Appalling Ignorance

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“The best way to protect the sage grouse or the prairie chickens is to sell it to someone.” “Is there a shortage of cows in our country? No, because someone owns cows.”

Senator and presidential (R) candidate Rand Paul speaking in Elko, Nevada

Greater Sage-grouse need habitat, sagebrush habitat, large unbroken expanses of good habitat with grasses, forbs, insects; a landscape free of disturbance. They are hard-wired to the sagebrush ecosystem and simply can’t survive without sage. Captive breeding programs haven’t been very successful – and relocating has mixed results – Sage-grouse and 350 other western species still need sagebrush habitat. The only way ranchers can “raise” sage-grouse is by protecting their habitat and we have a government program for those ranchers. It’s called the Sage Grouse Initiative and it’s a very successful government program. This noble bird of the American West has been here for 25 million years and we have a plan to recover the species. Deal with it.

Sage-grouse and the CR-Omnibus Rider

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Greater Sage-grouse in Pinedale Mesa Gas Field, Sublette County, Wyoming

There have been times when I’ve felt I’m looking at the last Sage-grouse in the world. The image above was one of those times. Fortunately, these bleak scenes are offset by moments of restrained joy when witnessing thirty or forty male Sage-grouse strutting for a few females. I’ve been reading all of the rhetoric I can get my hands on since the CR-Omnibus rider prohibiting the USFWS from pursuing any ESA activities related to Greater Sage-grouse listing while blocking the recent “Threatened” ESA designation for the 4,000 or so Gunnison Sage-grouse that remain. I’ve been doing this work long enough to understand that these decisions generally have nothing to do with the affected species, but this decision is stunning on a number of levels. The media seems content to trot out the tired energy vs: “environmentalists” angle to many stories, describing Sage-grouse as “brownish, chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Further complicating the chaotic picture, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper has sued the Obama administration over the Gunnison Sage-grouse “Threatened” status “because the Gunnison Basin population, which comprises the vast majority of the species’ individuals and occupied range, is not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.” We can debate that – a drought year(s) or fire could wipe out many in a population that exists in one location – all the eggs are in one basket. But it doesn’t matter because the discussion has moved away from the welfare of two imperiled species – and how we can work together for their recovery – to bureaucrats pushing ideology over science. There’s no science in the CR-omnibus rider. If you’re new to the issue, you need to know this: Westerners are working together and finding common ground, and Sage-grouse are imperiled. Brian Rutledge VP and Policy Director for the National Audubon Society, who’s been leading Sage-grouse conservation efforts for over a decade said this: “The priority right now is to get science-based, state-level conservation plans in place that are effective enough to avoid a federal listing for the Greater Sage-Grouse in the first place. This rider will only complicate coordination between the BLM and statehouses and stems entirely from political maneuvering, ignoring scientific input and voices across the Mountain West that want strong plans in place.” Science-based. Avoid a listing. Work together. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her department will continue to act “with urgency” to preserve Western sagebrush landscapes and will reach “a decision” this fiscal year on whether to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, in spite of a legislative rider Congress passed as part of its 2015 spending bill that blocks formal listing actions.

I’m happy to hear Secretary Jewell speak of “Western sagebrush landscapes.” This question of sustainability is about so much more than “a brownish, chicken-sized bird that lives in sagebrush.”

On Their Own?

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A Greater Sage-grouse male displays on a Sublette County, Wyoming lek, or mating ground.

