Thursday, October 30, 2008

Global Warming, Beef, and the Bovine Curtain

George Wuerthner

Just like the old Iron Curtain that squelched any critical discussion of Communism’s failures, we in the West live behind a “Bovine Curtain.” The Bovine Curtain is—like the Iron Curtain—operated by the state, using taxpayer dollars to continuously broadcast propaganda about the virtues of ranching in the West and suppressing any negative or critical information. The mantra “cows are good” is repeated so often that it has attained cult status, even among many conservation groups—who should know better.

Eating meat (domestic livestock), particularly beef, has one of the biggest environmental impacts on the planet. In many ways making a change from a livestock based diet to plants (or wild game) is one of the easiest things that most of us can modify in our personal behavior to lessen our collective burden upon the planet. Producing one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times as much fossil fuel input—releasing more than 10 times as much carbon dioxide—than does a calorie of plant protein.

In the summer 2007 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, UN researchers concluded that livestock production is one of the … most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” According to the UN, livestock contributes to “problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” But few environmental groups mention this report or its findings, particularly if they are located in the cowboy West behind the Bovine Curtain. They would have to admit that the findings conclusions apply equally as well to the western U.S.

In particular the report singled out livestock production as a major contributor to global warming emissions, yet even Al Gore ignored livestock’s role in global warming during his Live Earth Concert. I don’t want to denigrate Gore’s efforts for he has brought much needed attention to global climate change. Nevertheless, while it’s well and good to ask people to screw in florescent light bulbs to reduce energy demands, the single biggest change that anyone could do to immediately reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases is to eat less meat.

Eating less meat has a surprisingly big bang for effort. Ranch and farm raised livestock produce millions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane annually. These two gases account for 90 percent of US greenhouse emissions. For instance, all the trucks, SUVs, cars, airplanes, trains and other transportation combined accounts for 13 percent of global warming emissions, while livestock production is responsible for an astounding 18 percent of all US greenhouse gases.

Not only are there the carbon dioxide emissions from livestock production, but livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for the majority of emissions of several other greenhouse causing gases. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is responsible for a whopping 65 percent of worldwide nitrous oxide emissions. Bear in mind that nitrous oxide is about 300 times more effective as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide.

Methane is another gas produced by livestock. Methane traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that livestock production is the single greatest source of methane emissions in the US.

But when you live behind the Bovine Curtain most people are afraid to speak the truth or have internalized group think so completely that it does not even occur to people to ponder livestock’s central role in a host of environmental and health problems. Given their role as obsequious hand maidens to the livestock industry, it’s not surprising that federal and state governments hide the connection between meat production and global warming. But it’s totally unacceptable for environmental organizations to ignore this inconvenient truth.

For instance I recently checked the Sierra Club’s global climate change web site. They list ten things one can do to reduce global warming, from driving a more energy efficient auto to supporting renewable energy sources—but eating less meat is not one of them. It’s hard to believe that the Sierra Club is not aware of the UN report or other recent research linking livestock production with global warming, but one must assume that saying anything about livestock production is off limits when you live behind the Bovine Curtain.

Similarly I reviewed National Parks and Conservation Association’s new report, “Unnatural Disaster,” which describes the multiple ways that global warming will impact our national parks. The report suggests a host of solutions that range from more efficient energy use to adoption of renewable energy, but I could not locate any mention of eating less meat in the 48 page report.

And the Wilderness Society, while advising members to support carbon sequestration, mileage efficiency for vehicles, and other common remedies, did not mention of the role of livestock production and a meat diet in contributing to global warming.

Given that these national groups do not appear to see or more likely wish to avoid talking about a connection between diet and environmental issues, it’s not surprising that many regional or local environmental groups seldom mention livestock production as a global warming issue. They may express great concern about the decline of whitebark pine or large wildfires due to higher global temperatures, but they don’t go the next step to tie these issues to ranching and livestock production.

Try to raise any linkage to ranching and livestock and the Bovine Curtain slams down. In the West, we don’t talk about cows except to laud the ranchers for being “good stewards of the land” or some other fawning palaver.

Global warming is only one reason to end livestock production, particularly western ranching. Production of livestock is the single greatest source of non-point pollution in the West. Livestock are among the prime reasons for the spread of invasive plants like cheatgrass. Producing hay and other irrigated forage for livestock is the reason our rivers are dewatered each summer. Livestock are the reason bison and wolves are killed outside of national parks. Livestock spread disease to wildlife. Livestock are the reason native wildlife like prairie dogs are being slaughtered. The list goes on, but few groups are willing to even list these impacts, much less tackle the source of the problem—cows.

The obvious omission of diet preferences among the proposed solutions to global warming is particularly noteworthy, especially when it involves no new technologies, no major policy changes in government, and no significant investment in new infrastructure. Eating less meat won’t cure global warming, but it’s the easiest and more cost effective mechanism available to ordinary citizens to start us on a new pathway towards global sustainability.

If you can’t afford a Prius, you can afford to eat less meat. Even if you can’t switch to solar energy, you can switch to a reduced meat diet. While most of us can’t design a wind mill, we can design a better diet. Eating less meat is not only good for the planet’s health, it‘s good for your health. It’s time for all of us to begin to view eating and our choice of diet as more than a culinary decision, but as an environmental act.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wilderness--the Great Healing

George Wuerthner

There are many good reasons given for establishing more designated wilderness in the United States. Wilderness designation preserves important ecological features and ecological processes. They can serve as fountainheads for our rivers and drinking supplies. Wilderness lands can provide us a place to recreation, relax, reflect, physically and mentally challenge ourselves. These are all valid reasons for preserving wilderness, and any of them alone would be sufficient reason to support wildlands preservation.

But there is yet another reason to support wilderness designation for the country. We are not creating wild landscapes by legislating wilderness areas—the wildness already exists and is waiting to express itself. Wilderness designation merely recognizes that we as a society feel it’s important to allow wildness to dominate the landscape. By legislating wilderness protection we are contributing to a great healing of the land as well as ourselves.

In a ritualistic sense, preserving wilderness is about preserving a part of our selves as well—our common humanity and humility. Wilderness designation is a gift to future generations. It is also a gift to each of us. It is recognition of limits; a willingness to draw a line in the sand and say here we relinquish control and begin to live with restraint.

Most of the United States has suffered great abuses from humankind. We have cut the forests, plowed the prairies, overgrazed the deserts, dammed rivers, drilled and mined much of the rest. A certain amount of exploitation is necessary to sustain life. But our relationship with the natural world has largely been wasteful and brutal. We have had a dysfunctional relationship with the rest of life on the planet.

Our culture and relationship to Nature has been based upon exploitation, not mutual acceptance; It has been more about manipulation, not cooperation and power and control; not love and kindness.

But in protecting wild places we adopt the best of our human traits. It requires restrain and an acceptance of limits. When a line on a map and say legally say that in this place, on this land, and upon this soil, we will relinquish control, we free ourselves metaphysically and spiritually.

And by consciously making such a commitment to preserve wildlands, we demonstrate to ourselves that we can be a better people, and live in a better way with the natural world. By permitting the land to recover, to heal, to restore its self, we heal and restore ourselves at the same time.

