Category Archives: Wild Horses

Roaming Wild: New Mustang Movie Brings Issue into 21st Century

Sylvia Johnson’s movie, Roaming Wild, screened at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale, Colorado Wednesday, March 19th, to an SRO crowd. The first-time feature film director worked on the project for several years and has put together a refreshing look at the wild horse management scenario in the American West. Featuring three people who represent three important issues facing the mustangs and the BLM, Johnson approaches ranching/grazing, the specter of slaughter, and one man’s tireless efforts to use fertility-control drugs to protect a New Mexico herd. The film also takes a look at a little known Utah herd, whose ancestors were Pony Express horses. It’s a must-see for mustang fans and those unfamiliar with the issue.

Johnson joined From Western Colorado ‘s Amy Hadden Marsh on KDNK Community Radio’s Valley Voices for a conversation about the film.

NOTE: The file below took a few seconds to download so please wait for it.

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BLM Sells Wild Horses to Colorado Dealer with Links to Slaughter

ProPublica repoter Dave Phillips has written an article about the BLM selling wild horses to a Colorado livestock hauler who has ties with slaughterhouses.  And, Democracy Now featured a segment about it on today’s newscast. From Western Colorado says check it out.

Stay tuned…

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Rain Rescues West Douglas Wild Horses


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced today that the White River Field office is suspending the emergency round-up of the West Douglas herd on and around Texas Mountain, south of Rangely,CO. The round-up, also known as a gather by the BLM, began on July 15th after Judge Rosemary Collyer in DC District Court gave the go-ahead to gather no more than 50 horses within 30 days.  In other words, after 30 days, regardless of how many horses had been removed, the round-up had to stop. Or, if BLM captured 50 horses before the 30-day limit, operations ended there.

According to the BLM’s tally, which was posted on the White River Field Office’s webpage throughout the round-up, 19 horses were shipped to the Canon City facility early last week.  And, BLM spokesperson Chris Joyner said one foal whose dam could not be found was put in foster care.

After that, BLM took a day or so to observe the horses around the trap sites.  I should add here that the round-up did not involve typical helicopter drive-trapping. Instead, BLM used a water- and possibly bait-trapping technique in hopes that the horses, whom BLM believed were suffering due to the drought, would come into the trap to get a drink.

Apparently, that stopped working late last week. No horses were gathered all week despite a few days of attempts.  So, either the horses got wise to the traps or the rain doused drought conditions, which made the emergency situation moot. BLM says:

The resource conditions that warranted an emergency gather do not presently exist. The area has received rain on and off for the last 10 days. The horses have dispersed themselves throughout the HA and are no longer coming to the water trap.

BLM has placed a Suspend Work Order on gather activities “for the next 30 days” but says this is conditional:

However, these present conditions are likely to change quickly and we could be right back in an emergency situation…Should the drought problem return to West Douglas HA we will resume work to remove the affected wild horses through the stipulation outlined in the gather EA.

The current unknown is whether the 30-day Suspend Work Order starts today or if it’s good only until the end of the original time period for this particular gather. If it means 30 days from today (July 30th), simple arithmetic shows that somehow the BLM could have added on 2 weeks to the original order. In other words, the original order was set to expire 30 days from July 15th, which was when the gather began. Now, with the new 30-day Suspend Work Order, gather operations appear to have basically been extended for 2 weeks, even though BLM will simply be observing conditions on the ground.

To the agency’s credit, it has been more accessible this time and has posted videos and photos of the horses on the White River Field Office’s webpage, which is something new. Chris Joyner was friendly, helpful, and well-versed about wild horses. But, you know, this is what proper mustang management is all about. Too bad it hasn’t happened before now on the West Douglas Herd Area.

Stay tuned…and thanks for listening.

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Utah Wild Horses Saved from Slaughter

Two Utah men could face 25 years in prison  for allegedly buying 64 mustangs from the BLM under false pretenses and attempting to take them to Mexico for slaughter. According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Robert Capson of West Jordan, UT told BLM that he wanted to breed the mustangs for rodeo stock in Toele County. But, that wasn’t the case.  Instead, he loaded the horses into a trailer owned by his partner in the alleged crime, one Dennis Kay Kunz of Willard, UT, and headed in the opposite direction. Apparently, BLM was wise to the plan and intercepted them at  Helper, UT on their way south.  The two men will appear in U.S. District Court at some point in the future. The horses were transferred to a BLM facility in Herriman.

