My family has hunted the forests of southwest Washington for more than sixty years and never before have they observed such a scarcity of wildlife. Twenty years ago my dad and uncle remember seeing two or three big elk herds a day. Now we’re lucky to see two or three individuals a day. Depressingly, this past fall marked the first time in three decades that our entire hunting party failed to harvest a single elk from the Coweeman unit. I later learned that the Coweeman elk population has dropped by seventy percent in recent years.
Something is afoot in our local forests, and I’m convinced that the epidemic of hoof disease currently ravaging the elk population surrounding Mount St. Helens is only the alarm. Everyone in my hunting party now believes that the herbicides Weyerhaeuser and other private timber companies are spraying on new growth habitats is one of the chief causes of our wildlife shortage which includes deer, grouse and just about every other animal out there. After several years of diminishing returns, I (like many others) have been on a path of inquiry to understand just what is happening in our forests, and so far the insights have been disturbing.
In any conversation about herbicides, or pesticides in general, it is important to remember that a pesticide is a chemical or biological agent formulated to deter, incapacitate and often kill an organism. This most basic function of pesticides is often downplayed by those who regularly apply them, as well as camouflaged by dense lawyer-speak intended to disguise the reality. Take for example the following passage: “Pesticides used in forest management include a wide variety of chemicals introduced to the forest environment with the intent of controlling or halting the proliferation of nuisance organisms.” Make no mistake. Halting the proliferation of nuisance organisms pretty much means what you think it does – kill weeds, bushes, bugs and other small and obnoxious critters.
The passage cited above comes from an obscure but revealing document on the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website entitled Appendix J: Forest Chemicals. It was published in April of 2011 and bears no author’s name. If you take the time to read this official government document, as probably very few people ever have, you will learn that “The application of pesticides to forested lands does pose a risk of impacts on fish and wildlife,” and that “The use of forest chemicals presents a variety of environmental threats, including those to human health, marine and freshwater organisms, and terrestrial ecosystems.”
None of this will come as any surprise to hunters and activists in southwest Washington who have been making precisely those claims for well over a decade. Last month, up to 300 outraged citizens gathered in Longview to share their concerns with three state representatives and several Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials that pesticides are one of the underlying factors causing elk hoof disease. A common refrain by hunters was that elk hoof disease and other major changes in the environment coincided with the onset of pesticide spraying in the early 90s. At one point during the meeting, activist Bruce Barnes asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed herbicides had a role in elk hoof disease. Eighty percent of the hands immediately went up.
Shockingly, WDFW officials admitted during the meeting that although they have been investigating elk hoof disease for five years, and without identifying its cause, they have not considered pesticides/herbicides as a potential factor. According to the WDFW website, they are relying upon the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) to help inform their understanding of this issue. In what is an obvious conflict of interest, NCASI membership is composed of forest products companies and owners/managers of industrial woodlands.
Even more outrageously, WDFW officials continue to insist there’s no connection between herbicides and the health of our elk, even though a recently published study conducted by researchers from the University of Alberta has demonstrated exactly that. According to the researchers, herbicides can dramatically alter the quantity and quality of forage available to elk, reducing their favorite woody plant species by up to 50-70%. Elk thrive where they have access to low-lying, non-toxic forage from new growth habitats high in biodiversity. A lack of these conditions led the researchers to conclude that “the elk herd at Mount St. Helens is currently in poor nutritional condition compared to other herds in Washington.”
Along with resulting in poor elk nutrition, herbicides are also known to reduce immune system strength, enabling bacteria to take advantage of severely weakened animals. One of the most common chemicals used by timber companies is an herbicide known as atrazine which was banned by the European Union in 2004 because of persistent groundwater contamination. According to the National Toxicology Program, atrazine is “immunotoxic,” disrupting the function of the immune system by as much as 70%.
These herbicides aren’t just bad for animals. They are also bad for humans. In 2010, in the small community of Triangle Lake, Oregon, 41 out of 41 residents tested positive for atrazine contamination along with another prevalent toxic chemical called 2,4-D. Not coincidentally, residents of Triangle Lake live adjacent to Weyerhaeuser property that had been sprayed heavily with pesticides following a clear cut. Like many communities around the Pacific Northwest, the people of Triangle Lake are now pressing for a moratorium on pesticide sprays.
We too need a moratorium on pesticide and herbicide sprays in southwest Washington. We also need funds for a series of truly independent research studies. WDFW has demonstrated their unwillingness to question their cronies in the timber and chemical industries so it’s time to get people with some real integrity to do their job for them.
It is apparent to my family, and just about every other hunter and conservationist I’ve spoken with, that pesticides and herbicides are bad for our elk, bad for our people, and bad for our ecosystem. Government officials had better start showing leadership on these issues, and quickly.
We are all watching. We aren’t going away.