Congress has taken control of the endangered species process again. The new budget spending bill would block any federal funds going toward determining whether the Gunnison Sage-grouse or Greater Sage-grouse — two species of endemic, imperiled western birds — are eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act. So, the whole business of collaboration to save the species and avoid a listing gets turned on its head, grouse get thrown under the bus – for what? You can fill in the blank here____ bowing to Big Energy? Greed? Here’s the thing, and you know this if you’ve visited this blog, the sagebrush ecosystem is the iconic landscape of the American West. The Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse are the iconic species for the ecosystem, so they get the full attention of folks who like to write “chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Grouse are the bellwhether for the health of a massive ecosystem in collapse, and there are plenty of declining species worthy of habitat protection and a very close watch, each a canary in the coal mine. This budget process really stinks when politicians who claim they’re not scientists (when discussing climate change) usurp the role of dedicated professionals working hard for collaborative solutions. I’m not crying for a listing, just a process that affords species, every threatened species, a chance to recover. These are our lands, our wildlife. What will folks write when mule deer are endangered? “A brownish, medium-sized, hooved mammal that winters in sagebrush, except those that hang around the edges of western towns, browsing on lawns and gardens. Once plentiful, mulies were highly sought and coveted by hunters until their decline.”

Our National Park Heritage

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“Roosevelt Arch Winter Night” Yellowstone National Park, Montana. So brutally cold, with a -50 or so windchill, I could only manage one shot at a time before plunging hands in pockets. The arch is lit by a glow from Gardiner, MT. Travel further and you’ll be greeted by glorious and absolute darkness.

The words above the arch resonate deeper on each visit, all in caps: FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE. All people, everyone welcome, our first national park, the first in the world, come enjoy. Created by an act of Congress in 1872, Yellowstone is still the gold standard. Not only is Yellowstone emblematic of the wild, it is the only fully intact ecosystem in the Lower 48. Every animal that’s supposed to be here thrives in Yellowstone. Of course things get more complicated when animals humans consider inferior wander from the park; but that’s a story for another day. From toothy predators to micro organisms in thermal pools, Yellowstone is sharing new lessons every day. Now a new bill (1459) authored by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) would ban any new national parks. Banned, as we’ve protected all we can, learned all that we need to from nature because it’s time to take more. The same Congress that closed our parks just last fall, robbing millions of inspiration, and stealing billions from local communities in a peak tourist season, would ban any more parks. Parks give in countless ways, and I’ll admit that not all can be measured on a balance sheet. But it’s not up to a tin badge politician to decide how and whether we can be inspired. We need more parks, more wilderness, wilderness study areas, more kindling for the human spirit. The rate of development is far outstripping conservation – we’re giving away public lands to developers who are embezzling our natural heritage. Let’s kill this bill and elect people willing to stand for wilderness. I’m writing some letters to our Colorado elected officials today – just wrote to Congressman Ed Perlmutter. Please join me and write to your local congressman/woman. They need to hear from us!

Parks Shutdown – a Look Back

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Bison and Teton Range : Prints Available

American Bison graze on Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park. The iconic Grand Teton backdrop is partially obscured in layers of morning clouds that are typical in Jackson Hole. 

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Before I start this philisophical post, I’d like to thank the settlers of Kelly, Wyoming for locating the town in a corner of Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) in the 1890’s. Back then the town was named Grovont, eventually chaged to Kelly to avoid confusion with another town in the area. For visitors in Jackson Hole during the government shutdown, the road to Kelly provided acccess to the edges of GTNP along Antelope Flats, and a route through the park to the Gros Ventre Valley while GTNP and YNP were officially closed. I’m still pissed at those that caused the whole shutdown debacle – we all know who they are, so there’s no need to mention them here. The common theme among photographers during that week was to focus on a much smaller area with gratitude for the few opportunities we had. It was a sort of Thoreauvian mindset of checking on the bison herd, the three moose along the Gros Ventre River, the pronghorn herd – still in rut and not migrating because of mild weather in Jackson Hole – and the Great gray owls on the edge of town. All of that and the lingering fall color seemed to keep everybody busy, and focused. The image on this post happened only because I wasn’t somewhere else at the time – there’s something to the concept of persistence and working the same area. But, these are our lands and we should never be denied access. There are a couple of lessons beyond beyond the obvious “make the best of your situation”: First, national parks have imaginary borders that wildlife don’t recognize; so explore the edges. Second, never miss a chance to be inspired or to inspire others. And finally, to those who would shut the gates and deny access to our national parks, our legacy, and the opportunity to inspire others, may your actions be repudiated harshly. May you rot in hell. A lot of folks were hurt across the country – that’s a damn shame that we won’t soon forget.

