The Sage Grouse Isn’t Just a Bird – It’s a Proxy for Control of Western Lands

The Sage Grouse Isn’t Just a Bird – It’s a Proxy for Control of Western Lands

Featured image: Male sage grouse at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming. Tom Koerner/USFWS, CC BY

     by John Freemuth, Boise State University / The Conversation

The Trump administration is clashing with conservation groups and others over protection for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), a bird widely known for its dramatic mating displays. The grouse is found across sagebrush country from the Rocky Mountains on the east to the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges on the west.

This region also contains significant oil and gas deposits. The Trump administration is revising an elaborate plan developed under the Obama administration that sought to steer energy development away from sage grouse habitat. Conservation groups are suing in response, arguing that this shift and accelerated oil and gas leasing threaten sage grouse and violate several key environmental laws.

This battle is the latest skirmish in a continuing narrative over management of Western public lands. Like its Republican predecessors, the Trump administration is prioritizing use of public lands and resources over conservation. The question is whether its revisions will protect sage grouse and their habitat effectively enough to keep the birds off of the endangered species list – the outcome that the Obama plan was designed to achieve.

Sage grouse under siege

Before European settlement, sage grouse numbered up to 16 million across the West. Today their population has shrunk to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000. The main cause is habitat loss due to road construction, development and oil and gas leasing.

More frequent wildland fires are also a factor. After wildfires, invasive species like cheatgrass are first to appear and replace the sagebrush that grouse rely on for food and cover. Climate change and drought also contribute to increased fire regimes, and the cycle repeats itself.

Concern over the sage grouse’s decline spurred five petitions to list it for protection under the Endangered Species Act between 1999 and 2005. Listing a species is a major step because it requires federal agencies to ensure that any actions they fund, authorize or carry out – such as awarding mining leases or drilling permits – will not threaten the species or its critical habitat.

Current and historic range of greater sage grouse. USFWS

In 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that an ESA listing for the sage grouse was “not warranted.” These decisions are supposed to be based on science, but leaks revealed that an agency synthesis of sage grouse research had been edited by a political appointee who deleted scientific references without discussion. In a section that discussed whether grouse could access the types of sagebrush they prefer to feed on in winter, the appointee asserted, “I believe that is an overstatement, as they will eat other stuff if it’s available.”

In 2010 the agency ruled that the sage grouse was at risk of extinction, but declined to list it at that time, although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pledged to take steps to restore sagebrush habitat. In a court settlement, the agency agreed to issue a listing decision by September 30, 2015.

Negotiating the rescue plan

The Obama administration launched a concerted effort in 2011 to develop enough actions and plans at the federal and state level to avoid an ESA listing for the sage grouse. This effort involved federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private landowners.

California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming all developed plans for conserving sage grouse and their habitat. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management revised 98 land use plans in 10 states. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided funding for voluntary conservation actions on private lands.

In 2015 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that these actions had reduced threats to sage grouse habitat so effectively that a listing was no longer necessary. A bipartisan group of Western governors joined Jewell for the event. But despite the good feelings, some important value conflicts remained unresolved.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announces the sage grouse rescue plan in Colorado, Sept. 22, 2015. Behind Secretary Jewell are, left to right, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Notably, the plan created zones called Sagebrush Focal Areas – zones that were deemed essential for the sage grouse to survive – and proposed to bar mineral development on 10 million acres within those areas. Some Western governors, such as Butch Otter of Idaho, viewed this element as a surprise and felt that it had been dropped on states from Washington, without consultation.

The Trump administration wants to cancel creation of Sagebrush Focal Areas and allow mining and energy development in these zones. Agency records show that as Interior Department officials reevaluated the sage grouse plan in 2017, they worked closely with representatives of the oil, gas and mining industries, but not with environmental advocates.

Can collaboration work?

If the Trump administration does weaken the sage grouse plan, it could have much broader effects on relations between federal agencies and Western states.

Collaboration is emerging as a potential antidote to high-level political decisions and endless litigation over western public lands and resources. In addition to the sage grouse plan, recent examples include a Western Working Lands Forum organized by the Western Governors’ Association in March 2018, and forest collaboratives in Idaho that include diverse members and work to balance timber production, jobs and ecological restoration in Idaho national forests.

Warning sign in Wyoming. Mark Bellis/USFWS, CC BY

There are two key requirements for these initiatives to succeed. First, they must give elected and high-level administrative appointees some cover to support locally and regionally crafted solutions. Second, they have to prevent federal officials from overruling outcomes with which they disagree.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2015 that an endangered listing for the sage grouse was not warranted, the agency committed to revisit the bird’s status in 2020. To avoid having to list the grouse as endangered, the Trump administration must provide enough evidence and certainty to justify a decision not to list, as the Obama administration sought to do. If Interior changes land management plans and increases oil and gas leasing, that job could become harder. It also is possible that Congress might prohibit a listing.

The ConversationFinding a lasting solution will require the Trump administration to collaborate with states and other stakeholders, including environmental advocates, and allow local land managers to do the same. Then, whatever the outcome, it cannot reverse their efforts in Washington. As Matt Mead, Wyoming’s Republican governor, warned in 2017, “If we go down a different road now with the sage grouse, what it says is, when you try to address other endangered species problems in this country, don’t have a collaborative process, don’t work together, because it’s going to be changed.”

