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Steve Herman, Warrior for Sagebrush and Beauty

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This from Hart on about the 10th of August.  We saw three groups, about 16 birds total, Steven G. Herman.

“Our job is to protect beauty, whether or not we admit it. One of the primary indices by which our jobs and our landscapes must be judged is the extent to which we are able to protect or restore ecological circumstances that compare favorably to those conditions that prevailed before Europeans invaded this continent, before the invention of agriculture doomed wildness on much of this planet”.

– Steven G. Herman Wildlife Biology and Natural History: Time for a Reunion.

This is a tribute to Steve Herman, a friend and ally in the long struggle to liberate the West from the scourge of livestock grazing, the great destroyer of naturalness, biodiversity and beauty. He died in spring. His own words best tell the story of battles waged over more than half a century.

Students

For 35 years, Steve taught classes in ornithology, mammalogy, evolutionary ecology, biostatistics and plant ecology at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, with more than 2200 students. His legendary field course “Summer Ornithology: Birds in the Hand” took students into the wilds of the northern Great Basin banding birds and adventuring. It continued until 2018, long after he retired. Prerequisites were “enthusiasm for studies in natural history and a fascination with wildness in the American West”. The course infused students with a love of birds, and an obsession with nature.Young people energize me I learn from them as much as they learn from me … My life’s work has been to produce scientists who will seek to protect wildness … But I also just really enjoy teaching people about birds. I’ve been lucky to get to do that for a very long time”. Many retain a deep devotion to a man who truly was a force in their lives. Some became addicted to this landscape. He kept in touch with an amazing number, recalled minute details of past outings, wrote countless letters of recommendation, encouraged their biological quests, officiated at weddings, and was generous in many ways. He reconnected with generations of students and friends at an annual spring MABO (Malheur Bird Observatory) camp out by Malheur Refuge, amid singing Sage Thrashers and Rattlesnakes.

Steve’s passion for the natural world was contagious. Immersion in the sagebrush sea was key. During his “academic Camelot” at Evergreen “the faculty ran the place for many years before administrators were able to get the upper hand … 25 days of spring quarter in the field, travelling in college vans, camping out, running down the coast from Washington to northwestern California, over to Klamath Falls, Hart Mountain, and Malheur in eastern Oregon, then back to Olympia”.

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Sallie Herman photo.

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Of Yellow-Breasted Chats: “I like everything about them, especially their teasing behavior”. Photo from SGH.

The Summer Ornithology class was long held in August at a specific aspen draw site at Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, then at Steens Mountain, and other remote places. Birds are moving about and beginning to migrate then. The high desert light takes on a golden glow. Mornings are cool and the aspen groves smell lovely. In later years, he was aided logistically by his son-in-law Adam, and fought to keep Evergreen from canceling the course. It finally ended when Steve opposed what he believed were unconscionably outrageous course fees. I recall e-mails from Steve as the class fled a wildfire in the Santa Rosa Range, and after one of the last sessions, his happiness at the group seeing Sage-grouse and Black Rosy Finches by windswept Steens ridges. Two recent Herman alums were enthralled by the elusive finches. That winter, Steve e-mailed asking what I knew about old mine shafts (potential finch roost sites) in the Sawtooths. The students were embarking on a classic Hermanite quest, pursuing phantom finch flocks in avalanche country. Just after Steve’s passing, a Facebook post showed publication of a new article “The Status of the Black Rosy-Finch on Steens Mountain Oregon”, by Elijah Gordon and Steven G. Herman.

The summer ornithology classes banded over 24,000 birds in the northern Great Basin. While hundreds (or thousands?) of papers have been written about Sage-grouse, basic information on many other birds of the Intermountain West is scant to nearly non-existent. “My favorite of them all is the Brewer’s sparrow,” Herman says. “It’s a small desert sparrow that’s very plain. Its only field mark is that it has no field marks. I’ve had more Brewer’s sparrows go through my hands than any other person in the world.”

After decades of Hart banding (1976-2011), a Refuge manager, in an apparent vendetta, prohibited the class camping at the banding site. Banding became impossible. Birds would die if nets were not religiously checked. Yes, Fish and Wildlife Service, the overseer of migratory birds and banding records, axed this long running data set from a remote area in the northern Great Basin region where no similar work takes place.

Keeping a rigorous field journal was mandatory. Steve wrote a book on How to Journal, “The Naturalist’s Field Journal, A manual of Instruction Based on a System established by Joseph Grinnell”. It contains a quote from 19th century naturalist Eliot Coues: “Write down everything while it is fresh in your mind … Don’t be satisfied with a dry-as-dust item, Clothe a skeleton in fact, and breathe life into it with thoughts that glow …”. A clear thread running through from the keen-eyed naturalists recording (and lethally collecting) the wonders of the North American fauna as its destruction under Manifest Destiny was unfolding, to an aspen draw in the high desert.

The students later showed their appreciation in many ways – from telling of intriguing bird observations, to naming a new species in his honor. The duff of the moist western hemlock forest in Shoshone and Benewah Counties in the Idaho panhandle is home to a blue-flecked slug, Securicaudis hermani, the Rocky Mountain Axetail. It was discovered by two former students, Bill Leonard and Casey Richart. “Having a species named after you, says Herman, “is among the highest honors a biologist can enjoy.” No matter how slimy it is”.

I was never a student Hermanite, and likely wouldn’t have made it through the journal rigors. I came to know Steve as an unflinching advocate for Sage-grouse, Pygmy Rabbits, Kangaroo Rats, Junipers and any other living being suffering trauma or persecution at the hands of the public lands livestock industry. He challenged agency managers and biologists that ignored or enabled the cattle industry’s path of destruction. I met Steve in the late 1990s at Desert Conferences held at Malheur Field Station by the Refuge in late April, swallows swooping, Coyote Butte to the south, and blue sky with billowing clouds trailing virga across Harney Basin. These environmental meetings energized people drawn to sagebrush country. Steve gave talks on the booming aspen and meadow recovery at Hart Mountain, which had become cow-free in 1990, and on Fish and Wildlife Service’s grazing, haying, and predator killing taking place on Malheur Refuge – while Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) biologist Joy Belsky skewered Hart managers’ crazed Coyote purging schemes that surfaced after cows were banished. Conferences at the Field Station ended in the early 2000s with the domestication of the desert wilderness movement in Oregon.

