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Shilling for the Livestock Industry in Greater Yellowstone

Black Butte, Gravelly Range, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The commentary in the October 10th Bozeman Chronicle “Together we can tackle the fire issue” by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was another example of how the organization sees its role as a shill of the livestock industry.

The misinformation presented on sagebrush, juniper, and Doug fir “invasion” in southwest Montana lacks critical scientific expertise and merely mouths the livestock industry’s propaganda. While I am glad that GYC acknowledges that wildfire is “natural” and has always occurred in the West, the lack of historical perspective on the relationship between wildfire, sagebrush, and juniper ecology is evident.

GYC continues to promote the livestock industry’s assertion that most fires were “low severity” and frequent—and that these fires kept “fuels” low and thus avoided the “mega” fires that we see now.

Mouthing the party line that juniper has “expanded” and “invaded” many parts of southwest Montana due to fire suppression,  GYC supports the Gravelly Range “Collaborative” plan to log juniper and Doug fir, along with prescribed burning of sagebrush to promote a “healthy” ecosystem.

I’m always amazed that anyone is so gullible that they accept that the best way to create healthy ecosystems is to log or graze them, which happens, by happy coincidence, to benefit the timber and livestock industries.

Even if juniper is expanding its range, is it unnatural? For instance, geologist Jen Pierce at Boise State found that juniper was still expanding northward due to a more favorable climate for its growth. Ecosystems and plants are not static. They move to respond to the weather/climate.

Other scientists document that juniper does not frequently burn, often with a fire rotation of 400 years or more, but when it does, it tends to burn at high severity—just the kind of fire that GYC is suggesting is “unnatural.”

Furthermore, juniper takes a long time to “recover” after stand replacement blazes. What some livestock proponents, including GYC, call “invasion,” other scientists suggest that in many areas is merely recolonization after a significant fire.

Other non-range scientists suggest it is merely regrowth after major high severity fires. Some researchers also question low severity fires restricted junipers as implied by the livestock industry and GYC.

The suggestion that Douglas fir is unnaturally dense is based primarily on two studies done in Southwest Montana. That one can extrapolate to the entire national forest based on two localized reviews is problematic at best. Still, beyond this issue, the methodologies of the studies have been criticized as well. Emily Heyerdahl et al. did the study most often cited by the livestock industry and federal agencies.

The researchers put out plots to locate fire-scarred trees, but they could only find 17 fire-scarred trees within plots, so they added in 50 additional trees from outside of parcels. Talk about a bias sample size!

Remember that every time you add in a tree with a scar in any year, you shorten the fire interval. Thus, a single tree or group of a few scarred trees that perhaps was scarred by a lightning strike would be counted as a “fire year,” which tends to shorten the fire interval. Since nearly all fires are small, burning less than a few acres, the idea that every fire scar indicates some massive fire that influences the entire landscape is unlikely. I discuss these biases in this article.

Finally, burning sagebrush through prescribed fire is yet another problematic proposal. Sagebrush, particularly mountain big sage, which dominates the area, also has long fire rotations of hundreds of years to fully recover from a blaze. If you ask any of the sagebrush experts (not range professors), purposefully burning any sagebrush today is just about a criminal act given how much has already been destroyed by various other treatments. This is especially true since cheatgrass, a highly flammable exotic annual grass, is often expanded as a result.

Finally, GYC is implicitly hawking the livestock industry (and timber industry) narrative that large fires are due to “too much fuel” when all the research suggests that extreme fire weather conditions drive all large blazes.

Unless you have the right weather/climate conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds, most fires remain small and do not burn much terrain regardless of the “fuels.” Only when you have the “right” weather conditions, do you get a large blaze. When these conditions exist, there is no stopping the fires. And increasingly, climate change is creating the ideal conditions for large blazes.

If GYC were concerned about ecosystem “health,” it would advocate removing livestock from the public land instead of hawking livestock propaganda.

Sheep grazing Eureka Basin Gravelly Range, Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

What you won’t hear from GYC is that domestic sheep and cattle are destroying riparian areas, transmitting disease to wildlife (as with domestic sheep to wild bighorns), killing predators from wolves to grizzlies, polluting water, compacting soils, spreading weeds, dewatering our rivers for irrigated hay production and pasture, consuming the vegetation that would otherwise support native wildlife from grasshoppers to elk, contributing methane to climate change, as well as identified as the single most significant factor in species endangerment in the West and biodiversity losses globally.

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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