John Freemuth, Professor of Public Policy and Executive Director, Andrus Center for Public Policy, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Toxic Range: BLM’s Growing Chemical Addiction

Toxic Range: BLM’s Growing Chemical Addiction

This article originally appeared on Counterpunch

By Katie Fite / Wildlands Defense

BLM is escalating herbicide use on public lands in the wake of the September 2015 Sage-grouse Plan Amendments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Not Warranted Finding for ESA listing. A primary agency excuse for forsaking sage-grouse ESA protection is the pipe dream that new habitat will be created through radical deforestation, and that fuelbreaks will stop fires. The Finding lays it out:

Cumulatively, the FIAT assessments of the five priority areas identify more than 16,000 km (10,000 mi) of potential linear fuel treatments, approximately 2.99 million ha (7.4 million ac) of potential conifer treatments, more than 2 million ha (5 million ac) of potential invasive plant treatments, and more than 7.7 million ha (19 million ac) of post-fire rehabilitation (i.e., should a fire occur, the post-fire rehabilitation identifies which areas BLM would prioritize for management) within the Great Basin region…

The deforestation acreage is larger than Vermont. Native pinyon and juniper trees are treated as weeds, rather than a forest community vital for biodiversity and buffering climate change effects. Real weeds will have a field day in the wake of the bulldozers, bull hogs, masticators, chain saws, mowers, roller-choppers, brush beaters and “prescribed” fire unleashed for subduing woody vegetation. Lands will be doused with herbicides to try to keep cheatgrass, rapidly advancing medusahead, and others from thriving in the wasted, bared soils and hotter, drier, grazed sites. The fuelbreaks will raze sage and trees across a distance greater than that between Patagonia and the North Pole. These cleared zones will parallel many roads on public lands, further fragmenting wildlife habitats and providing fertile grounds for flammable annual grass in the chronically grazed arid landscape, and for human-caused catalytic converter, target shooting and other fire ignitions.

BLM is further reverting to a 1960s worldview of farming-style manipulation of wild lands, mainlining chemicals in support of its treatment habit. This distracts attention from the fact that the new BLM Sage-grouse Plan Amendments allow livestock grazing and many other threats to the bird to continue with little real change, despite a torrent of litigation claiming otherwise. In support of the folly, NRCS and BLM have concocted elaborate models deeming native forest and sage expanses unhealthy or “at risk.” After clearing, the land may be seeded, often with a mix of exotic forage grass and “cultivars,” not the local native plant ecotypes, but plants bred to be big and tough and a livestock forage boon. Places purged of woody plants will be embedded in a landscape “compartmentalized” (BLM’s term) by fuelbreaks.

Livestock grazing is a primary cause of weed infestation and dominance across public lands. But BLM refuses to deal with livestock as a cause of weeds. PEER very recently filed a complaint with CEQ and rancher sycophant Interior Secretary “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd” Sally Jewell over BLM’s denial of the climate effects of cattle and sheep grazing.

That’s only part of it. BLM is a weed denier of the worst sort, and willfully blind to the adverse climate effects of its land clearing. Instead of addressing cattle causes of weeds, BLM’s time honored method is to spray and walk away, leaving livestock free to graze and trample sprayed land in short order, churning soils and copiously defecating, ensuring a fresh batch of weeds takes hold.

2007 Weed EIS and PER Set the Stage

In 2007, BLM completed a Westwide 17 State Weed EIS and risk assessments for expanded herbicide use tripling sprayed acres, along with a Programmatic Environmental Report PER bedfellow laying out burning, chaining, mastication, bull hogging, mowing, brush beating, harrowing, “biological thinning” (dustbowl style grazing) and other severe weed-causing disturbance assaults on native vegetation communities. Environmentalists implored the BLM to address weed causes, employ passive restoration and minimize spraying. BLM ignored this, saying weed causes were dealt with in “allocations” of Land Use Plans. The many Plans issued since then do not address causes of weeds in divvying up “forage” and other allocations, like this and this. Risk assessments based on minimal info, predictably found the chemicals were safe for public land. The PER’s ecological impacts were never analyzed. The fore-shadowed radical treatment disturbance, now funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of sage-grouse and fuels funds, is laying waste to the West. BLM’s project rationales are a constantly moving target.

The Oust Debacle

As BLM was preparing the Weed EIS, it became embroiled in litigation with southern Idaho farmers over a crop catastrophe. BLM had ballyhooed DuPont’s Oust herbicide as a panacea for cheatgrass. Prominent range staff that had long pushed exotic forage plants as desirable on “rangelands” worked closely with DuPont to fine-tune the chemical.

“Oust is the best tool we’ve ever had, yes sir,” says Scott Anderson, a supervisor in the BLM’s Shoshone, Idaho, office. “There’s nothing like it.”… “In the mid-1990s, BLM officials began using it experimentally against cheatgrass, which the agency had been fighting a losing battle to control. They discovered that when sprayed immediately after a fire, Oust was nearly 100% effective in suppressing the growth of cheatgrass for at least a year. “That gave us an opportunity to come in and reseed the sagebrush and other desirable vegetation,” explains Mike Pellant, a BLM rangeland ecologist in Boise.

Oust kills plants by preventing roots from taking in water and nutrients from the soil.

It did this splendidly when the wind blew herbicide-infested soil onto crop fields and poisoned the earth. After the farmers finally figured out what had happened, BLM declared an Oust moratorium. Prolonged litigation ensued, with over 66 days of testimony in federal court. A jury trial and verdict found BLM bore 40% responsible, and Dupont 60%. Damages of 17 million dollars were awarded to the farmers. But the District Court ruling was appealed, and reversed by the Ninth Circuit in 2011. Courthouse News described the long ago initial filing “a day late and 17 million dollars short.”

“Idaho farmers filed their complaint a day too late to collect damages from the government after their crops were caught in the crossfire of a federal agency’s herbicidal battle against non-native grass, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday … The farmers’ claims against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are “forever barred.”

Oust affected so much ag land that damage was detected. Most of the spraying takes place in remoter wild places where drift effects could escape detection.

