unlogged, high-severity burn patches.” However, he adds, if these burned areas are salvage logged, spotted owls avoid them.

In a paper presented at a conference on the ecology and management of dead wood in western forests, researcher Timothy Kent Brown estimated that two-thirds of all wildlife species use dead trees or downed wood during some portion of their life cycle. Among Pacific Northwest vertebrates, sixty-nine species depend upon cavities for shelter or nesting, while forty-seven other species are strongly associated with downed wood. And it’s not just the obvious species like woodpeckers that demonstrate this dependence. Many bat species, for instance, hide in cavities in dead trees or under the loose bark of dead and/or dying trees.

Jim Andrews, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, studies amphibians and reptiles in northeastern forests. “Foresters tend to look at the forest from the floor up,” he says. “I have occasionally gone on field trips with them, and they were rather proud of how they had managed their forests, but the forest has nothing in it. There’s no cover. No places to find live critters.”

Andrews notes that dead and dying trees are important for many cold-blooded species, from gray frogs to arboreal rat snakes. “Standing snags, once they get big enough so that they have hollow centers—what foresters call ‘overmature’…are the places where wildlife reside,” Andrews says. “To a biologist you don’t have overmature trees—you have wildlife habitat.”

Andrews notes that the greatest biomass of terrestrial vertebrate species found in eastern forests are salamanders, not the more charismatic large mammals like deer and moose. Salamanders provide food to many other species, from wild turkeys to shrews.

But salamanders are also significant predators in their own right, Andrews says. They eat beetle larvae, fly larvae, ground beetles, spiders, sow bugs, round worms and other invertebrates that feed on forest debris. In doing so, they shape the forest ecosystem much as wolves do on another scale. “Salamanders, by preying upon these species that consume leaf litter, help to maintain a deeper layer of leaves and other organic debris that holds moisture, reduces floods and that kind of stuff,” Andrews says.


It’s easy to identify an ecosystem for its most photogenic species, but there are dozens of small cogs that are of equal importance. One of those is ants, and downed logs are their preferred home. Ants are among the most common invertebrate in forest ecosystems and, not surprisingly given their abundance, are critical elements in forest ecosystems.

The most obvious value of ants is as food—from birds such as flickers to much larger animals like bears. In fact, research suggests that ants are among the most important food for bears in Oregon during June and July, as well as later in the summer if the berry crop is small. A British Columbia study found that grizzly bears rely on ants for food late in the fall when berries are unavailable. Reducing the number of dead trees, and thus ants, has a direct consequence for bear survival.

But ants also prey on insects that attack trees. For example, studies in Washington and Oregon discovered that ants accounted for an 85 percent reduction of pupae from two tree-defoliating moths.

Dead logs and snags are also home to pollinating insects. Solitary and colonial bees, of which there are hundreds of species that reside in downed logs and/or snags, are among the major pollinators of flowers and berry-producing shrubs.

Dead trees are even important for other plant species. Bureau of Land Management botanist and lichen expert, Roger Rosentreter, says that dead snags, by creating suitable habitat for lichen growth, carry the legacy of lichen species to the next generation of live trees in the forest. Research by Oregon State University professor Bruce McCune found that some common lichens were more abundant on barkless branches of dead trees than on live ones.

Healthy forest soils also require decomposing material. Below the litter layer in the soil is yet another layer of life that depends on dead wood. “There’s a whole complex food web in the soil that is a combination of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, micro-fauna like arthropods, springtails, mites—all those organisms thrive and are important to the composition of the forest,” says soils specialist Tom Deluca, a forest scientist at the Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office.

Deluca notes that while forest litter, such as fallen needles and branches, is important to forest soils, forest soil development is also “very dependent upon the influx of carbon from [whole] trees that have a life cycle of hundreds of years.”

If the carbon influx (dead trees) created after a wildfire or beetle outbreak are removed, he says, the soil is robbed of energy for micro-organisms. “The organic influx is essential to micro-community,” he says.


People commonly assume that wildfire destroys trees and leaves a smoldering pile of ashes. In truth, some live trees and a lot of dead wood physically survive blazes. Beyond the value of dead trees as feeding, hiding and resting habitat for wildlife, downed logs play an important role in forest regeneration.

