The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science

The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science

by Nathan F. Sayre

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Rangelands are vast, making up one quarter of the United States and forty percent of the Earth’s ice-free land. And while contemporary science has revealed a great deal about the environmental impacts associated with intensive livestock production—from greenhouse gas emissions to land and water degradation—far less is known about the historic role science has played in rangeland management and politics. Steeped in US soil, this first history of rangeland science looks to the origins of rangeland ecology in the late nineteenth-century American West, exploring the larger political and economic forces that—together with scientific study—produced legacies focused on immediate economic success rather than long-term ecological well being.

During the late 1880s and early 1890s, a variety of forces—from the Homestead Act of 1862 to the extermination of bison, foreign investment, and lack of government regulation—promoted free-for-all access to and development of the western range, with disastrous environmental consequences. To address the crisis, government agencies turned to scientists, but as Nathan F. Sayre shows, range science grew in a politically fraught landscape. Neither the scientists nor the public agencies could escape the influences of bureaucrats and ranchers who demanded results, and the ideas that became scientific orthodoxy—from fire suppression and predator control to fencing and carrying capacities—contained flaws and blind spots that plague public debates about rangelands to this day. Looking at the global history of rangeland science through the Cold War and beyond, The Politics of Scale identifies the sources of past conflicts and mistakes and helps us to see a more promising path forward, one in which rangeland science is guided less by capital and the state and more by communities working in collaboration with scientists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226083391
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/23/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Nathan F. Sayre is professor and chair of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

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The Politics of Scale

A History of Rangeland Science

By Nathan F. Sayre

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08339-1


Producing the Range Extermination and Fences

In the fall of 1894, the USDA's Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy sent J. Ellis McLellan to the southern San Joaquin Valley in California "to obtain all the information possible on the subject of rabbit driving" (Palmer 1897a, 53). The area had recently seen a large influx of settlers, drawn by the prospect of agriculture on lands previously used for livestock grazing, and the new residents had developed an elaborate community tradition to combat jackrabbits, whose numbers appeared to have exploded in response to the augmented food supply. Armed with clubs, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would form a semicircular line around as much as five to ten miles of rangeland. On a signal, they would converge toward a V-shaped pair of low temporary fences, beating the bushes and scaring the jackrabbits into a small corral at the base of the V. If a rabbit turned back, it was clubbed to death; those that kept going met the same fate when the line of pursuers closed in on the corral (figure 1.1, top). One such drive, in Fresno County in March 1892, was reported to have resulted in the death of some 20,000 rabbits (figure 1.1, bottom). By 1897, McLellan and other government agents had documented 190 rabbit drives in the southern San Joaquin Valley over a ten-year period, with an estimated death toll of 470,600 rabbits (Palmer 1897a, 58).

Rabbit driving itself was not new. Native Americans had employed a similar technique to hunt rabbits for food at locations from Washington to Arizona, including in California. Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley had organized drives using shotguns in the 1870s and later switched to clubs after "several people were peppered with shot" as the hunters converged (Palmer 1897a, 53). A white hunter in Tulare County began driving rabbits in 1882 to capture them alive for sale to coursing clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco; the clubs paid one dollar apiece for rabbits to release in staged hunts with horses and dogs. What was new was the scale of the drives, which reflected their goal: not simply to harvest some animals for food or sport but to exterminate as much of the rabbit population as possible. The famous California ranch of Miller and Lux reportedly paid its cowboys five cents for each rabbit killed in 1887, removing some 7,000 animals that year. Drives were also reported in recently settled parts of Oregon and Idaho, as were organized hunts with shotguns in Utah and Colorado. As unwelcome competitors for grass or crops, all rabbits were pests.

In his 1897 report, assistant chief of the Biological Survey T. S. Palmer opined that rabbit driving was probably on the wane in California since so many rabbits had already been killed and settlement had become so dense that their numbers seemed unlikely to rebound. He saw this as a good thing not for the sake of the rabbits but for the sake of the people's civility. "In the San Joaquin Valley a large drive is made the occasion of a general holiday; the schools are sometimes closed and women and children join the throng to assist in clubbing the rabbits or to watch the slaughter. It may well be questioned whether such scenes of butchery can have anything but an injurious effect on a community, and it will be fortunate when the necessity for them no longer exists" (Palmer 1897a, 59).