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Wildfire on Colorado’s Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range

A wildfire in a remote area north of Grand Junction, Colorado has grown to over a thousand acres as of this afternoon.  Lightning strikes from last week’s storms may have ignited the blaze, known as the Cosgrove Fire, most of which is burning in the north- central area of the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range. According to Norm Rooker, BLM Fire Information Officer, there are no structures or operating natural gas wells in the area.  David Boyd, BLM public relations officer for the region, said yesterday that the agency is managing the fire to avoid burning the mustangs’ summer and winter range and that the herd was not in danger.   The BLM and Marty Felix, of Friends of the Mustangs, a Grand Junction-based mustang advocacy group, believe that if the fire is managed properly, the results of the burn could increase forage for the herd.

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Poll: Mouthwatering Mustangs?

Mustangs at Colorado's BLM Canon City Holding Facility (C) ahmarsh 2009

There’s a bit of a twit about a Canadian cooking show that aired on May 16, 2011.  According to CNN’s Eatocracy website, the lesson for the day was how to cook traditional French food, including horsemeat.  Apparently, Food Network Canada, the show’s producers, justified the idea by playing the goodwill culture card:

Horsemeat is also considered a delicacy in many cultures around the world. While we understand that this content may not appeal to all viewers, Food Network Canada aims to engage a wide audience, embracing different food cultures in our programming.

The article stated that eating horsemeat is not just about wild horses but the photo that accompanied the article clearly suggests otherwise. Instead of showing retired race horses or petered-out pleasure ponies, the photo gives us a view of what looks like a herd of captured wild horses against a dramatic, anonymous high country backdrop.  If I were a Canadian who knew little about the wild horse controversy raging in the United States, I might connect the show with wild horses. Like, did the meat sizzling on the show’s stoves come from mustangs captured in the American West?  Is my local butcher featuring mustangs this week?

No one except maybe the top chefs and perhaps Food Network Canada knows where the meat used on the show came from; however, an Eatocracy poll from January 5, 2011, says the article, shows that “a substantial portion of the population expects to see a shift in perception toward horse meat consumption in the United States” .  The poll, titled Making a Meal of Mustang, followed brief coverage of the 2011 Summit of the Horse, which convened in Las Vegas, NV that same month.  The January poll showed that almost 35% of 24, 213 responses thought that the US would never eat horsemeat.  Of all the 5,547 responses to a previous June 22, 2010 poll about eating horses, 42% said no way, no how. 

But, what population? It’s unknown whether participants included those living in the US,  Canadians speculating about US food preferences, or both.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, mustangs in the American West were hunted down and rounded up, and many of them were sold to supply the growing pet food industry. Now, seven months away from the 40th anniversary of the passage of the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which federally protects these animals, we’re still talking about sending them to slaughter.  Only this time, some are trying hard to create a market for human consumption, which if successful could mean that federal protection is nothing more than government sanctioned mustanging. 

And, speaking of eating wild-caught horses, From Western Colorado wants your input and we’ve created another poll.  This time, we want to know if you would really make  a burger from horses raised on the ranges of the American West.  Poll is open until midnight  June 17, 2011.

 And, thanks for listening…

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Reprieve for Colorado Wild Horses: Part II: Can’t Let ‘Em Roam, Can’t Round ‘Em Up

Earlier this month, the White River Field Office (WRFO) withdrew its plan to remove the West Douglas mustangs in northwestern Colorado.  This is the second in a series exploring the controversy surrounding this herd. In the previous post, From Western Colorado wrote that BLM began making management decisions about the West Douglas herd in 1974; however, it is uncertain exactly when the initial Management Framework Plan (MFP) was written. There is no date on the document; however, references within the plan suggest that it was written in 1975 or early 1976.

 Back to our story…

 According to the initial MFP, two factors influenced BLM’s administrative decision to zero-out what is now known as the West Douglas herd. First, the carrying capacity of the range east of Douglas Creek had not yet been determined and BLM believed that transferring the horses living west of Douglas Creek into that area could overburden the land. Secondly, BLM believed that the horses west of the creek were migrating from their original range due to increased oil and gas activity. But, the same document stated that “oil and gas exploration, oil shale development, and saline minerals development with sufficient stipulations to protect the wild horse habitat” east of the creek was okay p. 7). The agency went on to say, “It is not presently known the degree of impact that the minerals program has on wild horses in the area”  (p. 7). In other words, studies about the impacts of energy exploration on wild horses did not exist for either herd yet stipulations were planned to mitigate those impacts solely for habitat east of Douglas Creek.