Meanwhile, BLM kept on spraying, purposefully blind to weed causes. The 2007 Weed EIS blessed Plateau (Imazapic) as the new cheat panacea. Mowed and roller-chopped sage, prescribed burned forests and sage, and wildfire areas were doused with Plateau. It was applied over untold 100,000s of acres following fires. But there is still a hitch. Similar to Oust, Plateau kills “desirable” seedlings. So at the same time BLM has been spending tens of millions of dollars on seeding burned lands ostensibly for sage-grouse, it applied a potent lingering seedling killer. A scientist letter responding to BLM’s unprecedented 67 million dollar rehab boondoggle for the Soda Wildfire pointed out:

First, spraying a pre-emergent herbicide (imazapic/Plateau) may not have much effect on cheatgrass in 2015 because it germinated prior to application. Second, and much more importantly, imazapic will kill any seedling forbs that emerge from the seed bank. This will decrease abundance and diversity of forbs which are necessary for sage grouse…

Plateau also kills sage seedlings and the native seeds in the soil seedbank. Without sage, the sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits and other wildlife are doomed.

Oregon: A Special Case, and Sacrificing the Eastside

Oregon citizens and activists have often been alert, vocal and litigious in opposition to public and private lands herbicide campaigns that take place in the big dollar timber country on the west side of the Cascades. So BLM deals with ecosystems and people there a bit more lightly. In 1984, an injunction in Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides et al. v. Block prohibited herbicide use by BLM and the Forest Service in Oregon. BLM prepared a new EIS for four herbicides in 1987, and the injunction was modified, allowing 2,4-D, dicamba, glyphosate, and picloram. In 2010 a new EIS expanded herbicides. It has fewer protections for lands, waters, fish, frogs, wildlife and people on the east side of the Cascades. BLM added 10 more herbicides west of the Cascades, but did not allow aerial spraying, vs. 13 more herbicides east of the Cascades and allowed aerial spraying.

In synch with its 2007 EIS, BLM went far beyond treating “noxious” weeds in Oregon. “Management objectives” ballooned: the control of all invasive plants; the control of plants as necessary to control pests and diseases …; the control of vegetation to meet safety and maintenance objectives …; and, the treatment of vegetation to achieve specific habitat goals for Federally Listed and other Special Status species

East of the Cascades, 2,4-D, Dicamba, Fluroidone, Imazapic, Imazapir, Picloram could be sprayed aerially (note this is fewer chemicals than inflicted on the rest of the states aerially in the 2007 EIS). There is so-called “restricted” use of Chlorsulfuron, glyphosate, hexaninone, metsulfuron metyl, tebuthiuron “only where no other means available” … “where practical, limit glyphosate and hexaninone to spot applications.” Weasel word language is pervasive, providing leeway to wiggle out of promised protections. If livestock might eat the plants, BLM is to apply “at the typical rather than the maximum rate,” but no word on what to do about native ruminants “don’t apply some chemicals where wild horses are present, or herd them out of the area.” There is minimal protection for recreation – a campground might be fleetingly signed. Protections recommended for reptiles and amphibians were not adopted, even provisions leaving bits of untreated habitat as refugia were scuttled. BLM is increasingly outsources spraying, through agreements with Counties and “cooperators.” Protections that appear to have survived could readily fall by the wayside in practice.

The Spray and Walk Away Path Forward

Now BLM has just released a Final EIS adding three more bizarrely named chemicals (rimsulfuron, fluroxypyr, aminopyralid) for use across the West in its War on cheatgrass, medusahead, prickly pear (which with along with the saguaro are a keystone desert species), pigweed and others.

BLM claims these chemicals are safer for the environment and human health than those already in use. Safe, like aminopyralid that can be spread through manure? Or safe like post-emergence burndown rimsulfuron that is touted as great for mixing with others of its ilk, and for which even BLM’s assessment admits a drift risk for non-target vegetation? Just like Oust and Plateau, rimsulfuron kills seedlings of the very plants that wildlife must have to survive. There are only a few days left to weigh in on this latest EIS ( Meanwhile, step-down EA analyses expanding aerial spraying and broadening herbicide use are proliferating at the BLM District level.

BLM insisted their were minimal downsides to the banished Oust, the fallen from favor Plateau and the rest of the toxic lot, including woody plant killers like Tebuthiuron, which caused a profusion of cheatgrass in Nevada sage purging reminiscent of the 1960s. The current chemicals and all their associated carriers, adjuvants, breakdown products and other associated toxins, including unknowns from mixes of multiple active chemical ingredients that BLM allows, had been deemed safe in the 2007 EIS. Now that BLM has had a revelation that they are less safe, it is not dropping a single chemical.

What will the 7 million acres of new treatments, 10,000 linear miles of permanent bleak fuelbreaks, and rehabbing of failed fire rehabs (often using many of the same old techniques) do to the land? And how much spraying will accompany forest clearing for porkbarrel biomass? Beyond the butchered landscape, desertification and destroyed habitat, it may often be impossible for people to avoid unwanted exposure to herbicides on visits to public lands. Access roads will be bordered by FIAT-ordained fuelbreaks for long stretches. Cleared of “brush” and seeded with exotic forage grass, they will be favored cattle loafing areas. Aerial herbicide use in wild land settings with fickle weather ensures drift onto the road and dust, onto camping sites, killing non-target vegetation, polluting water in springs and streams, and contaminating sage-grouse, antelope and pygmy rabbit foods. New irreversible native species habitat loss and expanded habitat fragmentation will take place. Public lands will bear an even greater resemblance to an intensive cattle ranch operation under this desolate paradigm. How long will agency grazing climate and weed denial go on? Or denial of the climate consequences of deforestation right here at home? But look everybody, over there, a bright shiny new million dollar treatment saving sage-grouse.

BLM Leadership Coddles Hostile and Law Breaking Nevada Ranchers like Cliven Bundy

BLM Leadership Coddles Hostile and Law Breaking Nevada Ranchers like Cliven Bundy

By Katie Fite / WildLands Defense

This article first appeared on Counterpunch

Featured Image: Virgin River with banks trampled like a feedlot by Cliven Bundy cattle. May 2015.

