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Ranchers, the Real Eco Terrorists?

In 2008 at a Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas lease auction Tim DeChristopher bid on 14 parcels of land (totaling 22,500 acres) for $1.8 million that he had no intention of buying. The FBI arrested him and charged him with a two-count felony indictment. DeChristopher was branded an “eco-terrorist.”  Even though the very leases he bid upon were canceled because of their inadequate environmental review of impacts, DeChristopher nevertheless served 21 months in prison for his act of “terrorism”.

Of course DeChristopher’s motivation was to protect the land from violation by oil companies–not his own financial gain. He should have been hailed as a hero. But in America people acting on principle to protect wildlands are often seen as a greater threat than those whose motivation is their personal financial gain.

A good example of the opposite federal government reaction is how the BLM and FBI responded to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the federal government by refusing to pay minimal grazing fees for more than 20 years (he now owes more than a million dollars), and his failure to remove his cattle from federal property (our property). Instead of being arrested and taken off to jail as DeChristopher was, Bundy is still living free in Nevada, enjoying life as a celebrity.

As a reminder, Bundy’s ranch was surrounded by gun toting anti-government militants who threatened to kill federal agents if they attempted to remove Bundy’s cattle from our property.  I guess that sends a message that if you want to continue to thwart government action just surround yourself with militia.

One doesn’t have to instigate an armed insurrection to do damage to our patrimony and many acts of eco- terrorism are not illegal, yet that doesn’t make them acceptable. Rancher Bill Hoppe who lives outside of Gardiner, Montana began to run sheep on his ranch in retaliation for wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone which he has vocally opposed. Hoppe is President of the “Friends of the Northern Elk Herd” an anti-wolf organization that has opposed wolf recovery.

Hoppe openly admitted that his domestic animals might jeopardize nearby wild bighorns. As Hoppe is well aware, domestic sheep can transmit pneumonia-like disease to their wild cousins causing many to die. Bighorn die-offs linked to domestic
keepingwildsheep have been documented across the West, including in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington and Idaho. Studies of sheep in captivity have proved transmission from domestic to wild bighorn. Yet in a blatant disregard for the potential transfer of disease, Hoppe pastured his sheep immediately adjacent to a wild bighorn herd. Bighorns in the area subsequently contracted pneumonia which most observers believe is a result of Hoppe’s decision to pasture domestic sheep immediately adjacent to the wild bighorn herds.

Is this act of “ecoterrorism?” It is in my book.

Hoppe is not alone in acting with malice towards public wildlife.  Rancher Frank Robbins of Wyoming who had his federal grazing leases canceled a number of years ago after more than a dozen violations including overgrazing the public’s grazing lands as well as trespass grazing of other people’s federal leases. Robbins is threatening one of Wyoming’s largest wild bighorn sheep herds by purposely running domestic sheep on his property adjacent to occupied wild sheep herds.

Thus Robbin’s threat to mix his domestic sheep in proximity to wild bighorns is analogous to giving small pox infected blankets to Native Americans as a way to reduce their resistance to American settlement and occupation.

Some forms of “eco terrorism” are more subtle and more wide-spread—and unfortunately quite legal. When a rancher’s livestock overgrazes the range, it harms many other creatures dependent on that grass. The grass going into the belly of someone’s cow, means there is that much less grass available for elk, bighorn or even desert tortoises which may depend on the same forage. With less grass, sage grouse may not be able to hide from predators. Yet no one will suffer FBI investigations, much less jail time for starving public wildlife.

Trampling of biocrust by the hooves of livestock damages soil and permits the establishment of cheatgrass, an exotic alien weed. The spread of cheatgrass has serious consequences for entire ecosystems in part because the plant is highly flammable and increases the likelihood and occurrence of fire, burning out perennial plants like sagebrush.  Again destroying biocrusts and spreading cheatgrass, while clearly an act of eco-terrorism, is not against the law.

How about the draining of our rivers and streams for irrigated hay and alfalfa production? Countless streams around the West are regularly dewatered to grow water-loving plants like alfalfa for livestock forage. The removal of water from streams harms fisheries, but also shrinks the stream-side riparian zones that are important habitat for everything from songbirds to bald eagles. You can kill more songbirds and eagles by destroying the volume and acreage of riparian habitat than anyone with a gun may, but while killing eagles and songbirds is illegal, destroying their habitat to grow cattle feed is not.

We kill thousands of predators from grizzly bears to wolves to coyotes to “protect” private livestock that are grazed on public lands. Even when these wild animals are not killed, they are harried and displaced by domestic livestock. Even so-called “predator friendly” livestock operations chase wolves and coyotes, harassing our wildlife to make it safe for their livestock. Is this not “eco terrorism”?

But do we hold ranchers accountable for these acts of eco terrorism? Hardly. Indeed, many politicians, media representatives, and others laud ranchers as the “true conservationists”.

These acts of “eco terrorism do far more damage to our collective heritage than bidding on oil and gas leases that are canceled. Yet while environmental activists like DeChristopher are arrested by Federal Agents and jailed, ranchers and other “eco terrorists” are even allowed to continue destroying public property for their private gain. These different approaches to violations of the law demonstrate the blatant inequities in justice in our government’s willingness to fairly protect the public’s natural patrimony.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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