Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Living Behind the Bovine Curtain

George Wuerthner

We in the West live behind a bovine curtain. Like people living behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, we are inundated with propaganda that extols the virtues of livestock production in the arid West. Yet, like the people of eastern Europe whose leaders continued to tell them that communism worked despite the reality of empty shelves in the stores, we in the West are told by a host of livestock advocates that livestock grazing "improves" the landscape and is a relatively benign use of the land despite the reality of cow-blasted riparian zones, predator control, species extinctions, water pollution, and dewatering of our rivers.

Occasionally, radio free Europe broadcasts send us a different message from the "outside" world. The GAO and EPA and other organizations produce reports that paints a message quite different from the hoopla feed to us by the range managers, range "scientists", ranchers and others who have something to gain by maintaining the status quo. The EPA calls western riparian areas the "worst shape in history". The GAO suggests that most federal lands are "badly mismanaged". The Soil Conservation Service reports that a total of 410 million acres of rangelands (public and private) are in "unsatisfactory" condition. And so it goes. Reality doesn't jive with the propaganda.

A study conducted by the BLM of its lands in the late 1970's showed that the majority of its holdings were unsuitable for livestock grazing. But not surprisingly down came the bovine curtain, and the report was suppressed by western politicans and never released to the public. And even today, both the Forest Service and BLM frequently refuse to even consider the question of whether domestic livestock grazing is appropriate on any particular allotment. Instead, these public agencies spend more and more our money trying to make the land "fit" livestock. Hence we spend millions annually on fencing, stock ponds, pipelines, and other devices designed to "improve" livestock distrubtion and "mitigate" impacts.

And our tax dollars pay for the propaganda that continues to poar forth from the livestock industry. It's not that all of this information is wrong or that I believe most livestock advocates are purposely trying to distort the truth. I have no doubts that from their perspective, they believes everything they say is true. Some is. Most isn't.

Consider for example the common statement from the livestock industry suggesting the "vast majority of rangelands are stable or improving in condition". Sounds good until you examine the data yourself and discover that the vast majority of rangelands are in the "stable" category and stable in poor condition. Only a small percentage is actually improving and is matched by a nearly equal amount that is declining in condition, but by grouping stable with those acres under improvement, livestock advocates can say "the majority" of lands are improving. Of course, one could just as easily say the "majority" are declining as well. It is this is kind of misinformation and deception that characterizes so much of the information coming from the livestock industry and their lackeys in range "science".

This same deception is used when ranchers and other livestock supporters make the point that grazing benefits "wildlife". Unfortunately, an unconscious assumption of most ranchers and range managers in that "wildlife" equals a few big game species. There is much more to our wildlife heritage than these charismatic mega fauna. For dozens of species from the kit fox to the sage grouse to the Willow-Whitehorse trout, the influence of livestock grazing has been anything but positive, but these species are conveniently ignored when ranchers talk about the benefits of livestock grazing for "wildlife". In fact, livestock grazing is responsible for the extinction or near extinction of more species in the western United States than all other human activities combined!

But even the statements that livestock has lead to increases in big game species are deceptive. Many studies have demonstrated that livestock will displace elk, bighorn sheep, and other big game animals from pastures where cattle or domestic sheep are actively feeding. Frequently wild species are displaced into areas with less security cover, thermal cover, or foraging areas with poorer forage quality. Typically, these "costs" and questions about overall animal fitness are never reviewed by the researchers trying to prove that livestock "benefits" wildlife.

Another common myth is that elk, bighorn sheep, antelope and other big game species have increased since the 1960's and it is implied that improvements results from benefits associated with livestock grazing. While it's true that SOME big game species have increased in numbers, one needs to ask whether this is the result of livestock grazing or in spite of it. In reality, big game numbers have been increasing everywhere since historic lows near the turn of the century when overhunting coupled with excessive competition from livestock decimated most large ungulate populations. Since that time effective game laws, coupled with transplants, AND an overall reduction in livestock numbers, have all led to increasing numbers of these animals. Big game herds have increased in areas both in areas with livestock grazing and without. But they have increased more in areas without livestock.
To see the problem with such logic, let us turn to Colorado and its elk herd. At the turn of the century there were so few elk in Colorado due to overhunting that animals were transplanted from Yellowstone. Today there are more than a 300,000 elk in the state despite the fact that Colorado is one of the fastest growing states with a huge sprawl problem. But it would be wrong to imply that sprawl "improve" conditions for elk simply because there are more now than in 1900. Yet, this is exactly the same logic the livestock industry uses all the time to "prove" that livestock and wildlife are "compatible".