In Oregon, an armed occupation of Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters is being led by self-proclaimed “patriots” from Nevada. They are defending a public lands ranching family’s “right” to set fires and break the law.

In Nevada, Cliven Bundy owes more than a million dollars in grazing fees. An armed confrontation broke out when BLM began to impound his trespass livestock. The government backed down. For almost two years, no action has been taken while the Bundy camp becomes ever more brazen. This past summer, when Cliven Bundy went to the Nevada legislature to support a bill to turn over federal authority of public land to the state, he was treated to a barbecue by Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei.


Cliven Bundy is not the only Nevada Rancher being given proprietary treatment by Nevada federal land managers. Settlement deals and BLM coddling reward hostile ranchers at the expense of the public’s land.

Argenta Allotment Settlement

There has been prolonged, severe drought in Nevada. In 2014, defiant public lands ranchers resisted Battle Mountain BLM drought closures and cattle cuts in the Argenta allotment. They were emboldened by the Bundy incident. The ranchers set up a “Grass Camp,” aided by instigator Grant Gerber, across from the BLM office. They have waged an intimidation campaign against agency staff. They whined incessantly to cattle friendly Nevada politicians Amodei and Senator Heller. The Elko paper did not really report, but instead was a worshipful cheerleader against the BLM. The ranchers denied there even was a drought. At the very same time, they received lavish federal drought disaster relief payments.

The cattle damage became so severe that by late summer the local BLM finally closed the sensitive sage-grouse habitats in mountain pastures of the Shoshone Range to grazing. The ranchers and states rights politician John Carpenter appealed the protective closure. In spring 2015, an Interior Department Office of Hearings and Appeals administrative law judge finished review of a mountain of documents, and ruled in favor of the closure.

But within weeks, BLM folded. All of Argenta was again flung open to grazing. Leadership under Nevada BLM Director John Ruhs had forced a settlement deal indulging the ranchers’ every whim. Ruhs, bonded at the hip with the Cattlemen, had been “Acting” Director, and then officially became Nevada Director.

Nevada BLM Director John Ruhs

Nevada BLM Director John Ruhs

The deal was greased through by the “National Riparian Team,” composed of livestock industry sycophants from within BLM and the Forest Service, and outside cattle consultants.

The Team, while claiming to be a neutral party, immediately took the ranchers’ side – with Team members railing against perceived interference by the local BLM staff that had sought to control cattle damage to the public lands. So it’s no surprise the settlement flung open sensitive closed sage-grouse habitats to full bore grazing. Herds of several hundred cows were allowed to trample and devour “forage” across the drought-stricken public land in 2015.

The settlement put the Team in charge of a Coordinated Monitoring Group “(CMG”) dominated by ranchers and a token enviro group to take control of monitoring, to direct management actions, and run interference with the local BLM so the Argenta ranchers would not be accountable for grazing damage or trespass.

The cabal bars the public and press from observing their monitoring of grazing damage, and from their closed door discussions that dictate management. The group tells BLM what to do to keep the ranchers happy.

The result has been grazing chaos, and wanton damage of lands and waters.  Wildlands Defense (WLD) and colleagues visited Argenta to observe and document conditions. Cattle were scattered all over the allotment, and riparian areas ravaged. When we asked BLM where cows were supposed to be present, the local BLM managers did not even know. All was in the hands of the Team and CMG.

Cattle trampling dries out and destroys sage-grouse brood habitats.

Cattle trampling dries out and destroys sage-grouse brood habitats.

Scads of new cattle projects are also laid out in the settlement. A July Team memo plans new barbed wire fencing and water projects incrementally sprawled across Argenta. The Team embraces injurious grazing practices – severe cattle trampling soil disturbance and high use of native grasses. Why the projects? So ranchers don’t have to work to control their cows. This frontloads Argenta with band-aid fences around prominent degraded areas (and long term monitoring sites) close to roads, prior to any thorough Land Health assessment. There never has been any grazing study since the 1976 passage of FLPMA. The ranchers can then claim conditions within the little fenced areas are “improving,” and insulate against cattle cuts in an assessment.

Monitoring cage illustrating how severe cattle use is. Our site visits found such cages destroyed in some areas since the CMG group took over.

Monitoring cage illustrating how severe cattle use is. Our site visits found such cages destroyed in some areas since the CMG group took over.

This fall, BLM obediently issued a Decision giving the ranchers six new permanent fences, plus “temporary” water troughs and a pipeline. WLD and Wild Horse Education appealed the first battery of projects, which are terrible for wildlife. Sage-grouse and other wildlife are killed by flying into or becoming entangled with wire. The projects also shift intensive impacts onto other areas. We also challenged the Ruhs Settlement – which has altered grazing, established the exclusive closed meetings, and directed the projects. BLM claims we can’t appeal the Settlement.

Now over the holidays, BLM proposed more projects. The ranchers, through the cover of the Team and CMG, are essentially now running the public lands.

North Buffalo Settlement

Days after BLM caved in Argenta, one of the very same permittees, Filippini Ranch, rewarded BLM appeasement efforts by unleashing their cattle on the nearby North Buffalo allotment. North Buffalo, like Argenta, was closed for drought protection. It is home to a very small struggling population of sage-grouse, whose habitat is also being consumed by foreign gold mines.

BLM could not help but notice the cows turned out illegally, since the ranch owner told about the trespass to the Elko newspaper, flaunting his power. Leadership under Ruhs promptly rewarded this trespass with another Settlement deal. Just as in Argenta, a North Buffalo Settlement flung open the closed lands. BLM charged Filippini around $100 for willful trespass – a small price for being allowed access to tens of thousands of dollars worth of public lands “forage” for which the permittees pay a pittance.

Uncapped abandoned test well site in now Wilderness lands where rancher claimed water rights.

Uncapped abandoned test well site in now Wilderness lands where rancher claimed water rights.

