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Save all the pieces

by Anne Millbrooke
| March 30, 2022 12:00 AM

“The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces,” advised wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold.

In ecology that means saving diverse niches, all the habitat types necessary for native species to thrive. That is appropriate for our public lands.

But some public land users are taking the best, the highest-grade resources for private uses. When the best is gone, they go after the next-best, and then the next-best. This is the high grading downward spiral.

Grazing, for example, had so damaged public lands in the West, and each cow required so much arid land, that neither private landowners nor the states would accept ownership of those lands, so the lands were formally placed under federal protection. That was the origin of what is today the Bureau of Land Management.

Yet, by permit, commercial livestock grazing continues to degrade public lands by extracting grasses, forage, and water; by displacing native wildlife, introducing invasive plants, and disturbing the soil biome. This damage covers about half of the public lands in grazing allotments.

The proposed Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act is based on a collaboration seeking what works only for people rather than building a scientific foundation of what works for healthy forests and wildlife. This act provides for roads, trails, and logging in sections with the best resources available, despite the sections being critical habitat for the grizzly bear and other wildlife and fragmenting the remaining habitat.

The new Custer Gallatin National Forest plan similarly gives recreationists high-grade habitat. It also reduces the acreage under protection for wilderness qualities and wildlife. Given the thousands of miles of bike trails, off-road vehicle paths, etc., available on public lands in Montana, why expand such recreation into roadless wildlands at the expense of the land and wildlife?

High-grading disrupts wildlife, reduces biodiversity, introduces invasive species, and contributes to erosion, sediment runoff into streams, and the land drying out. Furthermore, wildlife in proximity with people is an invitation for zoonotic diseases, such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and severe acute respiratory syndromes like COVID.

Pieces are lost when high-graders rule the day.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act represents a better approach. This bill is a product of collaboration that uses science as the guiding principle to determine what is best for the land and wildlife. What's good for the forests, meadows, and grasslands, for the riparian areas and wetlands, creeks and rivers, is good for wildlife and for people!

Climate change will affect species in different yet linked ways. Climate change is already shifting seasons, shifting stressors, shifting species, and presenting more extreme and variable weather. Conservation of native vegetation and healthy soils is cheaper than artificial methods of capturing carbon. That’s the premise of 30x30, protecting 30% of the land by 2030.

Wildlife need diverse niches to survive in a changing world, as well as to survive through their annual cycles and their life cycles.

Birds are an excellent indicator of the health of the environment, and bird populations are plummeting—down three billion birds, nearly 30%, in the past 50 years, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2019. Western forest birds are down about 50%.

Ecological forestry is bird friendly forestry. Different species of birds need different habitat and different habitat at different stages of any bird’s life. As an agency, the U.S. Forest Service has adopted ecological forestry in principle because each type of habitat is important healthy forests. Each niche is a piece of our natural heritage.

Let’s not give away pieces of Montana.

Let’s save all the pieces.

Anne Millbrooke lives in Bozeman

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