 In 1981, BLM’s White River Field Office (WRFO) established the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, combining the Piceance Basin herd and the horses east of Douglas Creek. The initial Herd Management Plan once again supported removal of all horses west of Douglas Creek. Rangeland studies were included in this plan but only for the Piceance-East Douglas horses. For all intents and purposes, the West Douglas horses ceased to exist…on paper.

 Four years later, the WRFO updated its overall resource management plan, which reiterated total removal of the West Douglas herd; however, concerns were raised that this decision was  informed by the amount of forage allocated to livestock on the grazing allotments within the West Douglas Herd Area (WDHA). BLM stated that the proposed removal was based on a lack of physical boundaries to the south and west of the HA, which allowed the horses to migrate off their designated range, and had nothing to do with livestock grazing (p. 2).

 The American Mustang and Burro Association (AMBA) appealed this decision to the DOI’s Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) as a violation of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. The appeal was denied for technical reasons, effectively drawing attention away from grazing concerns. In early 1997, however, the WRFO updated its management plan for the Twin Buttes grazing allotments within the WDHA and said the mustangs must go. Again, AMBA appealed, stating that giving all the forage to livestock was the basis for removing the mustangs. And, again, the appeal was denied. The BLM insisted that the decision to remove the West Douglas horses was based on projected energy development, as stated in the mid-1970s: ”[None] of the planning documents…established any relationship between removal of wild horses from the West Douglas Herd Area and forage allocation” (p. 3). But, why wasn’t that relationship established?  Because the studies had never been done.

 The WRFO also updated the overall resource management plan (RMP) in ’97  but  Colorado State BLM officials were concerned that the RMP might not accurately justify total removal, and with good reason. Not only were there no studies to back up the decision but there was also another legality to consider. In 1989, the Animal Protection Institute of America appealed round-up decisions in Nevada to the IBLA with surprising results. According to the BLM/USFS 8th Report to Congress: Administration of the Wild Horse and Burro Act (1990), the IBLA defined the process of determining how many mustangs and burros the range can sustain (AML) as “synonymous with restoring the range to a thriving natural ecological balance and protecting the range from deterioration.”  In response to the Nevada appeals, the IBLA ruled that all wild horse and burro removals must be supported by rangeland studies: 

[S]ection 3(b) of the [1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act] does not authorize the removal of wild horses in order to achieve an AML, which has been established for administrative reasons rather than in terms of the optimum number which results in a thriving natural ecological balance and avoids a deterioration of the range (p.2).  

From 1974 -1997, however, the WRFO maintained what was essentially a zero AML and, other than census flights and a few partial round-ups, did not actively manage the West Douglas herd.  This explains the lack of documentation. The AML was set at zero and since there weren’t supposed to be any horses out there, BLM did not engage in management practices, such as herd and habitat monitoring or manipulating forage and water, to support the horses.

So, in 1999 Colorado State BLM officials instructed the WRFO to review the 1997 decision, which resulted in the proposed amendment to the 1997 Resource Management Plan, dated July, 2004.  Even though the 1997 RMP temporarily provided for a herd of up to 60 horses in the West Douglas HA, the proposed amendment, which called for “the creation of a [West Douglas] Herd Management Area,” was the first time BLM explored the idea of permanently and actively managing horses there. Unfortunately, the WRFO denied the amendment, upholding the decades-old, unsubstantiated decision to remove the West Douglas herd. This has led to a brushfire of litigation, which has now spread to local ranchers; yet the horses still roam free. Was the denial of the proposed 2005 amendment a help or a hindrance to the BLM?

 Stay tuned for Part III: Wild Horse Dilemma Buffalos BLM

And, thanks for listening…

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Reprieve for Colorado Wild Horses: Part I

On February 9, 2010, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that the White River Field Office (WRFO) in Meeker, Colorado is withdrawing the 2010 gather plan for a little known herd just south of Rangely in the northwestern part of the state. No details were provided in the press release; however, the West Douglas mustangs will not be rounded up as planned this summer.

