If you were Dan Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who must decide whether the greater sage grouse warrants Endangered Species Act protection, who you gonna call?
Perhaps touch base with a predecessor, Moose resident John Turner. He was the agency director who listed the northern spotted owl and restored the wolf to Yellowstone. He’s no stranger to controversy.
Well, Ashe did just that, Turner said. Turner’s answer; “I prayed over it, I followed the law and I followed the biology.”
That simple advice belies the complexity of conservation today. But for his skill at forging significant preservation policy, Turner will receive the Murie Spirit of Conservation Award on Aug. 6. It’s a recognition named after the famous Jackson Hole naturalist family that Turner hung out with as a kid.
When the nonprofit Murie Center, headquartered at the Murie Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, said it would honor him, it attached one string: Identify a future conservation leader for a companion rising-star award.
Turner picked the late Luke Lynch, The Conservation Fund’s director for its Wyoming office.
“I think Luke epitomized the future of conservation,” Turner said. “He has an unparalleled legacy — protected almost a quarter million acres. He had energy, enthusiasm. He did an incredible amount of hard work. What he did as a sole practitioner was remarkable.
“Wyoming is a pretty diverse state,” Turner said. Yet “Luke had a way of establishing trust. They trusted him in the halls of the Legislature, back in Washington.” U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming), who’s pitched her tent far from the conservation camp, proved Lynch’s broad acceptance by attending his memorial service in Jackson Hole earlier this year, Turner said.
Lynch died in a ski mountaineering accident May 17 on Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. He knew he’d been tapped to receive the award.
Two examples of Lynch’s work underscore his philosophy. He aided conservation efforts that preserved the Path of the Pronghorn from Grand Teton National Park to wintering grounds in Sublette County and beyond. He secured a purchase option on a private bottleneck parcel in Sublette County that’s key to the longest recorded mule deer migration.
“You’ve got these large blocks of federal lands but they are incomplete,” Lynch said in a profile on The Conservation Fund’s website. “It’s not the entire picture. It doesn’t protect the whole lifecycle of wildlife as is needed. It’s often work to protect these small parcels, 40- to 500-acre parcels … that have an outsized importance.”
At the Murie Ranch
The Murie Center, a nonprofit conservation and education outpost, will honor Turner, 73, and Lynch, who was 38, at the Murie Ranch, a place familiar to Turner. He grew up on the nearby Triangle X Ranch.
When he was a kid, Turner’s mother would drop him off at the Muries’ and go to town to buy groceries. “I must have been a nuisance,” Turner said.
He would pester the conservationists with questions. When he was old enough to ride a horse into the Teton Wilderness, Turner once returned from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River with a cast of a canid’s paw print. Olaus Murie had taught him to always carry plaster in his saddlebag.
“Is it a wolf?” Turner eagerly asked Murie. If it had been, Turner would have captured proof — in the 1950s — that the long-missing predator remained in the ecosystem.
Murie was up to his neck in work and could have answered immediately. But he paused to give a lesson. He went into his stash of plaster casts and assembled a lineup.
“It took him half an hour to find all this,” Turner said. “He wanted me to figure out what the track was. Sure enough, it was a nice big coyote.”
As U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, Turner faced and overcame controversies as the Endangered Species Act began drawing national attention. He claims to have been a foot taller before he decided to protect the northern spotted owl.
“To do it right you follow the law and follow the biology,” he said of the process. “You make the decision and the approach as good as it could be. You look after people — my own staff, the people who were going to be impacted.”
Somewhere inside the Beltway
During the owl conflict the Fish and Wildlife Service survived legal challenges to its decision. But courts insisted any protection must immediately include a map of critical habitat. That’s the only time in the Endangered Species Act process where economics is allowed to come into play, Turner said. Yet his agency didn’t have a single economist.
He borrowed three from other branches of government, got a team together and “locked” them in a room for three days. “We went town by town, [lumber] mill by mill throughout the northwest,” he said. Turner asked “Where is our critical habitat, where’s the critical mills, the jobs.”
