November 9, 2015

First Nations become First Restorationists: How Native American Tribes are Cutting Through Federal Red Tape by Doing Species Reintroduction on Tribal Lands Part 1

This is a pretty simple idea, and I wish the New York Times hadn't beaten me to writing about it first. I better write about it better.
The gist of it is this:

There have been dozen's of animal species extirpated, which is a fancy word for hunted out, poisoned out, or habitat destroyed out of wide portions of their range in North America, most particularly the inhabited parts south of the Arctic. Think of the pieces I wrote on Elk, or one I plan to write on the Plains and Wood Buffalo.. they used to roam free in Pre-Colombian America, before a combination of disease, colonization, wars, barriers and deforestation and treaties closed the American Frontier sometime in the late 1800's.. it had taken about 400 years to completely disfigure the landscape and interrupt the ecosystems almost beyond recognition from the first arrival of European man in any significance. It had created one of the world's most fascinating nations, but it had come at a cost to both the original inhabitants and the flora and fauna. What had been places for Buffalo to roam hundreds of miles were now criss crossed by barbed wire. Forests where the Lynx or the Elk had roamed had been cut down for timber for firewood and building materials worldwide. Huge swamps like the Great Kankakee had been filled in for farmland, and the deserts had been stunted by cattle grazing. This was the new reality of America: not a corner of the country had escaped some sort of monetization and degradation, and it had chased out a lot of species to remote corners to ride out the storm if they weren't put into extinction entirely.
 The Progressives came in, led by Muir and Roosevelt, Pinchot and Mather, and small parks sprung up to preserve last bits, and legislate what had been informal animal efforts to survive and some human efforts to not put the final blow in by preservation groups. We started National Parks, and then State and Local Parks, as much for recreation as for Biodiversity and even single species preservation. The Department of Interior grew, but then under the second Roosevelt and the Acts of the great depression we bought up huge tracts of neglected and abused forestland and nursed them back to health for both economic and ecological reasons, creating National Forests and Nature Preserves and Wildlife Preserves, and National Grasslands Etc. Etc. through the Department of Interior and it's many reporting organizations like the USFS, USFWS, and the BLM.
But the whole time, one group seemed to shake it's head, like the famous Commercial from the 70's of the American Indian who is saddened by so much degradation and litter.