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Cows on Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Photo from SGH.

Malheur Refuge

Steve began visiting Malheur in 1966, returned every year after, and did field work there. He wrote of the first Snowy Plover nest encountered on the Refuge during a survey: “I was much deflated to find that the eggs were crushed, the nest substrate still damp with the contents. A cow’s hoof had made a direct hit, and the trail was obvious. I shooed the cows away, wishing that the stones were larger”. One can only imagine his journal entry that day.

Snowy Plovers are nearly invisible sparrow-sized wisps. The Refuge Manager’s excuse was that the egg smashing culprits were merely trespass cows. This didn’t placate Steve: “Missing from it [the Manager’s world view] was the esthetic aspect of natural history—appreciation of the beauty (or even the image) of snowy plovers, the setting of the surreal lake and its Pleistocene shoreline. My memory of the 2 golden eagle nests I had seen there 15 years earlier … Missing too was his recognition that “his” refuge is a wildlife refuge, not rangeland …”. He tells of the Plover incident, and winter cattle grazing damage to Malheur, in a video: “The Refuge in many areas at the end of winter and early spring is just a wallow”. Cattle strip cover for early nesting birds like Greater Sandhill Cranes, “so the birds are forced to nest in areas that have been grazed off during the winter” making their nests vulnerable to predation. The manager’s solution was “to control the predators not the cows”.

Steve spoke admiringly of Nancy and Denzel Ferguson, who ran the Malheur Field Station in its heyday. The Fergusons had tangled with cattlemen and tried to end Refuge grazing. Denzel’s book Sacred Cows at the Public Trough exposed the rancher domination of Malheur (and other public lands), and the tremendous modification of the Refuge environment to accommodate cows – including 400 miles of lethal bird killing fences. Steve reminisced:

“My conservation colleagues and I had been locked in a fight with Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about grazing. We lost the battles and the war (grazing persists and has in fact increased on Malheur), but we had some good shouting matches and were able regularly to demonstrate that denial and just plain lying often trump wildlife science … the science can say something quite unequivocally, but counts for nothing in the face of longstanding myths (e.g., “grazing benefits wildlife”) and political pressure (the euphemism is “social factors””).

Until his death, he persistently sought information on Refuge species counts, management activities and grazing exploitation, and tried to raise a ruckus about what was taking place. He pried cattle numbers from Fish and Wildlife Service, finding that between 24,000 and 33,000 cattle AUMs were grazed annually on the Refuge from 2001-2010. This continues up to the present but getting complete information from FOIAs now is difficult because the Bundy gang pillaged Refuge records.

Though defiled by cattle and flawed management, Malheur Refuge was sacred ground. When Ammon Bundy and his gang of militants seized the Refuge in January 2016 using the jailing of the Hammonds as justification, Steve was beside himself. He had long known of Hammond threats against the Fergusons, agency personnel and others, and of their chronic trespass and arson. How ironic that the militants portrayed the Refuge (a “cow wallow by the end of winter”) as the heart of government overreach darkness, while Fish and Wildlife Service was lavishing subsidized grazing and haying privileges on local ranchers.

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Photo from SGH.

Steve was so very proud of a student, Cody Martz, who traveled to the Refuge to protest the seizure. When an environmentalist tut-tutted protesting there as wrongly drawing attention to Bundy’s cause, Steve exploded:

“Close, but no cigar … Not even a Bull Durham. I bristle at your suggestion that my former student, who traveled over a thousand miles round trip to picket the Headquarters with some nice signs for three days, was “adding to the circus”.  I don’t think so.  And suggesting that what he did was the equivalent of attending a KKK meeting is additionally offensive and insulting.​Attending a KKK meeting would have targeted only the offenders; there would have been no effort to defend and bring attention to the site of their meeting.  A critical difference.  Supporters presenting themselves and their signs at Refuge Headquarters serve a dual purpose: They disapprove of the idiots and they support the institution, the idea of conservation, our rights to our Public Lands, our National Wildlife Refuges…. Nothing has been done [by the Feds to oust the militants], in part I’m sure because the offenders are white privileged males …”.

Steve further retorted:

“We should be focused squarely on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, making clear that it should be recognized as a poster child for grazing abuses in western North America. We should be painting that poster with bright colors on a huge canvas! Thirteen permittees have their way with the Refuge every year. As I type, hundreds of cattle are brutalizing the Refuge and no one seems to know it or care …”.

He foretold the outcome of the Malheur ringleader trial part way through the court sessions. “They’ll walk”. After Trump pardoned the Hammonds, Ryan Zinke in his final days as Interior Secretary cleared the way for a new BLM grazing permit to be issued to them. As Burns BLM was ramming a new permit through (since overturned by litigation), Steve told High Country News:

“I see (the new grazing authorizations) as part and parcel of all those acquittals. It says to me that, you can make death threats … you can start fires, and you’re going to be rewarded not in this case with acquittal, but with a great big package of privilege.”

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Malheur Refuge hay ready to roll out to ranches. SGH photo.

Here’s what the haying looked like in Sept. 2019. In August 2020, I observed dozens of hay mowers, massed and cutting across the southern Refuge area.

Steve viewed the Malheur Refuge Plan, completed in 2013, as a huge sell out by Audubon and other groups ensnared in a stakeholder collaborative net. The do-nothing Plan describes haying and grazing as “tools to provide optimum conditions for wildlife” including Sandhill Cranes. He challenged an ONDA collaborator:

“Over the years I have repeatedly asked for the science that might support this nonsense about worms and sun and cranes. And have received none. This is one of the myths that has been supporting grazing on Malheur for decades now. It is defended by a very good man who once was the Refuge Biologist … but if there are data I’ve yet to uncover it. Even if it were true (sun on earth denuded by cattle rouses invertebrates to activity earlier than sun filtered by grass) one has to assume that the cranes NEED these early worms. Why would they? Begging the usual question: What did the cranes do before the cattle? And there ARE data showing that when cranes are obligated to nest in an environment with poor cover, their nests are more vulnerable to predation by ravens and more”.