 The West Douglas herd has been mired in controversy for decades; however, litigation since 1997 has stymied BLM efforts to remove the entire herd for good. Shortly after the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, the agency made an administrative decision to remove the West Douglas herd based on projected energy development and the inconvenience of managing a small herd in mountainous terrain. But, almost three decades later, somewhere around 100 horses still roam the mountains between Cathedral Bluffs and the Utah border, due west of State Highway 139. Some point to litigation and lack of funding for round-ups as reasons for the herd’s longevity. BLM officials have also stated that the agency just hasn’t had the will to go in there and get them. In short, it’s too inconvenient and expensive to remove the horses that are too inconvenient to manage.

 The first Colorado mustang herd to be completely removed was the Douglas Mountain herd in 1977 in exchange for maintaining a herd in the Sandwash area – now one of four herd management areas in the state.  It was believed that the wide open spaces of Sandwash made for better public viewing opportunities. The same has also been said for the Piceance-East Douglas herd, southeast of Sandwash and neighbors of the West Douglas horses. Barb Flores, of the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition and plaintiff in lawsuits to protect the West Douglas herd, has voiced concerns that since BLM prefers to manage horses in the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, the West Douglas mustangs could follow the Douglas Mountain herd into history.

Advocates also argue that the WRFO has been remiss in providing rangeland monitoring data to support the need for total removal of the West Douglas herd. Toni Moore, advocate and plaintiff in West Douglas litigation says:

Routinely, what I have seen in northwest Colorado is an aerial census prior to a round-up, annual grazing reports from permittees, and occasionally trend monitoring by BLM. In the last several round-up documents, [herd and habitat monitoring data] has not been provided by BLM for the public to say who ate what, when, and where are they. You can’t get that data from a one-time fly-over and you can’t get that data from what a permittee turns in. You must have all of the monitoring data and inventorying data for public lands in order to make a good decision regarding excess wild horses.

In August, 2009, Federal District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed. In a landmark ruling, Collyer shut down the proposed West Douglas removal, stating that BLM did not prove the horses were, indeed, excess.  It was on the BLM to provide the evidence but it seems that the agency wasn’t listening.

Less than a year later and without the necessary studies, the WRFO issued the 2010 gather plan.  This is what was withdrawn a week ago.  Why does BLM insist that the West Douglas horses are excess yet refuses to provide substantial evidence to back up the claim?  Well, it all started in 1974.

Stay tuned for Part II:  The West Douglas Double-Bind: Can’t Let ‘Em Roam, Can’t Round ‘Em Up. 


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Documentary: Wild Horses Caught in the Crossfire

A modern day range war is raging across America’s mountains and deserts and into the halls of Congress. It is a conflict over grass, as old as the cattle drives and Free Grazers that fed the settling of the West. It is a conflict between history and the changing values which define the country west of the 100th meridian.  Caught in the crossfire are the nation’s wild horses and burros who some say have shaped our civilization. These animals are federally protected but ranchers and mustang advocates alike question the government’s ability to manage the herds. 

Over the past year,  From Western Colorado looked into how the Bureau of Land Management, the agency which oversees most mustangs and burros, counts the herds.  The following radio documentary shows that after nearly 40 years, BLM still can’t get the numbers right and some believe this could lead mustangs to extinction.  Wild Horses Caught in the Crossfire was originally aired December 29th, 2010  on KDNK Community Radio in Carbondale, Colorado and is available on the audio page of this blog. 

Amy Hadden Marsh would like to thank all of those involved in the research and production of this story, especially KDNK news director, Conrad Wilson, for their cooperation and support in bringing this project to completion. 

And…thanks for listening.


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Of Wild Horses and Pine Beetles: Guest Post by Scott Thompson

From Western Colorado is pleased to welcome words from West Virginia writer and therapist, Scott Thompson.  After a visit to C0lorado’s Spring Creek Herd Management Area, Thompson waxes philosophic and a wee bit scientific about mustangs, climate change, and the consequences of managing the wild.  This story was originally published in Jim Stiles’ Canyon Country Zephyr out of Moab, Utah (“All the news that causes fits”).  Thanks, Scott! 