This opportunity for healing, both of ourselves as well as the land, is perhaps more than any other reason, the great value of wilderness to society.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


George Wuerthner

I hear often from livestock proponents that ranching is an economically sustainable use of western rangelands. Unfortunately many interested in conservation also believe this myth, and it has unfortunate public policy implications. As University of Montana economist Tom Power has noted, most people have a rear view mirror of their local and regional economies. They almost never know what is happening in the present and their ability to predict the future is even less accurate.

Ranching is doomed in the West by rising land values. Ranching, like all agriculture, persists on marginal land—lands that can’t provide a higher monetary return doing something else—usually real estate development. When land prices rise to the point that one cannot reasonably be expected to return sufficient profit to pay a mortgage on such property running cows, growing wheat or whatever, it signals the end of that industry—even though it may take a long time for the industry to completely disappear from the regional landscape. It is this long lingering death that fools people into believing ranching is sustainable.

With regards to ranching in the West, land values have already marginalized the industry. Few are buying ranches in the West to raise cows, or at least to make a profit raising cows. Today’s ranch purchaser is usually an amenity buyer who is more interested in seeing elk and catching trout than returning a profit from a livestock operation. For instance one recent study of ranching in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem found that most new ranch owners had earned their fortunes in other business endeavors. The ranch was a vacation home—a trophy to signal success—rather than a viable livestock operation. In many cases, if a cattle operation persists, it’s a tax write off rather than a source of income. Traditional ranching in the West is on life support and dying.

This was brought home to me a number of years ago when I was on a tour of a ranch along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. The rancher, who I’ll call Bob, had grown up on the ranch which his grandfather had homesteaded. His Dad inherited the ranch and passed it on to Bob. The fact that that three generations of Bob’s family had lived on the land was “proof” of its sustainability—or at least that is what Bob claimed.

However as we spent the day together Bob indirectly offered much evidence to suggest that ranching was not economically and socially sustainable, even as he asserted over and over again about how sustainable ranching was.

The first hint that ranching might not be sustainable occurred when we visited a bluff overlooking the river that flowed through the center of the ranch. Bob told how when his Dad was a kid there had been six families living in that river valley. But the low productivity of the land meant one needed a huge spread of land to just break even on ranching. The homesteads were simply too small to support an economically viable ranching operation. Gradually each family gave up ranching and sold their property to Bob’s grandfather and later his Dad so that today where once there were seven families living along this stretch of river beneath the mountain front, there was only one—Bob’s.

Later we were discussing his youth, and Bob told us how he used to ride a horse to the local schoolhouse three miles down the road from the ranch. Today the school is closed due to declining enrollment (all those families that left the valley and other nearby valleys were no longer sending their kids to the local school). Bob’s kids had to ride an hour or more on a bus to get to the nearest school. Bob lamented how he felt badly for his kids who couldn’t participate in a lot of school extra curriculum activities like after school sports teams because they had to get on the bus to get home. If they didn’t ride the bus home, it meant Bob and his wife would have to pick them up—a two hours round trip from the ranch—something they just wouldn’t do very often. His kids felt socially isolated and were not happy living on the ranch.

But it wasn’t only his kids who were socially isolated. Bob’s wife longed to move into Great Falls. She hated driving more than an hour just to shop for groceries. As the only “wife” living in that isolated valley, she also missed having social contact with other women.

In addition to the closure of the school, there was a decline in other essential services as well. Without a lot of ranches to support a large animal vet, Bob had to depend on a veterinarian who lived a long distance from his ranch and had only infrequent visits. The same thing applied to medical help. When Bob was a kid, there was a “country: doctor who attended to the needs of all the far flung ranching families, but with fewer families, Bob’s family often had to drive into Great Falls to attend to even simple medical needs.

Bob then confided that even though the ranch he inherited was formed from the “bones” of six other homesteads, it still wasn’t really large enough to run the number of cattle he really needed to succeed financially. With three kids that he was hoping would go off to college, his ranch, though considered a good sized spread by Montana standards, still could not produce enough income to pay for things considered essential by today’s standards like a college education for his kids. Paying for college, much less braces for teeth, computers, and other “necessities” of today’s family expectations was not something that his grandfather and father had to factor into the family budget.

But unlike his grandfather or even his father, Bob could not expand the ranch by buying additional lands. Land values had risen due to demand for amenity ranches and prices were now far above what any one could reasonably pay back raising livestock. Bob was “stuck” in time with a ranch suitable for a 1950 lifestyle with expectations and financial obligations of a 2000 lifestyle. And because it was a long ways from the ranch to a sizeable town where other employment options were available, Bob’s wife couldn’t take on a job to provide a second income—which is how most traditional ranchers are surviving at all these days.

To make matters worse from Bob’s perspective, he increasingly had to make minor changes in his ranch operations due to environmental concerns. For instance in the past he could drain the river to fed his thirty hayfields. But today there were endangered fish in the river, and he was under pressure to reduce his water usage. Of course, one could suggest that if Bob really internalized all the environmental costs of his livestock operation he wouldn’t’ be in business another day. But times change slowly and he has only had to make some minor adjustments to appease environmental regulators, but even these minor new costs were hurting what was really a marginal economic operation. In the past, he could “externalize: all these costs on to society and the land’s wildlife, but people was increasingly saying they wanted Bob to pay the real cost of raising cows in the arid West, and these “new” costs were cutting into his bottom line.

It’s been a few years since I was on Bob’s ranch, however, I ran into him recently at another event. When I inquired how things were going with the family, he told me that his wife had moved into Great Falls with the kids so they could attend high school and participate in things like after school sports. With a second house mortgage to support in the city, and those college tuitions to pay, Bob found it increasingly difficult to make the ranch financially solvent. At first Bob’s wife and kids would come out to the ranch on weekends and in the summer, but over time, these visits became fewer and farther apart. Eventually Bob’s wife met another man in Great Falls whom she married. Recently Bob sold his “sustainable” ranch to an amenity buyer. He remained on the ranch as its manager.

Bob is still insisting that ranching is sustainable—though he is now the ranch manager instead of the ranch owner. The new owner is more interested in elk and trout than cows. Bob still gets to play cowboy running some cows, though far less than in his Daddy’s day. And it’s not cows that are supporting the ranch now, rather money earned elsewhere in the economy. Bob will probably go to his grave thinking that ranching is sustainable, but his circumstances suggest otherwise.

What Bob described to me was all the reasons why ranching was not sustainable. They are economic as well as social. And they are being repeated over and over throughout the West. Unlike the gold placer deposits that disappear quickly, and with it a mining town, ranching is dying a slow death, cut by cut, but it’s terminally ill. It’s just taking a long time to die, and this fools people into believing that there’s a future for ranching.

This has major public policy implications. Many people resist land use planning and zoning believing there is an alternative—namely that ranching will protect open space. But in a region with rising land values, counting on ranching to preserve open space is a fool’s game. If people are genuinely interested in preserving open space, important wildlife habitat, and public access to the land, they are going to have to bite the bullet and buy it—either with conservation easements or outright fee purchase. That is the only way to preserve what we have now into the future.


George Wuerthner

What do the Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument all have in common? Besides their common designation as national parks and monuments, all these conservation areas were initially opposed by local people.

Today these national parks and forests contribute to the quality of life that westerners enjoy and are the economic engines for regional economies. And in most cases, they are strongly supported by the descendents of the “locals” who originally fought to prevent their protection. Yet we hear many of the same arguments opposing new parks and wildlands protection expressed today by politicians and others in the West who rail against “outsiders”, usually from the dreaded liberal east, telling them what to do with “their” land—public lands that belong to everyone in the country. History does repeat itself.

