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[ Cowfree ]

by George Wuerthner
(Reprinted from U.S. Forest Service message forum)
This page was last updated on January 06, 2009 .

As the issue of grazing fees on public lands has raised the visibility of public livestock grazing issues, the livestock industry has used the opportunity to perpetuate myths that have largely been unanswered or refuted by environmentalists.


One myth is that ranchers have been good "stewards" of the land. The emphasis on public lands has permitted people to overlook the fact that, by and large, private lands are actually in worse shape than the public lands. Although 160 million acres of public lands are considered to be in unsatisfactory condition, more than 270 million private acres fall into the same category. This is nearly equal in area to the eastern seaboard states with Missouri thrown.

This is particularly disturbing because private holdings tend to be more productive and better watered than the public lands, thus more resilient to grazing abuse.

In total, according to the Soil Conservation Service more than 410 million acres of public and private lands are in unsatisfactory condition meaning that they ecologically trashed. This equals 21% of the United States outside of Alaska. Nearly all that degraded land is concentrated in the West! Not an impressive record. Although there are obvious exceptions, the fact remains livestock production is still one of the most destructive and wide-spread human activities in the West.


A second myth is that rangelands are "improving." There is a slight bit of truth to this. Rangelands were so trashed at the turn of the century that most lands could not get any worse. Nevertheless, rangeland degradation is still occurring. For example, on BLM lands according to statistics complied by the Society for Range Management, range condition is improving on 15% of the lands. However, this is nearly matched by the 14% of its lands that continue to decline in condition. The vast majority of BLM holdings are "stable" neither improving or declining, in part because the majority of its lands are in fair or poor shape and can not get much worse.

Furthermore, despite an "improvement" on uplands primarily resulting from a decrease in livestock numbers, riparian areas continue to be devastated. According to a 1990 EPA report, our riparian areas are in the "worst condition in history." And a 1989 General Accounting Office report found that livestock were the major source of riparian degradation on public lands in the West. Since riparian areas are part of an entire allotment, overall "range condition" may improve while riparian areas continue to be devastated. Uplands which receive little use are averaged in with the declining riparian zones, thus masking the true degradation that is still occurring to our lands.

Though riparian areas make up only 1% of the landscape, they provide shelter and feed 60-80 percent of the species in the West. Properly functioning riparian areas also store water reducing flooding and providing late season flows. While it may be possible to fence cattle out of these fragile areas, the magnitude of the problem makes the cost prohibitively expensive as a west-wide solution. There are hundreds of thousands of miles of riparian habitat on public lands in the West. Fencing averages more than $5,000 dollars a mile. In addition, we need to ask whether the public wants or needs more fences on its lands in order to make these lands better livestock pastures for someone else's cattle?


A third myth is that "wildlife" benefits wildlife. There are two things wrong with this statement. The first is " wildlife" as defined by most range people and livestock advocates amounts to nothing more than deer and a few other big game species--typically animals that thrive on human disturbance or are the object of intensive wildlife management. You can mask the impact of dams on salmon by intensive management as well--i.e. hatchery production, but that does not mean dams are not detrimental to salmon populations.

Furthermore, the original decline in big game was due in a large part to market and year round meat hunting. Once these abuses were checked, big game numbers increased. It is not that livestock production is particularly compatible with big game, rather with better wildlife management, big game species have been able to increase. Many species like bighorn sheep and antelope, while at higher numbers than in the past, are still far below their potential because domestic livestock use continues to compromise the available habitat in ways detrimental to these species.

Many other species are not so fortunate. If you review the status of non game and predators, hundreds of species are extinct or continue to decline largely due to impacts associated with livestock production. While its true that livestock production can increase the numbers of a few species, these are, without exception, animals that are widespread and abundant like brown-headed cowbirds, carp or whitetail deer--"weedy" species that thrive on disturbance and degraded habitat. On the other hand species that require undisturbed habitat or high quality landscapes have declined. Species as varied as the Bruneau Hot Springs Snail to the willow flycatcher to the Bonneville cutthroat trout are all endangered as a consequence of habitat loss or degradation due to livestock production.

A number of recent reviews articles looking at livestock effects on wildlife found that far more species have decreased or been harmed by livestock production than have benefited. This is true no matter whether we are discussing birds, fish, mammals, or amphibians. Other literature reviews have concluded that livestock production was the leading cause of decline in native plant species in the West, as well as one of the major agents responsible for the spread of weeds and exotics. In terms of impacts on biodiversity, livestock production (which includes dewatering of rivers for irrigation, predator control, "pest" control, forage competition, etc.) is responsible for the extinction and extirpation of more species than any other human activity in the West.


A fourth myth is that access to public lands supports the family rancher. Grazing subsidies, like most agricultural subsidies, disproportionately benefits large land holders. According to a recent GAO report the largest 2000 allotment permittees in the West control 74% of the public lands forage. This gives the larger landowners, many of them corporations or extremely wealthy individuals, a competitive advantage over small operators.