He wrote about grazing collaboration:

“Years ago, during a time when I was working to preserve a marine site much used by migrating shorebirds from a coalition of arch capitalists bent on paving it, I was joined one morning by a reporter from one of the prominent television networks.  As we huddled in the shoreside vegetation, a couple hundred thousand sandpipers whirling and settling before us, a Peregrine Falcon entered the picture, setting loose an aerial ballet of extraordinary beauty as predator pursued prey. When the show was over, I was quite breathless, especially pleased that the videographer had probably caught the drama.  I looked at the reporter as things settled down, my gaze obviously wondering what she thought.  She said, “Why couldn’t they just get along?”

And so that is the basis for all this crap: the passionate hope that all sides can get along.  And when ostensible conservationists accept the invitation into the lion’s den, this inevitably is the result.  The hosts, the resource predators, begin with the upper hand and are not likely to lose it.  In this case, helped by their costumes and their claims of multigenerational preoccupation with the preservation of an “iconic American life style”, the once other side just caves”.

In 2019, he rebutted an article attributing Malheur bird declines to Carp:

“The carp are a diversion. The carp are a very convenient cover for a decline in management practices and continue to serve that end admirably. The carp have been there for decades, for a very long time, and have been poisoned out (not really) at least twice. They can’t be poisoned now because that poison would threaten the Redband Trout that have recently been restored to the Blitzen River that flows into the Refuge …[it] has been extirpated over much of its former range, mostly as the result of Public Lands Grazing. If there are data securely linking the decline in bird use at Malheur with the carp, I have yet to be privileged to see it. Have infant waterfowl perished in this turbid water? Have migrating waterfowl looked down at the turbid water and decided not to land there? I think not”.

Elsewhere he wrote that Yes, Carp may impact reproduction, but much else is going on too.

“There is no question that birds are fewer in number now than they were in earlier years. Driving down Center Patrol Road this past Memorial Day weekend I was astonished and much saddened by the paucity of all kinds of birds – from ducks to shorebirds to gulls and passerines – along the way. We counted few individuals of most species of ducks, and many of the other birds were simply absent, despite a relative abundance of water in the roadside ditches and ponds. The same pattern held for the private lands along highway 205 leading to the Refuge from Burns.

The decline in birds at Malheur is part of a global collapse of bird populations. In a process that a British author has termed “the great thinning”, widespread declines of birds have been characterized by many fewer individuals of various species, along with a lesser decline in the species. This is true on land and on water, in North America and Europe and elsewhere. The extent of it is just coming into focus. But that fact alone cannot explain the situation at Malheur.

There was a time when Sandhill Cranes were the centerpiece of Refuge conservation efforts. I am told that numbers of breeding pairs of cranes have not been legitimately counted since 1999. The date for haying to begin was originally set so that crane colts (as the young are called) would be mature enough that they would not be in danger of ending up baled as the ranchers initiated their hay harvest. In recent years that date has been viewed with some “flexibility”, and the tie to crane safety has been weakened as the date (in at least one year) has been moved back. Cattle trespass has not been taken seriously anywhere that I know of recently, but I’m told that there is virtually no enforcement of rules holding cattle to permitted acreages … in recent years … It is a common (and legitimately intuitive) assumption that ducks rely on the lake for nesting, when in fact most duck species nest in the uplands, in fields often distant from the water. I have found Pintail nests more than a mile from water in the Malheur Basin. Beginning in the nineties (in my experience) some or many of the fields that for decades had been carefully preserved for duck production were given over to the ranchers for grazing. Certainly, that trend has impacted duck production …”.

He would return from birding on the Refuge or down to Page Springs to commune with chats at the MABO gatherings, and lament the great thinning. Here is what grazing looked like on the Refuge in August 2020.

Hart Mountain

In a 2019 declaration supporting Sage-grouse litigation, Steve wroteThe sagebrush country in southeastern Oregon has a special place in my heart and I would go back there right now if I could. I’ve known the area for ages. I look forward to visiting Sheldon, Hart Mountain, and Steens several more times before I die. Those places are extremely important to me and my family—my son in law has done contract bird work in Steens for years, and once found himself dodging a bullet that came from a Hammond pickup. And my late friend and his wife [Denzel and Nancy Ferguson] were roughed up (his glasses broken) by some Hammonds at a dance in the eighties. When I teach my summer ornithology course, I always take my students to Hart Mountain in August …”.

A screenshot of a computer Description automatically generated From an SGH slideshow on Hart post-cow recovery. He immediately began documenting the changes.

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Hart meadows in 2020. The stream channel is completely covered in places.

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Guano Creek.

In a video he describes sparring in the long battle to get cattle evicted from Hart: Buck Pasture on Willow Creek was an area long fenced off from grazing, showing what was possible. Outside the exclosure upstream water flowed over bare rock. There was a 15 ft. eroded headcut downstream. In 1986, a Refuge prescribed burn roared out of control consuming 13,500 acres including part of the bird banding draw. Cows inundated the draw daily until Steve’s “constant bleating” got them fenced out. The new exclosure provided a preview of the ecological recovery that could take place across Hart’s 260,000 acres. Barry Reiswig, the USFWS manager who finally ended Hart grazing, used the rebounding aspen site in his efforts.

In later years, Steve often spoke of the inconsistent Sage-grouse monitoring at Hart (volunteers and not Refuge staff count birds), the capture of hens on leks at Hart and Sheldon to spirit them away to prop up the always-in-the ICU Grouse populations in Washington state, the juniper destruction projects on the Refuge, and of FWS’s purposeful burning which caused cheatgrass expansion and killed sagebrush. “The burning north of HQ was done by dunderheads contrary to the advice from the on-site manager … the brass in Lakeview insisted on it”. He vividly recalled the many agency assaults on beautiful places he held dear in this vast landscape, including the prescribed burning of a Cooper’s Hawk nest site by Badger Camp on Sheldon Refuge. Memories of such wounds to the land and animals do not fade. This is an affliction that I too share.

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SGH photo caption: “As rain follows the plow, so do cows follow the chainsaw”. Steens Mtn.