The rabbit drives did not push jackrabbits to extinction — the species persists in the San Joaquin Valley and throughout most of the West — and, in a broader sense, they were merely an extension of an impulse as old as domesticated agriculture itself: to target and destroy any organism that threatens one's crops or livestock. For all their brutality, the rabbit drives themselves are less noteworthy than the fact that beginning in this period, they attracted the attention of a federal government agency that sought to apprehend socio-ecological relationships in a certain way. Palmer's report included the basic natural history of the jackrabbit — its description, range, subspecies, breeding, and feeding habits — alongside an assessment of the "injury to crops and means of protection," poisoning, control measures in Australia, and bounty laws in nine western states. The perspective taken was at once scientific, economic, and didactic, with photographs, tables of data, and diagrams all presented with an air of clinical objectivity.

The jackrabbits of the San Joaquin Valley were not alone in being targeted. Exterminating economically damaging organisms was popular and widespread in the United States at the time, whether the target was "pests," such as rabbits and prairie dogs, or predators, such as wolves, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and raptors. The number and variety of extermination campaigns — whether successful or merely attempted — is remarkable in hindsight, even though government agencies continue to persecute many such organisms to this day. Ordinary citizens, such as those in the Central Valley, initiated most of these campaigns, which extended and inverted the market-driven killing of commercially valuable wildlife that had already wiped out bison on the Great Plains and beavers from large swaths of the United States.

Nor was McLellan alone in producing this novel kind of knowledge. The closing decades of the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of federal government agencies charged with the study of the nation's natural resources, especially within the USDA. The Section of Economic Ornithology, established in 1885, studied how to control birds that damaged crops; mammalogy was added to its name when the section became a division in 1886. Ten years later it was renamed again, as the Division of Biological Survey; it became a bureau in 1905, and eventually came to encompass wildlife conservation when it turned into the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in the Department of the Interior, in 1934. Other branches focused on agricultural crops: the Divisions of Seeds (founded 1868), Botany (1869), Pomology (1886), and Vegetable Pathology (1890) were consolidated in 1900 into the Office of Plant Industry, which became a bureau in 1901 when it absorbed the Division of Agrostology — the unit that had been created in 1895 to conduct the first scientific research on rangelands and grazing. Many of these agencies engaged in extermination, first by cataloging and describing citizen-led campaigns and then by stepping in to make them their own, seeing opportunities both to improve the methods employed and to satisfy and build constituencies, especially in the recently settled and still-developing West. The study and management of trees and timber went through a similar series of bureaucratic transformations, beginning with a special agent in the USDA in 1876, then a Division of Forestry in 1881, and culminating in 1905 with the creation of the Forest Service, which would take the eradication of fire as one of its core missions.

Range science was born from and within this context of burgeoning government-scientific endeavors, against a backdrop of systematic extermination. For rangelands during most of the twentieth century, the organisms to be exterminated fell into two main categories: pests — mainly rodents — which consumed forage and/or crops, and predators, which threatened livestock directly. Government campaigns to exterminate both kinds of "noxious" animals developed in the early twentieth century within the Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS), and they were only loosely coordinated — if at all — with early studies of rangeland ecology. But both would play significant and underrecognized roles in the future of the field.

One of the core challenges the BBS faced in both rodent and predator control was the mismatch of scales between the targeted organisms and the spatial division of rangelands among public and private landowners. Rodents (as populations) and predators (as individuals) routinely crossed boundaries and jurisdictions, so effective extermination required coordinated action at scales larger than individual parcels, states, or types of public lands. Not only would prairie dogs and predators have to be hunted, trapped, or poisoned, but people would also have to be persuaded or coerced into permitting BBS personnel to conduct extermination on their lands. In the name of making rangelands produce livestock more efficiently, organisms that had occupied those lands for thousands of years were deemed not only unwelcome but unnatural and incompatible with the ideal climax conditions of range vegetation that were subsequently enshrined in range science.