Silence Has A lot of Mojo: Wild Horses and Brains Gone Bad

 By Scott Thompson

 “It not only takes a long time of watching the animal before you can say what it is doing; it takes a long time to learn how to watch. This point is raised, deferentially but repeatedly, in encounters with Eskimos.” – Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

On a cobalt blue morning back in July Gail and I piled into my buddy Amy Marsh’s 2001 Suzuki Vitara 4-wheel drive, named Green Tara. She drove us west from Montrose, Colorado, over the Dallas Divide, west from the Uncompahgre Plateau, into the sunblasted Colorado semi-desert; land of saltbush and saline scrub. Green Tara rattled along the washboard road across Disappointment Valley, into the Spring Creek Basin Wild Horse Herd Management Area (HMA).

 She parked along a low ridge that looked out on a broad auburn valley flanked on the left by the curving wall of a mesa that was coated with smooth grass. The cool blue ridge of the San Juan Mountains swerved down the horizon, capped by a line of tiny, cotton-ball clouds. Silence has a lot of mojo. Standing there, I felt the bone-deep fit of a mis-aligned animal that has finally returned to its evolutionary niche. There the tension from the ceaseless, discordant hum of a society alienated from wildness was gone: the faint whine of air conditioning, the whir of appliances and small-scale machinery, the background music, the chiming and buzzing of cell phones, the endless human chatter, live or on television, the manic clicking of hard drives, the distant hiss of tractor-trailer brakes, the circular swirling of toilet water.

Intent on finding wild horses, Amy drove deeper into the HMA, toward the juniper uplands; nearing the McKenna Peak Wilderness Study Area. I was content with the high voltage solitude we’d already found, regardless of whether we encountered any horses. Gail was simply enjoying Amy’s company in her usual open-hearted way. She abruptly parked Green Tara on a precocious high spot and we fanned out, walking in the direction of the road.

Amy and I have been friends for nearly twenty-five years. She is blessed with a no-bullshit internal ethical compass and ready laughter. She seems incapable of the dreary compromises in principle typical of the so-called pragmatists who hold positions of influence almost everywhere you go. That’s probably because she’s never shown any interest in diving into our culture’s supersized financial hog trough.

Several years ago she left her work as a drug and alcohol counselor to enter a master’s program at Regis University in Denver. She’s writing her master’s thesis on wild horse herd management in the American West. It’s a thorny subject, and just right for her: her passion for being with the horses and seeing through the horseshit is total.

I think we all spotted the white stallion at the same time. It stood just behind the crest of a shallow ridge, studying us with exquisite care. Amy walked back and handed Gail her binoculars. It turned out that the stallion was protecting a herd of four mares, which we later saw feeding on grass along a thin creek tucked behind the ridge.

Motionless, the stallion fixed its attention on us for a long, long time. Reflexively I studied it as well, and in so doing slipped into a light hypnotic trance. Hardly moving myself, I utterly lost track of time. Yet paradoxically, I knew a long time was passing.

I had never realized that there is something about the way the human eye evolved that allows it to focus on the stance and movements of wild animals with uncanny precision, even at a great distance. When Gail passed the binoculars to me, they added nothing to the exactness of my perceptions. They only made the image of the stallion larger.

Shortly it was joined by a chestnut mare. She was the alpha mare, co-protector of the herd, as Amy pointed out us to us on the way back to Montrose. The mare and the stallion assumed exactly the same posture and gaze; side by side. I had the eerie feeling that one mind was studying us instead of two.

Reflecting on this afterward, I concluded that throughout the 200,000 year history of our species, until the domestication of animals began just 10,000 years ago, it must have been a daily practice for humans and animals to spend hours upon end observing each other in vast detail. This certainly includes horses, since humans didn’t start riding them until circa 6,500 years ago. (See Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed, 2010, pp. 14, 73, and “Equestrianism” in Wikipedia). Not only because they were afraid of each other, but because they were fascinated as well. Today we humans dominate whatever creatures we wish, often altering their genetic structure to suit our whims and confining them to environments to which they are poorly adapted. During almost all of our history as a species, however, we have not experienced that kind of control.

By contrast, natural environments in which one species cannot dominate all the others are usually characterized by reciprocal relationships that function for the ultimate benefit of all: even predators and prey help each other survive in niches to which they are each fully adapted. There is a parallel in human relationships; those which are NOT based on domination require a much greater investment of time, care, and attention by all parties.

