Common Sense Unhinged

Common Sense Unhinged

by Tony Malmberg

Tony Malmberg April 6, 2003.JPG


We just bought a ranch in the heart of threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead habitat. My wife, Andrea, and I partnered with Cienega Capital ( on a place near Union, OR to support the development of soil, a sound river system, and Chinook salmon, with proper grazing management. Why would anyone intentionally buy a ranch affected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

Common-Sense Unhinged

The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, brought this seminal legislation and law to us 45 years ago. A necessary wake-up call for irresponsible uses of chemicals and poison, like DDT and 1080, carrying through the food chain needed to take a hard line. That stance resulted in keeping 99% of all species in decline from going extinct. With this success in hand and 45 years of leaning toward preservation tactics in lieu of management, it is time for Chapter Two. 


How do we shift our new awareness of endangered species from preservation to management? In the mid-eighties, as Chairman of our local Conservation District, I called information and got the phone number for Wyoming’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Don Ralston. 

He answered and I said, “Hello Don?”

He replied, “How are you doing Tony?” (This was back before caller ID. You gotta love that about Wyoming.)

I explained that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) bought a ranch on the Sweetwater River to save the endangered plant, Meadow pussytoes. The plant’s critical habitat was on the upper fringe of hummocks, or a knob in wetlands, which creates a dryland site in the middle of a wetland. Hummocks are formed by long-term animal activity on wetlands, like season-long grazing. Overgrazed riparian areas provide the habitat for Meadow pussytoes.

I further explained, that I knew our Conservation District was accountable for enforcing the Endangered Species Act as well as the Clean Water Act. My dilemma was which one we were obligated to enforce.

Don Ralston replied, “Tony, go to bed.”

Yeah, ok, but… It turned out the ESA was the supreme law of the land, trumping the Clean Water Act. Not meaning to oversimplify, the law directed us to enforce overgrazing riparian areas if it meant saving the endangered Meadow pussytoes.

That doesn’t make sense.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

I joked and jabbed the Nature Conservancy’s State Director, Ben, that I would live to see a newspaper headline, “The Nature Conservancy Plans Overgrazing of Riparian Area.”

But the reality of the ESA being the supreme law of the land concerned me. I invited TNC to come on our ranch and identify endangered plants. I didn’t think “ignorance” would be a good defense if hauled to court someday. They found six plants. Damn.

I felt like I was heading to the gallows. George, the scientist for Wyoming’s Biodiversity Database, took me on a walk, showing me the plants and their habitat. Fremont’s bladderpod and others grew on steep shale slopes, where we could barely walk and cattle wouldn’t. The plants had different classifications of endangered status at the global, state and species level. The most significant was Barnabas clover, which only grew on southwest facing Nugget sandstone.  This plant had only been seen on the Nature Conservancy’s ranch at Red Canyon and our place on Twin Creek.

As we traipsed across the Twin Creek landscape George taught me about the many species of willow on our riparian areas. The early successor, coyote willow, flourished as our newly implemented Holistic Grazing Planning reduced the time of grazing on riparian areas. Golden willow was prevalent and George expected to see the waxy-leafed Bebb willow, which survives season-long grazing. However, he was surprised to see a Pacific willow, highly sensitive to grazing. I noted the Pacific willow was in a holding pasture that had very short-term grazing and in the non-growing season.

The point being, if we are to manage, we need to have an idea of what we are managing. Both the presence and absence of plants bring a message as to how they are being treated. Endangered Species amplify the message and increase scrutiny. Management can consider ways to alter what we are doing based on the message. Why would we want to manage for a plant needing overgrazed riparian areas? Even if it is endangered? 

Other endangered species bring a different message, like a canary in the coal mine. Saving their lives can save ours.

The Hundred Mile March

Where the broad desert plain met the Twin Creek corridor, a panel of petroglyphs documented centuries of humanoids waiting for the wildlife exodus to their winter range. The threatened Sage-Grouse, lek, and nest in this lower elevation of Twin Creek. In the spring, the migration reverses and this gateway ushers hens marching their newly hatched chicks to the Wind River Mountain foothills and the Red Desert expanse—70 to 100 miles in some cases. 

