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:
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.