Snags and downed logs modify micro-sites that can affect seedling establishment. For instance, snags provide some shade and reduction of drying winds, creating more favorable conditions for tree seedling survival. Researching the effects of fires on snags in Wyoming, Dan Tinker, of the University of Wyoming, found that only 8 percent of the downed wood was consumed in fires. He also says that 35 percent of the downed wood in clear-cuts was a biological legacy left by past fires that occurred prior to logging. Tinker and his associates found that these legacy trees intercepted precipitation and funneled it to the ends of the log, creating a moister micro-site that was often more favorable for tree seedling germination and survival.

Other researchers have found that, when it comes to trees, all death is not equal. How a tree dies affects its ultimate role in the forest ecosystem. A tree killed by bark beetles has a different decay trajectory than, say, a tree dying from disease or wildfire. For instance, bark beetles, by breeching the outer bark of a tree, create tiny openings that allow fungi and other insects to enter the tree’s core.

Bark beetles emit pheromones that not only attract other bark beetles but also insects that prey on bark beetles. And the volatiles released from the decomposing trees attract another entirely different group of organisms that feed upon dead wood. That is why one researcher in Europe found that bark beetle outbreaks increased biodiversity in forest ecosystems.

William Laudenslayer, a U.S. Forest Service researcher at the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experimental Station, and his colleagues experimentally girdled trees to kill them, a common forestry practice used to produce snags for wildlife. They compared those snags to trees killed by bark beetles. They found that “bark beetle-killed trees provided significantly greater woodpecker feeding activity, cavity building and insect diversity” compared to snags created by girdling.

Trees heated and killed by fire create sapwood that resists rotting and lasts longer in the ecosystem. Trees dead prior to the fire tend to become blackened and charred. Charred trees are also resistant to decay. Thus, a wildfire creates long-lasting biological legacies that can survive for a century or more.


Wayne Minshall, professor of ecology with the Stream Ecology Center in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University, points out the importance of logs to aquatic ecosystems as well. “Wherever the logs occur, they cause the stream to meander or braid. And whenever you get braiding or meandering, you’re getting a reduction in the power of the stream and delivering the water in a way so as to dissipate that energy so the flow becomes less destructive. That’s important in keeping streams healthy.”

Wildfires and/or insect outbreaks create downed logs that fall into streams and across slopes. Downed logs, by slowing the velocity of the water, allow sediment to settle out and help return sediment flows to pre-burn levels. Minshall points out that while organisms have evolved to deal with episodic sediment flush events, such as those occurring immediately after a wildfire, they are unable to cope with forestry-induced sedimentation. To these organisms, a forest fire is no big deal, he says. “We get a short few years of sediment runoff, but it’s not a major thing that organisms can’t handle.” But aquatic organisms can’t take unexpected events they haven’t evolved with, such as the presence of fine sediment all year round for extended periods of time. “If we clear-cut, salvage log or put roads in, then the sediment flows tend towards chronic, and it’s a major detriment to organisms,” he says.

Rhodes says that scientists have not identified an upper threshold of logs in streams that is too much for fish. “The more wood, the more fish, all things being equal,” he says. “Lots of wood is a big part of the productivity for streams.” The loss of salmonids in many parts of the West, he says, can be attributed to the absence of wood in streams.

The criteria for healthy ecosystems can’t be easily defined or exhaustively listed. But healthy ecosystems have a full array of processes operating unimpaired, including hydrologic function, soil productivity, carbon sequestering, provision of wildlife habitats and keystone disturbances such as fires, floods, storms and insect outbreaks.

One crucial element present in unmanaged, healthy systems is a significant amount of dead trees and downed wood, Rhodes says. “There is seldom too much dead wood in forests and certainly not in unmanaged ones. However, there is almost always a dearth of it in managed forests.”

Montana Needs More Wilderness

George Wuerthner

Montana has some of the best spectacular unprotected wildlands left in the lower 48 states, but it lags behind other western states in the amount of land protected as designated wilderness. For instance, California has 138 wilderness areas, covering than 14.3 million acres—more than 14 percent of the state. When the Omnibus Public Lands Bill before Congress passes, California will get another 700,000 acres of new wilderness areas. By contrast, Montana only has 15 wildernesses covering 3.4 million acres, or slightly less than 3.7% percent of the state.

