Given the current political climate, accountability may seem like a thing of the past. But the truth is, breaking the law has consequences. After a long and opaque process, the saga of Craig Thiessen, a rancher from Kansas who was grazing cattle on the Gila National Forest and intentionally killed a juvenile endangered Mexican gray wolf (“Advocates want rancher’s forest permit pulled,” June 24), came to the only just conclusion: In late November, the U.S. Forest Service revoked his public lands grazing permit.
After capturing Mia Tuk (the name given to the pup by an Albuquerque grade-schooler) in a cruel, archaic trap, Thiessen noted the wolf’s radio collar, but instead of calling the proper authorities, he beat the pup to death with a shovel. Such violent behavior and brazen disregard for the law does not belong anywhere, but especially not on our public lands. If someone knowingly kills an endangered species, intentionally sets fire to public lands or takes over a wildlife refuge, he should be treated like the criminal he is. He should not be made a hero or pardoned. In this case, the Forest Service got it right and the broader public — which overwhelmingly supports endangered species recovery and protected public lands — had its day.
When we don’t uphold the law, bad actors feel emboldened. We’ve seen instances where public lands ranchers receive leeway and leniency only to escalate tensions and carry out illegal and sometimes violent acts. Examples include the Nevada Bundy family taking over an Oregon wildlife refuge and Phil Lyman’s illegal off-road vehicle ride up the Paria River in Utah. Some ranchers treated Thiessen’s initial $2,300 fine as a joke.
But the Forest Service demonstrated that this is no laughing matter. The Mexican wolf population has essentially flatlined at roughly 100 wild wolves in the U.S. Political threats crop up on a regular basis (see Congress’ latest attempts to delist wolves through legislation), and a limited gene pool leaves lobos in the wild susceptible to extinction. Officially, the federal government is trying to recover Mexican wolves. Although it does not undo the tragedy, revoking the rogue rancher’s permit sends the right signal to the public.
Grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right, and those who violate laws and regulations designed to protect people and our environment forfeit that privilege. Mia Tuk had a right to exist. Thiessen’s implicit belief that his privilege was more important than public interest, an endangered species and ecosystem resilience is egregiously immoral and utterly disastrous. The view that short-term profit, so-called production and extraction trump biodiversity, resilience and sustainability is untenable. If that is the modus operandi, our world will cease to exist in a way that is recognizable.
For ranchers whose grazing operations on public lands are no longer viable, an alternative exists in voluntary grazing permit retirement legislation. Voluntary permit retirement leverages private capital to compensate ranchers at market rate for waiving their permit back to U.S. Forest Service, at which point it is closed to livestock grazing. Federal legislation would make this quick and easy, and it is an essential tool to put on the table for both livestock growers and wolves.
By doing the right thing, even if it was difficult, the Forest Service sent a clear message. Wolves belong. Ranchers who act in ways that demonstrate entitlement and hostility toward the natural world, do not. We need our elected officials and public agencies to stand up for what’s right — coexistence, native wildlife and protected public lands.
Christopher Smith is a New Mexico native and the Southern Rockies Wildlife Advocate for WildEarth Guardians.