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Nevada seems to have more than its share of idiots

Finally my lifelong lack of a college degree pays off! As it turns out,  college degrees are bad for living things. At least that’s according to sterling citizen Cliff Gardner of Ruby Valley in Nevada, who said this to the New York Times:

“I’m sure most of the people being considered for [the state’s Department of Wildlife director] job graduated from a college. These people are the cause of the destruction of wildlife.”

At issue is the ongoing battle in the state of Nevada to keep sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, without the state actually doing anything to protect the sage grouse.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized, chicken-shaped birds in the chicken family that inhabit the sagebrush high desert in the American west. Here’s a photo:

Greater Sage Grouse

Sage grouse are in trouble: their habitat is increasingly altered by grazing, by wildfire and consequent invasion by invasive grasses, and by development for both fossil fuel extraction and renewable energy, especially wind. The problem is that sage grouse are about as tied to sagebrush habitat as they can possibly be. It’s a major food source for adults, making up about 60 percent of the food eaten by adult males. Females eat sagebrush-affiliated herbs when getting ready to lay eggs, and once those eggs hatch out the young spend their first few weeks eating sagebrush-affiliated beetles and ants, along with local herbaceous plants.

The geometry of sagebrush habitat is important to sage grouse too: sagebrush — Artemisia tridentata and allied species — tends to grow patchy, with some big clumps  and some big open areas, along with spots with intermediate cover.  Females generally nest under sagebrush. The clumps are good shelter for chicks.

Meanwhile the big open areas provide the mating habitat sage grouse prefer. Sage grouse mate using the lek strategy. In a sage grouse lek, the males gather around a big open area in spring and, like it says in the video, strut their stuff:

Female grouse will choose their mates from among the males. In a typical lek, no more than one or two males usually get a chance to breed. (The rest go off to post bitter screeds to A Voice For Grouse.)

The sage grouse’s population has dropped to something like one percent of its size a hundred years ago, and habitat destruction is the reason. In 2010, after considering whether to add the species to the Endangered Species list, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided on “warranted but precluded” status, which means “yes, it’s legally deserving of protection, but there’s only so much we can do.”  The species now comes up for annual review, and can be added to the Endangered Species list at any point if the Fish and Wildlife Service —  part of the Interior Department — concludes the species’ plight has worsened or FWS’ caseload has lightened.

One of the things that happens if a species makes it to the endangered list is that FWS maps out the species’ Critical Habitat. Though anti-wildlife types have done a whole lot of whining about Critical Habitat designations infringing on their freedom to develop their property, those complaints are mainly lies. If a developer wants to bulldoze his or her property, and isn’t getting federal funds to do so, that property being designated as Critical Habitat means exactly nothing. There has to be a “federal connection” to the project for the Critical Habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act to kick in, meaning it’s got to be a project either on your public land or subsidized somehow by your tax dollars. And even before it gets to that point, FWS is obligated by law to consider economic impacts while drawing up Critical Habitat maps.

Nonetheless, in a place like Nevada where hardly any economic activity happens without rugged individualist Nevadans asking the Feds for cash first, Critical Habitat designation is a scary thing. Ranchers, miners, wind turbine builders, oil and gas drillers, suburb builders, and solar facility developers might have another small hurdle to jump before they get their economic activity permitted, and nothing makes a Nevadan Free Market Capitalist more nervous than suggesting his government check might be smaller, or later.

So the stated goal of the government of Nevada is to manage sage grouse population to make listing unnecessary. To that end, the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s director Kenneth Mayer and his staff came up with a map of nine million acres of sage grouse habitat in Nevada, which maps showed areas of core habitat that the sage grouse absolutely could not afford to lose. The maps also identified places where fewer sage grouse lived, which Mayer et al pointed out might feasibly be developed with far less risk of driving the grouse onto the Endangered list.

So they fired him. Mayer announced last week that Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval had asked for his resignation.

Turns out in Nevada, you’re only taken seriously in your efforts to protect wildlife if you do so by killing wildlife. Protecting habitat is for Californians, apparently. Instead, the powers that be in Nevada want their state to protect sage grouse by shooting ravens and coyotes. Ravens are significant predators of sage grouse eggs, and coyotes eat the eggs along with the hatchlings and adults.

I don’t know nearly as much about ravens as I do coyotes. My twitter handle isn’t @corvuscorax, after all. I do know that coyotes respond to pressure from human hunting by increasing in number, and there’s about a century of evidence for that: hunting shatters family groups, which increases the number of breeding adults, which means more pups.