DeLong and Humboldt County Settlement

There is yet another Settlement deal gift to a powerful rancher, this time in Winnemucca BLM lands. The powerful Delong ranching operation and Humboldt County had sued BLM over a raft of access issues primarily involving cattle water projects, many in Wilderness areas with no access roads. The projects had not been recognized by BLM when compiling project lists following the passage of the Black Rock Wilderness legislation in 2000. The lawsuit involved arcane regulations originating in the 1800s and early 1900s. BLM issued a scoping letter this fall proposing to maintain, reconstruct and access 15 cattle projects, access private inholdings, and maintain irrigation ditches – mainly in the North Jackson, South Jackson and Black Rock Wilderness in the South Jackson allotment.

BLM did not tell the public in its confusing letter that the proposal was based on yet another recent Settlement deal. We only learned of this when querying the BLM staff.

BLM field trip in area where rancher is being allowed access for cattle water project.

BLM field trip in area where rancher is being allowed access for cattle water project.

Hold Your Wild Horses

BLM leadership has knowingly looked away from a series of purposeful and blatant violations of the Code of Federal Regulations by a rancher (Borba) in the Fish Creek wild horse Herd Management Area in Battle Mountain country.

The rancher was found to be in “willful trespass,” grazing his livestock outside the boundaries of his legally authorized use for eight months. Under pressure from politicians Heller and Amodei, the BLM reduced the trespass and lowered fees.

The rancher and Eureka County also became upset over a local BLM decision to manage wild horses to incrementally reduce the population. The BLM removed over 200 wild horses, and then planned to use the PZP fertility control drug, and release horses given fertility control back to the HMA. In a stand-off reminiscent of an old western movie, the county and rancher showed up onsite and demanded the BLM not release the horses.

The BLM caved, and the horses were hauled away. After a lengthy legal battle the horses were returned to the range months later.


The disgruntled rancher began a social media campaign to rile the public against “government abuse.” Claims were made that he was never in trespass. He videotaped himself repeatedly breaking the law, and put it on social media. The penalties for the acts committed clearly state that the permittee will face fines, possible jail time and “shall” lose the right to graze on public lands.

Ruhs met with the rancher, County and local BLM Manager Furtado at Fish Creek, and sided with cattleman over his own staff. The BLM state office has now put the brakes on the fertility control program for the Fish Creek wild horses. This winter, the permittee is grazing livestock as if nothing happened.

Is It Continued Bungling, Political Interference or Tacit Support?

Badly bungling the Bundy situation and failing to act for almost two years now, the BLM opened the floodgates of rancher defiance and Sagebrush Rebel hell. The Ruhs Settlement deals reward powerful public lands ranchers who hate the agency and the very concept of public good and public lands. Allowing violations of federal law to go unaddressed has created an environment where any concept of law appears meaningless. The Settlements in Argenta, North Buffalo, Jackson Mountain/DeLong, coupled with BLM leadership ignoring blatant Fish Creek rancher law-breaking, embolden the very parties who want to see the public lands become unmanageable by the federal government.


Safety of BLM employees on the ground has been jeopardized. The ranchers want removed anyone who might attempt to protect the environment. Their intimidation campaign is demanding Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado be fired. The local office has been rendered powerless.

Appointment of Ruhs as Nevada Director, sweetheart settlement deals and toleration of overt law-breaking all have taken place under national BLM Director Neil Kornze, a native of Elko, Nevada and son of a mining engineer.

Is this ineptitude on the part of BLM leadership, political interference, or something else? Kornze increasingly appears to be either the most bungling BLM Director ever – or a fellow traveler with the Nevada public Land Grab crowd. While we continue to see PR photos of the BLM Director on outdoor excursions, important areas of the American West are being handed over to the welfare ranchers through a policy of capitulation and appeasement – resulting in a de facto loss of federal control and stealth Land Grab.

Pinyon-Juniper Forests: BLM’s False Claims to Virtue

Pinyon-Juniper Forests: BLM’s False Claims to Virtue

By Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance
Featured image: The author surveying the devastation of Pinyon-Juniper deforestation (Photo: Max Wilbert)

 Once I recovered from the shock I experienced witnessing the carnage produced by a Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) so-called “pinyon-juniper treatment project” just south of Spruce Mountain in Nevada, all I wanted was the destruction to stop. In order to stop the destruction, we have to ask the question: “Why are they doing this?”

BLM’s justifications [are] moving targets … Once a justification is proved to be based on bad science and incomplete research, BLM throws up a new target.

To learn the answer, I embarked on a long, strange trip through BLM documents, books on pinyon pine trees, YouTube propaganda, and countless scientific articles. I found so many justifications, my head was spinning. On a phone call with staff from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Field Attorney Neal Clark described BLM’s justifications as “moving targets.” Once a justification is proved to be based on bad science and incomplete research, BLM throws up a new target. Meanwhile, the destruction of pinyon-juniper forests intensifies.

The BLM, Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office is proposing a vegetation treatment project in the Virginia Mountains area north of Reno and west of Pyramid Lake in Washoe County, Nevada. The Virginia Mountains Vegetation Treatment Project would destroy “approximately 30,387 acres” of pinyon-juniper forest.

The BLM’s online notice lists some of the most common excuses used for pinyon-juniper deforestation. Those excuses include: to “reduce the potential of large-scale high severity wild land fire,” “provide for public and firefighter safety and protection of property and infrastructure,” “maintain sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs,” and “protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat.” In order to achieve these goals, the BLM’s online notice says the “proposed treatments include mechanical mastication, mechanical removal, hand cutting, chemical treatments, chaining, and seeding.”

BLM’s claims in their campaign against pinyon-juniper forests directly contradict the body of scientific literature.

Of course, the notice ends with the currently fashionable nod to protecting greater sage-grouse habitat and reads, “treatments would be designed to address threats to greater sage-grouse from invasive annual grasses, wildfires, and conifer expansion.”