This is inequality is a factor of the way public lands allotments are distributed. Access is based upon ownership of private base operations. The wealthy ranchers own more land, thus more base property, hence wind up with more federal lands allotments. Only 10% of the public lands forage goes to permittees considered "small operators." Thus, if we restricted access to public lands only to those operations that are truly the small ma and pa ranch operations, we'd still be able to eliminate livestock from 90% of the public lands.


A fifth myth perpetuated by the livestock community is that we know how to manage rangelands. In reality our knowledge of rangeland ecosystems is minimal. Most range professionals know almost nothing about rangelands other than a bit about a few of the dominant grass species. The effects of livestock production on soils, lichens, insects, watersheds, wildlife and most ecological processes is virtually unknown. For example, ask any range professional to identify common butterflies and bees in an area and have them explain how livestock affect them? If domestic animals remove the blossoms these insects fed upon, it's obvious it has an impact, yet, we hear almost nothing about these impacts. A similar lack of knowledge exists for the effects of domestic livestock upon nearly every living thing found on our rangelands. Considering the vast majority of the West is utilized for livestock production, it is reasonable to suggest that domestic animals may significantly affect many species. How can one manage what one doesn't understand?


A sixth myth is that you can protect biodiversity or even enhance it with livestock production. Even many environmental groups spout this dogma. Biodiversity by definition is preservation of NATIVE species in something approaching original distribution and numbers--allowing, of course, for natural population changes. You cannot be putting the majority of the forage into domestic animals and using the majority of the water in the West to grow livestock feed, without significantly impacting native species. Domestic animals are quite literally taking food, and water right out of the mouths of native species. Grass does not follow the cow. The forage and water pie is only so big. If the majority of these resources are allotted to domestic animals as is the case, then you significantly reduce the amount available to native species. Every cow on public or private lands is reducing the overall potential habitat for most NATIVE species from grasshoppers to bighorn sheep. This results in smaller, fragmented populations, ultimately reducing the long term viability of species.

Biodiversity preservation also requires preservation of natural evolutionary processes like wildfire and predation—both of which have been significantly reduced as a consequence of livestock production. Unfortunately this biological impoverishment has been going on so long, and is so pervasive, that most people are simply unaware of the degree that livestock has destroyed our native ecosystems.


A seventh myth is that domestic animals, primarily cattle, have replaced native herbivores like the bison. Though cattle and bison have a common evolutionary ancestor, so do polar bear and black bear, yet we would not suggest that they use the landscape in the same way. Cattle evolved in moist woodlands in Eurasia and are not well adapted to arid landscapes. They use more water than bison, spend more time in riparian areas, and have been bred for lack of mobility. They are poorly adapted to arid western rangelands, hence one reason why domestic livestock grazing has been so detrimental to these ecosystems.


The eighth myth follows the previous one, arguing that since cows emulate bison, and since rangelands were obviously grazed in the past, then domestic livestock grazing cannot be detrimental. Some even take this a step further to suggest that rangelands "need" to be grazed.

There are two objections to this line of reasoning. First, much of the public lands base in the western United States lies between the Sierra-Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. Most of this vast region never had large herds of grazing herbivores, hence the plants species and soils are not adapted to continual removal and trampling from domestic animals. The area without significant herd "impact" includes most of the Great Basin (bison occurred in a small portion of southeast Idaho and northeast Utah, but in no significant numbers elsewhere in the region), the southwestern grasslands, the Palouse prairie, California grasslands, and various deserts like the Mohave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan. Even herds of antelope, bighorn sheep, and other herbivores although found throughout this region, were never more than locally abundant.

Secondly, even where large herds of bison, elk and antelope were common such as on the Great Plains, the plant species found there "tolerated" grazing. They have adaptations that permit them to thrive in spite of grazing, but not necessarily because they "need" grazing. Just as exploited (read trapped, shot, and poisoned) coyote populations can compensate for losses by producing larger litters, some rangeland plants can compensate for some grazing losses. However, it would be wrong to argue that coyotes "need" to be trapped, shot, and poisoned to be "healthy" just as it is wrong to conclude that most rangelands plants require grazing to remain "healthy."

Furthermore, if cropping is necessary, there is no reason why this shouldn't be done by native species from grasshoppers to prairie dogs to bison rather than by domestic animals-- at least on our public lands.