More than six million FS roadless acres, plus at least another million acres of BLM and FWS lands, could potentially be added to the National Wilderness System. Yet for a host of unfortunate circumstances, the state has failed to see any new wilderness legislation passed for several decades. To see a map of Montana’s roaded and roadless terrain go to http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/images/roads_lg.jpg

The most comprehensive legislation dealing with Montana’s wildlands so far is the visionary Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act or NREPA. NEPRA was created by the Alliance for Wild Rockies, in part, after the failure of several other state-wide Montana wilderness bills to pass Congress or Presidential veto. It takes a comprehensive approach to wildlands preservation and includes most of the larger unprotected roadless lands in the Northern Rockies, including Montana. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/news/2009/02-11-09-PR.shtml

While NREPA is the best wilderness legislation to ever be introduced, Congress may not be ready for the best. There are many obstacles to enactment, the least of which is that supporters must either convince the Congressional delegations from Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington, many of whom are hostile or luke-warm to wilderness preservation, to support this bill or garner enough votes from other House and Senate members to overrule the opposition from these delegates. I’m convinced if NREPA were enthusiastically endorsed and actively promoted by the entire environmental community, it could be enacted. Unfortunately, that wide-spread support has yet to materialize.

An alternative to NREPA is a more piecemeal, state specific approach to wilderness designation that focuses on passage of a Montana-only wilderness bill. Recently, there is a convergence in opinion that a state-wide wilderness bill is needed that can implement at least a portion of the NREPA vision for Montana. With the election of Barack Obama the opportunity for passage of such a comprehensive state wide bill has never looked better than now.

If I were creating such a bill, I would, at a minimum, propose the following areas for potential wilderness designation. My proposal is only a starting point for discussion.

In the interest of brevity many fine and worthy smaller wildlands areas will be left out of this compilation, but are included in NREPA, so if you want to see what could be protected in Montana, go to the Alliance for Wild Rockies web site. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/ The following is only the briefest description of key areas that should be included in any state- wide bill with a rough estimate of the potential acreage to give readers some idea of the size of each area. At one time or another I have personally visited most of the areas I’ve listed so know firsthand of their wildlands qualities.

Northwest Montana includes the Purcell, Cabinet, and Coeur d’Alene Mountains. Heavily forested and relatively moist, the easily accessible timber has been logged, but many small roadless areas remain. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/cabinet-yaak.jpg

Starting in the Northwest portion of the state, there are a number of small wilderness areas proposed for the Yaak drainage in what many consider to be the wildest river valley south of Canada. The Yaak is home to nearly all the species (except perhaps caribou) that existed at the time of settlement, including wolves, grizzlies, wolverine, and lynx.

Roadless areas of note in the Yaak include the 15,000 acre Northwest Peak Proposed Wilderness. It lies right up against the Canadian border, supporting alpine larch forests in glaciated bowls. Other proposed wildernesses in the Yaak include 36,000 acre Buckhorn Ridge, 14,000 acre Mount Henry, 7,000 acre Robinson Mountain, 7,000 acre Grizzly Peak, and 30,000 acre Roderick Mountain, among others. Taken together, designation of all of these roadless lands will provide a quilt of wildlands that could work to begin the ecological restoration process for the heavily logged Yaak drainage. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/cabinet-yaak.jpg

South of the Yaak lies the 94,000,000 acre forested, but rugged Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The highest point is 8,723 foot Snowshoe Peak. The core of the Cabinet Mountains is protected as the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, but another 100,000 plus acres of additions could be added to the existing wilderness, primarily by adding lower elevation slopes to the wilderness to create a 200,000 acre or so complex.

Extending southward as part of the southern Cabinet Mountains north of Thompson Falls are several other roadless areas including the 39,000 acre Cube Iron Silcox and 39,000 acre Catarack Peak proposed wilderness areas. Vertical relief in this part of the southern Cabinet Mountains is more than 4,500 feet.

