Michael Soulé used to believe America's public lands had enough room to save its wildlife, but not anymore.
"I feel like I woke up a year or two ago from a 40-year public lands delusion," the man who helped found the discipline of conservation biology told a roomful of scientists and students at the University of Montana on Thursday. "I was hypnotized by the West, the horizon-to-horizon spaces we call public land. I was struck by their potential for conservation. I assumed there was ample room for people and wildlife."
He's since concluded that public lands managers face too many requirements to get economic or political results from U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property to give wildlife the priority it needs to survive. Furthermore, he argued those agencies' budgets have been so depleted that they have too little enforcement capacity to see their own wildlife protection rules are followed.
Instead, Soulé said, those who want to protect the nation's ecosystem should recruit private landowners whose ranches and farms hold crucial corridors critters need to survive. Those private lands typically contain the valley bottoms, creek drainages and relative safety that wolverines and burrowing owls need to survive.
"Our public lands have become, to borrow from the (movie-making) Coen brothers, no country for old endangered species," Soulé said. "Particularly varmints and vermin like wolves, bison and prairie dogs. The recent delisting of the wolf was based on politics, not science. It was official anarchy."
Soulé referred to Congress' passage of a rider removing gray wolves from Endangered Species List protection in Montana and Idaho, written by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. Conservation biology techniques were the bedrock of wolf advocates' legal argument to keep the wolf protected. They argued that species like wolves needed populations of at least 2,000 individuals to maintain genetic diversity and connectivity.
Scientists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service countered that a minimum population of 150 wolves or 15 breeding pairs per state was sufficient to delist the wolf. Federal courts never got around to ruling which kind of science was correct before the congressional rider removed the question from judicial review.
While Soulé acknowledged his proposal was toward the more radical end of the conservation world, he was just one of many speakers at the fourth annual Montana Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology at UM. Symposium organizer Erik Hakanson said many researchers face a challenge of pitting career safety against confronting tough issues.
"Most of the problems with big animals and predators have inherent political and economic dimensions to them," Hakanson said. Academic scientists often face pressure to keep their work non-confrontational, while policy makers and advocates need hard science to justify their positions.
Other researchers at Thursday's session updated the crowd on new computer modeling systems that can look across decades or millions of acres to forecast how different policies might turn out.
For example, Jimmie Chew of the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station reviewed new software that allows researchers to look at whole watersheds and predict how changes in beetle infestation or wildfire might affect a forest.
"It lets us explore and test assumptions," Chew said. "You can see how climate or disturbance might change a landscape's quality."
Those modeling programs can also predict how hard-to-find animals like wolverines and lynx might use an area. That can take relatively small radio-collar studies and determine the probability that a similar geography would show similar results.
That's essential for determining the listing status for wolverines, UM biology researcher Martha Ellis said. The animals are so hard to find, it's almost impossible to tell if their population is growing or shrinking. And without that crucial knowledge, we can't determine if it's endangered or not.