After the creation of Yellowstone NP in 1872, the Helena Gazette opined “We regard the passage of the act as a great blow to the prosperity of the towns of Bozeman and Virginia City….” Montana’s Congressional representatives were so opposed to the park that they introduced bills into Congress every session for twenty years to undesignate the park. When these attempts to dissolve the park failed, they tried other mechanisms to eliminate the park, including an attempt to split off the northern part of the park so a railroad could be built. To justify removing this area from the park, Montana’s delegate characterized the Lamar Valley as “wholly unattractive country”, hence not worthy of park protection. Others proposed damming the Yellowstone River just below Yellowstone Lake for hydroelectric power. This too was prevented—but only by the intervention of dreaded “outsiders” from the Eastern United States.

When President Teddy Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908, Arizona’s Congressional delegation successfully prevented any federal funding for the park operations and tried unsuccessfully to legally challenge Roosevelt’s monument designation.

In 1910 when Glacier National Park was created, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce went on record opposing the park designation, fearing the park would preclude oil and gas and logging operations. Locals submitted a petition to the federal government in 1914 to dismantled the park, arguing: “… that it is more important to furnish homes to a land-hungry people than to lock the land up as a rich man's playground which no one will use or ever use."

In 1943 when Franklin Roosevelt designated 210,000 acres in the Tetons as a national monument, folks in Wyoming predicted Jackson would become a “ghost-town.” In fact, the Wyoming delegation introduced legislation to undesignate the park. Jackson now is home to more than 16,000 “ghosts.”

And even the creation of our national forest system was largely opposed by western interests who wanted to see these lands available for unrestricted development and exploitation. In 1907 Senator Fulton of Oregon added an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriation Bill barring President Teddy Roosevelt from creating any additional national forests in six Northwest states. Roosevelt, knowing he could not veto such important legislation, signed the bill into law, but not before he created another 16 million acres of national forest by Presidential fiat. Today most residents of California, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are grateful that local interests did not prevail and Roosevelt set aside these lands as national forests.

In 1980 when President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Alaska Lands Bill (ANILCA) he was strongly opposed by the entire Alaskan delegation who, like all previous boosters of the West, predicted wreckage and ruin to the local economy if lands were protected from exploitation. So strident was local opposition that residents of Fairbanks burned Carter in effigy to protest park creation. The towns of Eagle and Glennallen each proclaimed opposition to the parks and even offered to shelter anyone from federal authorities who was willing to violate new park regulations.

Undaunted, Carter signed ANILCA into law setting aside more than a hundred million acres of federal land as new parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness areas. Among other things ANILCA established 10 new national parks, including Gates of the Arctic, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St Elias and expanded three other existing parks (Glacier Bay, Katmai, and Denali). Most Americans—and even many Alaskans—now celebrate these parks and other protected lands as crown jewels of our national park system.

They say history repeats itself when people do not learn from the past, and certainly this appears to be the case once more as seen in the recent flap over NREPA, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. Montana Senator Max Baucus was quoted as saying “Montanans don’t take kindly to people on the East Coast telling us how to manage our lands.” (Uh, Max, these are federal lands owned by all US citizens). Despite Baucus’ implied message that once again “outsiders” from the East Coast were imposing something on poor westerners, he conveniently overlooked the fact that NREPA was created by conservationists in the region and its chief sponsor, the Alliance for Wild Rockies, is a Montana-based group.

Barbara Cubin, Wyoming’s Congressional representative called NREPA a "147-page assault on our Western way of life." She bemoaned that local input and control would be slipping away. Local control, of course, means resource exploitation of public resources for private gain.

Montana Congressman, Denny Rehberg, opposed NREPA because he considered it a “top-down” measure rather than a locally-generated proposal. Rehberg favors local “cooperative” approaches like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership in Montana as the right way to designate wilderness. Of course, Rehberg is enamored with “partnerships,” “collaborative” and other so-called local approaches that are compromises because they usually wind up advocating for the continuation of logging, ORV use, and mining on most of the public land base, and ultimately protect less land from exploitation than landscape-scale and ecologically-driven proposals like NREPA.

People like Rehberg and other advocates for such collaborative or compromise approaches to wildlands protection never acknowledge that the starting point for compromise was passed decades ago. The vast majority of the United States is already committed to industrial uses, and we are now fighting over the last little scraps of wildlands. Conservation history has shown repeatedly that invariability future generations will not complain that we protected too much land; rather they will wonder why we protected so little.

What is clear from any review of conservation history is that in nearly all cases even local people come to value the designation of conserved lands after the fact. If you were to ask the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce what is most distinctive and valuable about Kalispell’s location, they would tell you its close proximity to Glacier National Park. And when Newt Gingrich and his Republican majority shut down the federal government in 1995, Arizona volunteered to pay the salaries of Park Rangers so that Grand Canyon NP could remain open. And though residents on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula opposed establishment of Olympic NP and continuously sought to open up the park’s forests to logging, most residents of the Olympic Peninsula today realize that the park’s trees have far more value standing upright in the forest than if they had been cut for two-by-fours

The take-home message I get from a broad reading of conservation history is that local opposition to anything worthwhile is to be expected. Trying to accommodate entrenched local interests invariably weakens protective measures and typically reduces the effectiveness of conservation efforts. Imagine what we would have had if civil rights activists had tried to work with southern racists to hammer out a “collaborative” agreement on civil rights. If they were lucky, they might have gotten modest accommodations as such as allowing African Americans to sit anywhere on buses, but it is doubtful that we would have the sweeping changes that enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act created, such as ending discrimination in employment as well as segregation in schools and other public places. As citizens and conservationists we ought to learn from these history lessons and look beyond parochial regional interests to advocate what is in the best long term interest of the nation and that best preserves our collective natural heritage.

We might not get all what we advocate for, but in conservation, as in civil rights, we ought to strive for what is ultimately best for the land and nation, not what is politically acceptable now.

In 1935, Bob Marshall, on founding the Wilderness Society wrote: “We want no stragglers. For in the past far too much good wilderness has been lost by those whose first instinct is to compromise.” This is advice that many in the West’s conservation movement would be wise to remember when they attempt to work with “local interests” to protect wildlands.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


George Wuerthner

I attended the 88 fires: Yellowstone and Beyond fire conference in Jackson, Wyoming. The conference went on for five days and had many simultaneous presentations, featuring some of the latest insights into wildfire ecology and fire behavior. The following are some of the highlights.

Weather and climate figured into many presentations for a variety of reasons. Speakers like Tony Westerling of the University of California and Tom Swetnam of University of Arizona spoke about long term global climate change which will likely increase the severity and number of large wildfires in the future.

Many speakers from agency managers to wildfire ecologists emphasized over and over again the influence of drought, low humidity and wind on fire spread and behavior. The conclusion of speakers is that under severe weather conditions, some fires are unstoppable and we are already seeing such a trend in fires today.

For instance, Yellowstone researcher Roy Renkin emphasized that fuel moisture is the primary determinant of fire severity. His research suggests that wind and drought must exceed the 97th percentile before one gets a stand replacement fire, and if it exceeds the 99th percentile nothing will stop a fire and it will burn through all fuel types, including thinned forest stands. In other words there are very predictable thresholds in fuel moisture and wind speed that creates the ideal conditions for fire spread. When these conditions are met, wildfires are large and unstoppable.