Directly across the Bull River to the west of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and straddling the Idaho-Montana border lies the 88,000 acre proposed Scotchman’s Peak Wilderness. Surprisingly, for this area where logging has fragmented so much of the lower elevation forests, the Scotchman’s Peak area has remained roadless from valley bottoms to the summit of its glacier-scoured peaks. Like the Cabinet Mountains, the Scotchman’s Peak area is heavily forested with low elevation Pacific Northwest species like western red cedar, and western hemlock, including the famous giant Ross Creek Cedars. Friends of Scotchman’s Peak has worked for decades promoting this area. http://www.scotchmanpeaks.org/

A few other large roadless areas on the Coeur d’Alene-Cabinet Divide south of the Clark Fork River worth mentioning are the 50,000 acre Trout Creek Proposed Wilderness and the 41,000 acre Mount Bushnell Proposed Wilderness. These both are important for corridors linking the Cabinet-Yaak to the Bitterroot Mountains.

The Bitterroot Mountains stretch along the Idaho Montana border for hundreds of miles. The highest peaks are included in the 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but other lovely wild country along or near the Bitterroot Divide and adjacent lands should be included in any state wide wilderness bill. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/bitterroot.jpg

Along the Idaho border south of I-90 is the 68,000 Sheep Mountain/State Line Proposed Wilderness. More than 70 inches of precipitation, most of it as snowfall, supports forest of mountain hemlock, a rare species in Montana. An essential corridor for wildlife moving north and south from the Cabinet to the Bitterroot, the area features some small lakes, and heavy forest cover.

Moving south along the Idaho border, south of Superior, Montana, in the Fish Creek headwaters lies the 275,000 acre Great Burn Proposed Wilderness. Straddling the northern Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border, the Great Burn is named for the 1910 fires that swept across these slopes leaving alpine-like terrain dotted with snags. However, the lower elevation valleys still harbor some huge western red cedars. The lush vegetation and numerous cirque lakes make for scenic hiking. It is increasingly threatened by ORVers. http://www.newwest.net/index.php/main/article/7220/ The Great Burn has been included in many previous wilderness bills introduced into Congress, and hopefully will someday achieve wilderness protection.

South of Missoula is the Bitterroot Valley. Friends of the Bitterroot are one of the local wildlands advocacy groups romoting wilderness preservation on both sides of the Bitterroot Valley. Additions of 123,000 acres to the sprawling 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness along the Bitterroot Front would bring the wildlands boundary down closer to the valley floor.

West and south of Darby on the Idaho-Montana border is the 70,000 Bluejoint Proposed Wilderness. Most of the Bluejoint drainage was burned by wildfire and is reforested with even-aged lodgepole pine forests. It is one of the wilderness study areas protected by S.393, passed in the 1970s by the late Senator Lee Metcalf and includes several geologic features including a volcanic plug at Castle Peak and Rock Arch near Jack the Ripper Creek.

Adjacent to the Bluejoint and encompassing the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River along the Idaho-Montana border lies the 150,000 acre Allan Mountain Proposed Wilderness. (I’ve also seen this spelled Alan, Allen). Allan Mountain includes the spectacular 100 foot Overwhich Falls and provides a critical link between the Bitterroots and areas to the east in the Big Hole drainage.

Rock Creek, a major tributary of the Clark Fork River, is a small blue ribbon trout stream east of Missoula. The stream is bordered on the west by the Sapphire Range, which includes the Welcome Creek Wilderness, the only designated wilderness in this range.

South of Welcome Creek in the Sapphire Range is the 103,000 acre Stony Mountain Proposed Wilderness including headwater tributaries to Rock Creek.

Continuing south of Skalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Range is another S.393 wilderness study area, the 116,000 acre Sapphire Mountain Proposed Wilderness. The highest point is 9,000 foot, Kent Peak. The Sapphire Mountain WSA is a critical link in the Sapphire/Rock Creek Wildlands corridor that leads to the Big Hole Valley further south. The Sapphire Mountain WSA is also immediately adjacent to the existing Anaconda Pintler Wilderness, and the combined acreage of 350,000 acres makes it the fourth largest continuous roadless area in Montana.

On the east side of the Rock Creek Valley lies the 77,000 acre Quigg Peak Proposed Wilderness, a circular patch of little visited non-descript forested country that rises 4,500 feet above Rock Creek.

Another major tributary of the Clark Fork is Flint Creek. The Flint Creek Range south of Deer Lodge and east of Phillipsburg contains glacier-scoured, 10,000 foot peaks, cirque lakes and a 60,000 acre proposed wilderness.