And are much, much healthier for all concerned.

One thing my work as a counselor has taught me is that a focus that is enjoyable for a person is much, much easier to sustain. And if that focus also helps pull her out of a depression or an addiction, which it often does, it has enormous survival value. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that where a focus having evolutionary survival value has to be sustained for extended periods of time, that it is likely to have a relaxing, even a fascinating, quality? I think so.

In West Virginia, where I practice, I encounter that quality of focus most readily in the plenitude of hunters. The culture of hunting pervades here; that’s because the woods are filled with deer and other game; that’s because the landscape consists of wooded hills and low mountain ranges that have never been put to the axe for farming. I can see hunters’ bodies start to relax and their faces soften as soon as I merely mention hunting. They readily admit that as hunters their chief delight is simply being “out there,” deep in the woods, waiting for game.

Back to the HMA. After standing together another long while, the mare and the stallion turned to the right at precisely, and I mean precisely, the same moment, in graceful synchrony, and vanished behind the ridge.  They had obviously agreed that they had studied us enough and needed to get back to the herd along the creek below to stand guard.

What blew me out is that I was certain they didn’t glance at each other before turning, nor did one of them turn even a millisecond before the other. Later, Amy and I watched the videotape she had made of this moment and could find no clues about how the mare and stallion knew to turn at exactly the same moment. I was left wondering if horses in the wild are telepathic or have other powers of communication outside the ken of human experience. In this regard, note the following from the late Sioux writer Vine Deloria, Jr.: “The Sioux…came to know the full scope of bird and animal powers. Eventually the people came to realize that birds and animals had more knowledge than we do, and thereafter sought animal aid in the chores and hazards of everyday life.” (See C.G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions, Spring Journal Books, 2009, p. 116).

Amy said, “Last summer, I witnessed the Pryor Mountain herd on its home range, high in Montana’s Arrowhead Mountains, and was astonished at how different they are from, say, my neighbor’s horses. There was a liveliness and interaction between the horses and their surroundings I couldn’t explain but that I knew was completely different from that of domesticated horses in a private pasture. The wild ones are constantly moving, constantly touching each other, always playing, fighting, grooming. There was a dynamic within the herd that was missing from the other horses I’d seen in my lifetime, all of which were domesticated. That dynamic, I found out, is the difference between a wild horse and a domesticated horse.” (See “From Western Colorado,”; posted 16 Jan 2010).

We all agreed being out there was magical.


That afternoon with the Spring Creek Basin herd allowed me to draw tentative conclusions about some of their behavior: that they tend to observe humans from low rises that give them a good vantage point while allowing a fast retreat, and that they keep the body of the herd on lower ground nearby, perhaps along a creek where the grass is thicker. If I’d had the opportunity I would have kept up my observations, fascinated I’m sure, and would have tested the conclusions I’d already drawn until I had a sharp picture of their behaviors, and with it a refined depiction of their relationship with their habitat.

Pre-agricultural societies needed extraordinarily thorough descriptions of each animal and plant habitat in order to reliably find their food and prey, as well as medicinal plants and the animals they saw as allies. And to avoid a range of dangerous creatures and plants.

The following is an example of this level of awareness in a contemporary indigenous culture: 

Two Shuar men – Shakaim and Twitsa – and I hiked into the Cutucu mountains…The next afternoon, on our way back, only an hour away from their community, Shakaim raised his arm, signaling for us to stop. He and Twitsa stepped off the trail. They squatted behind a small plant, examined it, and exchanged words.  Shakaim cupped his hands around the plant and blew gently into it. Twitsa looked up at me. ‘It’s sick,’ he explained, pointing at the leaves. ‘It was healthy yesterday,’ Shakaim added, ‘when we came along this trail.’  He stood up. ‘We have to report this to the elders.’

They resumed walking; I stood there gawking at that plant. I could see nothing exceptional about it, no reason why these men would have noticed it in the first place. A couple of leaves had turned brown and fallen to the ground, but that did not seem sufficient cause for concern.                                                                                                                                                                              

That night, I received an education. Shakaim, Twitsa, and their families gathered around a fire with other members of the community. They described in detail the state of the plant on the morning when we headed up to the waterfall and the changes that had occurred during the ensuing thirty-six hours. Their accounts were followed by lengthy discussions. The circle of participants paid particularly close attention to an old lady who was highly respected for her ability to prepare healing herbs. She suggested that the plant had delivered a message: The trail was overused.

