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Gobbledygook? Are Feel-Good Words Failing The Cause Of Wildlife Conservation?
January 5, 2023
Gobbledygook? Are Feel-Good Words Failing The Cause Of Wildlife Conservation?
Those who toss around terms like "sustainability" often struggle to explain what they really mean in the context of protecting America's private and public wild lands
by Todd Wilkinson
We hear the word spoken and written all the time, ubiquitously, by federal and state land management agencies, conservation groups, business people, ranchers, farmers and politicians.
But ask yourself, what does “sustainability” really mean?
In any proposed action or inaction, it’s important to wonder what is being sustained, for whom, and at what cost to other things?
Modern eco-speak can be a veritable salad bar of amorphous terminology and acronyms. What springs to mind when you hear the words “conservation,” “balance,” “fairness,” “stakeholders,” “stewardship,” “common ground,” “shared values,” and outcomes purporting to be “win-win” solutions?
If a panorama of land, public or private, home to resident and migratory wildlife, has its ability to sustain a healthy population of native animals cut in half, or whittled down with each human decision, then is that a “win-win” for humans and wildlife?
Wildness is defined here as a place where wild animals can persist. And what is a wild land if it cannot maintain—sustain or conserve—its wild life?
As concepts, the rhetoric sounds good when it rolls off the tongue and reaches the ear. Like “freedom” and “liberty,” “patriotism” and “rugged individualism.” Yet when their purveyors are hard pressed to explain what exactly they mean, when put into practice—particularly in discussions that involve what it will take to save the greatest wildlife ecosystem remaining in the Lower 48 of America—often they get tongue tied.
Not long ago, I had a chat with a senior national forest manager in Greater Yellowstone and the person struggled to provide a coherent response when I asked how sustainability, conservation and the other terms, above, might be interpreted, say, by the animals inhabiting public and private landscapes, dealing with a steady, ongoing incursion of more humans and development.
If grizzly bears, elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn, wild trout, bison, wolves, wolverines, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, among other species in Greater Yellowstone, could speak English and testify at a public hearing or submit comments about what’s happening to them, what would they say? And would we be listening?
The Forest Service person and I were discussing a recently completed national forest management plan that is supposed to guide human uses going forward for at least a couple of decades. Given the whirlwind of intense human pressure that descended on various parts of Greater Yellowstone in just the past few years due to Covid, I asked the civil servant what the current trendlines of sprawl, crowding, habitat loss, native species being displaced by growing numbers of recreationists and water challenges portend for wildlife in just another decade?
I asked how the forest plan is addressing those issues. Throughout a voluminous Environmental Impact Statement prepared as part of the forest plan, seldom are the impacts of sprawl even mentioned and nothing is proposed to mitigate them, though they hold huge consequences for the ecological function of the forest. When it comes to wildlife, in the “wildlife section” of the EIS, its authors assert they didn’t know what the impacts of rising recreation levels on animals were before Covid. The agency doesn't know in the wake of the pandemic or what they will be in the future with a lot more people living in the region.
Another term thrown into the mix is “adaptive management” that will be implemented if the Forest Service discovers, after the fact, that what it is doing turns out to have negative impacts on wildlife. But isn’t it better to anticipate harmful effects and prevent them instead of being reactionary when attempts to fix the problems you create are harder to do later?
In the EIS, words such as “conservation,” “sustainability,” “balance,” “fairness,” “stakeholders,” “stewardship,” “common ground” and “shared values” appear abundantly. When I pressed the Forest Service person to spell out their definitions, within the context of wildlife conservation, the individual paused, and then, finally, replied, “I don’t know.”
I have presented the same question to people working for prominent Greater Yellowstone environmental organizations, and whose job titles relate to “conservation stewardship.” I received, more or less, the same non-response. If the meaning and implication of words are vague, ambiguous, confusing or exist in a vacuum of clear implication, then what good are they?
As it’s been posed to readers dozens of times at Mountain Journal, what is conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem without “wildlife conservation” serving as a crucial barometer, cornerstone and metric for gauging success?
For example: what does sustaining rising outdoor recreation and development opportunities for humans mean for the sustainability of animals existing on a thin margin of secure habitat that is only going to be squeezed tighter by climate change, invasions of exotic weeds on grasslands, shifting availability of water, and wildfires that transform forests into shrublands?
Another buzzword often invoked by federal agencies and conservation groups related to climate change is “resiliency.” For wildlife, it means that, as climate change brings ecological disruption that negatively effects formerly stable habitat, and as the human footprint fills private land, animals are going to need more habitat, not less, to persist.
Nothing in the Forest Service management plan, which could be in place for decades, and nothing in any county or city management plan in Greater Yellowstone even hints at how that might be achieved, or if “resiliency” is being taken seriously as an objective. In a December 2020 Forest Service national report on recreation and wildlife, a key scientific recommendation for managers overseeing areas with high wildlife values called for maintaining existing large unfragmented landscapes. "To the extent possible, " the authors wrote, "large unfragmented areas should be maintained for species that rely on such territories and are sensitive to human visitors. Depending on the level of sensitivity of the species of concern, these areas should host limited or no recreation."
A recent scientific analysis by independent researcher Brent Brock, now with the Bozeman-based non-profit FutureWest, found that in some valleys encircling Yellowstone crucial private land habitat and ag lands are being lost at twice the rate it is being protected. Run that ratio out over time and it means that in addition to the fragmented landscapes and constriction of wildlife movements that already exist today, half of the unprotected open space we see now will be gone in coming decades.