National Parks Shutdown

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Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park – which closed today.

I’m saddened and more than a little ticked off about today’s government shutdown, but I’ll skip my political take in favor of posting the following statement from the National Parks Conservation Association that spells out the impacts of this senseless result of non-governing:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 1, 2013

Statement by: Theresa Pierno, Acting President, National Parks Conservation Association

Government Shutdown Closes National Parks Nationwide
Hurts Local Economies, Planned Family Vacations & America’s National Heritage

“The National Parks Conservation Association is deeply disappointed that Congress and the President have failed to reach agreement on a budget deal that consequently has forced the federal government and our 401 national parks to shut down indefinitely. The closure of America’s crown jewels threatens the livelihood of park businesses and gateway communities; the more than 21,000 National Park Service staff we expect to be furloughed; and countless American families and international visitors who rely on national parks being open for business to enjoy our national heritage.

“The government shutdown has forced the National Park Service to close park entrances, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, concession stands, and other park facilities. Education programs and special events have been canceled, permits issued for special activities rescinded, hotels and campgrounds emptied and entrances secured. Many national parks have also been forced to close during peak visitation season, including places such as Acadia and the Great Smoky Mountains where people visit to enjoy the fall foliage or Civil War sites that attract school groups. Many people also visit places like the Grand Canyon and Death Valley this time of year to enjoy cooler weather. The loss of more than 750,000 daily visitors from around the world who typically visit national parks in October may cost local communities as much as $30 million each day the national parks are closed.

“Whether it’s a senseless government shutdown or a damaging set of budget cuts, national parks and the people who enjoy and depend on them continue to suffer from a failed budget process. After hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts to the parks the last few years, we have two questions for Washington—when are you going to reopen the parks, and what will you do to repair the damage this budget process has already done? Our national parks should be open, and funding should be restored to provide visitors with safe and inspiring experiences.

“As we approach the centennial of our national parks in 2016, on behalf of our 800,000 members and supporters, and families and businesses throughout the nation, we call on Congress and the President to swiftly re-open our national parks to visitors, and to agree to a budget that ends these indiscriminate cuts to the National Park Service.”

Another Haliburton Highway?

Flowering rabbit brush lines a two lane road in the Thompson Divide area, near Carbondale, Colorado. This entire area is leased for natural gas development.

In “Drilling The Roaring Fork Valley. Really?” I highlighted yet another plan to turn a truly special place into an industrial-scale gas field. Marla and I have traveled to the Aspen/Carbondale area quite a few times, usually to hike around Mount Sopris or photograph the aspen forest on McClure Pass near Marble. I recently learned that the entire area north and west of Carbondale is leased for drilling and could become an industrial wasteland. The Thompson Divide is the only buffer between Carbondale and the Piceance Basin, a mega-field sacrificed landscape, industrial complex in northwest Colorado. Along the Thompson Divide, ranchlands and rolling sagebrush give way to aspen and conifer forest in the shadow of towering Mount Sopris. Crystal River pours from the high peaks, cutting through the valley to its confluence with the Roaring Fork in Carbondale. The Roaring Fork is a significant tributary of the Colorado. The Thompson Divide is important mid-elevation habitat for migrating deer and elk, the Crystal River irrigates hay meadows,and it’s a hiking, mountain biking, wildlife-watching, fly fishing, photography and hunting mecca; providing year round revenue for surrounding communities. The Thompson Divide Coalition, with 3,200 members, is advocating for protection of the entire area and I fuly support their position. This simply isn’t the place for a massive fracking industrial park, with the thousands of truck trips, toxic chemicals threatening air and water, and pressure on rural towns. I made a trip last week to make images that I hope will support the opposition – click more to continue: Continue reading “Another Haliburton Highway?”