Other speakers talked about the effect of wind on fire spread. Even in a dry year like 1988, the majority of fires are small without wind to drive them. For instance, Bob Mutch retired from the Missoula Fire Lab, found that out of 249 fires that started in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1988, the majority or 81% burned ten acres or less. Huge acreages of the forest were consumed during the few days when high winds prevailed.

For instance, the 1988 Canyon Fire that burned through the Bob Marshall Wilderness was propelled by high winds of the Jet Stream which dipped down to the surface above the fire. With the Jet Stream pushing it, the fire raced across 190,000 acres in a single day. Researchers emphasized that wind was a major factor in all large fires including historic blazes like the 1910 Burn that charred more than 3 million acres of the Northern Rockies.

During a field trip, I talked to Penny Morgan of the U of Idaho who recently published a couple of papers on the fire history of the Northern Rockies. She found that a strong connection between climatic conditions and fire years. Of 11 years with significant acreage burned by wildfire between 1900 and 2003, six occurred prior to the 1940s and five have occurred since 1988. All were correlated with dry springs and hot summers. The years between 1940 and the 1980s were wetter and cooler than the years before and since those years, calling into question whether fire suppression has been as effective as previously assumed. Yet it is these post war years that forms the basis for our views about what is “normal” behavior for wildfires.

This is where other speakers’ research fit into the mix. Cathy Whitlock of Montana State University has looked at long term fire histories throughout the West, including a 17,000 year fire history for Yellowstone. Her conclusions are that the recent past climatic conditions no longer exist. In other words, trying to “manage” for past vegetation patterns is not going to work because we now have a new climatic regime that is has warmer temperatures, a longer drying season, and generally higher winds than the recent past. Thus thinning forests to “restore” a “historic” appearance to the landscape may be pointless. We are now into a new climate model that will change fire behavior as well as vegetation response.

Proposed treatments like thinning, logging and other prescriptions are ineffective for many forest types under the new climatic conditions. For instance, Ronald Wakimoto of the U of Montana Forestry School suggested that thinning of lodgepole pine forests as is now occurring on Forest Service lands in the Northern Rockies is “fool management” not fuel management. Thinning, as Wakimoto noted, simply makes the forest floor hotter, drier and windier—all ingredients that increase fire spread and severity.

Megan Walsh of the U of Oregon looked at charcoal remains for the past 1000 years to determine the fire history in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. For decades it was presumed that Native American fires maintained the valley grasslands and open oak woodlands. Her research suggests that valley fire activity responded primarily to climatic changes.

The influence of Native Americans on wildfire frequency appears to be localized, primarily in and near places where permanent occupation occurred. The idea that Native American significantly affected fire frequency across the larger landscape is called into question.

Another presentation by Dick Hutto of the U of Montana emphasized the ecological importance of dead trees, in particular, burnt trees. Hutto, like many ecologists, is opposed to salvage logging of burnt trees, especially on the assumption that dead trees are a “wasted” resource. Hutto’s research focuses on birds, and there are many species that live and forage primarily in burnt forests. Such an evolutionary response suggests to Hutto that stand replacement fires have occurred in all forest types, not just high elevation forests like those found in Yellowstone. Despite assertions by the ill informed to the contrary, we may be experiencing a deficit of wildfires. In other words, even if it were possible to suppress large fires—which clearly it is not--we need more large wildfires, not fewer.

Like Hutto other researchers are finding that large blazes have profound positive effects upon forest ecosystems and associated species. For instance, Wayne Minshall of Idaho State University has studied fire effects on streams for decades. His research found that stream drainages that experienced high severity fires rather than being “destroyed” had the highest biomass of aquatic insects, which in turn supported higher densities of cutthroat trout. But the fire also had an effect on terrestrial species as well. Minshall found that severely burned watersheds also supported higher density of fly catching birds, bats, and riparian spiders, among other animals.

On a field trip through Jackson and up into Yellowstone with researchers Monica Turnker, Dan Tinker and Bill Romme, participants observed a forest that had been heavily infected by pine beetles in the 1970s. If Romme had not mentioned it to us, none of the field trip participants would have guessed that the forest had ever experienced a major beetle outbreak. As Romme explained, beetles, even under the most severe infestations, seldom kill all trees. With the death of some trees, the remaining trees grow very quickly to fill in the gaps in the forest canopy.

Furthermore, Romme and other researchers have found that beetle killed trees do not necessarily increase fire hazard. Once a year or two has passed, and dry needles and small branches fall off, the forest is actually less likely to burn than a green forest under severe fire conditions. The green forest needles and branches are loaded with resins that burn extremely well if the internal moisture of the trees dips as occurs during severe droughts. In other words, fire hazard does not increase significantly as a result of beetle kill.

Additionally there are many ecological benefits associated with pine beetle infestations, including the creation of dead trees for wildlife use, increased nutrient flows into soils, and other affects. If communities and politicians panicking about current beetle outbreaks could visit the Tetons they would realize there is nothing to be feared.

The overall conclusions I took away from the conference was that climate change was going to create climate/weather conditions more conducive to large blazes. Management prescriptions like logging won’t change fire behavior under severe conditions, and in fact, may improve conditions for fire spread by opening up the forest to greater drying and wind penetration. Fortunately, large fires are ecologically beneficial and necessary for many ecosystem functions, including nutrient cycling, wildlife habitat creation, and other ecological processes. Therefore, an increase in large burns rather than being something to be feared or suppressed should be embraced. To do this, we need to change our approach to wildfires from suppression to co-existence.

The best way to achieve such a relationship is not to fight fires or log the landscape in the mistaken believe that we can affect fire severity or spread, rather we need to reduce sprawl into the wildlands urban interface through zoning and planning combined with greater attention to making existing structure fire safe. Even something as a requirement that all buildings in fire prone ecosystems have metal roofs would go a long ways towards reducing losses to wildfire.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bio Crusts and Livestock Grazing


Biological Crusts

George Wuerthner

Biological crusts are assemblages of microscopic organisms dwelling on the soil surface in arid regions. They are important for retaining water, reducing erosion, cycling nutrients, and diminishing the invasion of exotic plants. Range managers have typically disregarded the ecological role of biological crusts, yet they are easily disturbed and destroyed by livestock, and recovery can take years.

The plants most people think of as characteristic of the arid West are the large, vascular types, such as various grasses, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, cacti, and juniper. Few people are aware of one of the most important groups of plants found on arid lands: biological soil crusts. These are assemblages of tiny, often microscopic organisms, such as cyanobacteria, green algae, fungi, lichens, and mosses, living on or just beneath the soil surface in the spaces between the larger, more prominent vegetation. Although inconspicuous, biological crusts are critical to the productivity of many arid land ecosystems and in some places account for 70 percent of the living plant cover on soils. 1

Unfortunately, the important role of biological crusts has been unnoticed or ignored by many people, including most range managers and livestock grazing proponents. Traditionally, only the impact of livestock grazing on vascular plants has been a concern in evaluations of rangeland health. Yet recent research suggests that even if vascular plant communities are not affected in any detectable way by livestock, there can be significant differences between grazed and ungrazed sites in the proportion of ground covered by biological crust. 2 And over time, livestock damage to biological crusts can lead to the declining health of the entire ecological system - from increased soil erosion, diminished water-holding capacity of the soil, and less favorable nutrient flows, to greater vulnerability to invasion by exotic plants.

