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Winter 2006 - Act•ionLine

by Daniel Hammer | Winter 2006

The Meaning of Wilderness

Ranching is the first step in the domestication of the landscape, and in the taming of wilderness … At an even deeper level, the cattle culture is based on a worldview that sees nature as requiring control, and those who do the controlling as powerful people. The most direct expression of this view is in the way the animals themselves are manipulated and controlled to serve the ends of their "masters."1

The United States Department of Agriculture recently proposed new rules designating its Wildlife Services unit as the lead agency to control free-living animals.2 Should the proposals be adopted, they’ll allow the Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service division of Wildlife Services to use aerial gunning, motor vehicles, cyanide-poison guns and other methods of killing predators inside wilderness to benefit ranching, and hunting and fishing interests.

Deplorably, predator control is already allowed on wilderness lands administered by the USDA’s Forest Service. The Forest Service is authorized and directed by Congress to manage the National Forest System, “under principles of multiple use and to produce a sustained yield of products and services, and for other purposes.”3

Wildlife Services is the agency that specializes in the systematic control of nonhuman animals. Under the secretary of agriculture, its agents are authorized by Congress to “determine, demonstrate, and promulgate the best methods of eradication, suppression, or bringing under control on national forests and other areas of public domain as well as on State, Territory or privately owned lands” predators and other animals injurious to agriculture.4 To kill, in other words -- primarily on behalf of ranchers, but also catering to the interests of anglers and, increasingly, state hunting agencies. The newly proposed rules would expand the existing policy into a more aggressive and systematic method of killing predators. But the question remains: Why are predators controlled in the first place?

Wilderness is legally defined by Congress as, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled” by humans.5 The National Wilderness Preservation System both preserves the earth and its community of life and establishes boundaries on the expansion of human dominion. Although it sees wilderness as a “resource” for human use, the term here means the “natural condition” or “wilderness character” of the areas themselves -- signifying the importance of nature itself. In this sense the Wilderness Act is one of the most promising pieces of existing legislation, offering the prospect of allow free-living animals to live on their own terms.

Established to preserve those federal lands where natural conditions are unfettered by human interference, wilderness shouldn't be compromised for hunting, fishing, ranching and other uses. Yet this is exactly what management of free-living animals does. Predator control trammels nature, and it does so in order that ranching, hunting and angling can profitably proceed in wilderness areas. All of these activities manipulate the community of life and all fly in the face of the idea of wilderness. Yet hunting and fishing are almost universally allowed in wilderness. Similarly, grazing of domesticated animals is permitted in wilderness where grazing existed prior to designation; and, alas, grazing has been written into the Wilderness Act as a permanent exception.

When the Wilderness Act was adopted by Congress it included a loophole big enough to drive several hundred herds of cattle through. Under a special provision, grazing was grandparented into wilderness designation.

The precedent for barring commercial uses except grazing had the blessing of the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, with the establishment of Gila as the nation’s first wilderness area.6 As one wilderness advocate observed:

In much of America's first Wilderness Area, the Gila in southwest New Mexico, cattle grazing is so severe that the groundcover has been reduced to bare dirt… During one walk, I discovered miles of new fence. A wide swath of trees and brush had been cleared, scores of trees had been cut for fence material, others were girdled with barbed wire, and waste materials were scattered about.7

The ranching exemption allows profit-seekers to violate practically every wilderness precept. Furthermore, at the behest of the ranching industry, Congressional guidelines were written to protect entrenched grazing interests from being restricted by wilderness designations.8 Thus, anything and everything prohibited in wilderness areas can be permitted if it benefits ranchers.

Current Forest Service rules provide for predator control as determined by the Regional Forester on a case-by-case basis to target individual animals who kill cattle or sheep. The new rules would be more systematic, with ranchers given more involvement to make decisions with state hunting and fishing agencies through "predator damage management work plans." These plans would target entire animal populations instead of individuals. And, unlike the Forest Service, Wildlife Services won’t permit public appeals.9

The new rules proposed by the Forest Service would also enable state agencies to use predator control methods to manipulate free-living animal communities in ways that benefit hunters and angling. For instance, in the interest of moose hunters, Alaska could use the new rules to extend its current aerial-gunning scheme to have Wildlife Services kill wolves across its 5,753,548 acres of national forest wilderness.

State agencies, of course, already do manipulate nature. To augment hunting and angling opportunities, they move free-living land animals, and they stock rivers with fishes. Stocking often involves poisoning rivers and lakes to kill off the existing fishes and then using helicopters to dump intensively reared fishes desired by anglers. First the poisons, and then the introduced fishes, kill off invertebrates and amphibians who are part of the community of life.

The Wildlife Services agents, for their part, are engaged in a meticulous campaign to eliminate communities of double-crested cormorants, mainly at the request of angling groups. The new rules would allow Wildlife Services to extend this practice into wilderness areas.

Conservation organizations, generally opposed to controlling free-living animals on wilderness, often make exceptions to support the killing of non-indigenous animals. But seldom have we heard them call for the removal of ranchers from wilderness.

Unfettered predators are important to wilderness; they and other species in wilderness areas should be left unmanaged, for the very reason that wilderness is an untrammeled community of life. The reliance on predator control to benefit sport and profiteering in the wilderness only proves how inappropriate those activities are.

And as important as preserving existing wilderness is, it is not enough. As Lynn Jacobs has observed, “replacing livestock food production (including cropland used to grow livestock feed) with plant food production for humans conceivably could free about 620 million acres” -- that’s 33% of the United States outside of Alaska -- without adversely affecting the human food supply. “Not a likely scenario” admits Jacobs, “but the potential is there, and the means are available.”10 If we are ever to achieve that potential, we first must conceive of it. Thus, we ask our readers to join us in envisioning, and then working for, an unmanaged wilderness where predators and natural processes are free to flourish.

  • 1. George Wuerthner, "Beef, Cowboys, the West: American Icons," in George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson, Welfare Ranching: Subsidized Destruction of the American West (2002).
  • 2. USDA Forest Service, " Forest Service Manual 1543.13"
  • 3. The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (Public Law 86-517). Notably, the Act counts cattle grazing as one of six uses for which federal lands are to be managed.
  • 4. Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 ( 7 USC §426). The USDA’s Wildlife Services was formerly called Animal Damage Control.
  • 5. The National Wilderness Preservation System was created in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Wilderness Act. The original bill established 9.1 million acres of federally protected wilderness in national forests. The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-577) provided that “wilderness, in contrast with those areas where [humans] and [their] own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by [humans], where [humanity itself] is a visitor who does not remain.”
  • 6. Andy Kerr and Mark Salvo, “Pillaged Preserves: Livestock in National Parks and Wilderness Areas,” in Wuerthner and Matteson, note 5 above.
  • 7. Lynn Jacobs, Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching (1991).
  • 8. See "Congressional Grazing Guidelines," included with the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980 (Public Law 96-560).
  • 9. See Amy Maestas, “Predator Control Changes Proposed: Aerial Gunning, Motor Vehicles Would be Allowed in Wilderness,” The Durango Telegraph (24 Aug. 2006).
  • 10. Lynn Jacobs, note 7 above (emphasis in original).
Daniel Hammer

Act•ionLine Winter 2006

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