When the map came out, it painted 7 million acres red. That was a starting point. It didn’t mean the designated areas were inviolate. But that was the easy interpretation and the story everybody told.
“All hell broke lose,” Turner said. “The Northwest and the press saw it as a lockup. It was so easy for NBC, CBS, ABC to get some poor logger or mill operator just trying to pay his mortgage, trying to pay off his pickup. That was great, easy press.
“To do heavy lifting and see what Turner and his wildlife pros were up to, that was too much work,” he said. “To me it was a lesson in how lazy the press is.”
During his tenure, Turner said he listed 200–300 species that had been backlogged on the candidate’s list. He developed “safe harbor” tools for private landowners, allowing them, for example, to accept the transplant of the rarest mammal in the U.S. — the black-footed ferret — onto their property.
What level-headed cowboy would do that? “You’ve assured us if we bale one of the things were not going be hauled into court,” they said in accepting the ferret. “Just don’t tell our brethren in the stockgrowers [association.]”
In deciding to transplant the wolf to Yellowstone National Park, Turner said he figured the predator was coming back one way or another. So he transplanted them as an experimental, nonessential population, an ESA designation that hadn’t been used on such a scale before. It allowed more management options.
But the wolf listing left a bad taste in Turner’s mouth. “We made a promise to the states this was the [population] level,” Turner said. “States accepted it. To this day, that pledge has not been kept.
“Environmentalists backtracked,” he said. “The courts and enviros … activist judges and extreme environmental groups … moved the goalposts. People like [former U.S. Sen.] Al Simpson are still accusing me of not telling the truth. He’ll look you in the eye and say, ‘You didn’t keep your word.’”
Somewhere in Wyoming at a café…
Turner tells a wolf story that Dan Ashe might listen to as he makes his decision on the greater sage grouse. The tale underscores the emotion attached to sweeping policy mandates:
John Turner walks into a café somewhere in Wyoming, orders a meal, eats it at his booth. This is some time after the wolf has been brought back to Wyoming but the dust from that decision is still in the air. As he eats, he’s getting the stinkeye from a couple of dusty rancher types in the corner.
Turner gets up to pay his tab and one of the rancher guys — stained sweatband on his hat, chewing a matchstick — also gets up and approaches the cash register. He pokes a boney finger into Turner’s sternum.
“You look a lot like John Turner,” the guy says.
Turner, a 19-year member of the Wyoming Legislature and former president of the Wyoming Senate, had his picture published many, many times in Wyoming’s more than 40 newspapers, from the Casper Star-Tribune to the Medicine Bow Post. But today in the café he doesn’t want to end up being baled up like a black-footed ferret. So he mumbles something like, “Yea, I get that all the time.”
The rancher pauses for a moment and says, “I’ll bet that makes you madder than hell.”
Such are the choppy waters policy makers must navigate today. “The sage grouse could be a humdinger,” Turner said. Getting ahead of the problem is important.
“We should and could put a lot of things in place today that would be good for the grouse and good for affected parties,” Turner said. Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal led by establishing Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team that set Wyoming conservation standards ahead of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervention. Gov. Matt Mead “has been pretty thoughtful,” Turner said. Whether the state’s plan is adequate or sufficient — nobody’s yet sure.
In the heart of the ecosystem
“We are so blessed to live in one of the great wildlife complexes left in the world,” Turner said of Wyoming residents. “Our challenge — obligation — is to do our part, to pass these treasures on to future generations.”
That philosophy might seem achievable in Jackson Hole or Wyoming, but when he served as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Turner saw conservation in a global perspective. Future challenges might make the sage grouse controversy seem small, the way it now overshadows the spotted owl decision.
Similarly, outside of the U.S., especially in the developing world, myriad issues cloud conservation efforts. There’s water shortages, women’s rights, education, health care, economics, security. “There were a lot of other human elements that were essential,” Turner said of decisions he made on the global scene. “You had to worry about those human conditions.”