Marcy Houle


The landscape of the West has evolved under the influence of human behavior for over ten thousand years. Use has varied from native use of fire to control browse and cover for deer and to encourage the growth of foodstuff to grazing, mining, and cutting timber on an industrial level by European immigrants. The land has been changed as a result with little understanding of the consequences to the ecology of the whole. Houle's study focuses on the raptors of the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. Her conclusions, excerpted below, emphasize the need for understanding the complexity of the whole and working to understand the impacts of all players in an ecology for protective measures to be truly effective.

In the final measure,it is our approach to stewardship, our focus and goals, that will determine the results. To reap any real lasting success, we must turn our eyes to a land-based philosophy, one where the second and third order consequences are always considered whenever something is done to the land. We need to try to save entire functioning ecosystems. The physical and biological capacities of all the parts need our protection, while keeping our focus on the whole.

The Zumwalt Prairie is a grassland, wild and free and beautiful. What will it look like in one hundred years? In the face of growing population and urbanization, it will take a new, unprecedented cooperation and communication between the public and private sector for us to preserve biodiversity. With the myriad turf matches between agencies and people, this will be an overwhelming task. But if we don't try, if the sides continue to fortify the battle lines, we chance to lose rural places like the Zumwalt to the impending suburbanization of the West. The damage to the landscape resulting from a solely recreation-based economy - one without ranchers, without those people who work the land and deeply care - could potentially be more long lasting and avaricious than that wrought by any cow.

For an instant I thought I heard the gull-like cry of a ferruginous hawk. Whipping around, I saw to my surprise a lone reddish bird, about the size of an eagle, just disappearing over the stony canyon rim. I rushed over to the side of Buckhorn and ran along the rim, hoping to catch sight of it again - that splendid

Buteo regalis - strong and swift and spirited, the most powerful and grand of all the buteos, and utterly dependent on wild, uncultivated native prairies and unpeopled places. But it was gone, blending somewhere into the walls of the endless canyon.

My heart in my throat, I knew I could not sit back and watch birds like this disappear because of our bitter feuding...

Undoubtedly, native prairies like the Zumwalt will need understanding and protection. I would work for that. But also needing appreciation and support are conscientious private ranchers who manage their lands with thoughtful stewardship and in ways beneficial to wildlife. To eliminate them from the land could very well eliminate those things we hope to save.

Excerpt from The Prairie Keepers: Secrets of the Zumwalt by Marcy Houle, copyright © 2007. Reprinted with the permission of Oregon State University Press.

Last modified in August, 2019 by Rick Thomas