It was the American Indians, who had spread out to Reservations, mostly in the American & Canadian West, where they are called Reserves, from homelands all over the US and Canada. Some where nearby, like the small reservations in the east in places like Connecticut and Florida, and out west, Utah and Arizona and Washington, where it thankfully made contemporary sense to give the Natives land where they already were, and some, as many know from studying the Trail of Tears and it's many associated displacements, were as much as a thousand miles away in completely different parts of the country with completely different ecosystems, places in Oklahoma where tribes from the North East and Midwest ended up.
The Native Americans, First Nations, or Indians are many of them are comfortable being called, despite it's now renown as a misnomer, tended to live in rural areas no matter how close or far away from their ancestral homelands, and collectively are reputed to never having lost instincts for the importance of ecology and stewardship. So as not to get caught up in Stereotypes of the Nobel Savage, it's fair to say that by lifestyle choices and perhaps even some economic ones, they stayed active as hunters, gatherers, fishermen and outdoorsmen, more so than their new neighbors, and never collectively abandoned good stewardship as a virtue, with some notable exceptions like the deforestation of Haida Gwaii. Due to this, based on idealism as well as fact, they became symbolic of ecological harmony, due to famous quotes from people like Chief Seattle and the obvious fact that the Alteration of American Ecology was much more dramatic after the arrival of Europeans. They became symbolic, as if a national image and reminder of the consciousness of a Pre Colombian and Pre Industrialization healthier North America.
This brings us to the present day, and the trend I want to discuss. We have this situation where almost every ecosystem outside of the North of Canada and Alaska has some sort of missing species or link in the food web that used to be there before the real arrival of outsiders en masse in the 1600's. In some places it's wolves or grizzlies, Black Bears or Cougars, animals that instill fear in those who raise children and profess to lead a normal American life as predators who might not distinguish between overpopulated white tail deer and a kid playing in a yard. In other places it might be top Ungulates like the Buffalo, Elk or Caribou, maybe the Moose or Key Deer, whose habitat was so altered or diminished that they fell on hard times and were eliminated back to strongholds in the areas established by Governments to preserve them, but it's a pale shadow of their former ranges. And in rivers and streams, nonnatives like Pike, Salmon, and Zebra Mussels in the Great Lakes, and over fishing, both commercially and by individuals, as well as dam's, bridges, and other public works projects, screwed up balances and habitats that drove fish species like Great Lakes and Missouri River Sturgeon, all sorts of Trout, and Salmon species throughout the river systems that drain into the Pacific from the Sacramento River north.
Native Americans were not above participating in these eliminations it's said, and it's rumored in places like Northern Alaska that the Muskox did not face extinction until the Athabaskans and Inuits got their hands on guns which made them far more effective than they had been in the past at hunting, but they might have been meeting bounties from outsiders, and surely it was controversial. Every species in every place has a different story, ones that have been told, or will be told with a little look at the records, but what is happening now is a neat spin on things, a nice shift in a different direction.
By the end of settlement on Reservations around 1900, the consensus was that these tribes were almost independent entities, free from US government oversight on all but the most major things. They couldn't commit felonies, but were in almost all other cases allowed to autonomously run their own affairs, including their land management. It didn't go well in all cases. In Navajo reservations overgrazing can cause huge dust clouds today, and there are many instances of everything from Casino's to fishing causing environmental headaches, but what has started to happen is that many tribes are using the nimbleness, almost casualness of their small Nations, to repopulate their lands with extirpated species in a way that would take years and millions of dollars for Federal and most state governments to do.
One need look no further than the reintroduction of the Wolf to Yellowstone to see what a long road it can be. The Reintroduction was a huge success, one that has spread all the way to the Cascade Range of Oregon as the Wolf resettles it's old haunts in the North West, but it took forever, and was and still is contentious. Like so many things in America on that scale, calm negotiation cedes to populism and posturing for all sorts of reasons, and in this particular case the Cattle Industry started screaming bloody murder over a stubbed toe, and the Hunters followed suit, wanting to maintain the comfy last century of them as the only apex species to cull overpopulated prey. People like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, while a friend of more complete eco-systems, took somewhat unconscionable positions to maintain relevance with their main donor base, and two out of three state governors, those of Idaho and Wyoming, acted like jackasses, with only the Governor of Montana taking a measured approach that helped guarantee success.
But what if an ecologically sympathetic municipality or county with large land holdings wanted to do something on their own. Well, in the majority of the country, it would be an uphill battle. Most small governments have to go through state authorities where Cattle, Timber and Industrial interests often hold sway. Even in reintroducing the Wood Buffalo to the great wilds of Interior Alaska the Mining industry was a huge damper on 2 out of the 3 selected spots from all rumor, for fear that a species considered endangered as soon as it is released back into the wild ( a proven breeding pair in the wild of any creature engendered kicks in the ESA) would create addition red tape for miners and other industries in places they might or might not be currently even working.
But what if that Ecologically minded small nimble government was a tribe, and that tribe didn't even have to answer to a state game board or Governor or anyone, since they have sovereignty over their territory. Now that's a whole different ball of wax, and recently, and in greater and greater numbers, it seems as if the Tribes and the Wildlife professionals they hire as Wardens and Environmental Officers are catching onto the opportunities of that sovereignty, mixed with maybe a little casino cash in some cases, and are doing in small numbers what requires so much effort and inertia changing for the Federal and State Governments try to do in Large Numbers: They are reintroducing extirpated, AKA locally extinct species, all over the place, and it's good for all of us!
I first noticed this on a recent Buffalo Hunt near the Ute Indian Reservation in East Central Utah. I was happy back in the great north when an old high school buddy of mine and I began to plan a hang out after a long time not having seen each other. It started to be a plan to go skiing or hang out in Moab in his native Utah and a state that I had gotten to know well over the years, due greatly to my love of the Canyon Lands and the endless possibilities for exploration and beauty there. All the sudden he told me that a buddy of his had pulled a once in a lifetime tag to Hunt Buffalo and that he wanted help. I agreed in the first phone call, and we began to plan to meet around Christmas in Salt Lake City and move out to scout and then hunt in the zone he had been designated, south of Vernal, while staying with some family of my buddies who lived out there. The hunter was a great big and boisterous friend of his we will call Tommy Boy, and Tommy boy had explored his territory and was stymied by it, and good naturedly accepted the offer of help and friendship to be part of his hunt, and the great caper began.
As I researched, I was surprised to be told our territory was in the Book Cliffs. If you have read my writing, you know I am a big nature geek, and I was familiar with only one Buffalo herd in Utah, down in the Henry Mountains, west of the Canyon Lands and one of the remotest areas of the Contiguous United States (it was the last area to be mapped in the late 1800's of the entire contiguous 48 states). I didn't know that there was another wild herd, as the effort it takes to establish one and mollify ranchers that they won't pass diseases to their stock has made the Buffalo/ Bison lag well behind the Elk in reintroduction, also since they don't have the backing of an organization as well funded and effective  as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
What had happened to the best of my ability to research was this:
The Ute People live on three reservations across Eastern Utah and Western Colorado. Members of the Northern Branch, 20,000 strong, living on the Unitah and Ouray Reservation at the top of the Book Cliffs, decided to take a few Buffalo from a Montana Herd in 1986.  28 more came from the Henry Mountains in 1993, and now the whole herd counts in the hundreds, 550 for the whole book cliffs is thought to be ideal, and have been managing them and letting them grow in numbers ever since.
They both allow a hunt for their tribe members and the state of Utah was forced to get into the game, because Bison don't seem to care too much about boundaries in one of the most forage rich areas in the west, issuing what are know as 'once in a lifetime permits' by lottery to Utah resident hunters. Basically, you can win one by lottery when you put in for your hunting tags, and the hunting plan as we learned is this: High Snows force the Bison out of High territory on the Res and into bottom lands to the north, near the Green River. If you are lucky and it snows enough, you will find one near a place called Algers Pass. People made it pretty clear.. don't go on reservation land to find them.. they won't like that and they will catch you.. just let em come to you.

