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Ravens only part of problem for grouse, tortoise

Many years ago when I started covering Nevada’s capitol, one of the best parts of the job was the building itself.

Truth to tell, the little building with the dome has not been Nevada’s capitol since 1971, when the Nevada Legislature began meeting in a building immediately south. The capitol, by definition, is where the representative legislative assemblies meet. (Merriam-Webster: “the building in which the people who make the laws of a U.S. state meet”; Oxford: “a building housing a legislative assembly”; Random House: “a building occupied by a legislature.”)

Nevertheless, the old building that houses the executive offices is still popularly referred to as the capitol, and when I started full-time coverage in the 1970s, it had been gutted and was being rebuilt. Once that project was complete, I spent a lot of time there.

Covering governors was more informal then, and I often walked between the two buildings. When I did, birds in the trees often dive-bombed me. They were black birds that cawed, so I assumed they were crows. Sometimes when I ate lunch on the lawn I tossed bread or french fries to them.

The birds were no problem until one day when one of them dive-bombed the governor, Richard Bryan. I don’t know whether Bryan ordered it, but the next thing that happened was buildings-and-grounds people mounted major combat against the birds, installing things such as upward spikes and rubber owls to drive them away.

Naturally, that battle itself became a news story. That was when we learned that — according to wildlife people — they weren’t crows, they were ravens.

Well, state government is going after the ravens again. The Nevada Legislature has approved a resolution calling on Congress to remove the raven’s protected status “to protect sage grouse nests and desert tortoises …”

Now, it should be noted that most of this Legislature doesn’t care about either sage grouse (known in Nevada as sage hen) or desert tortoises. It should also be pointed out that the measure approved by the lawmakers cherry-picks the scientific literature to make its case.

The resolution says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “has identified the common raven as the most highly visible predator of hatchling and juvenile desert tortoises” and that the U.S. Geological Service “recommends controlling certain raven populations to assist in the recovery of desert tortoise populations.”

Those things are true, but context is missing. Habitat issues are complicated, and the legislative resolution leaves out a large piece of the puzzle. The lawmakers carefully avoided talking about that piece: cattle ranching. The raven threat to grouse and tortoises is teed up by livestock.

As the publication Counterpunch has pointed out: “Livestock production also harms sage grouse in many other ways. For instance, sage grouse depend on tall grass to disguise nests, and provide hiding cover from predators. Grazing by livestock reduces this cover making sage grouse more vulnerable to predators … (T)he vulnerability of grouse to these predators is a consequence of livestock’s removal of grass cover.”

In other words, just getting rid of ravens doesn’t solve the grouse or tortoise problem.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported, “Spokesman Chris Healy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife says his agency has killed ravens with federal permission, but says extermination is just one component of helping the sage grouse and says it’s important to maintain a healthy habitat for the bird.”

It’s not just the Nevada Legislature where the cattle component is being ignored.

Chris Clarke of KCET public television in Burbank, Calif., reported of the Interior Department’s grouse strategy, “But aside from a brief mention of the fact that grazing can help spread invasive grasses, the strategy released (May 19) by Interior discusses ranching only briefly, and in just one context: encouraging ranchers to conduct ‘vegetation treatments’ in invasive grass problem areas.”

No one wants cattle ranching out of business, but it’s deceptive and pointless to look at only a small part of a problem.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.