A vote was taken. Although several people pointed out that there could have been other causes for the sickness, the decision was unanimous. If there was any possibility that people were contributing to the problem, then people had to take remedial action. A new rule was adopted for the entire community. That trail would be closed.” (See John Perkins, Hoodwinked, 2009, pp. 188-189).

The arrival of agriculture and then modern civilization, however, upended such careful practices. Because humans now controlled the habitats of their domesticated animals and plants, survival was plausible without the exhaustive traditional awareness of wild habitats. So the old customs slowly eroded; people first became insensitive to such knowledge, and then oblivious to it. The fragmented comprehension that remained was left in the hands of over-focused specialists: herders, farmers, ranchers, forestry rangers, biologists and agri-business technicians.

It is in this sense that over time our brains went progressively bad.

Let’s see what sort of thing happens when we combine the myopia of such experts and the obliviousness of the public with 0.8 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels. Note – I don’t like to quote textbooks at length but in this case it’s worth it.

Act I: In Which the Stage for the Disaster is Properly Set

“Prior to human arrival, burning of lodgepole pine occurred randomly, resulting in a patchwork of fire scars, time-since-fire histories, and age stands of lodgepole. After approximately 1920, effective fire fighting [watch your ass, geniuses at work] changed this pattern. Fires no longer raged out of control; the random mosaic of past burns was gradually turned into large areas of even-aged stands, interrupted by areas that had been logged.” (See Lee Hannah, Climate Change Biology, 2011, p. 108).

Act II: In Which a Vast Horde of Crazed Beetles Descends

“Outbreaks of mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponerosae in western North America have resulted in the death of more than 100 million lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta). In British Columbia alone, more than 80 million trees have been lost across an area in excess of 450,000 ha [hectares]. The beetle is killed by winter temperatures below – 35 degrees C. Successive winters without killing temperatures resulted in population growth in mountain pine beetles in the 1980s and again from 1997 onward. Warmer winters and earlier springs meant that bark beetles could complete multiple life cycles in a single growing season, resulting in population explosions…The beetle is a natural occupant of healthy forests, but its numbers are kept in check by a diversity of tree species and ages. [However,] Fire suppression and logging have resulted in large areas of even-aged, mature trees susceptible to beetle attack, whereas warm winters have promoted population growth sufficient for an outbreak causing widespread devastation.” (See Hannah, p. 95).

Act III: In Which This Cascades Into Killin’ Critters

The pine beetle has also invaded the high elevation, long-lived Whitebark pine in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Grizzly Bear cubs feed on the fat-laden Whitebark pine seeds in the fall and early spring, and because there are fewer such seeds, there have been fewer such cubs in Yellowstone National Park. Which in turn has affected the populations of animals upon which the bears feed. The demise of these trees is also resulting in reduced stream flows, which in turn is offing the number of trout in the streams. (See Hannah, pp. 111-113; Michelle Nujhuis, “Global Warming’s Unlikely Harbingers,” July 19, 2004, issue of High Country News).

Hannah’s textbook doesn’t say whether the geniuses who set up 100 million lodgepole pines to get mowed down by pine beetles also helped make the Whitebark pines more vulnerable to beetles.

But common sense tells you, yes.

Act IV: In Which Pine Beetles Invade the Universe

Warming has allowed the beetle to extend its range northwards in British Columbia, breaching the Continental Divide, the last effective barrier between the beetle and eastern pine plantations…Eastern forests of jack pine [stretching way the hell across Canada] may now be vulnerable to mountain pine beetle outbreaks. If the beetle is able to establish and move through jack pine, it is likely to extend its range across Canada and into the forests of the eastern seaboard…the range may eventually extend into the great loblolly pine regions of the U.S. Southeast [stretching from eastern Virginia down through the Carolinas, into the Deep South and over into East Texas], decimating stands of large commercial and biological importance (Hannah, pp. 109-110).

With the hindsight that innumerable climate change disasters will someday offer, pissed off future generations will see that a factor in our throwing away their future was our civilized ignorance of wild habitats. They will say to themselves, those mothers’ brains went bad.

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