Monday, March 2, 2015

Hart Mountain: Just Give It a Rest, Attention, and Time

By Bob Ferris

When I worked at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation much of our work was focused on nitrogen reduction and rightfully so.  One year we experienced drought conditions in the region thus reducing runoff and the amount of nitrogen that washed into the Bay.  The change was rapid and visible—one could see the bottom again and light reached underwater vegetation that processed even more of the Bay’s nutrient load.

It was remarkable again to snorkel in the Bay and I remember swimming calmly along in three feet of water looking at grasses, crabs and a variety of little critters only to come face-to-face with a 30”rockfish doing much the same.  I am not sure which one of us was more startled, but I remember that experience and this rather graphic lesson in natural resiliency.  I was fully aware that it was a glimpse and hint rather than an end point, but it gave hope. I think about this now as I look at dramatic before and after pictures from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge (HMNAR) in Oregon.
"Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge was established in 1936 to protect the American pronghorn which was in immanent danger of extinction. Together with Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge just a few miles south, the refuge today is important for the conservation of pronghorn, sage-grouse, American pika, California bighorn sheep, redband trout, and hundreds of other wildlife and plants which depend upon sagebrush habitats found in the high desert of the Great Basin." From HMNAR Wildlife & Habitat page.

From Batchelor et al.
HMNAR once allowed cattle grazing and stopped that practice in the early 1990s.  The results have been dramatic with change happening fairly quickly in some areas and slower and more subtly in others.  This has been particularly important within the riparian areas which are extremely important in the arid and semi-arid West. The function and habitat value of changes accruing over the past 15 years at this one waterhole are illustrative. 

From Batchelor et al.
But while this shows the clear benefit of removing grazing from a habitat perspective, this is a complicated landscape with much left to correct.  Optimism is a wonderful thing but it would seem naive to think that 15 years of low-level restoration is capable of completely correcting more than a century of intense manipulation, degradation and insult.  These photographs bespeak of vegetative and hydrological changes but much remains to be restored in terms of community and species assemblages as well as ecological functions and bio-physical cycles including the rebuilding of badly damaged soils. 

From Batchelor et al.
I mention the work-in-progress nature of this condition because the above laudable progress sometimes seems buried and confused under other rumblings about sage grouse and fire; pronghorn antelope and coyotes; and bighorn sheep and mountain lions.  And much of the criticism comes with an accusatory edge of: You promised us miracles if cattle were removed, where are the results? All we see are some taller grasses...where are the abundant game we desire?

There is certainly a lot going on here in these criticisms in terms of human expectations colliding
From Batchelor et al.
with ecological reality. We have become a species that likes our causes and effects simple and our results immediate, if not sooner.  But ecological time moves quite a bit slower than human time that is measured in months, seasons, years, or decades rather than by generations, successional regimes, population cycles and climatic change.   And restoration takes place on an ecological clock.

I will also say that the Monday Morning Quarterbacking on this refuge, particularly from the former exploiters of the refuge and their allies, needs to be taken with a Devil's Tower-sized grain of salt.  One line of reasoning from this crowd is that current conditions have improved because of increased rain rather than the removal of cattle during the drought.  I wonder where this ecological understanding and foresight was when these users grazed this range down to the nubbins when the drought was in full force?  Where were the voices from this same "ecologically responsible" group urging caution about the implications of an "ecological overshoot" where overstocking during this drought actually led to the diminished long-term carrying capacity of the area.  This is a much more likely scenario and something that is probably still in the process of healing if it ever will.  

Lots and lots have been written about Hart Mountain and its various issues (1,2,3,4).  Great reading for those who really want to dig into this complicated happenstance.  My sense is the high points are the following.  It is all about habitat and ecological function, always has been.  Progress was made and continues on habitat because of the removal of cattle; we see that in these pictures and studies of population trends in refuge birds.  Much too remains to be done such as dealing with invasive cheat grass and the feral horse herd both of which are "root" problems whose resolution will lead to longer term gains and more scientifically defensible actions than would coyote or mountain lion control (1,2,3) that are probably symptoms and likely to yield little in terms of long term benefit.

And perhaps most important of all, managers, observers and critics need to embrace an ecological time scale and apply it to their expectations.  Natural systems under the best of circumstances bob and weave with the best of them and recovering systems even more so.  I used to remember my mother telling me frequently that the dessert at the end of the meal was going to be wait-and-see-pudding.  This taught me patience which is a commodity that will be much needed in this effort far, far into the future.

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