Tucked up on the Canadian border west of Glacier National Park and east of Eureka are the rugged Whitefish and Galton Ranges which include a number of roadless areas, collectively totaling 171,000 acres. These areas are part of the proposed Winton Weydemeyer Wilderness. Weydemeyer was a long-time local wildlands advocate. Many ecologists consider the North Fork of the Flathead Valley to be one of the most biologically important areas in Montana, home to wolves, grizzlies, wolverine, lynx, elk, moose, and deer, plus some of the best bull trout spawning habitat in Montana.

Starting on the Canadian border is the 45,000 acre Ten Lakes Proposed Wilderness. The highest peaks rise to nearly 8,000 feet, and a number of sparkling lakes and lush flowery meadows dot the cirque basins. (I only count six lakes). Another S.393 protected area, the Ten Lakes area was included in the 1984 Montana Wilderness bill that President Reagan vetoed.

Immediately west and south of the Ten Lakes area lies the 126,000 acres North Fork Wildlands Complex, a series of roadless areas lying west of the North Fork of the Flathead River separated by a few logging roads. The North Fork Wildlands includes Mount Hefty/Mount Tuchuck, Mount Thompson Seton/Nasukoin Mountain. Great views of Glacier National Park’s rugged peaks are possible from many of the highest points in this proposed wilderness. http://www.wildmontana.org/campaigns/winton/index.php

Glacier National Park has nearly a million acres of wilderness quality lands. All of it should be designated as wilderness. I don’t think I need to discuss the attributes that makes Glacier an outstanding wildlands complex. The NPS essentially manages this as wilderness anyway, so designation of this area should be politically easy.


South of Glacier National Park is the 1.5 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which includes the contiguous Great Bear and Scapegoat Wildernesses. The complex is Montana’s flagship wilderness area. Proposed additions to the Bob Marshall total more than 500,000 acres in three major blocks—Swan Range, Rocky Mountain Front, and the peaks bordering the Blackfoot Valley on the south. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/cont%20divide.jpg

Starting along the western border of the Bob Marshall, is the spectacular Swan Range which stretches nearly a 100 miles from Glacier National Park south to the Blackfoot Valley. The Swan forms the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but much of the range lies outside of the wilderness boundary. The 89,000 acre Swan Crest takes in the Jewel Basin Hiking Area with its two dozen or so cirque lakes and other roadless lands lying at the headwaters of tributaries to the South Fork of the Flathead River. The 169,000 Swan Front Proposed Addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness would take in the steep west face of the Swan Range, including 9,200 plus Swan Peak and 9,300 foot Holland Peak, as well as Lion Creek drainage with its giant western red cedars.

Making up the northern face of the Blackfoot River Valley along the southern edge of the Bob Marshall is the 90,000 Monture Creek Proposed Additions. Monture Creek, along with the North Fork of the Blackfoot, are among the best bull trout spawning streams left in the Blackfoot River drainage.

The eastern edge of the Bob Marshall consists of the Rocky Mountain Front where the mountains rise for 110 miles north to south abruptly and dramatically from the Great Plains. It is probably the premier unprotected wildlands in Montana. Ecologists have documented that approximately a third of all plant species found in Montana are known to grow here as well as 290 species of wildlife. During the Forest Service’s RARE11 inventory, some of the roadless lands on the Front had the highest wildlands ratings in the lower 48, comparable to some of the Forest Service lands in Alaska. Some of the larger roadless areas along the Front include Badger Two Medicine, Choteau Mountain, Teton High Peaks, Deep Creek, Renbshaw, and Falls Silver King. http://www.savethefront.org/index.php

Central Montana includes the communities of Lewistown, Butte , Great Falls and Helena. A number of isolated mountain ranges, as well as a diverse number of roadless lands along the Continental Divide provide linkages between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Bob Marshall/Glacier Ecosystem. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/cont%20divide.jpg

Along or near the Continental Divide are a number of proposed wildernesses. Most of these roadless areas consist of more gentle terrain of rolling mountains, open parks, and great wildlife habitat. Among the largest roadless areas are the 50,000 acre Nevada Mountain Proposed Wilderness, 50,000 acre Electric Peak Proposed Wilderness, and east of I-15 the 84,000 acre Whitetail-Hay stack Proposed Wilderness with its extensive wetlands.