When BLM claims that their proposed pinyon-juniper treatment projects will achieve the results like the ones listed in the Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office’s notice, they are making claims that are not supported by scientific research. In fact, many of BLM’s claims in their campaign against pinyon-juniper forests directly contradict the body of scientific literature.

Since I began researching pinyon-juniper forests, writing this Pinyon-Juniper Forest series, and participating in a grass-roots campaign to demand a nationwide moratorium on pinyon-juniper deforestation, I have heard BLM’s claims replicated many times. It is time their erroneous assertions are put to rest. In this essay, I will address the common justifications BLM uses for destroying pinyon-juniper forests and show how BLM is lying.


The first reason BLM’s Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office uses to support its proposal to clear-cut 30,387 acres of living forest is typical in the nationwide assault on pinyon-juniper forests. BLM claims their proposed project will “reduce the potential of large-scale high severity wild land fire.” According to BLM, this will “provide for public and firefighter safety and protection of property and infrastructure.”

BLM’s justification suggests that there is a serious potential for high severity, wild land fire in pinyon-juniper forests, but is that true?

William L. Baker and Douglas Shinneman wrote an article “Fire and Restoration of Piñon-Juniper Woodlands in the Western United States: A Review” (PDF) which is considered one of the leading reviews of fire incidence in pinyon-juniper forests. Baker and Shinneman argue that there simply is not enough scientific evidence for land managers to apply uniform fire and structural treatments like BLM’s proposed Virginia Mountains Treatment Project in pinyon-juniper forests.

[The BLM’s proposed] treatments have actually been found to increase pinyon-juniper forests’ potential for burning.

Not only are scientists cautioning BLM not to assume pinyon-juniper forests have a serious risk of large scale fire, mechanical treatments have actually been found to increase pinyon-juniper forests’ potential for burning. Allison Jones, Jim Catlin, and Emanuel Vazquez, working for the Wild Utah Project, wrote an essay titled “Mechanical Treatment of Piñon-Juniper and Sagebrush Systems in the Intermountain West: A Review of the Literature” (PDF). Their essay is a comprehensive review of the scientific literature surrounding pinyon-juniper forests and their review undermines many of the goals often given as the reasons for prescribed mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests.

In regards to using pinyon-juniper mechanical treatment as a tool for reducing the potential of wild land fire, Jones et al. write, “There are… many studies that report when piñon-juniper is mechanically treated and if cheatgrass and/or other exotic annuals are present in the system before treatment, then cover of these species will increase post-treatment.” Cheatgrass, of course, is an invasive species that quickly outcompetes native grasses. The relevant problem with cheatgrass is that it is more flammable. When cheatgrass dominates rangelands, it speeds up the natural fire interval of those rangelands. In other words, cheatgrass makes the land it occupies more prone to wild fires.

Regardless of what BLM says, what they are actually doing is contributing to global climate change, a longer wildfire season at home, and hastening the destruction of the entire planet.

When BLM rips up pinyon-juniper forests in the interests of reducing the potential for wildfires, their destruction produces the opposite of their stated goal. Instead of providing for public and firefighter safety, BLM is actually making it easier for cheatgrass to choke out native species which in turn makes it more likely the Great Basin will burn. On the global scale, we know that deforestation speeds climate change. Trees sequester carbon and the prevalence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a leading cause of climate change. Warming climates lead to longer and more intense wildfire seasons. Wildfires burn forests releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the vicious cycle intensifies. Regardless of what BLM says, what they are actually doing is contributing to global climate change, a longer wildfire season at home, and hastening the destruction of the entire planet. “Public and firefighter safety”? Hardly.

Healthy Pinyon-Juniper forest (Photo: Max Wilbert)

Healthy Pinyon-Juniper forest (Photo: Max Wilbert)

The next justification BLM’s Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office lists for why it must destroy pinyon-juniper forests is to “maintain sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs.” Before I address this justification, remember that BLM plans to maintain different plant habitats through processes like chaining tens of thousands of acres of living forest. Chaining, you may recall, involves stretching an anchor chain from a US Navy battleship between two trawler tractors and dragging the chain across the forest floor ripping up everything the tractors’ path. Chaining, BLM claims, improves sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs.

There are two mistaken beliefs underlying BLM’s stated goal to maintain sage brush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs. The first idea is rooted in BLM dogma that insists that pinyon-juniper forests are “encroaching” into lands (including sagebrush habitat) they did not previously occupy. The second idea accuses pinyon pine and juniper trees of somehow using too much water and hypothesizes that cutting these trees will lead to increased water yield. Both of these arguments have been soundly defeated in scientific literature.

The pinyon-juniper encroachment theory is a product of settler colonialism’s historical amnesia. One of the products of the white supremacy brought to the Great Basin by European settlers is a selective memory that ignores guilt-inducing facts of ecological destruction wrought on the Great Basin by European mining activities.

When BLM claims pinyon-juniper forests are encroaching, the forests are actually recovering from the shock of European development.

Pinyon pine expert Ronald Lanner described the catastrophic destruction of pinyon-juniper forests in Nevada in his book “The Piñon-Pine: A Natural and Cultural History.” Lanner explains how pinyon and juniper wood was essential for fuel for smelting operations, lumber for buildings in boom towns, and as mine supports in mine-shaft construction. Lanner says western Nevada’s Comstock mines used 18 million board feet of pinyon-juniper timber annually while Eureka, Nevada burned 17,850 bushels of pinyon-juniper charcoal daily. Lanner explains that by 1870 – a mere 11 years after the European discovery of silver in Nevada – charcoal makers had denuded forests for a 50 miles around Eureka, NV.