Biological Crusts as Part of Arid Ecosystems

Biological crusts, perhaps in keeping with their rather hidden nature, are known by many terms, such as microbiotic crusts, cryptogamic crusts, and cryptobiotic crusts. They are particularly important components of arid ecosystems, such as those in the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the deserts of the Southwest, although they can be found in rangeland ecosystems from alpine areas to the Great Plains. Biological crusts are native elements of most western public lands. 3 As a group they are amazingly diverse and often account for a far greater number of species than the vascular plants with which they are associated. 4 For example, in southern Idaho, botanist Roger Rosentreter found 16 vascular plant species and 39 biological soil crust species in 140 plots placed throughout the rangeland plant community. 5

Biological crusts help to hold the soil surface together and thus reduce soil erosion from wind and water. 6 They play an important role in reducing the impact of raindrops; on unprotected soils (lacking biological crusts), heavy rain breaks up soil aggregates, which leads to the clogging of soil pores and reduces water infiltration rates, sometimes as much as 90 percent.

The crusts also create small-scale roughness or depressions in the surface of the soil that catch water, allowing it to infiltrate, thus reducing sheet erosion. 7 Some biological crusts have microfilaments that weave soil particles together, 8 again anchoring the soil against erosion. Biological soil crusts also act as mulch, reducing evaporative water losses.

Some biological crusts capture and fix atmospheric nitrogen, 9 and all of them can contribute to carbon fixation, 10 providing an important source of carbon for microbial soil populations. Since nitrogen and carbon are both limiting factors in arid environments, maintaining normal nitrogen cycles and carbon deposition is critical to soil fertility and prevention of desertification. 11 Vascular plants growing in soils with intact biological crusts have been found to have a higher concentration of nitrogen than plants growing in soils lacking such crusts. 12

By occupying the spaces between perennial plants, biological crusts also prevent the establishment and spread of exotic weeds. Most native perennials found in North American deserts tend to have seeds with self-burial mechanisms or that are cached by rodents - ensuring that they will be covered by soil or plant litter and will be able to germinate. However, the seeds of most exotic species, such as cheatgrass, do not use these strategies; rather, they germinate on the soil surface. Where biological crusts are intact, seeds of exotics generally fail to germinate successfully. Indeed, the loss of crusts in the bunchgrass communities of the Intermountain West may be largely responsible for the widespread establishment of cheatgrass and other exotic annuals. 13

Another unexpected positive aspect of intact biological crusts is their role in creating favorable microclimates. Most biological crusts are dark and can raise temperatures as much as 23 degrees Fahrenheit above that of adjacent surfaces. 14 Heightening soil temperatures can increase nutrient uptake and speed seed germination, photosynthetic rates, and nitrogenase activity for associated vascular plants. Ants, arthropods, reptiles, and small mammals are able to forage more effectively and more quickly with warmer soil temperatures, because they themselves are then warmer and more active. 15

Higher temperatures may be critical in many desert environments since soil moisture is typically higher during the cooler fall, winter, and spring months, and biological activity may be dependent on favorable soil temperature and moisture. When the dark-colored biological soil crusts are eliminated, the result can be lowered biological activity, with green-up pushed back to later in the spring and early summer. This can negatively affect vascular plants, since they are usually limited by soil moisture, and soils generally dry out as the season progresses into the warmer months.

Finally, biological crusts play a role in moderating fire frequency and intensity. Native plants in the most arid parts of the West are naturally widely spaced, and fires usually do not carry far because of the discontinuous and patchy distribution of fuels. Biological crusts occupy the open spaces between the larger plants - impeding the establishment of exotics, such as cheatgrass, which allow fires to carry farther and also increase fire frequency. So long as the crusts help maintain these mini firebreaks, fires are slowed, and their intensity is decreased. 16 Furthermore, under low-intensity blazes, soil crusts remain intact, limiting potential erosion that may occur in the aftermath of a fire. 17

Effects of Livestock Production

Various human activities can damage biological crusts, including use of off-road vehicles and even hiking. However, no human activity is as ubiquitous on western public lands as livestock grazing.

Livestock damage biological crusts primarily by trampling them. Except perhaps at the lightest stocking rates, the presence of livestock results in broken, degraded crusts. Livestock also tend to compact soils by walking on them repeatedly. Compaction can lead to changes in soil moisture and nutrient flow, which in turn can alter the species makeup of crusts. These changes may occur before differences in biological crust cover are apparent at the macroscopic level. 18

Biological crusts need moisture for growth and reproduction. Livestock grazing in the spring, just prior to the beginning of hot, dry periods, limits opportunity for regrowth of crusts. The net effect of the loss of biological crusts is magnified in areas where high-intensity summer thunderstorms occur; heavy rains on unprotected soil surfaces lead to significant erosion. 19 Livestock grazing in summer and fall is also detrimental since biological crusts are particularly susceptible to breakage and fragmentation when dry. 20 Spring, summer, and fall are the primary seasons for livestock grazing on public lands.

Full recovery of badly trampled biological crusts typically requires more than a few years. Since most public rangelands are not allowed more than a season or two of rest, even under the best rest-rotation management plans, complete recovery is essentially precluded under any livestock grazing regime. 21 It is important to understand that biological crusts occur most prominently in ecosystems that did not evolve with large herds of grazing ungulates. Along with the grasses native to such areas as the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Mojave, Chihuahuan, and Sonoran Deserts, 22 the biological crusts lack adaptations to the frequent presence of big-bodied herbivores. This fact helps explain why crusts are so vulnerable to damage in the face of livestock grazing.

The negative effects of livestock on biological crusts contribute to lower productivity, accelerated invasion of exotics - particularly cheatgrass - changes in fire regime, changes in soil structure, reduction in water infiltration, higher soil erosion from wind and rain, and changes in energy pathways. These impacts are nearly unavoidable when livestock are present, and thus the policy of allowing livestock grazing on public lands is in direct conflict with such goals as maintaining healthy ecosystems and limiting the occurrence of costly and ecologically damaging cheatgrass-fueled fires.


1. J. Belnap, "Potential Role of Cryptobiotic Soil Crust in Semiarid Rangelands," in Proceedings-Ecology and Management of Annual Rangelands, edited by S. B. Monsen and S. G. Kitchen, USDA Forest Service General Technical Report INT-GTR-313 (Ogden, Utah: USDA Forest Service Intermountain Research Station, 1994).

2. J. H. Kaltenecker, M. C. Wicklow-Howard, and R. Rosentreter, "Biological Soil Crusts in Three Sagebrush Communities Recovering from a Century of Livestock Trampling," in Proceedings Shrublands Ecotones, RMRS-P-11 (USDA Rocky Mountain Research Station, 1999).