The ninth myth is that livestock production is important employer in rural communities. It's easy to see the fallacy in this argument if you think about the numbers involved. In all of Nevada, there are only 880 permittees that graze upon public lands. And in the entire state less than 2,000 people are engaged in any kind of agriculture including farming. One casino in Las Vegas employs more people than the entire agricultural economy in the state. Although other states may have higher numbers of people involved in ranching, their overall numbers are typically a small proportion of the state's economic picture. Livestock production is a labor unintensive industry. It requires a lot of land, but doesn't provide many jobs. This is partly the result of the limited productivity of the western rangelands. Idaho, for example, ranks 21st in the nation in beef production, though the majority of its landscape is devoted to livestock production. Wyoming , the "cowboy" state, is 30th . Nevada, Utah, and Arizona fall somewhere well below these states.

One recent study done by the University of Arizona in Tucson found that rural communities rather than being dependent upon the livestock industry for their jobs, found the opposite to be true. Ranch families actually depended upon the town for their economic survival. Since all but the largest western livestock operations are marginally profitable, most ranch families have at least one or more people working full or part jobs in town to help support the ranch. Without the income from positions as school teachers, local government, or whatever, ranch ownership would not be possible. The vast majority of people who call themselves ranchers do so because they enjoy the lifestyle and the prestige that comes with being a rancher, not because it's a viable economic activity. As a consequence their contribution to rural economies is minimal. The towns would survive without the ranches, but most ranchers could not survive without the towns.


The tenth myth concerns subdivisions. Ranchers always try to silence critics by suggesting that reducing or eliminating livestock from our public lands, will lead to subdivisions. Supporting the livestock industry, even increasing its subsidies, will not stop the subdivision of ranchland into housing tracts. Those who advocate such a strategy will fail because they don't understand the root of the problem.

Ranching in the West is dead. As an industry it has always depended upon marginal, inexpensive land. Ranchers in the West compete with livestock productions in more productive, humid regions by an economy of scale. They use more land. But when land prices rise, this is no longer an option. Ranchers in the West can no longer compete.

Furthermore, subdivisions are market driven, not supply driven. You can have millions of acres of land for sale (as is the case over most of the Great Plains), but if it's not in a location that has some other attractive qualities, it will not sell--at least not for subdivision development. It is the availability of jobs, amenities like good fishing, skiing, scenery, bookstores, good restaurants and other values that leads to subdivisions.

However, it is a fallacy to suggest access to public lands grazing allotments has prevented subdivisions anyplace in the West, nor will it in the future. It does not make sense to support an industry that has degraded more of the West than any other human activity to avoid further degradation from subdivisions, than it is for someone to accept the slow death from cancer because they otherwise might die from a heart attack. Neither is a good choice and one would be wise to avoid both.

Furthermore, while subdivisions are a major impact upon the landscape they influence, compared to livestock production, they affect a tiny percentage of the land base. If livestock production were significantly reduced over the entire West, we'd find the situation closely analogous to Alaska, urban centers are surrounded by relatively wild country. There is no reason why much of the West cannot be restored to a near-pristine condition outside of the major and minor urban areas. The only part of Colorado where subdivisions and urban areas influence a significant proportion of the landscape is the Fort Collins-Colorado Springs area. Ditto for Utah's Wasatch Front , Nevada's Reno and Las Vegas or Oregon's Willamette Valley. The West is, by and large, an urban population. We live in cities or small towns. Inbetween is a lot of space with almost no human habitation. If the degradation resulting from marginal land uses like livestock production and logging were eliminated or reduced, landscape ecosystem restoration across much of the West would be possible.

If we wish to preserve open space, and biodiversity, there are only three tools that have been shown to work effectively—zoning, conservation easements and outright fee purchase. Of the three, fee purchase provides the strongest long term protection. If we devoted the same amount of money we currently waste propping up the livestock industry and paying for all the environmental damage wrought by the industry including loss of species, soil erosion, water pollution, and other costs, we could easily purchase most of the critical wildlife habitat in the West.

It's not a choice between condos and cows. Right now, following the strategy most advocate of propping up the livestock industry, all we will have is both condos and cows.


Perhaps the biggest myth, accepted as much by some conservationists as by the industry is the idea that if we only reform or modify livestock practices, there's room for both livestock and ecosystem functioning, landscape restoration and native species on the public lands. Unfortunately, if we are giving a large percentage of our landscape and resources from water to forage over to livestock production, we are reducing that land's capacity for native species and landscape functions. The choice is really between whether our public lands should be used to subsidize private industry or might not serve a greater good if we attempted to maximize and enhance natural ecosystems. After all preservation of native species on private lands faces an uncertain future. Perhaps we will learn how to use the land while sustaining native species and ecosystems. But we should admit that we have not successfully done this on any kind of a landscape-wide scale anyplace. It would be a prudent and reasonable goal to make preservation of biological diversity and ecosystem functioning the primary function of public lands. These lands are the only places where landscape wide management can be effected. To suggest that we know how to support logging, grazing or other resource consumptive uses while sustaining native biodiversity is to perpetuate the greatest myth of all.

George Wuerthner
POB 1526
Livingston, Montana 59047