This chapter looks first at campaigns to exterminate rodents, particularly prairie dogs. These efforts extended throughout the western United States, and they had lasting effects on rangelands by removing prairie dogs from nearly 100 million acres where they had previously played important ecological roles (Oldemeyer, Biggins, and Miller 1993). I focus on extermination campaigns in Arizona and New Mexico, both to take advantage of the excellent unpublished dissertation by Claudia Oakes (2000) and because this area overlaps with the focus of subsequent chapters. I then turn to predator control and the most influential early experiment in the history of range science. Conducted between 1907 and 1909, the Coyote-Proof Pasture Experiment was a joint effort between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), which had hitherto been in charge of range research for the USDA. The name was somewhat misleading, because the goal was to exclude all predatory mammals, not just coyotes. Although it was not the first scientific experiment in range management, as is sometimes claimed, it was the first to be deemed successful, and its results helped transform the very institutions that had produced it. Inspired by this perceived success, the Forest Service soon took over range research from the BPI, and the young scientist who conducted the experiment, James T. Jardine, became inspector of grazing, while his collaborator, Arthur W. Sampson, went on to become "the father of range science." (I will examine Sampson in detail in chapter 2.) The Coyote-Proof Pasture Experiment thus had enormous implications for how rangelands would be studied and managed for the rest of the twentieth century; indeed, few scientific experiments in history have influenced more land.

Here again, scale was a central challenge, but in different ways. How could the technique of fencing pastures, borrowed from moister areas in the eastern United States and Europe and developed at scales of one to forty acres, be made to work at the scale of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of acres in the more arid West? And how could the results of a single experiment, conducted on four square miles in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon, be extrapolated to other national forests, let alone the enormous and diverse settings of the West as a whole? These questions were not answered, or even seriously asked at the time. But the experiment nonetheless catalyzed the institutionalization of a model of rangeland administration and management that presupposed the combination of fencing and predator control. The model spread across the public lands of the western United States in a matter of decades and was subsequently exported to the developing world. It rested on weak scientific foundations, but it spread for other reasons, enabled by large public subsidies over many decades, especially in the form of labor under Depression-era jobs programs. This was ironic, because reducing labor — in the form of herders — was the semivisible, ulterior motive behind the experiment in the first place.

The aggregate result of extermination and fencing was a sociospatial order that turned western rangelands into the "range," as it would subsequently be understood in range science. As such, it produced a number of persistent and significant blind spots in the emerging field. The extermination of rodents and predators — as well as the removal of fire, which I will examine in the next chapter — altered rangelands in numerous, significant ways. But early range scientists tended not to recognize or acknowledge these changes, not only because what was absent went unremarked but because the bureaucratic division of labor between and within agencies helped obscure them from view: even if scientists in one agency were aware of the changes caused by another agency (which is unclear in most cases), they were not in a position to object or interfere. Most instead believed or assumed that their inquiries revealed the "natural" conditions and dynamics of rangeland ecosystems; they did not question the removal of pests and predators any more than they questioned the introduction of livestock. Fencing created a blind spot of another kind: range science would henceforth take for granted the division of rangelands into discrete, bounded areas, each with a determinable number of livestock belonging to a single owner. Herders, who were common across the West in this period, would give way to fences to reduce labor costs in a part of the country where wages were relatively high, and common or collective use of land would give way to exclusive use guaranteed by private ownership or lease. In other words, range science would be a science of ranching, not pastoralism (Ingold 1980). These blind spots would become fully evident only decades later (chapter 7).

