Defenders View: Our Lands, Our Wildlife

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© Krista Schlyer

© Krista Schlyer
Few sights inspire me more than watching the waters of Big Timber Creek tumble down the Crazy Mountains near my ranch in south-central Montana. Big Timber Creek Falls, in Lewis and Clark National Forest, is a favorite place. I have hiked to the falls many times with my wife, son and friends. There we feel immersed in nature and away from traffic, deadlines and the stress of everyday living.

Like many others, I retreat into nature to find solace from the modern world. But on each trip, I can't help but consider what's been lost from these woods. Gone are the grizzly bears, the gray wolves and the other magnificent wildlife that used to dwell here.

Some species were hunted and trapped until they disappeared from these woods. Others were forced out as their habitat was destroyed by logging and other development. But there are no obvious signs of disturbance under this canopy of second-growth pine trees. While these lands appear whole, they are incomplete.

Over a century ago, Henry David Thoreau lamented a similar loss of wildlife in Massachussetts. He wrote, "when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here …I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country. …Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?"

Thoreau understood that what impacts wildlife, impacts us as well. But over 150 years later, we still haven't heeded his words. Currently, the wild animals that dwell on the 449 million acres comprising much of our public lands—especially our national forests, grasslands and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands—face increasing competition from humans for room to live.

The U.S. Forest Service and the BLM are supposed to balance the needs of multiple users of these lands. But for too long, and especially over the past eight years, these agencies have tilted this balance strongly in favor of development interests. This occurred because, remarkably, national forest and BLM managers have not been required to maintain self-sustaining populations of fish, wildlife and plants on their lands.

As a result, too often these public agencies approve oil and gas rigs, well pads, pipelines, mines, roads and other development that jeopardize both the wildlife that live there year-round and species such as pronghorn that annually migrate through following centuries-old trails blazed by their countless ancestors.  

It's time to restore balance, science and public trust to the management of our Forest Service and BLM lands, by requiring that these agencies be better stewards of this public asset. The law states that they must manage the lands for multiple use; but it should also require that whatever the use, the land itself must remain healthy—and healthy means assuring that sustainable populations of all wildlife species now native to the area can continue to live there. That's why Defenders is leading the "Your Lands, Your Wildlife" campaign to bring public-lands management into the 21st century.

The campaign recently released Your Lands, Your Wildlife: Restoring Balance to the Management of Our Public Lands, a report offering a roadmap on how to restore public lands management that assures we'll have healthy wildlife populations. Next, we will take our case to Congress, working to introduce and pass the America's Wildlife Heritage Act. This legislation will protect wildlife and biodiversity by requiring the Forest Service and BLM to assure the protection of healthy populations of all resident wildlife species before allowing development projects to begin. You can learn more by going to www.YourLandsYourWildlife.org.

The past eight years demonstrated that trusting our wildlife heritage solely to politics is a losing proposition. Fortunately, America now has a chance to renew its commitment to conserving wildlife on public lands. My hope is that we will seize that chance so that some day my son will be able to hike with his children along Big Timber Creek in a forest as untamed as the land imagined by Thoreau.

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