Agency destruction of western juniper to please cattlemen has long been rampant across southeast Oregon. Right now, vast areas are being very rapidly deforested, ostensibly to save Sage-grouse. In a 2019 litigation declaration Steve wrote:” I find these projects deeply offensive and they harm my use and enjoyment of the public lands. They are offensive because they are touted as so-called habitat-restoration … There is little scientific evidence to support the proposition that such projects benefit sage-grouse, and in many cases trees are being removed in places where sage-grouse are not even present. In truth, these projects only benefit public lands ranchers. Sacrificing intact ecosystems on public lands for the benefit of a few private citizens—especially when it occurs under a false veneer of promoting sage-grouse conservation—is infuriating …”.

Following a recent wildfire on Hart (said to be caused by a military war plane flare), Steve fretted over the effects of the Refuge’s planned post-fire cheatgrass herbicide onslaught, holding a deep distrust of these chemicals – with very good reason, as he had helped expose the disastrous effects of the most notorious of biocides. In his comments and e-mails on posts about herbicides and pesticides, Steve would take pains to remind us “Rachel Carson called them biocides”.

DDT – California Peregrine Survey, Raptor Research Panel Reflections on the Madison Peregrine Conference, Tremoring Songbirds and the DDT Monograph

Steve, a falconer, was at Berkeley and Davis as Peregrine Falcon populations were crashing, and the realization of DDT’s egg-shell thinning effects swept across the bird world. Intensive surveys of known Peregrine eyrie sites took place across North America. He surveyed California, writing in “The Peregrine Falcon Decline in California II. Breeding Status in 1970”, that

… all evidence indicates that the total number of successful pairs in the state of California in 1970 did not exceed five.”

“Approximately 100 pairs of Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) were reproducing success fully in California in 1946. A decline began in the early 1950’s and intensified later in that decade. By 1969 fewer than ten nesting sites were estimated to be active … Peregrines originally nested in all of California’s diverse habitats—marine, desert, chaparral, montane, although breeding pairs favored certain areas. Pollutant distribution differs greatly among the various habitats. The insular population off Southern California was apparently the first to disappear, probably as a result of the extraordinary chlorinated hydrocarbon contamination of that area …

All of the coastline from the Oregon border south to the entrance to San Francisco Bay was checked. About 85 per cent of the coast between San Francisco Bay and Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles, was covered. This area was flown, and many of the sites were checked on foot. Islands off the coast of South California known to have once held Peregrines were flown twice. A large number of the verified sites in the Coast Ranges north and south of San Francisco, between the sea and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley, were examined. Sites in the northeast corner of, California, at the western extremity of the Great Basin, were also checked. Virtually inaccessible sites (inaccessible, in fact, to persons wishing to take eggs or young) were visited offshore, deep in private and military property, and in areas of public land where the probability of disturbance in the past 30 years is practically nil …”.

His 2002 paper seeking a revival of natural history in wildlife biology emphasized that

“the discovery of the link between DDT pesticide poisoning and eggshell thinning owes its debt to natural history, to Derek Ratcliffe, the discoverer of eggshell thinning. Had this British naturalist not been broadly trained, the phenomenon might have gone unrevealed for another decade or so … Naturalists are equipped to see the whole as well as the parts”.

The wildlife profession, shrouded in an ever-denser statistical fog, continues to veer even further away from natural history – except now remote cameras capturing intriguing animal behaviors are backdooring animal observation in again as accepted study.

 

In 1965, as Peregrines and many other birds of prey were hurtling towards extinction, biologist Joe Hickey organized a Conference in Madison to synthesize what was known about the declines. A 2015 Raptor Research Foundation meeting panel reflected on the Madison Conference. On that panel, Steve described his own DDT experiences and the scientific scene in 1965, including: DDT doilies, demos in public schools, work calling in spray planes to cotton fields, encounters with Ortho, the nozzlehead mentality, the extraordinary pushback against Silent Spring, and the presence of a government enforcer for LBJ at the Madison conference who tried to quash scientific talk of pesticides as the cause of the Peregrine collapse. “Into this melee, with Joe Hickey, came a man named John Buckley”. Buckley had been inserted to chair the Madison session on pesticides. Steve read his account of what Buckley was up to, written for the falconry newsletter Hawk Chalk long ago:

“He is one of President Johnson’s assistants … one of his earliest comments struck this reporter as being somewhat more than incredible. He asked that … peregrine population changes be eliminated from the pesticide discussion. He went on to suggest that panel members refrain from using the term contamination when speaking of pesticide-wildlife relationships and use instead “occurrence”.

Buckley failed in his science suppression mission for LBJ. DDT was finally restricted (not banned). The 2015 Raptor panel videos draw you in emotionally: Grainger Hunt’s talk on the correspondence of cereal farming and raptor declines, and the dawning realization of “tiny unseen moleculesspoiling the global ecosystem”, how DDT had “messed with the wrong species”, and frail Bald Eagle biologist Sergej Postupalsky speaking from a hospital bed. The overwhelming dominance of men in biology in the 1960s is also inescapable, an indication of the tide Rachel Carson and other women in science faced to get heard. When the Raptor meeting panel was asked what guidance they would give to young biologists, Steve said “spend more time in the field”, and passed on “watch that bird until it goes out of sight”.

In 1974, DDT was taken out of retirement using the native Douglas Fir Tussock Moth as an excuse. Millions of pounds mixed with diesel were sprayed on Northwest forests in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Application drift was detected on the east coast of North America. As the spray was raining down, Steve and Evergreen students collected field data documenting its effects on forest biota. They helped drive a dagger into DDT’s resurrection with the study “Effects of a Forest Application of DDT on Nontarget Organisms”, Herman and Bulger 1979, published as a Wildlife Monograph. He later wrotethe work was basically an exercise in field natural history. Relying primarily on observation but buttressing that with quantitative techniques … we dodged the agency and industry folks who were constantly after us and got some serious, rigorous science done … Our circumstances were unique, largely because we were unhampered by administrators in those early days of Evergreen”.

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Image from the Herman and Bulger DDT Monograph. Spray clouds descending on Townsend’s Warblers in the treetops.