One of the densest, viable, populations of Sage-Grouse in the United States lives out its annual cycle in this region. We worked with the University of Wyoming and three Masters students on different aspects of Sage-Grouse behavior and habitat. We learned the biological weak-link happens in the early brood rearing stage of their life cycle. This 10-day period following a chick’s hatch requires a highly-concentrated protein diet, supplied by forbs and insects. 

Conventional grazing practices and pesticide ear-tags kill forbs and insects. The chicks starve before seeing their summer range. This clear message from the threatened Sage-Grouse asked for a change in the behavior of land managers, which may not have been heard without the ESA.

In my experience, grazing that mimics nature releases forbs within 3 years. As the decision maker at the soil surface develops grazing skill and knowledge, their grazing periods will decline. When the grazing period drops below 10-14 days, there is no longer a need for pesticides, as the cattle have moved before the heel and horn fly hatch. Insects recycle manure and cattle graze in peace. With abundant forb and insect populations, Sage-Grouse chicks ascend the mountain, as livestock benefit from higher quality and more abundant feed.

Wolves, Wildness, and Agriculture

Our experience with endangered plants and Sage-Grouse brought interesting people into our lives. We gained a broader view of the landscape, we produced more grass and made more money on the land we inhabited. As we moved from the Twin Creek ranch in Wyoming, we had, “Living in-the-midst of an endangered species,” on our checklist. As we narrowed our search to northeastern Oregon, it came down to salmon or wolves.

Many endangered species arrived at their precarious condition due to human’s unintended consequences of using the tools of technology and rest. We did not premeditate the elimination of Sage-Grouse, bald eagles, or leopard frogs. Their endangered status flagged crisis, like the canary in the coal mine. This check caused us to rethink and look for root causes. By changing our behavior, these species are reasserting a role in the ecosystem’s complexity. As a result, we have healthier, more productive and more resilient landscapes. Not necessarily so with the wolf.

The wolf was not a casualty of our indifference but became endangered because of conscious genocide. As is the case with American Indians, the speed of the genocide did not allow wolves to adapt and develop different behavior. Even those who took the clue to stay remote were stalked down and killed. We know two things about the wolf. They are territorial and they require big space. 

We now know the wolf can add value to an ecosystem. This has been demonstrated on the Lamar River in Yellowstone Park.

The health of brittle ecosystems depends on flow. Removal of predators stopped the movement on many landscapes. Reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone Park initiated movement of elk, deer and bison, allowing the Lamar River to heal and thrive with willow and cottonwood. However, the large territories required by wolves will not always align with society. Our commitment as Holistic Planned Grazers to mimicking nature has reintroduced movement on many landscapes in the absence of predators.

Wolves understand territory and the wild. Society can respect that simple need and provide “no hunt” zones in the wild, like the Lamar Valley. Wolves bring a complexity necessary for ecosystem function in a big territory. Clear boundaries and territory bring safety for the wolf. 

However, wolves in cluttered areas mean conflict. A clear and consistent boundary where ranchers can shoot on sight will bring a respect that has been lost from generations of preservation. Wolves are hard to live with. We can leverage their value by defining clear boundaries and territory, for both man and beast. Wolves have a place but not every place.

Working with wolves and their required large territories did not work in our context. So, we pursued salmon.

Swimming Up a Dry Stream

Like Sage-Grouse, the demise of salmon was caused by the unintended consequences of society. Initially, hydropower and irrigation did not see the need for fish passage. Like Sage-Grouse, the ESA gave us a chance to rethink anadromous fish in our shared space. They need passage to-and-from the ocean. They need clear, cold water and river complexity. They need healthy uplands, including rich soil organic matter to capture the raindrop, cool it in the ground, and slow the flow back to the river for hot season recharge.

Salmon once gathered tons of nutrients from the depths of our oceans and hauled them up mountaintops to spread and nurture our floodplains. People and animals thrived on salmon and the verdant earth writhing on salmon carcasses. Grazing animals, Sage-Grouse, and salmon can benefit one another. But a salmon can’t swim up a dry stream. Where did the water go?

Coming or Going?