Maybe shooting ravens is more effective than shooting coyotes. It’d be something to have a scientist look into, don’t you think? Except that in Nevada, the wildlife management  establishment has deprecated science. It wasn’t even that Mayer didn’t want to kill ravens and coyotes and other predators: it’s that he wasn’t enthusiastic enough to do so at every single opportunity. From  Nate Schwerer’s NY Times article:

State budget records show that Mr. Mayer spent $400,000 to kill predators last year and invested more in that effort in several regions of the state than his predecessor did.  He oversaw the killing of thousands of ravens in sage grouse habitat along with many hundreds of coyotes, dozens of raccoons, and a few bobcats and mountain lions.

He said that out of fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers, he opted to invest less on predator control in regions where studies showed that coyote exterminations had no correlating effect on deer populations.

Gerald Lent, 74, a former chairman of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, dismissed Mr. Mayer’s findings as “voodoo science.”

This isn’t the first time Mayer has been asked to leave the NV Department of Wildlife job. The previous governor fired him in 2010, according to Schweber:

Mr. Mayer previously led the Nevada Department of Wildlife from 2007 until 2010, when Jim Gibbons, then governor, fired him under pressure from ranchers and hunters who said that the agency director had not killed enough coyotes and mountain lions to boost deer populations.

And though Sandoval denies it, it seems to be pressure from the same constituency that cost Mayer his job this time around. Schweber offers a salient quote:

Cecil Fredi, 74, president of a sportsmans’ group called Hunters Alert who lives in Las Vegas and lobbied for Mr. Mayer’s removal, said that the wildlife director should have focused more on killing the bird’s predators than on protecting its ecosystem.

“What did Ken Mayer do? Nothing. Just habitat, habitat, habitat, which is a terrible thing for a person in his position to do,” he said. “You get instant results when you poison a raven or shoot a coyote.”

Ah, Nevada, Mississippi of the Intermountain West.

Comments

  1. mythbri says

    I don’t understand this.

    I have a co-worker who originally majored in biology, because he had a mountain lion encounter that he said changed him – he thought they were magnificent animals. And then he said that he wanted to work in the Department of Wildlife in Idaho, so that he could push for legalized hunting seasons for mountain lions.

    I was dumbstruck. Say what?

    It was simple, he said. Liberals are such bleeding-hearts that they don’t understand what needs to be done, and that ranchers needed land more than the mountain lions did.

    I still don’t understand how or why you would study an animal just so that you can be part of organizing its destruction.

  2. says

    There has to be a “federal connection” to the project for the Critical Habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act to kick in, meaning it’s got to be a project wither on your public land or subsidized somehow by your tax dollars.

    So you mean like every major development project in the U.S. in decades? Seriously, these people have basically given up on doing anything without a government handout except whining about the government giving everybody handouts, and most of the time they try to get a tax exemption for the whining too.

    “You get instant results when you poison a raven or shoot a coyote.”

    Yes, you do. You instantly get a dead raven or coyote, which is a result. The question these ‘immediate results’ dipshits (They’re not limited to wildlife conservation debates) never seem to worry about is ‘Is the the result we were going for?” Has anyone actually showed that more dead coyotes and ravens = more live sage grouse? What’s that, Mr Fredi? They haven’t? Then what the hell are you on about?

  3. StevoR, fallible human being says

    @mythbri : Horribly maybe its ego in that they actually want to be the “person” to kill the last one of that species themselves? Becoming a kind of macabre historical footnote as a point of personal “pride”. Disgusting but some people sadly are probably that sick. One possible explanation anyhow.

  4. Chiral says

    I live in Owyhee county, Idaho, and the ranchers here are currently facing grazing cutbacks because of this. I really think it’s too little, too late, and they’re fighting it so hard. A lot of this federal land is already overgrazed and overrun by cheatgrass.

    http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/01/28/2430177/owyhee-county-braces-for-grazing.html

    I’d be interested in ways of making my 6 acre patch more hospitable to these creatures, but it sounds like they need much more space than what I’ve got. :/ I wish there were resources here to help with ecological restoration (I’ve got river frontage, too, overrun by invasive weeds) but all you get are funny looks if you ask about anything besides how to make your land profitable. :(

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    “What did Ken Mayer do? Nothing. Just habitat, habitat, habitat, which is a terrible thing for a person in his position to do,” he said. “You get instant results when you poison a raven or shoot a coyote.”