When BLM claims pinyon-juniper forests are encroaching, the forests are actually recovering from the shock of European development. It wasn’t just mining, either. Lanner estimates that 3 million acres of pinyon-juniper forests were destroyed to make room for cattle between 1960 and 1972 in the Great Basin and Intermountain West. Jones et al. explain that “what we see today in many cases is piñon-juniper simply recolonizing places where they were dominant but then gained in the 1940s to 1970s.” They go on to state, “what is actually natural recolonization is often mistaken for encroachment.”

A classic accusation hurled at juniper trees in particular is that they consume more water through their roots compared to other plants where junipers live. Jones et al. cite 8 recent studies to state that this simply is not the case. Jones et. al also demonstrate that mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests do not produce the effects BLM wants the treatments to: “There are many indications from the literature that mechanical piñon-juniper…treatment, especially if followed by mechanical drill seeding, can fail to meet the goals of ‘ecological restoration and watershed health and productivity.” The seedings enable grazing by large herds of cattle that also disturb the soil crusts and cause flammable cheatgrass to proliferate.

Why do these mechanical treatment projects fail to promote restoration? They fail to promote restoration because, as Jones et al. explain, mechanical treatments are extremely destructive to biological crusts. Additionally, Jones et al. point out how mechanical treatments like chaining lead to the greatest degree of soil disturbance. And, soil losses due to erosion following destructive activities like chaining can take 5,000 to 10,000 years to reform.

Wide view of Pinyon-Juniper clear-cuts (Photo: Max Wilbert)

Wide view of Pinyon-Juniper clear-cuts (Photo: Max Wilbert)

Next, we have BLM’s claim that their Virginia Mountains Vegetation Treatment Project will “protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat.” Again, even without the science, it is difficult to understand how dragging a giant chain across a forest floor to rip up pinyon pine and juniper trees by their roots can protect and enhance the very juniper trees being destroyed. As you might expect, the science reveals the lunacy in BLM’s stated goal.

In addition to the way mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests destroy a natural community’s biologic crust and lead to practically irreversible soil loss, Jones et al, describe how mechanical drill seeding or mechanical clearing of dead pinyon-juniper trees after a fire “can lead to significantly increased wind erosion…” They also state that, “there are many examples in the literature of cases where mechanical clearing of piñon-juniper has led to increases in erosion by both air and water.” And finally, they remind us that “any kind of land treatment that clears the existing vegetation and disturbs the soil (so all mechanical treatments but also fire and chemical treatments) can result in increases in exotic annuals, especially cheat grass, when these species are present in the system before treatment.”

It is quite clear, then, treatment projects like the proposed Virginia Mountains Vegetation Treatment Project do not protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat. These projects destroy historic juniper woodland habitat and seriously degrade the ecosystems they are found in.


Protecting greater sage-grouse habitat has become the newest justification for pinyon-juniper deforestation and BLM explains that the Virginia Mountains Treatment Project “would be designed to address threats to greater sage-grouse from invasive annual grasses, wildfires, and conifer expansion.”

These lists of threats to greater sage-grouse suggest that if BLM was truly interested in protecting the birds, they would spend their energy combating oil and gas development, conversion of land for agricultural use, and climate change.

First, we should double-check precisely what are the threats to greater sage-grouse. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, takes a slightly different perspective than BLM saying, “Unfortunately, because of oil and gas development, conversion of land for agricultural use, climate change and human development, sage grouse only inhabit half their historic range.” A similar website run by Defenders of Wildlife echoes WWF, “Remaining sagebrush habitat is fragmented and degraded by oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.”

These lists of threats to greater sage-grouse suggest that if BLM was truly interested in protecting the birds, they would spend their energy combating oil and gas development, conversion of land for agricultural use, and climate change. I will play BLM’s game, though, to discover if mechanical treatments really will produce the results BLM thinks they will.

They will not, of course. Jones et al. made it clear that mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests pave the way for invasive annual grasses to dominate treated areas. Invasive annual grasses choke the ground surface with continuous fuel, and burn more easily than clumped native bunchgrasses. And, as I wrote earlier, “mechanical treatments” are codespeak for deforestation. Deforestation leads to accelerated climate change which leads to more wildfires which kill greater sage-grouse.

I have already cited Lanner and Jones et al. (who cite many, many more) to explain that “conifer expansion” in most places is not really happening. This time, I want to address this argument from a psychological level. Notice how BLM is blaming conifer expansion for greater sage-grouse habitat loss while many other organizations are blaming oil and gas development, agricultural conversion, and mining. These other organizations, in other words, are blaming human expansion for greater sage-grouse habitat loss. When BLM’s rhetoric is viewed in this way, it becomes possible to analyze BLM’s words as a psychological distraction away from the role of humans in the destruction of the Great Basin. It is easier to blame trees than it is to blame humans for the deterioration of the Great Basin. Maybe this explains why so many readily accept BLM’s bogus arguments?


Learning that BLM is mistaken or spreading downright lies about what they’re doing to pinyon-juniper forests, the question, again, becomes, “Why?”

Why are they lying? How have they convinced themselves this is acceptable? Are they so beholden to ranching interests that their rationality has been destroyed by cattle money? Do they truly think they are doing what is best for the lands they “manage?” Or, with the amount of destruction they are wreaking on the Great Basin, do they hate pinyon-juniper forests?

I think there must be good-hearted people working for BLM who truly do care for the Great Basin. I wonder how they could have been misled in this way. I recall an article I recently read by Robert Jay Lifton, the brilliant psychologist who asked these very same questions of those involved in the rise of Nazism in his book “The Nazi Doctors.” Lifton’s article appeared in the New York Times and was called “The Climate Swerve” about the world’s deepening awareness of climate change.

Whether [the BLM staff] believe their false claims to virtue or not, is irrelevant for the thousands of acres of beautiful, ancient pinyon-juniper forests set to be destroyed by BLM. What matters is that we stop them.