Just south of Helena is the 88,000 Elkhorn Mountains Proposed Wilderness, home to one of the more productive elk herds in the state.

To the southeast of Helena in the Big Belt Mountains that harbor a series of small roadless areas like a string of beads. Anchoring it on the north is the 28,000 acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Named by Lewis and Clark, the Gates signaled where the Missouri left the mountains. Additions to this area, including 10,000 acre Sleeping Giant and adjacent state Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, would make a 65,000 acre complex.

South of the Gates of the Mountains, the two largest roadless areas include 20,000 acre Camas Creek Proposed Wilderness which features Camas and Boulder lakes lakes, plus the 18,000 acre glaciated cirques of the Baldy Peak/Mt. Edith Proposed Wildernesses. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/island%20ranges.jpg

East of Great Falls is the isolated volcanic Highwood Mountains, that contains aspen-lined coulees and a patchwork of meadows and forest in a 40,000 acre proposed wilderness split by one road. Southeast of Great Falls are the Little Belt Mountains. There are many roadless aeas in this range that collectively total more than 450,000 acres. Three of the notable wildlands include the 43,000 acre Pilgrim Creek Proposed Wilderness, a prime hunting area with many open parks.

The center piece of the Little Belts is the 105,000 acre Tenderfoot/Deep Creek Proposed Wilderness encompassing the Smith River Canyon, a sixty mile float through wild country with magnificent limestone cliffs and excellent fishing.
The Little Belts are also the location of the rolling terrain that makes up the 92,000 acre Middle Fork of the Judith River Proposed Wilderness, another S.393 WSA, featuring dramatic limestone canyons.

The 105,000 acre Big Snowy Mountains Proposed Wilderness, south of Lewistown, is another S.393 area. The Big Snowy Mountains rises 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains and features an extensive above timberline plateau, and the singular beauty of aptly named Crystal Lake.


Southwest Montana takes in Montana’s largest national forest—the sprawling 3.3 million acre Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and the greatest acreage of unprotected roadless lands in the state. A number of conservation groups have proposed the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership which would guarantee access to 730,000 acres, including many roadless area of forest, for logging in exchange for timber industry support of wilderness. While the timber giveaway of the partnership is inappropriate, there are quite a number of wildlands on the BDNF worthy of wilderness protection in the proposal as well as a few not included in the agreement. Many of these wildlands form the headwaters of the famous Big Hole River. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/assets/nrepaMaps/beaverhead.jpg

Just south of Butte are three roadless areas that have important wildlands values.
The 12,000 acre Humbug Spires, 21,000 acre Highland Mountains, and 36,000 acre Fleecer Mountain proposed wilderness areas. The spires features many granite knobs that are a favorite for climbers while the Highlands feature flat-topped Table Mountain with expansive views. Finally, Fleecer Mountain is part of an important game range just north of the Big Hole River. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/assets/nrepaMaps/deerlodge.jpg

Starting in the north end of the Big Hole Valley is what has become known as the 50,000 acre North Big Hole proposed additions to the existing 158,000 acre Anaconda Pintler Wilderness which would expand significantly protection for the lower slopes of the range. This would secure some of the more productive lands in the valley, including the most important big game habitat.

Immediately south of Chief Joseph Pass along the Montana-Idaho border and on the north end of the Beaverhead Mountains is the 50,000 Anderson Peak Proposed Wilderness, a land of mostly rolling lodgepole covered hills.

South of Big Hole Pass are the rugged glaciated peaks and more than 30 cirque lakes of the 130,000 acre West Big Hole Proposed Wilderness, including 10,621 foot Homer Young Peak, the highest in the range.

East of Wisdom is the 240,000 roadless acres of the West Pioneer Mountains, one of Montana’s largest roadless areas and another S.393 wilderness study area. The rolling forested mountains of the West Pioneers Proposed Wilderness top out at 9,000 feet. This area has been greatly impacted by ORV intrusions in recent years.

Directly east and across the Wise River, are the 145,000 acre East Pioneer Mountains Proposed Wilderness. The East Pioneers are extremely rugged, with many cirque lakes and glaciated high peaks including 11, 154 foot Tweedy Mountain and 11,146 foot Torrey Mountain.