Pests: Exterminating Prairie Dogs

Rodent "control" embraced everything from shooting, trapping, and flooding to a wide variety of poisoning techniques, and its targets included rabbits, squirrels, gophers, hares, rats, mice, muskrats, moles, woodchucks, hedgehogs, beavers, and porcupines (Cameron 1929, 55; Young 1936). But it was the prairie dog that prompted the most widespread and systematic extermination campaign of all. Of the five species of prairie dog (Cynomus spp.) identified in western North America, the black-tailed prairie dog (C. ludovicianus) was by far the most widespread, with a range that originally extended from northern Mexico to southern Canada. Perhaps as many as 1 billion in number, they inhabited colonies or "dog towns" that could extend for miles. Early explorers and settlers often found the animals charming and cute, although shooting them was also something of a pastime (Oakes 2000, 78–79).

Ecologists today consider prairie dogs a "keystone species" because of the multiple roles they play in semiarid grassland ecosystems: their burrowing activities cycle nutrients throughout the soil profile; the burrows themselves aid in water infiltration and provide habitat for a wide range of birds, reptiles, and other mammals; and, above all, prairie dogs are food for predatory animals such as hawks, owls, eagles, coyotes, foxes, badgers, snakes, and ferrets (Oldemeyer, Biggins, and Miller 1993; Sierra-Corona et al. 2015). With so many animals trying to eat them, prairie dogs evolved collective and social behaviors to protect themselves, including a set of vocalizations to warn one another of various kinds of threats. But it was another evolved behavior that earned prairie dogs the wrath of European American settlers and the BBS: the practice of eating all the vegetation in and around their colonies down to bare ground so they could see approaching enemies better. For newly arrived ranchers, this was wasted grass that should instead be consumed by livestock.

By the turn of the century, biologists and settlers increasingly classified prairie dogs as destructive pests (Oakes 2000, 84), and the fledgling Division of Biological Survey had already invested significant effort in perfecting prairie dog extermination techniques and educating landowners on how to use them. In one of the earliest government reports on the subject, the famous naturalist and chief of the survey, C. Hart Merriam, noted strong popular interest and support "from the Dakotas to Texas," with some ranchmen willing "to pay for the destruction of the animals at a rate per acre exceeding the actual market value of the land" (Merriam 1902, 265). Prairie dogs not only consumed valuable grass and crops but threatened levees and irrigation ditches by digging burrows in them. Merriam attributed the problem to the very success of settlement: "The white man cultivates the soil and thus enables it to support a larger number of animals than formerly; at the same time he wages warfare against the coyotes, badgers, hawks, owls, snakes, and other predatory animals which had previously held the prairie dogs in check" (Merriam 1902, 263). He calculated that "32 prairie dogs consume as much grass as 1 sheep, and 256 prairie dogs as much as 1 cow," and from various accounts he estimated an average density of twenty-five prairie dogs per acre in dog towns. Describing a famous colony in Texas that covered roughly 25,000 square miles, he deduced that "the grass annually eaten by these pests in the great Texas colony would support 1,562,500 head of cattle. Hence, it is no wonder that the annual loss from prairie dogs is said to range from 50 to 75 per cent of the producing capacity of the land and to aggregate millions of dollars" (Merriam 1902, 258). Calculations like this one — deploying ratios and equivalences to translate plants and animals into revenues or opportunity costs relative to land values — were characteristic of the kind of official knowledge we will encounter throughout this history. They were routinely used, for example, to justify the Biological Survey's budgets: the 1924 annual report estimated that "noxious creatures" caused some $500 million of crop damage nationwide every year (Cameron 1929, 55).


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Table of Contents

A Note on Units of Measurement
Introduction / Rangelands, Science, and the Politics of Scale
One / Producing the Range: Extermination and Fences
Two / Fire and Climax: Bureaucratic Divisions of Scientific Labor
Three / Squinting at Blind Spots: Southwestern Rangelands and the Consolidation of Successional Theory
Four / Fixing Stocking Rates: Monitoring and the Politics of Measurement
Five / To Manage or Manipulate: Natural versus Artificial Improvement of Depleted Rangelands
Six / The Western Range Goes Global: Neo-Malthusianism and Pastoral Development
Seven / Till the Cows Come Home: Overseas Failures and Critiques of Range Science
Conclusion / Capital, Climate, and Community-Based Conservation

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