3. J. Belnap, "Soil Surface Disturbances in Cold Deserts: Effects on Nitrogenase Activity in Cyanobacterial-Lichen Soil Crusts," Biology and Fertility of Soils 23 (1996): 362-367; R. J. Beymer and J. M. Kiopatek, "Effects of Grazing on Cryptogamic Crusts in Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands in Grand Canyon National Park," American Midland Naturalist 127 (1992): 139-148; J. H. Kaltenecker, M. C. Wicklow-Howard, and R. Rosentreter, "Biological Soil Crusts: Natural Barriers to Bromus tectorum Establishment in the Northern Great Basin, USA," in Proceedings of the VI International Rangeland Congress, vol. 1, edited by D. Eldridge and D. Freudenberger (Aitkenvale, Queensland, Australia, 1999); J. R. Marble and K. T. Harper, "Effect of Timing of Grazing on Soil-Surface Cryptogamic Communities in a Great Basin Low-Shrub Desert: A Preliminary Report," Great Basin Naturalist 49 (1989): 104-107.

4. R. Rosentreter, "Compositional Patterns Within a Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) Community of the Idaho Snake River Plain," in Proceedings-Symposium on the Biology of Artemisia and Chrysothamnus, USDA Forest Service General Technical Report INT-200 (Ogden, Utah: USDA Forest Service Intermountain Research Station, 1986).

5. Ibid.

6. J. D. Williams, J. P. Dobrowolski, and N. E. West, "Microphytic Crust Influence on Interrill Erosion and Infiltration Capacity," Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers 38 (1995): 139-146.

7. Ibid.

8. J. Belnap and J. S. Gardner, "Soil Microstructure in Soils of the Colorado Plateau: The Role of the Cyanobacterium Microcieus vaginatus," Great Basin Naturalist 53 (1993): 40-47.

9. Beymer and Kiopatek, "Effects of Grazing"; R. D. Evans and J. R. Ehleringer, "A Break in the Nitrogen Cycle in Arid Lands? Evidence from Nitrogen-15 of Soils," Oecologia 94 (1993): 314-317.

10. Beymer and Kiopatek, ibid.

11. H. E. Dregne, Desertification of Arid Lands (New York: Harwood, 1983).

12. K. T. Harper and R. L. Pendleton, "Cyanobacteria and Cyanolichens: Can They Enhance Availability of Essential Minerals for Higher Plants?" Great Basin Naturalist 53 (1993): 59-72.

13. Kaltenecker, Wicklow-Howard, and Rosentreter, "Biological Soil Crusts"; K. D. Larsen, "Effects of Microbiotic Crusts on the Germination and Establishment of Three Range Grasses" (master's thesis, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho 1995).

14. J. Belnap, "Surface Disturbances: Their Role in Accelerating Desertification," Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 37 (1995): 39-57.

15. C. S. Crawford, "The Community Ecology of Macroarthropod Detritivores," in Ecology of Desert Communities, edited by G. Polis (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991); J. T. Doyen and W. F. Tschinkel, "Population Size, Microgeographic Distribution and Habitat Separation in Some Tenebrionid Beetles," Annals of the Entomological Society of America 67 (1974): 617-626.

16. Rosentreter, "Compositional Patterns."

17. J. R. Johansen et al., "Recovery Patterns of Cryptogamic Soil Crusts in Desert Rangelands Following Fire Disturbance," Bryologist 87 (1984): 238-243.

18. D. J. Eldridge, "Trampling of Microphytic Crusts on Calcareous Soils and Its Impact on Erosion Under Rain-Impacted Flow," Catena 33 (1998): 221-239.

19. Kaltenecker, Wicklow-Howard, and Rosentreter, "Biological Soil Crusts."

20. K. L. Memmot, V. J. Anderson, and S. B. Monsen, "Seasonal Grazing Impact on Cryptogamic Crusts in a Cold Desert Ecosystem," Journal of Range Management 51 (1998): 547-550.

21. Kaltenecker, Wicklow-Howard, and Rosentreter, "Biological Soil Crusts."

22. R. N. Mack and J. N. Thompson, "Evolution in Steppe with Few, Large, Hooved Mammals," American Midland Naturalist 119 (1982): 757-773; G. L. Stebbins, "Coevolution of Grasses and Herbivores," Annual of the Missouri Botanical Garden 68 (1981): 75-86.

Holistic Resource Management: False Promise


The Too-Good-to-Be-True Claims of Holistic Management

George Wuerthner

"HRM [holistic resource management, now shortened to holistic management] promotes the dangerous philosophy that humans are capable of, and should be, managing a planet. It does not recognize the integrity of the natural environment, its right to free existence, or humans' place in it."

- Lynn Jacobs, Waste of the West, 1991

No treatise on western ranching and its effects on the environment would be complete without a discussion of holistic management. Holistic management (HM) is billed as a plan that will "improve the quality of life . . . while restoring the environment that sustains us all." Although there is nothing in this statement about livestock production, the best-known application of HM occurs in livestock husbandry. HM doctrine defines the major problem facing rangelands as "overrest," not overgrazing. HM founder Allan Savory maintains that "rest is probably the most destructive tool known to science." More cows, not less, say HM supporters, is the solution to a host of rangeland problems. It's not surprising that this strikes a responsive chord in most ranchers.

Most HM doctrine has nothing to do explicitly with livestock production but instead focuses on goal setting and operating a business in accordance with widely accepted practices. The major area of contention and the focus of the remainder of this critique revolves around HM's assertions that livestock are necessary to maintain healthy ecosystems and can restore biologically impoverished western ecosystems.

Although HM advocates would claim otherwise, their solution to nearly every woe on western rangelands requires the use of livestock management to correct the perceived problem. They believe that without livestock (managed according to HM prescriptions, of course), rangelands would suffer desertification, declining productivity, and diminished biodiversity. Managed properly under HM guidelines, proponents assert, livestock can be used to reduce weeds and soil erosion, increase productivity of rangelands, improve water quality and wildlife habitat, increase biodiversity and water infiltration, and restore riparian areas, all while simultaneously enriching the rancher's bottom line.

If you think this sounds a bit like the magic elixir that snake oil salesmen once purveyed, you're not the only one. Many activists and scientists question HM's basic ecological assumptions.

Many HM supporters assiduously deny they like livestock or even support the livestock industry; rather, they assert that they are only interested in ecosystem health. (Taking a cue from HM, most timber companies today advocate more logging, not to further their profits but out of their heartfelt concern for healthy forest ecosystems.) The need to restore and repair degraded landscapes through controlled livestock grazing, is, of course, a very happy coincidence for the livestock industry.

Some aspects of HM livestock management techniques are not in and of themselves flawed, and indeed have an ecological basis that is fundamentally sound-assuming that you want to graze livestock at all. HM doctrine requires confining large numbers of animals (that is, livestock) into relatively small areas, under tightly controlled conditions. Although the stocking rate is high, the duration of grazing in any one pasture is short. Ranchers monitor plant utilization and, at the time deemed proper, move their cattle to the next grazing site, allowing ample time for plant recovery. If followed meticulously-and that is the big if-such a grazing scheme has some merit from a livestock management perspective.

It is when HM doctrine strays beyond basic livestock husbandry and gets into ecological theory that it begins to elicit the ire of critics. For instance, HM proponents flatly declare that rest from livestock grazing is destructive; they claim that arid lands need more livestock grazing, not less. Related to these beliefs is the notion that livestock grazing promotes higher productivity of plant communities. In addition, HM advocates like to say that "hoof action" of livestock is necessary to incorporate organic matter into the soil, to push seeds into the ground for germination, and to improve water infiltration into the soil. All of these assumptions will be challenged below.