The 50,000 acre South Big Hole/Tash Peak Proposed Wilderness, as its name implies, takes in the high peaks at the south end of the Big Hole Valley, including 9,800 foot Bloody Dick Peak.

The 90,000 acre Italian Peak Proposed Wilderness is part of a larger nearly 300,000 acre chunk of roadless country straddling the Continental Divide on the Montana-Idaho border. The lonely, but rugged limestone peaks, including 10,998 Italian Peak reminds me of the Canadian Rockies. Other major peaks include 11,141 foot Eighteenmile Peak.

The arid 83,000 acre Tendoy Mountains Proposed Wilderness east of Dell, Montana, consists of open grass-sagebrush slopes rising to the top of 10,000 foot mountains with pockets of conifer and aspen. The open country is superb for cross country hiking and excellent hunting terrain.

The 42,000 acre Lima Peak/Mount Garfield Proposed Wilderness also straddles the Continental Divide, and includes 10,961 foot Mt. Garfield. This area features many aspen groves, along with patches of conifers intermixed with open grassy slopes that can be hiked for miles.

Several other small BLM roadless areas are also found in this region including 27,000 acres in the Ruby Range east of Dillon, 15,000 acres in the Blacktail Mountains southeast of Dillon, and 12,000 acres in the dry, open limestone summit of Henneberry Ridge area southwest of Dillon.

Surrounding Yellowstone National Park are some of the largest wildlands in the Rockies. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/greater%20yellow.jpg,

The centerpiece in Montana is the 920,000 acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, which includes Montana’s highest summits such as 12,799 foot Granite Peak, and some of the most extensive alpine tundra in the lower 48 states. Starting near Gardiner and working around the edge of the existing wilderness significant proposed additions include Dome Mountain and Emigrant Peak, wintering habitat for thousands of elk that migrate from Yellowstone, the Paradise Face that provides the scenic backdrop for Paradise Valley, Shell Mountain, Mount Rae, and the Deer Creeks, a lower elevation unglaciated terrain between the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers, home to genetically pure cutthroat trout and as its name implies lots of deer. Nearer Red Lodge are the Beartooth Face and the 20,000 acre high-elevation alpine Line Creek Plateau. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/assets/nrepaMaps/gallatin.jpg

Lying north of the Yellowstone River by Livingston is the 140,000 acre Crazy Mountains Proposed Wilderness. The Crazies have 23 peaks over 10,000 feet with more than 7,000 feet rise from the Yellowstone River to the top of 11,214 Crazy Peak, rivaling the Tetons in total elevation gain. The wind- blasted glacier-carved summits have an Arctic look that makes them more like something in Alaska, especially in winter, when the snowy peaks are set against a cold winter sky.
Directly across the Shields Valley from the Crazy Mountains, and just outside of Bozeman, is the 42,000 acre Bridger Mountain Proposed Wilderness. The Bridgers are a critical link in the chain of roadless lands that leads from the Greater Yellowstone north to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Marking the southwestern edge of the Gallatin Valley is the 96,000 acre Tobacco Root Mountains Proposed Wilderness. Extensively fragmented by old mining roads, the Tobacco Roots still harbor some small roadless areas. These glaciated mountains possess 28 peaks over 10,000 feet and dozens of small lakes and tarns.

To the southwest of Dillon and the headwaters of the Ruby River lies the wildly fe-filled 110,000 acre Snowcrest Range Proposed Wilderness. A long narrow range with a number of 10,000 plus peaks, the Snowcrest Range is a mixture of open grassy/sage slopes, pockets of aspen and conifers, topping out with tundra along the ridges and higher peaks. You mightee pronghorn as elk on the high slopes of this range. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/assets/nrepaMaps/beaverhead.jpg

The rolling Gravelly Range lies south of Virginia City and forms the western border of the Madison River Valley. It has some important elk and bighorn sheep habitat, but is severely compromised by heavy livestock grazing. There are four major roadless areas in this range including 39,000 acre Black Butte, 14,000 acre Lone Butte, 70,000 acres West Fork Madison and 53,000 acre Bighorn units. http://www.wildrockiesalliance.org/assets/nrepaMaps/beaverhead.jpg

Straddling the Continental Divide west of Henry’s Lake, Idaho, the 82,000 Centennial Mountains Proposed Wilderness is one of the few east-west running mountain masses in Montana, making it an important corridor and connector between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Central Idaho wildlands to the west. Directly below this range is the remote Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the range on the Montana side of the border is managed by the BLM which has identified a 27,000 wilderness study area in the central portion of the range. Aspen is abundant here, and the valleys are surprisingly lush.

