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Wildlife on the Wind
A Field Biologist's Journey and An Indian Reservation's Renewal
By Bruce L. Smith
Utah State University Press
Copyright © 2010 Bruce L. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter One Gettin' There
What's it like working with Indians? Early on, the question unsettled me. Not because I had no consequential answer, but because of how it struck my sensibilities. Often I interpreted the question's tone to probe dark secrets about the Indian people, rather than to learn about our shared endeavors. Perhaps I would confirm someone's preconceived notions or disclose a shocking revelation. I heard the question directed toward those who were different from us, as if inquiring about strange aliens.
Ironic this seems to me now for the obvious reason. If anyone, we non-Indians are the aliens. But there's another paradox. For years I was among those who were uninformed about who these people living in our country were. Native Americans—the politically correct term invented by us white folks decades ago—rings hollow with a Sioux or an Iroquois or a member of any of 500 other tribes scattered from Plymouth Rock to California's Mission Valley. At least that was true three decades ago when I was among native people. Don't get me wrong. I understand our genteel intent. But to the ears of those whose homeland was overrun and renamed America, it's a subtle reminder of Euro-Americans' past treachery.
As it turns out, "Indians" is the label that North America's indigenous people prefer. At least that's the case when speaking inclusively of the continent's first people. But assuming that all Indian nations are equivalent to one another is like saying that the British are like the French. Cherokee or Apache, their tribal affiliation is how most, at their core, still think of themselves.
So what's it like working with Indians? Better yet, what will it be like? That was my own question in 1978. As a transplant from western Michigan's Euro-ethnic neighborhoods, Protestant churches, and ice hockey rinks, I knew little more about these earliest Americans than I did about the Indians of India. Now the assignment I had accepted would soon change all of that. Yet this rare opportunity just as easily might not have happened at all.
* * *
After a year in California, I was running on empty. Disenchantment magnified my yearning for the Rocky Mountains' familiar embrace. Unexpectedly one evening I received a phone call. It was a familiar and much-welcomed voice. As if throwing me a lifeline, the caller redirected my career.
"Hey, Bruce. How's California's cactus and lizards treatin' ya?" It was Bob Phillips, a wildlife scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and my previous supervisor in Sheridan, Wyoming. Before accepting my first permanent appointment in Riverside, California, I shared my misgivings with Bob about how it might turn out.
"Funny you should ask, Bob. It's been pretty frustrating lately."
Stifling the urge to unload, I caught up on the latest life changes of my former co-workers in Wyoming. Then anticipating my next questions, Bob filled me in on my former charges. In a few sentences, he detailed how many deer, coyotes, grouse, eagles, and a menagerie of other wild critters remained "beeping" on the air. To me they were like far-off children and I missed tracking their radio transmitters and learning their whereabouts and fate amidst a burgeoning maze of coal strip mines and haul roads.
"Deer seem to be adjusting, but sage-grouse, well not so much."
When he paused, my frustrations rolled out like water from a ruptured dam.
"After almost a year, I've come to a roadblock trying to write a management plan for the Santa Rosa Mountains—trying to protect their desert bighorn sheep. So what if I've produced a nifty habitat map of the Santa Rosas. It's just lots of pretty plant communities, with one big problem. It lacks integration of wildlife's biological needs. It just seems academic."
"I hear you," Bob said. "You know from your work up here that's the linchpin. Needing to know what's important to the animals and why."
"Yeah, and my supervisor's response when I explained the shortcomings to him was, 'Just write the plan with whatever you have.'"
"Sounds like getting a final product's more important than what's in it."
"That's right," I emphatically agreed. "I can no more write a useful plan without data than build a house without lumber." Hearing the insistence in my voice, I realized how much emotion I had bottled. "The Santa Rosas are an amazing place. The mountains and their bighorn sheep deserve better," I added as an epitaph to my feelings of defeat.
The line was quiet for a long moment. "I sympathize with you, Bruce," he started. "Wildlife needs more of your kind of passion."
In an instant, these words snapped me back to the present. "Gosh, I've been on a rant. Sorry, Bob. Seems like I haven't tried to talk this out with anyone else." Having said the words, I recalled that he had been the kind of supervisor that gave his employees plenty of talking space.
"So, I haven't even asked. Is there something special you called about? Something I can do for you?" I asked.
"Maybe it's what I can do for you." Rising at the end, his voice betrayed that he had called with a purpose, and not just to shoot the breeze.
"I'll get right to it. There's a job advertised in Lander. When I saw the announcement, I immediately thought of you," he continued. "In case you haven't seen it, I wanted to give you a heads-up."