    I keep saying that misanthropy, drunkenness and crying yourself to sleep are underrated, but nobody listens.

  6. bad Jim says

    WTF is wrong with these people?

    “What did Ken Mayer do? Nothing. Just habitat, habitat, habitat, which is a terrible thing for a person in his position to do”

    Ravens and coyotes are ubiquitous. They do prey on other wildlife, but even if you wanted to eliminate them, you sick bastard, you can’t. Killing a raven or coyote does no good whatsoever for the grouse.

    Preserving habitat does a lot of good immediately, at least if you want those birds to survive.

  7. navigator says

    “Ah, Nevada, Mississippi of the Intermountain West.”
    That sums it up neatly.
    What would it take to convince these people that science is not a four letter word?
    Oh, right, math is related to science and is equally evil.
    I just realized I used “sums” and “equal”, so I must apologize to the people of Nevada for using terms they can’t understand.

  8. Holms says

    I just love how little these ‘great outdoors’ types actually know of the way things actually work in nature. And by ‘love’ I mean ‘fuck these ignoramuses, seriously.’ Or something.

  9. rq says

    Shouldn’t that be ‘A Voice for Grice’? ;)
    As for the rest, well… wow. I’m assuming they think that the sage grouse will live happily (much like raccoons) among the trash cans and paved alleys of all those developments that will be taking over their current habitat. Or wait, they could all be put into zoos. That would save the species. Yeah…
    I find their lack of foresight or vision or whatever you want to call it (intelligence?) absolutely mind-boggling.

  10. bradleybetts says

    In a typical lek, no more than one or two males usually get a chance to breed. (The rest go off to post bitter screeds to A Voice For Grouse.)

    BWAhahahaha :D

    Seriously though, that’s a fucking cool looking bird. Much better than Scottish Grouse… not that Scottish Grouse arren’t cool, I’m just used to them, and they’re not all black and green :)

    “What did Ken Mayer do? Nothing. Just habitat, habitat, habitat, which is a terrible thing for a person in his position to do,” he said. “You get instant results when you poison a raven or shoot a coyote.”

    This guy? This guy is an idiot. There does seem to be a general reluctance amongst a certain type of American to admit that any environmental problems have anything to do with humans. Not enough deer? Well obviously we need to shoot more wolves. It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact you’re stealing all their habitat and shooting them all, could it? Nah, of course not. Open season on wolves. Not enough Grouse? Obviously it’s the ravens and coyotes! It can’t be because we’re stealing all their habitat and shooting all of them, could it? Nope, nope, nope. I mean I’m willing to take a bet that more deer and grouse are killed by humans each year then their natural predators, but we’ll ignore that. Global warming? Not happening. Analyses of root causes? We don’ need them thar’ book learnin’!

    Apologies for the descent into insulting caricature but it’s quite frustrating to watch these people deny reality so they can avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They don’t want to increase the population because they’re the ones who have decreased it; they won’t even admit they have decreased it. They want to increase the population so they have more things to shoot at.

  11. madtom1999 says

    Eat more Bison.
    It looks like Bison running wild (I’m guessing they were probably around Nevada too) were able to produce pretty close on the same amount of meat as the massive US beef industry can with massive imports. They seem to think there were herds of 50 million which seems to compare pretty favourably with the 32 million cattle eaten each year in the US given the extra land used to produce feed for them.
    It seems that the best way to conserve one particular animal/plant in an ecosystem is to put the ecosystem back the way nature had it in the first place. Sort of not killing lots of birds with one stone.

  12. Karen Locke says

    Husband and I own some property in the Eastern Sierra, where sagebrush and the associated plant community is ubiquitous, but there are a few trees. Our friend the dendrochronologist has dated them and finds them to be quite old, albeit warped, twisted, and not very big. That’s just how trees roll in the Sweetwater range east of the Sierras. We are also on the edge of sage grouse habitat, and take that into consideration in our building planning. We’re working on a retirement home; we hope to get the skin up this building season with a contractor’s help, then do the interior ourselves over the next few years with minimal subcontractor help for tricky stuff like kitchen counters.

    Now some damned fool with the NFS has decided all trees are potential perches for predators, and are on a crusade to cut down NFS-land trees in the area. Our property backs onto NFS land; the trees are the same age as ours, so they’re talking about cutting down 500, 700, year-old trees. It isn’t like there’s a forest there; these trees are often a quarter of a mile or so apart.

    I am so angry my teeth hurt, and I’m crafting a “public comment” tomorrow.