Before taking up each of these claims in turn, it is important to discuss a key operating principle of HM, something that allows HM proponents readily to adopt a livestock management strategy that on the face of it, seems too good to be true. We might call this principle the "Donut Diet" phenomenon. That is, the Donut Diet, or HM, as the case may be, offers a counterintuitive, even shocking, but ultimately tantalizing solution to a perennial problem. The conventional wisdom about how to solve the problem is not very appealing-for example, you're overweight, so eat fewer calories; your range productivity is diminished, so reduce the number of cattle on the range. Then some person or concept comes along that offers a way to solve the problem without requiring any sacrifice. In fact, you can have what you want-only more of it! Some people immediately scoff and will hear no more about this "revolutionary" approach. Others, however, are intrigued. Eat nothing but donuts, and lose weight! Put more cows on the range, and get more forage! Heck, why not?

The devil is in the details, of course, which is where HM and a "Donut Diet" start to break down. To implement HM properly, one must monitor range condition very closely. This requires a great deal of self-discipline, is labor intensive, and is often expensive. Success, of a kind, is possible in theory but often is very difficult to realize in practice. The same principles hold for a diet that would allow one to dine on donuts and other junk food; one can lose weight, but only with greatly restricted caloric intake.

Sustaining programs such as these is extremely taxing, and the temptation to slack off or cut corners is extremely high. Nonetheless, many people keep on trying, despite their own setbacks and despite outside evidence that what they are doing will not work. They want the program to succeed very badly. They do not blame the method, but their own failings. As an HM practitioner is quoted as saying, "After 13 years I can say it is still the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. The lack of success we have had in some areas has not been because holistic management doesn't work; it is because we haven't practiced it properly."

Yet there are ranchers who testify that they have measured improvement in range condition and/or livestock production under HM, just as some people may indeed lose weight eating nothing but donuts. How can this be? One answer is fortuitous timing. In some instances, the positive results observed by ranchers occurred during periods of above-average precipitation, when grass production was naturally higher. However, the main reason that some livestock operators see a change for the better after switching to HM is that they begin to pay close attention to something-livestock husbandry-to which they formerly gave little thought.

Under traditional grazing schemes, most ranchers dump their cattle out on rangelands to fend for themselves. Both the cattle and the rangelands are left unmonitored for weeks or even months at a time. HM, on the other hand, requires intense and frequent monitoring, and regardless of its other aspects, this is a good thing. (It is worth noting that researchers comparing HM techniques with other grazing strategies have found no inherent superiority to HM techniques. Indeed in some cases, greater improvement in range condition, at lower cost, is realized under other traditional grazing schemes, if livestock operators give the same strict attention to stocking rate and monitoring range condition.) Ranchers, with greater awareness, can become more responsive to the condition of the land as well as that of their animals. Intensive grazing can also force livestock to use more efficiently the forage in an area. It is not so different from any weight loss diet that gets the dieter to become more conscious of the act of eating and the food's caloric value. No matter what's on the menu, if one carefully observes what is being eaten, chances are that sensations of satiety will be felt sooner, and, correspondingly, fewer calories will be consumed. It's not the donuts that help one lose weight but the discipline and restrictions of the diet.

Just as nutritionists would argue with anyone who asserted that donuts were necessary for a healthy diet just because someone managed to lose some weight consuming them, ecologists and livestock activists object to HM's assertions that livestock grazing is necessary for arid land health. Numerous studies of both livestock-grazed and livestock-free lands provide scientific evidence supporting opposition to HM.

One major assumption of HM is that plants need to be cropped. This assumption is based on the observation that plants regrow new leaf material to replace that removed by herbivores. Yet plant responses to the loss of aboveground biomass can more properly be considered a coping mechanism to plant material losses, rather than a positive response to a beneficial event. This is not unlike the documented ability of coyotes to breed at a younger age and produce more pups in the face of predator control. One would be remiss to conclude that coyote populations' tolerance of exploitation translates into coyotes' "need" to be shot, poisoned, and trapped for health.

Areas protected from livestock grazing offer the most telling evidence that munching cattle are not a prerequisite to ecosystem health. Forest Service researchers recently published a study of Dutchwoman Butte in Arizona. This isolated mesa top had never been grazed by livestock yet was "striking in the diversity, density, and vigor of the grasses" and remarkably free of plants such as curly mesquite and snakeweed, which are undesirable forage plants and quite common on sites grazed by livestock. The amount of forage on the butte was four times that found in similar livestock-grazed areas despite the occurrence of a severe drought at the time of the study. There are other livestock-free places throughout the West-though rare due to the ubiquity of livestock-that further make the case that plant communities thrive in the absence of grazing domestic animals.

Another basic ecological problem with the HM livestock bias is that it ignores the evolutionary history of entire biotic regions. Although some parts of the Great Plains were grazed by mobile herds of large herbivores, most plants west of the Continental Divide evolved in the absence of large herding animals such as bison-the native species that HM advocates suggest their cows mimic. Except for small areas along the western fringe of their natural range, bison were not found during historic times in the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Pacific Northwest, or in the higher subalpine and alpine mountains of the Rockies. Plants across this vast region lack mechanisms to cope with significant grazing pressure from large herbivores. Yet HM proponents argue that these very dry regions would benefit the most from livestock grazing and trampling effects, even though there was no native analogue to domestic cattle. Some also question the claim that trampling can increase herbage production.

"Overrest" is another term HM proponents use frequently to describe areas not sufficiently grazed by livestock. They warn that with too little grazing, or too much rest, plants become "overmature" and "decadent," and areas of bare, eroding soil increase in size over time. These words may be familiar to conservationists since they reflect the same attitude that foresters have held toward old-growth forests. Today, we appreciate that so-called "overmature" and "decadent" trees are essential to the ecological health of forests.

It's worth noting that almost no plant communities are really "overrested," since all rangelands are grazed whether a cow steps foot on them or not. A host of native herbivores, from grasshoppers to jackrabbits to elk, consume plants even in the most isolated meadows and mesas. Even the focus on large mammals may be misguided. In livestock-free Yellowstone National Park, researchers have found that grasshopper biomass on the northern range exceeds that of all ungulates combined (bison, elk, pronghorn, moose, deer, and bighorn sheep) by three times and that grasshoppers are a major consumer of above-ground biomass. Thus, what HM advocates really mean when they talk about "overrest" is not whether an area is grazed, but whether it's grazed by livestock.

HM advocates assert that livestock grazing increases plant productivity, often using "forage production" as a gauge of ecosystem status when it is really a reflection of the economic concern ranchers have for quantity of livestock forage. Scientists readily acknowledge that many plants compensate for injuries by producing new growth. This regrowth is often higher in nitrogen and other nutrients, and hence more palatable to herbivores. But regrowth of a plant is not evidence that the plant has benefited from being eaten. Indeed, grazing has a cost to plants. After losing its leaves to an herbivore, a plant must redirect energy from seed or root production toward production of above-ground photosynthetic material. In other words, those who claim that grazing "increases" forage production are correct in a limited sense, but such increased production interferes with other plant functions, such as root development, making plants far more vulnerable to drought and other stresses.

Research has shown that grazing cannot increase overall plant biomass production, except under growth chamber or cultivated conditions. Furthermore, regrowth is dependent on moisture, and in many parts of the West, if grasses are intensively grazed, they may not have access to sufficient moisture to regrow in the same season, or even in subsequent seasons. Yet even using forage productivity as a measure, HM techniques are not inherently superior and often fail to produce as much forage per acre as other grazing techniques.