The work spanned breeding bird counts; nest observations; shrew trapping; studies of residue accumulation in fish, passerine birds and shrews; aquatic and arboreal insect surveys; and searches for tremoring, dying and dead birds. “Three of the dead birds (the warbling vireo Vireo gilvus was in tremors and dying when found) were fresh and large enough to allow meaningful analyses of brains”. This study of DDT’s ecological effects in timber country sparked Forest Service outrage. “Our measurement of population declines in passerine bird species and our discovery of birds that died of DDT intoxication following the 1974 application, have attracted considerable attention. Among other things, those findings and our early conclusions from them (based on population data and the observation of tremoring and dying, as well as dead, birds) precipitated a public attack on our work by the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (McGuire 1974)”. Two Evergreen students who worked on the DDT study, Dave Whitacre and Dirk Lanning, became Steve’s lifelong friends and came to the MABO campouts 40 years later.

A small animal in a garden Description automatically generated WDFW photo. Pygmy Rabbit by artificial burrow.

II. Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, Whiskey Dick, Sage-Grouse, Cows and Horses

The Demise of the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit

“Observation had failed to tell them that a 1,600-pound (800-kg) animal that ate the same food as a burrowing animal of less than a pound (0.5 kg) might win the fight”. SGH.

“Denzel Ferguson used to say that you could follow the hooves of cattle by tracing the dwindling range of B. idahoensis in Oregon”. SGH. (Brachylagus idahoensis is the Pygmy Rabbit). SGH.

“We need to remember the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit as an example of a form lost in part due to the insanity of Public Lands Grazing”. SGH.

The Pygmy Rabbit was thought to be extinct in Washington state. Then in the late 1980s, 5 sites with rabbits were found in Douglas County. Four of the tiny populations seem to have blinked out almost upon discovery. Only the Sagebrush Flat locale had more than a hand full of rabbits. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) soon set about destroying the habitat of this largest population occupying a tract of state land by inflicting high numbers of cattle and a proliferation of cow water developments. While this tragedy played out, Steve’s was the lone voice for the rabbit. He wrote letters, pleaded with bureaucrats and shouted in the halls of the WDFW office “the secretaries fled the building” in Olympia, to try to save the last speck of its habitat from certain destruction. Meanwhile, the Audubon Society was in bed with the Game Department and the cattlemen. He lamented:

“I watched while the WDFW grazed one of the best areas – the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area – so abusively that much of it was physically destroyed. That was the last place the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit was found. When that little rabbit was almost gone, it was declared Endangered, and the cattle were finally removed. The last surviving Washington pygmy rabbits were trapped and put into a captive breeding project, where most of them died”.

A 1995 WDFW Pygmy Rabbit plan containing many pages of obvious Herman comments that were ignored, proclaimed “If grazing is prohibited at pygmy rabbit sites, there will be a loss of local good will and the benefits of positive local management”. In 2001, far too late, USFWS published a rare Emergency Rule listing the Columbia Basin Distinct Population Segment of the Pygmy Rabbit as Endangered. Years later, Steve reflected: “Stakeholder” committees often confect what may look to some like research, but what are in fact another means of reinventing the status quo … I observed, 1 of these ponderous groups … cooked up a scheme to “evaluate the compatibility of pygmy rabbits and domestic cattle …” Observation had failed to tell them that a 1,600-pound (800-kg) animal that ate the same food as a burrowing animal of less than a pound (0.5 kg) might win the fight. The result is another captive breeding program, this time for pygmy rabbits”.

Here are Steve’s photos of WDFW’s grazing atrocities at Sagebrush Flat – Washington’s last large piece of deep-soiled shrubsteppe inhabited by Pygmy Rabbits.

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The Game Department turned the last bit of wild rabbit habitat into an industrialized cow farm. As the rabbit extinction was taking place, a 1996 High Country News article “Can Cattle Save the Pygmy Rabbit” cheered on the travesty. It included a photo captioned “pygmy rabbits may be one of ranching’s smallest beneficiaries”. WDFW’s biologist Dobler extolled the grazing “experiment”. HCN described:

“He wants to settle the question of grazing on pygmy rabbit habitat by way of experiment – letting a rancher continue grazing cows on portions of a 3,600-acre piece of state-owned steppe called Sagebrush Flat. Meanwhile, researchers would observe one of North America’s rarest small mammals. At stake is the flat’s ecosystem in eastern Washington’s Douglas County, a rare fragment of deep-soil sagebrush steppe that has never been plowed …

Steve spit fire in response, saying that grazing on Sagebrush Flat “is like putting cows on the roof of the Sistine Chapel – unmitigated insanity”. The HCN article continued “David Billingsley, who owns the Sagebrush Flat grazing rights, has a good relationship with state officials. This was a state grazing lease, Billingsley did not “own rights”. “This (plan) is a beautiful opportunity,” he says, “for ranchers to show (government) agencies we are not all out here raping the land.” Well, rancher Billingsley, the Cattlemen’s Association, and the Game Department showed that not only was the grazing scheme land rape, it turned out to be rabbit murder too. This was all overseen by a stakeholder group (Cattlemen’s Association, Department of Natural Resources, a range manager, a soils expert, an Audubon member and a university prof). In 2009, Steve spoke to Brian Ertz about the grand experiment:

“Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists championed the cows, one of them claiming, “Steve, we’re concerned if we lose the cows we’ll lose the rabbits”. So the cowheads got together, formed a Coordinated Resource Management Committee and planned for more grazing.  The WDFW bought the acreage from WDNR for a huge amount of money, then increased the grazing in a program that included bringing water to portions of the area that had been beyond the range of cattle earlier.  New wells were drilled, new water distribution systems were installed, and the number of cattle was increased.  The mantra of the CRM Committee was, “The cows and the rabbits have been together for a hundred years, so there’s no doubt that they’re compatible”.

Worries of harm were brushed aside, as “monitoring” of cow impacts was to prevent damage.

“It wasn’t long before I began getting calls from frantic WDFW personnel on the ground (these were essentially “anonymous”) reporting collapsed active burrows, scorched earth between sagebrush plants, and other insults in the relatively small area where the rabbits were holding out.  But the WDFW had instituted an elaborate “monitoring” scheme that conveniently sidestepped reality, and their “data” showed “no impact” from the cows.

