Friday, March 23, 2018

Want to save the Black Hills? Rewild the West


Global warming has been accelerating since humans began setting fires to clear habitat, as a weapon or just for amusement.

The Industrial Revolution and European settlement in the New World took hardwoods for charcoal then humans allowed fast-growing conifers to replace lost forests. Aspen has been choked out by fire suppression and the timber industry exacerbating climate change. Aspen leaves reflect sunlight and hold snow pack while pine needles absorb heat and accelerate snow melt warming the planet.

Pinus ponderosa is not native to the Black Hills and only reached the region just over a thousand years ago. When the Custer Expedition came through the Black Hills bringing invasive cheatgrass for their horses stands of ponderosa pine were sparsely scattered but a century and a half of poor ranching and land management practices have created an unnatural overstory best controlled by the mountain pine beetle, prescribed fires and periodic wildfires. After a century of destructive agricultural practices invasive grasses infest most of western South Dakota. It's important to remember high-VOC ponderosa pine only reached central Montana a thousand years ago. They're weeds.

More diversity means clearing the second growth ponderosa pine, restoring aspen habitat, prescribing burns, beginning extensive Pleistocene rewilding using bison and cervids, engaging tribes, buying out ranchers, leasing private land for wildlife corridors, turning feral horses from Bureau of Land Management pastures onto other public land to control exotic grasses and electing Democrats to lead the way.

Back in May the Trump Organization proposed slashing $10 million and 29 positions from the Interior Department’s wild horse and burro program. Funding for birth control would be cut and the Bureau of Land Management would be allowed to sell horses protected under a 1971 law to be harvested and the meat sold mostly abroad.

In Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and seven other states the BLM adopts out, seeks private pastures for, and feeds the horses. The cost of keeping feral horses in holding pens off wild lands costs taxpayers at least $49 million annually.

Wyoming has the second-highest feral horse population in the country with 7,144 of these horses. The BLM’s target is 3,725.

The United States sends more than 12,000 horses annually across the southern border for slaughter ultimately bound for markets in Europe and Asia. Ironic that in a country that exports more weapons of mass destruction than all others combined and relentlessly hunts nearly anything that moves Equus ferus is still seen as a pet.

In an era when western states are scrambling to preserve habitat for bison, wapiti, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, deer, the threatened Greater sage grouse and all the other wildlife at risk to the Republican Party how is running nurseries for introduced species like wild horses and burros either conservative or sustainable?

Because they have no natural predators feral horse herds double in size every four to five years. “You don’t have wild horses anymore. You have their bodies, but they are … domesticated,” said one researcher. The modern horse was introduced to North America by the Spanish late in the 15th Century and then by other European colonizers.

Acquiring the horse in the 1740s enabled the Lakota to win the Black Hills. Tribal officials say there are an estimated 75,000 feral horses roaming the Navajo Nation, "ravaging the range and depleting water sources."

Historically unserved or underserved by conventional financial institutions Native communities have been largely isolated from the food web. At least one American Indian tribe in South Dakota has shown interest in operating an abattoir as an economic development opportunity. Citi is quietly seeking a piece of tribal gaming announcing a 'major contribution' in support of Native Community Development Financial Institutions.

So, the question remains: should rewilding efforts seek to restore sustainable wild lands to Pleistocene Era conditions or let the Anthropocene lay waste desertifying precious resources changing the landscape forever leaving survivors to cleave out habitable zones forsaking native species?

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