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Our evolving environmental baseline

The phrase “new normal” is tossed around frequently to describe our changing environment and climate.

It highlights what we each consider our baseline understanding of the world around us, and indirectly how much we might have forgotten or never known of the natural world in previous eras.

A fancy academic term for it might be generational amnesia. Though perhaps we have connection through parents or grandparents to stories of previous eras, as time passes that knowledge diminishes and disappears.

Our forgetfulness is often on display with wildlife, that what we see today is how it’s always been. Consider bighorn sheep. Many might assume bighorns were always pretty uncommon, that they hugged the rugged high country in generally remote settings.

But at one time, bighorn sheep were perhaps the most common ungulate in Colorado, roaming throughout the Animas River valley and across many landscapes we don’t currently associate with bighorns today. Market hunting in the late 1800s devastated bighorn herds, where native bighorns were harvested at will to provide meat for miners and settlers.

Modern hunting conservation laws have solved that issue, but the bigger concern now is the susceptibility of native bighorns to a respiratory disease spread by domestic sheep and goats, which eliminates vast tracts of otherwise suitable habitat from use by bighorns.

Sage grouse, and particularly our local Southwest Colorado variety, Gunnison sage grouse, were similarly much more widespread. They are today trapped in a downward spiral caused in part by significant habitat degradation.

Look around areas such as Dry Creek Basin and notice the deep, entrenched dry arroyos. That might be how we now commonly perceive those sage landscapes to have always been, but once upon a time, those were shallow drainages, moist and wet with greenery and insects that grouse thrived on.

Not to sound too much like a nostalgic old-timer, but it’s only about 30 years ago that heavy winter snows collapsed the roof of the Fine Arts Building at Fort Lewis College. It was a heartier winter than usual, but not completely out of the ordinary as we would think today.

So much of our natural ecology, our forests, our agriculture is dependent on a climate and weather regime that is fading farther and farther into our dim memories. Perhaps urgent action to moderate fossil fuel emissions will mitigate those changes, perhaps not.

We’ve experienced greater success recovering wildlife species to more historic norms though. One hundred years ago, only a relative handful of elk still roamed the San Juan Mountains, so much so that a couple dozen elk were transplanted here from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Today, robust elk herds number in the tens of thousands across Southwest Colorado and a quarter-million statewide.

Why shouldn’t we expect a similar resurgence for bighorn sheep? Bighorn populations today are unchanged from a century ago, just an estimated 7,000 statewide. We know how to recover bighorn populations by eliminating overlap with domestic sheep and goat herds, but thus far have lacked the will to make that happen on a larger landscape scale. Hence, bighorns remain elusive and uncommon.

That gets back to our generational amnesia. If none remember those eras of bighorn sheep spread ubiquitously across the landscape, or widespread populations of Gunnison sage grouse, it’s harder to fathom a future that recaptures that wildlife abundance.

We don’t have to accept degradation of the environment across generations as our new normal. It’s up to us all to insist on a conservation future we want.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.