When the rabbits were down to fewer than 20, the decision was made to take them all into captivity.  Of course this was greeted with enthusiasm and confidence that the danger was over; it was just a matter of time before the problem would be solved.  Such is the glamour of captive breeding programs in our day.  Everyone loves them, in part because “we” are going to solve “nature’s problems”.

Years (and many millions of dollars of captive rabbit breeding) later, WDFW came up with a “safe harbor agreement” for cattlemen in 2007. WDFW was hoping to release captive-bred rabbits and not have them be killed by ranchers if the animals moved on to private land. Steve e-mailed:

“Fascinating stuff, given that the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit is already extinct! The unique subspecies [Distinct Population Segment] that existed here is now gone, its genetic integrity swamped by contributions from other subspecies. I fail to understand why they continue to claim the captive bred forms are the real thing. And somehow they fail to mention that grazing on Sagebrush Flat was a major contributor to the extirpation (Thines, N.J.S, L. A. Shipley, and R. D. Sayler 2004. Effects of cattle grazing on ecology and habitat of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits. Biological Conservation 119: 525-534.) … It didn’t take long. Seven remaining rabbits were taken into captivity and fed a diet of sagebrush only for months. Several of these were lost (in the wild, the species relies on forbs and grasses as well as sagebrush). Eventually the remnants were crossbred with rabbits from elsewhere (Idaho in particular) and it is the intergrades that are now being passed off as “Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits”. They are not.

When the ‘Safe Harbor’ possibilities were first brought up, ranchers showed up at meetings with video cassettes in hand, and several at a time would wave them to the presiding bureaucrats, implying that they had footage of Pygmy Rabbits on their private property, and that the data would be shared, once they were in the “safe harbor”. All that should soon be available!

The radio collars that decorate the released captives are among the most encumbering I have seen. That technology has matured significantly in recent years, but *these* are really garish, virtual invitations to predators (and these little rabbits are quite diurnal). How they might impede them in their burrows is a good question. There is no doubt, though, that a collared Pygmy Rabbit is less fit than one not so outfitted”.

Bulky transmitters or intrusive markers on animals of any species sent Steve into a rage. A milder statement on the matter of invasive, intrusive, or mutilative marking techniques:

“I object to researchers considering encumbered animals equivalents of unencumbered. Fitness is a finely balanced thing. I teach my bird banding students that a banded bird is (just a bit) less fit after it is banded”.

Most years in springtime, cheerful articles with tales of hybrid Washington bunnies appear in Northwest media. In 2019, another one of these stories appeared, this one less cheerful. The interbred rabbits remain on extreme life support, partially caged, in predator-purged areas. Endless problems have plagued the program. Steve, never letting up in his efforts to seek justice for the rabbits and expose the tragedy of Sagebrush Flat, pushed the reporter to do a follow-up article that acknowledged the role of grazing impacts and WDFW bungling. Now 2020 wildfires have ripped through the quasi-caged rabbit sites, killing half of them.

As for Washington’s Black-tailed and White-tailed Jackrabbits, Steve related to me:

“I think it was close to thirty years ago [40 now] that I began to worry about the White-tailed [Jackrabbit and inquired of the then Department of Game about their status. They replied that they were “a pest in apple orchards”, far too abundant. Then over the years both species virtually disappeared, right under the noses of the agency that should have been monitoring their populations. Essentially gone. Well, now, isn’t that a pattern”.

Steve’s 2007 rabbit sage harbor e-mail warned of a new battle with WDFW looming on the horizon:

“And the status quo continues to be reinvented, soon in the form of a completed Coordinated Resource Management Plan that will make the beautiful Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area – probably the best hunk of real shrubsteppe in public ownership in Washington – part of a 60,000 acre pasture and mandate that it be decimated by privately owned cattle”.

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Whiskey Dick in bloom. SGH photo. 

 

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Whiskey Dick. SGH photo.

Whiskey Dick

He loved that place”. – Sallie Herman.

In 2007, Steve was increasingly agitated by rumors that WDFW was preparing to throw open the state’s Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area to cattle and issue a grazing permit to local rancher Russ Stingley. The land had been cow-free for 25 years. He explained his connection to the site in a declaration filed with ensuing litigation:

“In … field-based programs I have focused on sites in Washington and Oregon. Foremost among those sites is the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area, 15 miles east of Ellensburg. There I have introduced students to shrubsteppe birds and plants … I can testify to the generally excellent condition of the vegetation following a quarter century of recovery after the last assault by livestock ended, as well as the fact that acreages about the springs remain heavily infested with cheatgrass – the result of unusually heavy use by livestock in that earlier time.

I can testify to the absurdity of the alleged reason to graze the Whiskey Dick (the “elk follow the cow” scheme). This can only be described as an embarrassment. [WDFW claimed elk needed cows to eat down dry grass so elk would have greenery]. Finally, I can testify to the extraordinary value of the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area as a potential corridor to help connect Washington’s two populations of Sage Grouse, and the extent to which Department staff have championed that function. I can testify to the value of the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area as a site to be visited by a public not well educated on the beauty and value of this most endangered landscape. I can testify to the fact that this Wildlife Area has the greatest diversity of herpetofauna of any Wildlife Areas in the state and is rich in other wildlife and floral treasures that will suffer under the hooves and at the appetites of livestock. And I can testify to the damage that would be done by reintroducing livestock to this priceless and wonderful landscape prize”.

Another WDFW excuse for caving to cattlemen was that they had to placate them so they’d keep selling land to the agency for “conservation”- showing a fundamental misunderstanding of ranchers in the West. The more you concede on any issue, the bigger the concessions you have make to the industry in the future.

I was soon swept into the Whiskey Dick grazing vortex – off to Olympia to a futile meeting with bureaucrats, a visit to Whiskey Dick when the wildflowers were blooming, a dismal agency range tour sugarcoating grazing, a Game Commission meeting in Ellensburg and rancher petty bullying efforts. Our pleas (and those of former WDFW Commissioner Bob Tuck) to abandon the project were ignored, and it hurtled forward.

