29 May 2007

Endangered Friendship

I ran into a Big Hole River rancher this past weekend. It was someone that I worked with on various committees for about 10 years, and I considered them a friend. He no longer felt that way, and simply glared at me when we met.

I am sure it is because of my recent public stance for placing Big Hole River grayling on the Endangered Species List. How many Big Hole Watershed Committee meetings did I sit through where the agricultural representatives said things like, "We need to keep grayling off the endangered species list." Seldom was the rhetoric about recovering grayling, ensuring that there were more grayling in the river, or enhancing habitat and river flows to maximize grayling survival.

It was as if the Endangered Species Act and groups that supported a grayling ESA listing were the enemy. And grayling? They were just a proxy for how people felt about nature--nature that could be reduced to a simple matter of profit, property rights, and power.

How to explain to such people?

"Look, my friend, it's like a sick child. If your child has a mild ear infection, what would you do to help them? Maybe sacrifice half-a-day's work to take them to the clinic, maybe even pay out $50 for an antibiotic. You certainly wouldn't take a doctor to court who refused to help your child, nor would you demonstrate in front of a pharmacy that wouldn't provide the medicine.

"But what if your child were dying of a deadly disease that could be cured? Would you publicly criticize doctors and the medical establishment that refused care? Hell, you'd probably take a doctor at gunpoint or rob a pharmacy if you thought it would help!"

Big Hole River grayling are a dying child. Without help, they may well perish from the face of the earth. Can my rancher friend understand this?

Probably not. Take the Watershed Committee. There is endless talk, talk, talk about collaboration. It's a sort of meet-in-the-middle approach like Solomon's infamous decision regarding the baby disputed over by two mothers. Sadly, the Big Hole Watershed Committee is perfectly willing to split the baby -- i.e. grayling -- down the middle. The Watershed Committee would allow grayling to perish rather than to question water rights or demand economic sacrifice.

Another former friend, a conservationist no less, argued that, "An ESA listing will not put more grayling in the river!"

Well, I have to ask, how many more grayling are in the river after more than ten years of Big Hole Watershed Committee collaboration? Hell, let's face it: There are FAR FEWER Big Hole River grayling than we had before the Watershed Committee was formed.

I have no doubt that an ESA listing for Big Hole River grayling will come. But it may well come too late. I fully expect that, ten years from now, we will be doing with fluvial Arctic grayling very much like what we did with gray wolves: we will be importing grayling from Canadian rivers to re-establish populations throughout the upper Missouri River basin. And, just as ranchers learned to cope with wolf recovery and the required changes in agricultural management, so will they learn to cope with grayling recovery and the required changes in water management.

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