"Lander," I repeated, trying to place the spot on a mental map of Wyoming. "What's it involve? Who's the job with?" I asked with instant interest. In two or three previous conversations since I had left, he avoided any talk about job vacancies, knowing how hard it was for me to leave Wyoming. This must be something special, I realized.
"It's a wildlife biologist position on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Mostly working with big game," he enthusiastically answered, then added the job was the first of its kind.
"And who's it with?" I eagerly responded.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service."
I read the self-assurance in his voice. He knew me well; well enough to know that I would respond like a shark smelling chum.
I first learned of coveted job opportunities in the USFWS from my graduate committee chair, Dr. Bart O'Gara. Bart was the assistant leader of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit in Missoula, one of 37 such units administered by the USFWS. One of the more appealing aspects of the USFWS was its unique mission. It obliged scientists to work with wildlife populations and their habitats—an integrated approach to resource management. Nowhere is this more apparent than throughout the system of 550 (and counting) national wildlife refuges that the Service manages. This diverse collection across 50 states totals 96 million acres. It's essential to the nation's effort to sustain species that reside within our borders and others that migrate from the Arctic to Argentina.
In other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), biologists were largely restricted from handling animals, monitoring movements and survival, collecting samples for health analyses, etc. Such responsibilities were reserved by the individual states, and this was the hitch I had run into in California. Working with both the land and its animal populations was a holistic approach that intrigued me. I wanted to do big-picture work and make significant conservation contributions. Yes! I wanted to work for the USFWS.
At my urging, Bob highlighted the details for me. Considering my California experience, I couldn't help but wince at his first words, "Develop a wildlife management plan ..." But, I reminded myself, this was not the BLM. As he continued, "... population surveys of big game species across 2.2 million acres ... locate important winter ranges, reproduction areas, and migration routes," a surge of excitement swelled in my chest. This sounded good—almost too good to be true.
I thanked him again, we said our good-byes, and I hung up the phone at the dial tone. I sat in the silence of my living room with an onslaught of Technicolor thoughts bouncing from the walls. At first, of course, I had to reassure myself that this call had really happened. But quickly I felt a clarity about what it was that was drawing me there—the Wind River country—rather than keeping me here.
* * *
I have always had this enigmatic passion to tackle tasks I believed would make a lasting difference. In my fledgling career, I sought to channel that energy toward sustaining wildlife and the lands where they lived. I believe that's what left me feeling empty in California, with unfulfilled aspirations and fading hope.
In the 1970s, permanent wildlife jobs were as hard to land as a sturgeon on a fly rod. So when an offer came in May 1977, I quickly accepted even though working in the desert for the BLM wasn't on my radar screen. After I had worked an itinerant succession of seasonal jobs, the BLM offered me a chance to see a project through, and the position's focus appealed to me. I was charged with crafting a habitat management plan for the Santa Rosa mountain range and its featured species, the desert bighorn sheep. A mountain-dwelling large mammal, the bighorn was ecologically similar to the mountain goats I had studied in Montana for my master's degree.
The bighorns were sparsely distributed across this rugged environment that rose from near sea level to 5,000 feet. To write the plan required mapping the mountains' habitats and determining which ones the sheep used most throughout the year. It was longstanding dogma that sheep visited water holes habitually. But I found little data to evaluate if bands of bighorns used one, or several, of the scattered seeps and springs that sustained them—virtual fonts of life during brutal summers when temperatures nudged 120 degrees. If some were wide-ranging, then linkages between water holes were as important to protect as the water hole environs themselves. Isolation of subpopulations could lead to inbreeding and exclusion from seasonal resources. That could threaten the persistence of the overall population. I suggested to the BLM and state of California officials that these matters could be resolved with proper study.
After several weeks of tromping sand washes and rocky ridges to visit water holes and map vegetation, one thing became clear. Better technology than binoculars and boots was required. Buff-colored sheep were well camouflaged and thinly sprinkled across a tapestry of crags, sand, and surprisingly lush vegetation. Amassing unbiased observations of movements and behavior (in between my job's other pesky duties) was out of the question. To understand their travels required radio-monitoring some sheep.
Radio telemetry data would improve the BLM's management of the fifty-mile-long mountain range, and thereby benefit California's desert bighorns. Specifically, knowing in which habitats the sheep traveled and spent time would help prioritize private lands for acquisition—a pricey proposition in the backyards of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage. Ownership of the Santa Rosa sheep range was a checkerboard of federal, state, railroad, and other privately held lands. Coordinated land protection among all landowners was paramount to conserving this largest remaining U.S. population of desert bighorns.
With my supervisor's dubious approval, I developed a study plan to capture and radio-collar a representative sample of sheep. I acknowledged the obvious. State biologists would conduct the captures. The BLM would coordinate the monitoring of radio collars. I quickly learned, however, how closely the state of California guarded their dominion over Santa Rosa bighorns. My proposal to radio 12 to 15 animals was promptly rebuffed. The reason, I was told—the BLM managed land, not sheep.