Public Records requests revealed that cattle had already been imposed on other state Wildlife Areas in closed door deals with the Cattlemen’s Association. This included the Asotin area near the Snake River. There WDFW had issued grazing permits with no public notice or comment period, under an MOU agreement that also allowed the Cattlemen’s Association to choose the ranchers who got to graze for free. Don Johnson, a fisheries biologist and zealous cattle opponent, had worked on the Asotin Pintler area, a place purchased as mitigation for Salmon-killing dams, years before. Don was irate at the opening of the Salmon and Steelhead habitat that had been cow-free for 16 years. With a spotlight now also on Asotin, WDFW dragged in land grant college range professors to bless and monitor what they termed a grazing “pilot project”. Don documented the abuse of habitat that was taking place, countering the range monitoring BS.

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What Don was seeing in Asotin portended Whiskey Dick’s fate if the cows were unleashed. In an e-mail to a cow apologist Steve said:

Monitoring is the bone tossed to “environmentalists”. Even if it were done honestly (it never is) it would be meaningless unless there were a threshold that would trigger the end of the destruction (there almost never is). The exclusion cage photo attached here may appear to demonstrate damage to some, but the WDFW dismissed it as meaningless and “out of context”, and went ahead. They said that they had inspected the site and had “found signs of use, but no damage.”… The elegantly planned monitoring scheme for the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area is designed to yield results favorable to the cowheads. By randomly distributing the measurements of “percentage utilization” they manage to site many of their stations where cattle don’t go or go infrequently (mainly far from water or salt). The “randomness” of the design implies objectivity, but ignores the behavior of the subject being monitored. And then, they gather data from all the stations and average the results, yielding measures of central tendency (e.g., averages) that hide the worst of the effects. It is as if I pulled one of your arms off and averaged the length of the remaining three limbs, then claimed that you still had four limbs, albeit somewhat shorter than what one might find in the general population. Above all, though, no damage.

A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employee has claimed he is “under orders” to support the claim that science demonstrates the benefits of grazing to wildlife. This is not science, this is sleight-of-hand. And it more often than not fools “environmentalists”.

And the wool is often mobilized to get conservationists to “do research to see if grazing benefits wildlife”, to do “experiments” to investigate this “as a possibility”. Well folks, that experiment has been going on in the American West for more than a hundred years, and it has left an area more than twice the size of California degraded to varying degrees, often to dirt”.

Washington has a state NEPA-like law, SEPA which was critical in the Whiskey Dick fight. A case could be made that a new grazing permit on Whiskey Dick first had to undergo SEPA review. So a SEPA lawsuit Herman v. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington Cattlemen’s Association was filed in state court. The judge ruled that a SEPA EIS review must take place. WDFW proceeded to write an EIS rubberstamping the Whiskey Dick grazing scheme. That EIS was also challenged. A 2011 settlement resulted in 35,000 acres of Whiskey Dick being closed to grazing for the next 20 years.

The drive to open Whiskey Dick and Asotin to grazing took place under Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire, who embraced the “working landscapes” gimmick used to justify exploitation of lands purchased for wildlife habitat for private profit, part of dealmaking to gain political capital. Politician capitulation to a tiny number of cattlemen leeching off public lands continues to this day. Look at Democratic Governor Jay Inslee and the nonstop WDFW Wolf killing outrages showing the outrageous power the cattlemen have still been allowed to wield over wildlife – which makes the grazing battles Steve fought even more remarkable. A single welfare ranching operation is responsible for the death of dozens of Wolves. A respected carnivore biologist was forced out of a land grant college. State-paid range riders caroused in town when they were supposed to be out preventing conflicts. The lone environmentalist on a stakeholder group was kicked off by the WDFW Director. Who even knew you could get removed from one of these groups? Inslee only recently appears to be reining in the Wolf killing. Steve often posted about the slaughter, and the role of “Cows Northwest” (his term for a local environmental group) and others in enabling it. His description of WDFW: “This is not a Fish and Wildlife Department. This is a wildlife killing machine”.

Sage-grouse

The fate of Sage-grouse has been the dominant public land issue in the interior West for 20 years. Steve kept abreast of every twist, turn, agency lie, researcher obfuscation, media distortion, and habitat assault. He aided many lawsuits challenging nonstop agency malfeasance by providing supporting declarations. From a 2019 Sage-grouse lawsuit Herman declaration:

“I love sage-grouse and the sagebrush steppe ecosystem … My first exposure to sage-grouse came in 1955 in Eastern California, near Mono Lake, when I was still calling them sage-hens. At that time, sage-grouse were much more abundant and when I was walking through the sagebrush I would often be startled by a covey of them going off with the rumbling sound they make when many of them burst into flight … My view is that the sage-grouse is already endangered and the refusal of the BLM to behave responsibly as stewards can only take the species further down the path to extinction … It seems a high crime that science is not driving sage-grouse management and that the effort is instead being driven by private desires to exploit the environment”.

The initial ESA petition seeking listing of the Mono Basin Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of Greater Sage-grouse was submitted by the Animal Welfare Institute and Steven G. Herman in 2001. The Mono birds are now blandly referred to as the Bi-State DPS. The petition requested an Emergency listing of Sage-grouse inhabiting Mono County California and Lyon County Nevada as Endangered. Fish and Wildlife Service, of course, found no need for listing. After being sued in 2006, they agreed to evaluate the initial AWI-Herman petition and a later petition filed by several environmental groups. Litigation over listing the Bi-state birds continues to this day. No Greater Sage-grouse population has yet been listed. Claims that the Mono birds are not imperiled get more absurd with each new FWS confabulated finding following litigation bouts. USGS and Game Department biologists churn out smoke and mirror models and slanted population analyses divorced from the grim reality on the ground. Agencies are running out the clock until the population passes the point of no return. This point, sadly, appears to have already occurred with the Gunnison Sage-grouse in Colorado and Utah, a separate species which has been listed as Threatened but there appears no real will to save the bird.

A decade ago, biologist Mike Connor and I met up with Steve in Mono country in the Bodie Hills, amid an early October snow, to look at places where he had first encountered the birds. We were working on a lawsuit to limit the grazing damage being inflicted by billionaire hotel magnate Barron Hilton’s public lands cattle operation and other welfare ranchers on this biodiverse landscape also inhabited by Pygmy Rabbits, White-tailed Jackrabbits, Mountain Quail, Pinyon Jays and even a few Pikas. A highlight of the trip was watching a Pinyon Jay flock swirling through pinyon and juniper trees high above Mono Lake. The trees have likely since been destroyed as part of the BLM War on Trees distraction from actual protection of sagebrush habitat.