A recent scientific analysis found that in some valleys encircling Yellowstone crucial habitat and ag lands are being lost at twice the rate land is being protected. Run that ratio out over time and it means that in addition to the fragmented landscapes and constriction of wildlife movements that already exist today, half of the unprotected open space we see now will be gone in coming decades.
Again, as a practical matter, what is being sustained and for whom? Where is the balance and fairness to be found for wildlife and the sustainability of agriculture and open space when every new human decision results in animals or rural people being forced to surrender more? In light of that, how might a grizzly bear mother and cubs or a migrating elk herd or remnant wolverines respond to what stewardship, shared values and common ground mean for them? While some readers here might blanch at treating wildlife with the same level of courtesy given to humans in a consensus and collaboration process, isn't part of compassionate conservation trying to imagine what kind of deal wildlife, as stakeholders, would willingly consent to approving?
Since wild country isn’t expanding and the caliber of the best wild country is eroding or being bargained away in consensus and collaboration processes that place “wildlife” into a single monolithic category, are individual species and their needs being treated with respect or are they relegated to second-class concerns relative to the insatiable human appetite to take more?
Why does each human user group enjoy sizeable, separate pieces of the finite public lands pie being carved up on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management tracts under the dubious and failed guise of “multiple use,” yet Greater Yellowstone’s noteworthy diversity of “wildlife” is bunched together into a single slice? Why aren’t grizzlies given their own slice as a “stakeholder,” why aren’t elk, mule deer and pronghorn, why isn’t the sustainability of native wild trout given equal weight relative to accommodating the interests of rising numbers of anglers endeavoring to catch them, why isn’t more equity being extended to bighorn sheep and mountain goats as is done to backcountry snow sport enthusiasts?
Why aren’t grizzlies given their own slice as a “stakeholder,” why aren’t elk, mule deer and pronghorn, why isn’t the sustainability of native wild trout given equal weight relative to accommodating the interests of rising numbers of anglers endeavoring to catch them, why isn’t more equity being extended to bighorn sheep and mountain goats as is done to backcountry snow sport enthusiasts?
The truth is that wildlife, at present, if they are represented at all at negotiating tables, already have given up much, relative to what’s happened in America and, in Greater Yellowstone, they have few alternative places to go. Seldom is this acknowledged or prioritized in consensus and collaboration discussions whose outcomes are predominantly directed toward appeasing human ambitions to profit or play. Can Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife be sustained amid this kind of attitude? Prominent scientists say it will not, so what are we doing to change conventional thinking?
It begins with how we communicate because words we choose to use are reflections of how we think.
Most of the Lower 48 states is dominated by human uses; that’s why biodiversity is missing or diminished in most regions of the country. That’s also why Greater Yellowstone, which as an exception still possesses every mammal, bird and fish species that was present in 1491, the year before Europeans arrived on the continent. It and a few other corners of the Northern Rockies, like the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, represent the rarest of the rare and the best of the best.
The Custer Gallatin, Bridger-Teton, Caribou-Targhee, Shoshone, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests are not akin to a national forest in Nebraska, Colorado, Utah or California. Forest Service lands in Greater Yellowstone hold large mammalian wildlife diversity second to no other place, and yet there’s little evidence the public land management agency recognizes this and is prepared to act on that fact.
Even here, public land managers, user groups and some conservation organizations treat wildlands as if they are “underutilized;” as if the management goal ought to be packing in more people, more activities and building more infrastructure. They claim that this is conservation but growing scientific evidence shows it is coming at the expense to wildlife that live here and it is following the same patterns of human displacement of species that have played out elsewhere.
There are a lot of good people working tirelessly as federal, state and local public servants, and we have devoted advocates in the environmental movement. As citizens, we're lucky that way. The Forest Service, which oversees more public land in Greater Yellowstone than any other government bureaucracy, touts itself as a proud “conservation agency.” Second to the Forest Service, the other most important players in determining the fate of wildlife are the counties. But again what are they conserving and what is being sustained?
The next time you see a civil servant working for the National Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, state land officials or friends in the conservation movement, ask them the question, to explain how sustaining the status quo of pushing for prolific human use will sustain the wildlife?
A religious experience? In this Thomas D. Mangelsen photo "Prayer for the Wild," grizzly 399 and her recent brood of four cubs wander past the Chapel of the Transfiguration in Grand Teton National Park. Photo courtesy Tom Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)
A college professor once explained that "economic sustainability refers to practices that support long-term economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community."
The paradox we are confronting is that boosters of growth claim that in order to have a sustainable economy, wildlife must compromise in its needs, though it is wildlife that has become the foundation of our current sustainable nature-based economy that can persist as long as we don’t screw it up. Right now economic booms sweeping across valleys are leaving wildlife with its own brand of homelessness.
Ecosystem thinking in this crown jewel of wildlife ecosystems demands that the terminology we employ be more than human focused. It must possess humility and empathy for our non-human neighbors.
If the language we use to frame up the conservation challenges facing our one of a kind region aren’t working or are so vague as to sow confusion, then we need to communicate using better, edifying words. They must hold better practical meaning so the public can understand, and better accountability should be imposed upon the entities claiming to be promoting "sustainability" and most of all, we need better outcomes.
Otherwise, we are going to remain stuck in a bureaucratic vocabulary of mumbo jumbo, gobbledygook, the kind of jargon we humans use to deflect from answering to truths we don’t want to acknowledge, but are there right before our eyes.