Such statements show a profound ignorance of how our ecosystems function. There are no empty niches. Each blade of grass that goes into the belly of a domestic cow is that much less forage that could be sustaining NATIVE species. The herbivore might only be a grasshopper, not a "good" animal like an elk. But that grasshopper will feed a rodent or a bird, which in turn may feed some other native species.

Besides consuming forage that might otherwise support native species, livestock "use" up space and water as well. Many species will, if given a choice, avoid areas under intensive livestock use. Water developments for livestock are not nearly as beneficial for wildlife as ungrazed ponds and springs. This is not to deny that one won't occasionally see wildlife using these developments, but in most instances, such developments destroy existing seeps, wetlands and springs which have far more beneficial use to wildlife than a mud-caked, cow-trashed development.

There is no doubt that "better livestock management" can mitigate some of the negative impacts associated with livestock grazing, but mitigation is different than suggesting that livestock grazing "improves" things. With few exceptions, the cumulative effect of domestic livestock grazing has a detrimental effect upon the landscape. Lessening those impacts is not the same as "improvement". So when a riparian zone is fenced and the riparian zone "improves" what we are really saying is that the absence of livestock or reduction of livestock is what "improved" the area. Yet most livestock propaganda has statements like "riparian areas improve with grazing". This is like suggesting that cars improved the air in LA after emission control devices were installed. Cars did not improve the air, and LA air shed would be better off with fewer or no cars.

Most environmentalists suggest we should work with ranchers for improved livestock management, but this is actually calling for the continued domestication of our native ecosystems. Just as timber management effectively makes our native forest ecosystems into tree farms, livestock management effectively turns our native rangeland ecosystems into feedlots for privately owned animals with all the profits going to the ranchers and the public left with the costs. Better livestock management almost always means more fencing, more water developments, more roads, more spraying, burnings, chaining, predator control and other activities designed to "better distribute" livestock. Better distribution is like building a taller smokestack. It spreads the pollution over a larger area so it is not as noticeable, but it doesn't necessarily mean there are fewer impacts.

There are plenty of opportunities for production of livestock on private lands in the United States. And for every rancher in Harney County, Oregon or Elko County, Nevada trying to make a living, there is a livestock grower in Georgia or East Texas trying to do the same. It's not like western ranchers are the only individuals attempting to provide consumers with meat. They are directly competing with livestock producers in other parts of the country. To suggest that we need to subsidize western ranchers so as to maintain rural economies is to sacrifice rural economies elsewhere in the country.

But rural economies are not the only thing we sacrifice by maintaining a western livestock industry. If we consider the ecological costs of meat production in the arid West with places like Georgia or East Texas, we find that ecological costs, while still substantial, are far less in the east or mid west than anyplace in the arid western U.S..

The reality is that cows are poorly adapted to live in dry climates. You can't get away from that fact. We can't afford to fence all the riparian areas in the West to protect them from cows. We shouldn't have to continue to dewater rivers to irrigate fields to produce crops to feed cattle. We needn't extirpate all the predators from public lands simply to make them safe for someone else’s privately owned cows.

Finally, many ranchers threaten to subdivide their property if they cannot continue to graze on public lands. The common assumption being that by permitting public lands grazing, we maintain the tax base, protect open space and prevent subdivisions from taking over valuable wildlife habitat. Yet, there is no evidence that access to public lands grazing actually prevents subdivisions or helps to maintain open space, except in a very few instances. In most cases, as demand for property increases, and the value of that land for other uses also increases, most ranchers eventually find the economic rewards of selling out too great to resist or simply have no choice as other uses making livestock production less viable. This has happened over and over again, suggesting that access to public lands grazing privileges is a poor substitute for strict zoning laws, conservation easements and other measures that can protect these values without sacrificing our public rangelands to support a few individuals. In many cases, the money being spent on administering, monitoring, and mitigating the impacts of livestock grazing would buy a lot of development rights or provide a significant amount of money for outright fee purchase of threatened lands.

We need to ask whether what we give up in things wild and free are worth the costs. If one looks at the cumulative effects of grazing on all "wildlife", on fisheries, on native plant communities, on watersheds, on soils, on recreation and on aesthetics, it becomes obvious that no human activity has had a greater impact upon our natural ecosystems than livestock grazing. And since livestock are exotic animals utilizing space, water, and forage that would otherwise support native species, domestic livestock use of these public lands is not compatible with maintaining native ecosystems and biodiversity.

We need to ask what this nation needs more. We can raise all the cows we need on private lands in the more humid areas of the country, but there are few places where we can protect large, intact ecosystems. Most of these areas are found in the West on public lands. As long as we have alien, non-native domestic livestock dominating the management direction of our native rangelands and using a majority of its forage, space and water, we will never realize the full potential of these arid regions.

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