Happy Thanksgiving News!

Dave Willoughby of Daniel, Wyoming is shrounded in fog and mule’s ear sunflowers on the South Rim above the planned Noble Basin/Upper Hoback industrial gas field in Sublette County. Dave is a member of Citizens For The Wyoming Range and a stauch advocate for protection of this critical area.

Good News! Yesterday, Jaqueline Buchanan, Forest Supervisor of the Bridger Teton National Forest announced that a new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) will be required for Houston-based PXP Energy’s plan to drill in the Upper Hoback region of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). That means that the process starts anew, with a full SEIS followed by a public comment period. The new SEIS wil account for all of the things we’ve learned over the last six years – road density and associated fragmentation, truck trips, threats to air and water with new monitoring techniques, threats to wildlife, like the largest population of moose in the GYE, threatened mule deer and pronghorn migrations, imperiled cutthroat trout, and endangered grizzly bears and lynx. The last go-round generated 60,000 comments, most overwhelmingly opposed to the plan that would also destroy some of the most important hunting and fishing lands anywhere. Thanks to Jacque for your courageous decision and congratulations to the good folks at Citizens For The Wyoming Range. I’m inspired by your united line in the sand and undaunting opposition while standing up for our natural and Western Heritage. Happy Thanksgiving!

$1 Trillion

Scott Christensen of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition fishes the Greybull River in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. The Greybull is a world class fishery in northwest Wyoming, with a long stretch of Yellowstone cutthroat trout water, an imperiled keystone species of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A new report revealed that conservation, recreation, and preservation contribute a whopping $1 trillion per year to the US economy! It’s a stunning number by any measure that should give pause to officials considering development in important natural and recreation areas. I’ve often wondered why sportsmen (and women), recreationists, bird watchers, photographers and others get little recognition as the West gets carved up for industry; and it’s starting to make sense. Industry has the loudest voice, the biggest PR machine, employs a lot of people (the TV ads say that gas employs 9.3 million folks), and contributes to county coffers. It’s the reason that Pinedale, WY, with no stoplights, has an astroturf HS football field and a world-class aquatic center. They also have worse air quality than LA in winter… Big Oil’s unrelenting lobbying and PR has worked so well that the nation overlooked the negatives associated with fracking for “clean natural gas” until the big population centers back east started screaming about the Marcellus Shale boom and threats to NYC’s watershed. Big Oil has done a great job of making us believe that hydraulic fracturing is somehow good for us. They’ve also transformed the American landscape in a little over a decade – fracking is in its infancy and we’ve barely seen the tip of the iceberg of impacts (think Titanic).

Before I get too far down the road of my fracking rant, what about that $1 trillion in conservation, outdoor recreation, and preservation? Decision makers take it for granted, simple. It will always be there, right? Hunters will buy ATV’s, camo gear, guns, stay in rural cabins, eat a few meals out and buy beer at the local watering hole; they always have. Fisherman, birders, mountain bikers, hikers, climbers, backpackers too. Money from industry is extra revenue on top of those recreation dollars, right? How else are you going to build an aquatic center in rural Wyoming? Granted, we don’t have lobbyists or fancy tv ads, so no seat at the table, but $1 trillion and 9.4 million jobs should be worth something for outdoor recreation. It’s sustainable money that gets spent every year and it’s taken for granted. What happens if the next generation decides it’s not worth it to recreate around the fringes of loud, polluted industrial zones that use up our public lands, our natural heritage for filthy energy extraction? They stop spending in those rural towns, that’s what.

The solution is simple, and extremely complicated. Complicated because we have a political environment that’s as toxic as a gas field. Simple because we could get some really smart people together and draw polygons around our most treasured and important lands, preserving migrations and cores, and protecting our natural and recreational heritage. Then we regulate energy producers and make them pay their way to use our lands. We could get it done in a week; but it would take courage, and that’s the problem.

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