  13. bradleybetts says

    @Karen Locke

    That sounds like rank stupidity on the part of the NFS and I sincerely wish you well in putting them right. Seriously, I read some of the stuff that Fish and Wildlife departments come up with and am literally dumbfounded at the sort of morons that seem to staff them.

  14. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    @14 … and the predators that perch are usually looking for bunnies and rodents, not sage hens.

  15. carlie says

    How is their genetic diversity? There’s a classic conservation example with prairie chickens in Illinois where the bigger problem wasn’t the habitat but the inbreeding.

  16. ChasCPeterson says

    In a typical lek, no more than one or two males usually get a chance to breed. (The rest go off to post bitter screeds to A Voice For Grouse.)

    ha!
    Except, a closer match would be ‘A Voice For Cocks’.
    (just sayin)

    He oversaw the killing of thousands of ravens

    aw, man.
    aw, jeez.
    fuck.

  17. twosheds1 says

    And then he said that he wanted to work in the Department of Wildlife in Idaho, so that he could push for legalized hunting seasons for mountain lions.

    I know it seems counterintuitive, but I think hunters could actually be really good allies for environmentalists. Hunters don’t want their prey or their hunting grounds destroyed, either by habitat destruction or over-hunting. Yet, the two groups are often at odds with each other because they usually don’t share other political beliefs. That should end.

  18. says

    @ mythbri – Your friend sounds like all of the people they interviewed on NPR before the first Minnesota wolf hunting season opened this year. People kept saying things like, “I saw a wolf once. It was the most beautiful, majestic creature I have ever seen. I’m excited to shoot one. I think i’ll use bait and kill it when it comes in for a snack.”

  19. viajera says

    The rest go off to post bitter screeds to A Voice For Grouse

    Hahahaha! Thanks for making me spit out my coffee here. That gives whole new meaning to the phrase “alpha cock carousel.” Suddenly I’m imagining a carousel with sage grouse cocks in their prime strutting around, in place of the wooden horses.

    I do know that coyotes respond to pressure from human hunting by increasing in number, and there’s about a century of evidence for that: hunting shatters family groups, which increases the number of breeding adults, which means more pups. Maybe shooting ravens is more effective than shooting coyotes.

    Well, ravens have slower life-histories than coyotes, and I’ve never heard of density-dependence working in raven populations. They’re too long-lived, low-reproducing, and spatially spread out. That said, even though killing ravens is more likely to reduce raven populations than coyotes, I doubt it would reduce sage grouse predation all that much. There just aren’t that many sage grouse out there, so they make a small proportion of their diet.

    twosheds:

    I know it seems counterintuitive, but I think hunters could actually be really good allies for environmentalists.

    Not counterintuitive at all. That’s exactly how Ducks Unlimited has managed to be so successful. Environmentalists have lots of allies that are counterintuitive at first blush. Witness the successful collaborative efforts between loggers and environmentalists (enviros of the Earth First! breed, even) in the Siskiyous of Oregon back in the early ’90s.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    dalbryn @20: That reminds me of a demo years ago, when wolves were going to be reintroduced to the wild somewhere in the US (Wyoming?). One person carried a placard reading “Wolves are the Saddam Hussein of the animal world”. Maybe they found the hidden caches of lupine WMD.

  21. says

    My area has some rare salamanders, and nothing makes me sadder than the stupid ideas people have about how to save them – mostly by dumping them onto neighbor’s roads. I never understand why every square inch of a property needs to be bulldozed to be used.

    Sure, I find that my cats predate upon them – but I also find that my deep redwood mulches and stone and wood embankments rebuild their habitat as I engage as little of my property in digging works at a time as possible. And then I make sure that I’m not leaving muddy trails that crush their little homes or draw them into the cats’ reach.

    Is it so hard? *sigh*

  22. noellemorris says

    As a fourth generation Nevada, I’m embarrassed that our politicians are putting forth such backwards policies. I think one of the major problems with Nevada is that the demographics are so skewed to urban areas. You’ve got half the population living in Las Vegas (many of them from California) who are absurdly ignorant about the rest of the state and who don’t think much of the desert (that empty “wasteland”), and so voting for politicians with environmental knowledge is not a priority. At the same time, however, the Feds own most of the land in the state, and much of the policies of these agencies, particularly the BLM, favor the priorities of ranchers. It’s a toxic mix, and scary to someone like me who grew up loving the wild places in Nevada and is watching them disappear.