In the article, Lifton explains, “Over the course of my work I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to endanger or kill large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue.” I would extend his realization to the natural world and explain that BLM’s justifications stand as their claims to virtue clearing their conscience before they murder millions of trees and the beings who live in them. The only way BLM can cut 30,387 acres of pinyon-juniper forests is to claim they are “protecting the public and firefighters” or “enhancing historic juniper woodland habitat” or addressing “threats to greater sage-grouse” so they do not have to face the truth of their violence.

Whether they believe their false claims to virtue or not, is irrelevant for the thousands of acres of beautiful, ancient pinyon-juniper forests set to be destroyed by BLM. What matters is that we stop them.

Northwest Port Expansions will Fuel Coal Industry’s Contributions to Mass Extinction

By Rachel / Deep Green Resistance Cascadia

In the arid Powder River Basin of Northern Wyoming and Southern Montana, the long roots of sagebrush draw water from deep beneath the soil.  The ability to access water in this way makes sagebrush an important star of the Basin’s biotic constellation.  Species of grasses and herbs are allowed to thrive on the moisture that the sagebrush draws toward the surface.

Elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope access the water stored in the plant’s pale gray, three-pointed leaves.  Greater sage-grouse eat the sagebrush too, while making their nests and performing their complex courtship rituals among the plant’s low branches.  The soil is the basis for the lives of these creatures and countless others, and the precious moisture within the soil is thread that connects them in a web of relationship.

The Powder River Basin’s coal extraction industry doesn’t place the same value on soil, and neither does the government that serves the coal extraction industry.  The region extracts about forty percent of the coal mined in the United States.  More coal is mined annually from the Powder River Basin than is mined annually from the entire Appalachian region.

The industry calls the soil and rock that lies between their extraction equipment and the coal seams ‘overburden,’ and they don’t take kindly to being burdened with the survival of the beings that depend on that soil.  No soil means no sagebrush, and no sagebrush means no sage-grouse.

Though the threat posed to the sage-grouse by human activity is acknowledged by industry and governmental regulatory agencies alike, both have chosen to prioritize the economy over living beings both human and non-human.  Nevada, another state inhabited by sage-grouse, is developing a conservation plan intended to “sufficiently conserve the species while enabling our economy to thrive.”

This, of course, is nonsense.  Since coal is a non-renewable resource at the center of our culture’s one-time energy extraction blowout, the destruction of the land must continue, and the wasting of soil must accelerate, in order to keep the US coal profit machine running.   By definition, coal mining cannot coexist with the greater sage-grouse, and it is time to choose sides.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the listing of sage grouse as a species endangered by human activity was “warranted but precluded,” meaning that the bird needs protection but “other species in bigger trouble must come first.”  Presumably, the “other species” they refer to include the US coal industry – which is definitely in big trouble.  Though coal remains a major source of electricity generation, the combination of band-aid environmental protections and increased competition from cheap natural gas is driving the coal industry’s profits way down from previous levels.  The industry is not taking this decrease in revenue lying down.

The coal industry is looking to boost their profits by tapping into the Pacific market.  Unlike the US coal market, which has lately been flat, the Asian market’s demand for coal is exploding.  China is building at least one new coal-fired power plant every week.  A big obstacle to exploiting this market is a lack of coastal Pacific transport capacity.  To really cash in on Chinese demand, they’ll need more rail lines and expanded West coast ports, and there’s already a plan in the works to get those things in spite of the impact that their construction will have on marine life.

One of the most aggressively pursued port-expansion projects is the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point Washington, home to the Cherry Point herring.  As a keystone species, the herring support a variety of other species that share their habitat.  They provide as much as two thirds of the food supply for Chinook Salmon, who in turn provide as much as two thirds of the food supply for the Puget Sound Orcas.

Unsurprisingly, herring populations have decreased by ninety five percent since the late 1970’s.  Cherry Point is also already home to the largest oil refinery in Washington state.  Vessel traffic in this area is already bloated by a rise in exports and the promise of a new pipeline from Canada.  If this port were expanded as proposed, it would become the largest of its kind in North America.  The expanded port would allow the transport of an additional forty eight million metric tons to foreign markets each year, which would require the use of an additional four hundred and fifty vessels each year – each one containing a devastating spill, just waiting to be unleashed.

Another expansion has been proposed for the Millenium Bulk Terminal at Longview, also in Washington state.  The Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview applied for 5.7 million tons but later admitted to plans for seeking 60 million tons once a permit was granted.  Other ports, including the Port of Grays Harbor in Hoquiam, Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, and Port of St. Helens are also under consideration. Also under consideration is Prince Rupert’s Ridley Island terminal in British Columbia, and other locations in BC may be under similar threat.

Right now, port expansion approval process for Cherry Point and Longview is in the scoping period, which means that hearings are being held for public comment across Oregon and Washington. 

The outcome of these hearings will be used to draft an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and that statement will be used to inform permitting decisions. No doubt, government and industry will again be looking for a false compromise between living communities and extractive industry.  We can stand with the herring, the sage-grouse, and all the members of their extended family, or we can capitulate to the demands of a system with an infinite imperative to destroy the land, air, and sea.

The negative effects of the proposed expansions (not to mention the negative effects of not only transporting fossil fuels, but also mining and burning them) are not limited to the possibility of extinction for the Cherry Point Herring and the damage their absence would do to those species who depend on them.  Coal dust and noise pollution worsen in their effect on both humans and non-humans if this industry gets its way, and both the environmental and economic costs that big-coal externalizes will be forced back onto local communities.

All tactics must be on the table.  We will physically halt construction with our bodies when the time comes, but without a community of support, direct action is likely to fail.  Engagement with the hearing process will also likely fail unless it is accompanied by diverse tactics and practical strategy.  We must use these hearings to connect with others in the communities that stand to be affected, and to send the message  that omnicidal industrial projects like this one will not stand unopposed.

You can find more information about the proposed port expansions here: