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One More Bite

For me anyway, a big part of loving a thing is wanting to be it. I want to know how it feels to be Michael Jordan or a steelhead, contorting my body into cool shapes while suspended in air. I want to inspire like a trout does, to take breath as it has taken mine. I covet the apparent austerity of a trout’s life, the command this animal has over its urges and appetites. The water temperature says this, the trout does that. Nymphs in the flow, a grasshopper kicking overhead, time to eat. No added sugar, alcohol, anxiety over sitting still, depression-fueled binges, or nicotine out of boredom. When tending to its needs, a trout expresses perfect discipline, stopping precisely at enough. Such beautiful simplicity!

Or as I like to call it, BS. I’m thinking of the Rio Tusas after a two-day rain, nine-inch cutthroats with bellies the size of lemons. Forced to cull a rainbow, I filled the palm of my hand with earthworms from its stomach, which had torn open at the mere touch of my knife blade. Alaskan dollies barfing pink embryos while still on the hook; obese rainbows inciting sockeyes to stir their own nests and spill eggs. New Mexico Game and Fish dissecting a 30-inch brown trout on the Rio Chama, finding not one, but two, baby beavers in its gut.

I know of a 7 inch brown that ate its four inch cousin not long before having a go at my two-inch Chernobyl Ant, which, when considered with the previously mentioned anecdotes, suggests the possibility that the trout’s appetite control is less a talent to be envied than a myth to be rejected. So maybe I love trout because I am already like them, maybe even born that way!

In the context of gluttony, a solid case could be made. For every fish that tried to cram my salmonfly imitation into a mouth overflowing with naturals, I can recall a stumble through camp after a bourbon too many. Or a quickly waning day when the next fish will be the last, or the next one after that, or “We’d better reel up if we want to get to Murder Burger before they close.” Buddies in the car ranting to favorite tunes. The early first grab telling you what kind of fishing the day will bring. The smell of rain on willows. A lunch of salami, unpronounceable cheese on fresh olive bread baked with unfathomable love. Hot day swims and bankside naps. Dying coals and a Drum rolled at midnight, silhouettes of fir trees against star-filled canyon skies. Every minute full.

Buzzer-to-buzzer indulgence is, for me anyway, the point of fishing, and a fact that merits celebration. Or maybe not. It’s one thing to celebrate, another to do it publicly as, in this age of social media, is our apparent addiction. It seems we’d rather watch ourselves being than to simply be, a step short of indulgence if you ask me.

And a step short of a trout, my object of greatest envy. holding in the current, accepting everything it brings, be it sparse or bountiful.


Appeared in Trout Unlimited Voices from the River Blog June 2018

Be The Fire

As always, New Mexicans are engaged in conversations about how our landscapes and watersheds should be managed. All five of our national forests are revising management plans to enhance land resiliency, boost economic opportunity, and protect sensitive natural and cultural resources. Our long drought, once thought to be abnormal, has generated broad participation in regional and state water planning efforts. People are striving to expand wilderness areas while others hope to limit, if not eliminate, land protections altogether. A vocal minority even seeks the transfer of public lands to state control and, ultimately, to private ownership.

These conversations affirm that to be truly New Mexican is to be in love with the land. As refreshing and inspiring as this simple truth may be, opinions vary on what loving the land means and how it should be practiced. The resulting conflict is as New Mexican as the debate over red or green chile. We seem drawn to this battle, crave it even. Arguments over our natural legacy seem conditional to living here.

As political and climatic turmoil worsen every day, I have come to the conclusion that conflict has become our permanent condition, as opposed to some benign cycle between complacency and flared emotions. Depending on which side of the fence we stand, our definitions of perceived enemies have ossified into stereotypes: an environmentalist demands his own private menagerie of endangered species; ranchers won’t clean up after their cows like responsible pet owners should; a government agency professional is the worst, a person whose childhood dream was to go broke earning an advanced degree so she could spend the rest of her life pushing paper around a desk.

To the many who would say these stereotypes contain more than a grain of truth, I would respond that the bigger truth is not so petty and far more serious, and that it’s long past time that we reckon with it.

The bigger truth is this: too much of our land is in a diminished and actively degrading state. Forests bloat with fuel, even as the ground becomes more bare. Streams slice deeper into the land, bad enough if the Rio Grande and its reservoirs weren’t already loaded with topsoil scoured from mountainsides during the “Big Barbeque” resource extraction era of the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries. We have developed floodplains, extirpated wildlife species, and crippled the most important ecological processes. We’re paying for it too. Ask a city water manager, a rural mayor, or an economic planner. Ask an alfalfa farmer, whose ditch runs lower every year.

Those responsible for this mess were driven by wholesome intentions. Nevertheless, it is important to note who they are: anyone who has eaten, who lives in, has built, bought, or sold a house not made entirely of ice or dirt; politicians and anyone who’s voted or not voted for one; users of cell phones, heaters, televisions, automobiles, or anything requiring fuel or electricity; anyone who desires money in any quantity, who’s paid or not paid taxes with it; anyone who fought in, supplied, or otherwise participated in our nation’s wars; anyone who’s dined at a café, flushed a toilet, owns a gun, a fishing rod, or binoculars. Also responsible are people who’ve read books and, most definitely, people who have not. In other words, anyone living in the past, present, and future is on the hook for the current state of our landscapes.

It’s time to embrace this responsibility and turn to fixing what we’ve broken. There are ways to do this by applying lessons learned through centuries of interacting with our environment and observing its responses to human and natural events.

Grazing, for example, enhances local hydrology and plant diversity for the same ecological reasons that overgrazing destroys them. Grazing stimulates growth of shoots and roots, which sequester carbon in the soil and increase its capacity to hold water. Hooves break and push seeds into soil, which feeds on the nutrients in manure. Grazing – by microorganisms, insects, rodents, and large mammals – is integral to the transformation of solar energy to earthly productivity.

Natural fire restores plant diversity as well, for the same ecological reasons that fire suppression (which leads to fuel build up and high severity wildfires) and clearcutting reduce it. Through consuming fuels on the forest floor, natural fire promotes nutrient recycling, grass growth, and the penetration of sun and snow to the ground. Abundant grass enables cyclical fire ignition and the spread of rejuvenating, moderate severity fires.

Keystone species – beavers and wolves for example – are so named because they exert formative pressure on natural regimes; to the extreme degree that other species depend on them, they are essentially natural regimes unto themselves. For all their negative impacts, wolves once forced domestic and wild grass eaters into tight, defensive herds that grazed intensively and moved frequently in response to predatory pressure. Such a simple dynamic guaranteed the fertilization and resting of pastures.

Although beavers have flooded plenty of fields and irrigation ditches, they’ve also lifted headwater aquifers with their dams, maintaining year round stream flows while beating back forest encroachment into lush and saturated meadows. On balance, keystone species have kept the land healthy, – indeed, they have essentially made the land – and they’ve done it at a minimal cost.

In their current unhealthy state, our lands are unable to revert to natural regimes. Resources needed to induce lost land function are in short supply, and potential change agents like beavers, predators, managed fire, and grazing are misunderstood if not reviled. Yet grazing animals must still be moved to prevent overgrazing, streams must still water floodplains, and forest floors must be cleansed. Put another way, forests will burn, whether we want them to or not. Organisms will eat, and water will run downhill.

As the ultimate keystone species, we must accept our significant influence over how productively or destructively these processes take place. And by we, I mean all of us, city dwellers, environmentalists, recreationists, cattle growers, loggers, and politicians. Already heavy for its monetary and ideological costs, our load grows heavier with each day we wait.

Until we can accept the consequences of catastrophic wildfire, we must assume fire’s job. Until wolves and beavers are welcomed back into our ecosystems, it falls on us to rest and grow pastures and restore water cycles. Ranchers must adopt the practices of true, watershed-scale grass farming, improving stream function, reducing erosion and bare dirt. Environmentalists must become fiscal and passionate partners in this, by appreciating the value of working lands and collaborating on initiatives that preserve and empower rural cultures.

Forest restoration, species diversity, and managed grazing, all worth pursuing, none exclusively of the others. Our continued existence on this land depends on our understanding the full depth of this fact. We must at least try to believe that humans are good too, especially since we are the only ones who can prove it.

Why Are Wolves Such Meanies?

SnarlingwolfDear Truchacabra,

According to a friend of mine, wolves have been nothing but a problem since they were reintroduced into the wild in the lower 48 states. They kill lots of big game animals and house pets, and lots of people living in wolf country are really scared of them. My friend says that wolves are cowards, even while being so bloodthirsty.  


Armchair Biologist Buying Ammo

Dear ABBA,

I have heard the sermon on wolves many times. Just the other day, someone emailed me several photos of some enormous wolves that were killed in a regulated wolf hunt in Idaho. It made me feel good to see these predators being managed in much the same way that human hunters are required to be, only makes sense for the wildlife resource.

But then, as I feared would happen, the shooter attached this rant:

Just a few of the wolves killed this year with the Idaho wolf tag. Wish I could show you a few hundred more pictures. It is just amazing how big they are. Deer, elk, and livestock killing machines. The big question you have to ask yourself is why? These massive wolves are not the native wolf that lived in our area 100 years ago. There was a reason these things were exterminated nationwide despite appearing cuddly and cute. I wonder if our city dwelling tree hugger society that never has left a city really understands the impact of these killing machines. I wonder if a T-Rex was available would they want to put them back in the wild.

It’s just a matter of time before one of our granola-loving-green-peace-hikers goes out on a hike and runs into a pack of these killers and becomes part of the food chain. If you are going into the Blues, Cascades, or north of Spokane hiking, game scouting, mushroom hunting or something else you better start carrying a side arm. Can you even imagine being out by yourself and having 8 to 12 of these monsters surround you! Think about what kind of appetite a dozen of these must have, and remember they are the only predator in our nation that kills for fun along with for food. The amount of animals they take are just a partial portion of what they need to eat. When elk are calving they will kill the calves just for fun after they have had all they can eat and leaving the rest to rot.
wolveseatingFirst, ABBA, let’s dispense with the BS:

  • Before he calls a wolf a coward, a man must join 8 to 12 of his buddies (heck, go for 20), run down a bull moose, and gang kill it using nothing but teeth and hands. He must try not to get his skull stove in, then eat the thing raw and sleep naked outdoors no matter the season (he must also sleep outdoors if he gets said skull stove in and/or fails to secure the meal). 
  • Opposition to wolf extermination is far from limited to urban dwellers who love trees and eat granola. An enormous number of rural outdoorspeople – who fish, hunt, gather mushrooms AND, it should be mentioned, eat fancy oat and grain products to reduce their blood cholesterol – do not advocate the wholesale elimination of wolves. These people are adults, realists who know that predators exert a positive pressure on prey species to adapt. They do not expect nature to be nice to them all the time.
  • There is only one place where humans and T Rex would ever coexist. It’s called Jurassic Park, and it’s a movie.Velociraptors are an entirely different story.
  • The only predator in our nation that kills for fun and food both is not the wolf but the smiling creatures holding harvested wolves in those emailed pictures (cooking recipes were not included). These predators seek their giggles in potshooting wolves, coyotes, and prairie dogs. We also love us some catch and release fishing, which eventually does kill.
  • Finally, though it is true that wolves consume the newborn young of elk and deer, they are certainly not the only predators that do so. Coyotes, cougars, bears, golden eagles, or any animals for that matter, would not have evolved to the present day had they never developed the habit of seizing easy opportunities. If wolves eating baby elk gives you the willies, don’t ever watch cheetahs bringing live gazelle fawns back to their cubs for killing practice. Killer whales use baby sea lions to teach their young the same skills.


"Hey Junior, go long!"

“Hey Junior, go long!”

This is not to take the wolf issue lightly. Wolves are large animals forming large groups that require lots of meat to survive. That the wolf is also extremely intelligent and can break an elk’s leg with its mouth makes it formidable wherever it is found. To survive, wolves require immense ranges in good wild condition, country that is in short supply even in North America. Direct or indirect impact on humans is therefore inevitable, which is why something should be done.

That’s the easy part. We must manage wolves by hunting them, keeping their numbers in check to fit the modern world we hope they will always live in. Sorry, tofu-eating, Prius-driving, yoga-practicing, hemp-wearing, drum circle-interpretivedancing, ivory tower college-attending, woodflute-playing, clean air and water-liking, microbrew-drinking, Yani-listening, Bill Moyers-watching, vegan-annoyinglybeing, bra-notwearing, patchouli-reeking city slicker socialists, but that’s the way it’s got to be. Wolves will thank you for agreeing with me.

The not so easy part, ABBA, is how to deal with this fear of wolves you mentioned, because it’s real. Read the above note again and see how freaked some people get. Many are descended from pioneers who worked the mines and milled the logs and laid the railbeds of America as we know it. They’re the ones who settled the west (we all did, of course, but humor them won’t you?), so they’re definitely unaccustomed to a natural world they can’t control. Yeah, they’re afraid, and one should respect that and empathize.

I guess I see where they're coming from.

I guess I see where they’re coming from.

But only to a point. It’s one thing to expect protection for one’s property and understanding of one’s fear, another to advocate the extirpation of an endangered species on imagined moral grounds.  A group called Smoke a Pack a Day is one of the main promoters of the myth that wolves kill for fun and butcher whatever they come upon with a lust for inflicting the greatest pain and suffering. In the minds of many, wolves aren’t just deadly, they’re evil.

Even if we pretend that damning the morality of an entire species isn’t ridiculous (or that modern human history isn’t absolutely slathered with us actually choosing evil over good), we still end up on the “lest ye be judged” side of the equation. Do human hunters benefit elk by culling the sick and the weak? Not really. They cull a herd’s golden genetic nest egg and celebrate this dire impact by hanging heads above fireplaces. Would a cow take death by wolfpack or by feedlot? It’s impossible to know of course, but certainly not to speculate that either alternative would suck pretty hard. I could go on all night, wolf haters, but it really comes down to this: if you are one of the 7 billion apex organisms thoroughly dominating this planet, moral absolutism is a fantasy you aren’t allowed to have anymore.

Always good to remember that the beauty of nature is in part a product of its cruelty. Life has predators in it, grizzly bears, tigers, rattlesnakes, black widows, white sharks, crocodiles, bankers, politicians, lawyers, metrosexual Hollywood vampires, dealers of legal and illegal drugs, car salesmen, and that a-hole I worked for in New Zealand who left the country without paying me. No matter where you live or what you do, you can’t escape the truth that there will always be something out there that sees you as supper. While exterminating wolves won’t change that, keeping one step ahead will help you live with it.

"You'll love this mortgage. Trust me."

“You can’t go wrong with this subprime mortgage! Trust me.”

Wild Horses: Untouchable Invasives

            It would be a sane and intelligent day if the resources and effort expended on feral horses were used instead to restore the ecosystems they’ve destroyed.

Erosion in the west has reached cancerous proportions, impairing the land’s ability to store and yield water for plant, animal, and human consumption. It’s well documented that vegetation removal by large grazers precipitates erosion, especially when a forage base is not allowed adequate time to recover from browsing events and hoof shear. Trails made by herds capture surface water runoff, channeling its energy to create gullies, which lower water tables. Drying ensues, leaving plants vulnerable to further erosion by water and wind.

In the case of domestic livestock, land managers and stockgrowers can collaborate on a range of options to manage overgrazing. No matter what one’s opinion might be of the BLM, Forest Service, or ranchers, these all-purpose whipping boys for whatever ails our lands are adapting to modern realities in some pretty impressive ways. Strategic stocking rate adjustments, rest and rotation timing, and infrastructure design and placement are known to minimize harmful grazing. Most important, well-managed grazing can actually be used as a land healing tool.

            In contrast to almost every animal on the planet – thanks in part to zealot-born legislation essentially protecting them as endangered species – wild horses have no predators, and their large size eliminates competition from other grazers. Managing horses to benefit habitat is practically impossible, certainly as long as sound ecological analysis plays second fiddle to the nostalgia of groups like the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. Contrary to what Deniz Bolbol seems to believe, an “emotional attachment” to something doesn’t by itself justify that thing; we learned this during our recent national conversation about the legitimacy of the Confederate flag as a constructive symbol of southern heritage.

Significantly accelerating erosion by themselves, feral horses place direct pressure on western ecosystems already compromised by more than a century of abuse, to the detriment of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds, and fish.

There goes the "neigh"borhood!

Man, there goes the “neigh”borhood!

Horses also contribute to land management conflict. Ignorant hunters blaming predation instead of food scarcity for reduced antelope and deer populations destroy coyotes and other important predators. Then there’s the poisoned dialogue between land use interests that has given rise to Bundy-style reactionaries and the unfair conflation of hysterical horse advocacy with science-driven and truly beneficial conservation. Basically everyone – hunters, coyotes, cowboys, and environmentalists – gets a bad rap but the horses.

It is urgent that we restore our landscapes to mitigate the threats posed by climate change. We must rebuild our soils and cover them with native plants. We must manage land for the ecological services we need it to provide: water retention and filtration, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and pollination, among other benefits. If feral horses can’t be managed in a manner that advances this imperative, we mustn’t continue to allow them to hold it back.

As a nation, we have sometimes done well to aggressively address the negative impacts of invasive species. For the sake of wildlife in the Everglades, we are attacking pythons in Florida, bought as pets and released into the wild. We’re leveling salt cedars along the Rio Grande and other key waterways. Through sterilization, euthanasia, and adoption, we must be equally decisive in dealing with feral horses, for as Deniz Bolbol herself has put it, “We yearn for that wildness…[but] slowly, we obliterate all that is wild.”