We didn't know this until pretty late in the game, although we had a good time bombing all around our game area over the course of a few weekends before The Big Kill. Not only Buffalo, the book cliffs were loaded with more mule deer, Elk, wild horses and pronghorn than I knew existed, plus some signs of Mountain Lion were present (we found a cave filed with kill) and is likely the best Wolf Territory yet undiscovered by the Yellowstone packs spreading out. They have made it all the way to Western Oregon, but Utah and it's crafty coyote of a Governor Gary Herbert ( doesn't he look like Governor Lapetamine from Blazing Saddles?

), has a 50 dollar bounty on coyotes going, hoping for some accidental shootings before the endangered species act triggers a major sovereignty showdown between a state dominated by Mormon cattle ranchers and natural gas pumpers and the feds if one breeding pair makes it into these tasty hunting grounds in Utah.
Since I am about to go on an expedition for weeks, I am going to call this Part 1 and wrap up with this thought: It occurred to me during the hunt, if this happened with this reservation so quietly here, when every time the Feds do something like this it's national news, what other tribes have made similar admirable restorational steps?
It turns out dozens, led by dedicated tribal members and their wildlife biologists and game managers, restoring everything from Bison and Elk to Black Footed Ferrets and even fish species.. but that will have to wait until I get back from a great trip to someplace quite far south.. trust me there is a lot here.. sorry for the cliffhanger, but it will be worth the wait... Hopefully when I get back I can flesh out what is a great but quiet positive trend in North American Ecology from perhaps the best place it could come from.. First Americans..

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