For my part, I was naïve. With the backing of the local state biologist, I thought the merit of my proposal would win over others. They would be "color-blind" to the agency that formulated it. I simply failed to understand that California viewed the BLM more skeptically than it did the other federal resource management agencies. That is why other agencies, not the BLM, managed our nation's premier public lands.
Originally, much of the western landscape was classified simply as "public domain" and administered by the General Land Office. As the western frontier was settled under the Homestead Act and Desert Land Entry Act of the late nineteenth century, the most productive and valuable lands were withdrawn for private ownership. From the remainder, national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges were carved out and placed under the appropriate administration. All remaining acres deemed least productive, least scenic, sparsely watered, relatively unforested, mostly rattlesnake infested—and presumably godforsaken—defaulted to the BLM after the agency was established in 1946. In other words, the BLM got the leftovers—what nobody else wanted. This was true also of most reservation lands where hundreds of remnant Indian tribes were confined during the late 1800s. Although some tribes were allotted reservations within their historic homelands, many were not. Jon Meacham writes that President Andrew Jackson believed "with all his heart" in the removal of all Indians from east of the Mississippi. "He was as ferocious in inflicting harm on a people as he often was in defending the rights of those he thought of as the people." To those who argued for Indian rights, Jackson responded that removal would "guarantee the survival of the tribes, which would otherwise be wiped out," asserting that "coexistence was impossible."
Passage of the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830 began the uprooting of Indian tribes dwelling east of the Mississippi River for relocation to "Indian Country" to the west. Westward expansion of Euro-American society further displaced relocated tribes and resident nations from western homelands. Reservation treaties with Indian nations were modified, diminished, and abrogated by the federal government to accommodate white settlers and economic enterprise.
By default, the BLM became responsible for 258 million acres of land, or 13 percent of the United States. Ironically, beneath the semiarid and austere surface of those lands lie huge quantities of coal, oil, natural gas, coal bed methane, and hard rock minerals of untold value. In 2007, the BLM's mineral leasing activities returned about $4.5 billion in receipts from royalties, bonuses, and rentals to the U.S. Treasury. Beyond overseeing more energy and mineral extraction, the BLM administers more livestock grazing permits—over 18,000—than any other federal agency. Not surprisingly, the BLM has been labeled, among other disparaging nicknames, the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining." Others prefer the "Bureau of Latent Management."
Perennially understaffed and underfunded, the BLM struggled to do more than issue permits for resource extraction, use, and abuse. Its lax oversight and enforcement were roundly ridiculed by conservationists and other agencies alike. With the enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976—a year before I hired on—greater statutory emphasis was placed on multiple use and land stewardship. This was supposed to elevate conservation efforts for wildlife, watersheds, and wilderness, through planning efforts like mine. However, funding shortfalls, an archaic agency mindset, and America's hunger for energy and "outdoor playgrounds" still undermined (pun intended) the agency's efforts to conserve wildlife and wildlands. Thus, the BLM struggled as the stepchild among federal resource agencies. As I also found out, "The BLM doesn't do wildlife research."
In the space of 20 years, California's desert bighorns crashed in the Santa Rosas and adjacent peninsular ranges to the south. Numbering between 900 and 1,000 in the 1970s when I was there, they plummeted to 300 animals by the mid-1990s. The survivors were subsequently listed as federally endangered in 1998. Although all causes for the decline were unclear, land development, degradation, and fragmentation were paramount. As the population tanked during the 1980s and '90s, ecological studies of the sheep were launched. Some used radio telemetry and geographic information systems to identify bighorn movements and critical habitats—the very work I had proposed a decade before.
Perhaps these efforts and ensuing land protection came too late. Or was the sheep population fated to an inexorable march toward failure? Either way, proactive planning and conservation are always more effective than reactive mitigation. The 1998 species recovery plan for the peninsular desert bighorn carried a $73 million price tag. That was the population's estimated rescue cost so it could be removed from the threatened and endangered species list.
I learned hard lessons from my California experience about the foibles of science as taught in college. Academic training and technical skills can carry conservation only so far. Biologists must be persuasive in communicating, even promoting, their ideas from resource needs to research results. I failed to garner enough support from both professional and citizen wildlife interests. Yet because there was no conservation crisis in the 1970s, it may have made no difference. By comparison, what so intrigued me about the Wind River possibility (besides escaping the traffic, crime, and smog of Riverside) was that tribal governments on Indian reservations control both aspects of the wildlife resource: habitat and animals.
Excerpted from Wildlife on the Wind by Bruce L. Smith Copyright © 2010 by Bruce L. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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