The 255,000 acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Big Sky honors the late Senator Lee Metcalf, one of Montana’s wilderness champions. Unfortunately, when the wilderness was created, several important areas were left out of the wilderness, including Cowboy’s Heaven proposed addition on the north, taking in Cherry Creek, a proposed westslope cutthroat trout restoration site.

The 32,000 acre Lionhead Proposed Wilderness straddles the Continental Divide and Idaho-Montana border just west of West Yellowstone, Montana. It is really the southern extension of the Madison which is largely protected as the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The area features a number of 10,000 foot peaks. The Lionhead is an important corridor in the east-west movement of wildlife from Yellowstone to the various ranges in southwest Montana. Grizzlies, for instance, move from the Lionhead to the Gravelly and Centennial Ranges through this area. In recent years, snowmobiles have taken to riding to the top of Lionhead Peak, significantly compromising the solitude and wildlands qualities of this area.

The 200,000 acre Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness is on Bozeman’s doorstep and extends southward into Yellowstone National Park where more than 325,000 additional acres of proposed wilderness are found. The Gallatin Range features many glaciated peaks exceeding 10,000 feet, and some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in Montana.

The proposed wilderness is home to nearly every major large mammal found in Montana, including grizzly, wolf, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, wolverine, lynx, marten, and even bison on occasion. The Gallatin Range contains many headwaters streams for two blue ribbon trout rivers—the Gallatin and Yellowstone. One hundred and fifty one thousand acres are tentatively protected by Congress as the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in S. 393, but unfortunately, ORVs have established many new “routes” in the range. http://www.gallatinwilderness.org/help.html

South of Billings and lying in the rain shadow east of the lofty Beartooths is the Pryor Mountains, a mix of BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service and Indian Reservation lands. http://www.wildmontana.org/resources/maps/images/pryor%20mtns.jpg

A limestone northern extension of the Bighorn Mountains, the Pryors has several major roadless areas including Lost Water Canyon Proposed Wilderness, as well as four other roadless areas. In some areas, the narrow limestone canyons might make you think you were in southern Utah. Numerous caves provide habitat for ten species of bats including the spotted and Townsend's big eared bats, both candidates for listing under the ESA. The Pryors contains 10 distinct ecological systems which support a variety of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, black bears and mule deer, and more than 200 species of birds. Unfortunately the dry and fragile Pryor Mountain landscape is being torn apart by ORV use. http://pryormountains.org/vision2.html


Most of the private land in Montana is found on the Great Plains, but there are some patches of public lands, mostly managed by the BLM and FWS. So far only two small prairie wildernesses exist in Montana: 11,000 plus acre Medicine Lake Wilderness in extreme Northeast Montana, and 20,000 acre U Bend Wilderness along the shore of Fort Peck Reservoir. There are, however, many other areas that could be added to the prairie wildlands protection list. Here are three of the best.

Nearly on the Canadian border northwest of Glasgow, the 60,000 acre Bitter Creek Proposed Wilderness is one of the largest grassland roadless areas in the state. Past glaciations has left gently rolling terrain that invites long walks across an endless horizon. With a name like Bitter Creek, it’s not difficult to imagine why this part of the plains was never settled. http://www.montanabirdingtrail.org/maps/r2/t1/s1/r2t1s1.php

Another prairie BLM wildlands is the 50,000 acre Terry Badlands. The proposed wilderness borders the lower Yellowstone River near Terry, Montana. Water and wind have sculpted the soft sandstones in numerous buttes, pinnacles, and spires. One of the eastern most stands of limber pine is found growing on the rims. http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/columns/favorite-places/terry-badlands-montana.html

The largest prairie wildlands complex is found along the Missouri River in the Missouri Breaks National Monument and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The roadless areas are too numerous to name here, but as much as 400,000 acres may qualify as wilderness. All of this country consists of steep escapements and coulees bordering the Missouri River. http://www.wildmontana.org/programs/missouribreaks.php