When George Jones surveyed Twin Creek for endangered plants, he told me that they don’t always know if the lower numbers of endangered species are because they are in decline or just appearing. This might explain the Meadow pussytoes. Maybe it is just appearing due to the disruption of free-roaming, grazing animals. Maybe fence building and land ownership stopped the movement of grazing animals and started overgrazing riparian areas. If we stop overgrazing riparian areas do we need to preserve this plant? Holistic Management would ask us to manage for a functional water cycle, without prejudice for or against a plant but manage for the health of the whole.

It is time to rethink the forty-five-year practice of preservation. Chapter Two and the Holistic Management Decision Making Process can take the lessons learned from an active management initiative building resilient ecosystems. Root causes, biological weak-links, gross profit analysis, whole ecosystem function and marginal reactions will empower decisions at the soil surface.

What is your role?

Some endangered species, like Fremont’s bladder pod are just hanging out and don’t need our support. We don’t really know if they are coming or going. Let’s watch. Others, like the wolf, provide value in specific space. As decisions are empowered at the soil surface, we will learn from the Sage-Grouse, the salmon, leopard frogs, bald eagles and many other endangered species whose lives intertwine with us and our food chain. We will learn for the sake of our own well-being.

Add, Don’t Subtract, Multiply when Possible

Correcting errors means being suspect of the loss of a species, on our ranch or our planet. The ESA—Chapter One, called us out on accepting simplicity and the loss of species. The ESA served as a stopgap measure, hitting pause until we better understood what was happening. Holistic Management’s planning for more diversity and more complexity gives us a shot at achieving the ever-elusive resiliency. 

The implication becomes obvious. If we have a problem, ask what we must add to the equation. 

The Grande Ronde Model Watershed added awareness. The first time I met Jeff Oveson, their executive director, we were looking to purchase a ranch on Catherine Creek. After a long discussion about our common heritage of ranching and Hereford cattle, Jeff casually pulled the ranch up on Google Earth. 

He began, “See how the river has been straightened through here? It would be interesting if we could put some meanders back into the channel, add some floodplain and slow down the water. We should also be able to attenuate water temperatures in summer and winter.

What do you think?”

It was the first I’d thought of such a thing. I was spawned during the Green Revolution where we made roads and rivers conform to section lines.

The Grande Ronde Model Watershed was instrumental in getting a long-time rancher to be the first to lease a significant portion of his irrigation water instream for salmon habitat. More importantly, this rancher incorporated the practice into a long-term rotation of different ground and crops. In effect, he was managing water as an enterprise. 

The Freshwater Trust picked up on this initiative and added more water in-stream by bringing more tools to the table. Specifically, Time Limited Transfers allowed for securing water for longer periods, which worked for marginal lands or areas with a high water table. They also brought a Split Season Lease to the table, which helped those relying on cool-season plants which evolved to senesce or stop growing, in the hot season. This new learning allowed for management changes putting more water in-stream. With a more reliable flow, fish migration and the beginnings of habitat wailed into infancy.

The next bite adding significant habitat came from Allen Childs and the Confederated Tribe of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. They purchased a ranch and rechanneled Catherine Creek from where it had been backed into a hill by early settlement farming development. As it stretched and flowed, a river began to take shape. We take those interested in our project to see what Catherine Creek can look like. We see complexity bringing an aerating riffle, an accelerating run, a plunging pool, and a slowing glide—beating the rhythm of a river. 

Downstream from the Umatilla project, Catherine Creek runs through Buffalo Peak Land and Livestock, where the river has been jailed for a century, between a state highway and Buffalo Peak’s rising form. A mile-long riffle allows no spawning habitat and no place for a juvenile to find cover. The first order of business at Buffalo Peak Land and Livestock will be releasing Catherine Creek from prison.

We have an idea that our animals will be better off with good salmon habitat. Salmon will be better off with properly managed grazing. Rivers are better off when salmon and livestock thrive. Chapter One of the ESA kept our options open. It said, “No,” to letting Chinook salmon and steelhead disappear. Chapter Two will take-a-look at the lessons learned during the 45-year pause. Chapter Two will empower decisions at the soil surface as we manage for resilience. 

Tony Malmberg4 Comments