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Steve by an eroding Bodie gully drying up a grouse meadow. Mike Connor photo.

The excruciatingly protracted process of FWS not listing any Greater Sage-grouse populations under the ESA dragged on for years. It culminated in Obama Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s staged non-listing announcement for the Bi-state birds in April 2015, and then the grand finale in for the remainder of the species in September 2015. FWS withdrew a 2013 Proposed Listing Rule for the Bi-state birds, despite having already admitted they were in serious trouble. Jewell held a celebratory event on Earth Day announcing her revelation that all was now magically better for the birds, and extolling “epic collaboration”. Steve commented:

“Regarding the non-stop dishonest, disheartening bullshit: They have perfected the trick of convincing each other and the public that something is being done”. As for the remainder of the species: “There’s not a chance in hell that the bird will be listed. When listing was denied to a tiny remnant population that straddles the border of California and Nevada recently, Sally Jewell hosted a rally in Reno that was a real blowout. Apparently hundreds cheered the decision, and she cheered them on”.

He would torture himself reading agency “Sage-grouse Initiative” newsletters, and other fantastical tales of habitat restoration hyping vast “treatments” destroying trees and sagebrush as a cure-all. “I spent a bit of time looking for examples of shrubsteppe restoration and was unable to find any.  I am dubious that any exist, except those cases where sites come back passively after fire or the removal of cattle”. The propaganda promoting agency and industry story lines, published nearly verbatim in news articles, became so thick that environmentalists began parroting it, provoking this response:

“I object to arming our detractors, girding the loins of our enemies.

Claim. Fences (ubiquitous in ranching country) provide perches for avian predators like eagles and hawks that prey on sage grouse. “There is not a shred of evidence (that I can find) to support the idea that eagles and hawks sit on fenceposts plotting to prey on Sage Grouse …

Our enemies use an extension of this myth to justify the savaging of our native juniper forests, claiming that junipers provide perches for these predacious devils … It is of course true that eagles and hawks (and falcons) sit on fenceposts, but nowhere in the literature do I find mention of these perches being the launchpads for meaningful predation on Sage Grouse by raptors.

While there are ample numbers of published accounts of raptors preying or trying to prey on Sage Grouse, predation by this group is by no one … thought to be of any significance.

The Golden Eagle is the only native raptor capable on a regular basis of tackling an adult Sage Grouse. There are many observations of individuals of this species attacking grouse at a lek, very few detailing success. And there aren’t that many Golden Eagles. Red-tailed Hawks are common throughout much of Sage Grouse range, but adult Sage Grouse are a little beyond what they regularly prey upon. Juvenal and subadult Sage Grouse are certainly vulnerable to some raptors but reports of anything but outlying observations of successful predation on these forms are nonexistent. And nowhere are fenceposts, junipers, or even transmission towers found in this context in the scientific literature.

Claim. Sage grouse also fly poorly. A surprising percentage die by collisions with fences.

NO! Sage Grouse are very strong fliers, which is one reason they often perish when they come up against barbed wire! What am I to hear next? That Pronghorns tangle with fences because they aren’t good runners? No, Sage Grouse and Pronghorns tangle with fences for the same reason that birds get entangled in mist nets: Barbed wire is a very resistant material introduced into these animals’ world in the last 150 years …”.

​Steve ferreted out every bit of Sage-grouse intelligence he could find. When he e-mailed a Hart Grouse photo in 2017, he bemoaned the forces arrayed against the bird “People like Jewell … never have to answer for their lies”. On the latest deceptive modeling by USGS’s Coates and others being used to stave off ESA listing of Bi-state birds: “I can’t find the graph, but I remember the tiny upswing was due to a new lek being found, not increased reproduction”. And: “I found out that EVERY female Sage Grouse on the Yakima Training Center has a radio, and they are checked three times a week!” highlighting the level of human disturbance, while sharp-eyed Ravens were being blamed for declines “of course they’re planning a poisoning campaign”.

His forceful style standing up to apologist agency managers and biologists rankled many. As Sage-grouse population numbers continue to plunge across the West, he’s being shown to have been right all along, not the armies of researchers and wildlife biologists who would never actually look out the pickup truck window and see what was happening to the land.

One of his last efforts was a letter to the journal Bioscience rebutting assumptions in an article written by cattle enthusiasts from the Burns Oregon USDA Ag Research Center who have close ties to the industry. “At the end I was racing against time, thinking I wanted to get it [the letter] buttoned up before I lay under the knife again. There’s a point where editing becomes circular”. The Bioscience article had indicted wild horses for causing rampant ecological degradation, while cattle impacts were brushed aside and excused away under claims that cows were being “managed”. The journal editors had not scrutinized the validity of these assertions. Steve couldn’t stand the double standard. His response letter closed: “Grazing by any invasive species degrades these landscapes, and cattle remain the primary offenders. Our public lands are a precious resource belonging to all Americans. We must condemn and seek to rectify any factors which degrade or threaten these lands, be they horses, cattle, or other negative influences”. To illustrate the absurdity of the claim that “managed” cattle grazing was such a superior thing, he attached Don Johnson’s utilization cage photo from WDFW’s Asotin grazing debacle where “management” had been overseen by land grant college range professors.

In one of his last e-mails, a very ill Steve, still engaged and retaining his dry humor (how else to cope with a wounded natural world and the senseless destruction of beauty), sent an article describing a Gopher Snake eating a Sage-grouse chick. It raised this as a mortality factor. “But they didn’t speculate similarly when cows were documented eating sagr eggs. I didn’t read all of this, but we all know how much gopher snakes like to lie in wait in junipers”.

These are the dimensions of Steve’s environmental activism that I know about. There were many other battles and preservation efforts, including establishing a field station to protect biodiversity in Mexico. Not a day goes by that I don’t see or read something and think of his voice. Steve was a great man to those who had the privilege to spend time with him out there, under the blue sky.

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Hart Mountain.

Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

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