HM advocates claim that the hooves of livestock are necessary to integrate organic matter into the soil and improve soil fertility. Yet research has shown that soil fertility is not the limiting factor in most western ecosystems-water is. And with regard to soil fertility, livestock actually interfere with nutrient cycling. Since livestock tend to reduce soil moisture-by removing shading vegetation and by compacting soil so water cannot penetrate as deeply-they limit microbial decomposition, which is moisture-dependent. One study in Alberta found that short-duration grazing reduced soil organic matter and nitrogen when compared with ungrazed controls. Trampling by hooves played a limited role in this decomposition. In fact, in a review of the literature, one range scientist stated, "In our search of the literature we could find no studies that substantiate Savory's claims on the benefits of hoof action on range soils."

HM doctrine claims that hoof action will enhance water infiltration through trampling of the ground. This, according to HM proponents, breaks up the soil surface so that runoff is slowed and the rain is better able to soak into the ground. But research has shown that cattle hoof action actually impairs soil health in two ways. First, it compacts the soil's upper layers, which reduces water infiltration and increases runoff. At the same time, the destruction of the living soil crusts, known variously as biological crusts, cryptogamic crusts, and so forth, further accelerates erosion by making the surface soil more easily washed away. The loss of cryptogamic crusts is also considered one of the factors that favor the spread of weeds such as cheatgrass.

Finally, the way that HM measures and defines success needs to be examined closely. For instance, HM purports to improve biodiversity. Typically HM supporters consider any increase in species numbers an improvement in biodiversity. But conservation biologists use very different and more complex measures of biodiversity and improvement in biodiversity. To conservation biologists, biodiversity is not just about having a lot of different species on any particular site or even an increase in a few key species; rather the goal is to preserve or restore native species to something approaching their historic distribution and numbers as well as to preserve the important ecological processes that direct species' evolution. Under such a definition, an increase in the number of species may actually signal a departure from the goal of biodiversity preservation, if many of those species are exotic or were historically rare or absent.

Livestock production is destructive to biodiversity. The resource pie is only so big. The majority of the West's water, forage, and space cannot be going toward domestic livestock production and not significantly reduce the biological potential of native species, from grasshoppers to trout to elk. HM, by its single-minded reliance on, and advocacy of, livestock as the cure for just about every woe on western rangelands, contributes to the destruction-not the enhancement-of biodiversity and wildlands ecosystems.

Guzzling the West's Water

Squandering a Public Resource at Public Expense

George Wuerthner

"Most agricultural water [in the West] grows low-value crops. In California, for example, nearly 1 million acres of irrigated pasture requires about 4.2 million acre-feet of water per year - as much as an urban population of 23 million. Pasture, though it is the single largest water user in California, is an extremely low-value crop."

- Marc Reisner and Sarah Bates, Overtapped Oasis, 1990

Livestock production, which includes the irrigation of livestock feed crops, accounts for the greatest consumption of water in the West. Such a water-intensive industry is poorly suited to the arid West. Dewatering of rivers and groundwater pumping for irrigation is a major cause of species decline throughout the region, and water development for agriculture is costly to taxpayers.

When people think of California and water, they often imagine sprawling cities dotted liberally with swimming pools and watered lawns; legions of vain auto owners washing their SUVs, sports cars, and minivans; and endless acres of verdant golf courses - all sucking down rivers both near and far. This image is partly correct - rivers are going dry. But the major reason is not direct consumption by humans - urbanites running sprinklers on their front yards and the like. In California, the major user of water is agriculture, and within agriculture, the thirstiest commodity is the cow.

Overall, agriculture accounts for 83 percent of all water used in California. It's true that California grows the majority of America's fruits and vegetables, so liberal use of water by its agricultural sector would not be unexpected. However, few people would suspect that growing feed for cattle is the predominant agricultural use of water in California. In 1997, 1.7 million acres of the state were planted to alfalfa alone. Irrigated pasture and hayfields consume more water than any other single crop in California - more than a third of all irrigation water. 1 Together, alfalfa and hay and pasturage account for approximately half of all water used in the state.

The story is similar in other western states. In Colorado, some 25 percent of all water consumed goes to alfalfa crops. 2 In Montana, agriculture takes 97 percent of all water used in the state, and just about the only irrigated crop there is hay and pasture forage; more than 5 million acres in the state are irrigated hay meadows. 3 In Nevada - the most arid state in the country - domestic water use amounted to 9.8 million gallons a day in 1993. By contrast, agriculture used 2.8 billion gallons of water per day. 4 Altogether, agriculture uses 83 percent of Nevada's water 5 - and the major crop is hay for cattle fodder. In Nevada, while cow pastures are flood irrigated, wetlands at wildlife refuges and the state's rivers often go bone-dry. 6

Cows are poorly adapted to arid environments. They are profligate consumers of water. Beef production demands an estimated 3,430 gallons of water just to produce one steak! 7 Most western rangelands simply don't provide enough forage alone - because the climate is too dry - to run livestock economically. Supplemental feed and irrigated pasture are also needed. Many of the ecological and health impacts of livestock production in the West are associated with the use and abuse of water: the livestock industry alters water quantity and quality and water flow regimes.

The removal of water from streams and aquifers for irrigation threatens many species with local extinction. Rivers and springs are often completely dewatered. According to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, some 3,778 miles of river are dewatered in Montana annually. 8 Dewatering of streams is a major factor in the decline of many fish species across the West, including most native trout and many salmon stocks.

Dewatering leaves fish stranded in shallow pools, where they are more vulnerable to predators. Fish eggs can be left high and dry when water levels drop during the irrigation season. Many young fish are diverted, along with portions of their streams, into irrigation canals; they subsequently die when water ceases to flow down the canal. In one study in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana, up to 90 percent of the annual production of young westslope cutthroat trout - a species petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act - was lost out of some streams because of irrigation canals. Dewatering also leads to higher water temperatures in streams and concentrates pollutants - all to the detriment of native aquatic life.

Another problem is that irrigation exacerbates an already naturally high loss of water from the land into the atmosphere. Huge amounts of water evaporate from storage reservoirs or are transpired into the air by water-hogging crops, such as alfalfa.

Irrigation leads not only to the concentration of pollutants already in streams: new pollutants enter the water, thanks to the diversion of water onto fields and the subsequent return of some of that water to groundwater or surface water bodies. Contaminants picked up from fields include excess nitrogen and minerals leached out of the irrigated soils. In Nevada, for instance, used irrigation water diverted back into the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is so full of mercury, selenium, and boron leached from agricultural fields that waterfowl and other wildlife at the refuge are being adversely affected. 9 A similar problem with polluted irrigation return water has been documented at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California. 10

Groundwater pumping has diminished or destroyed water sources for numerous species around the West. In southern Idaho, water is pumped out of the aquifer to grow hay; as a consequence of this activity, Bruneau Hot Springs - sole habitat for the Bruneau Hot Springsnail - has been drying up. The snail was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993. Similar groundwater depletion once threatened a host of unique fish and snail species at Ash Meadows in Nevada. Fortunately for these species, the offending agricultural operations were purchased and retired to create Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, but other aquatic species haven't been so lucky. Groundwater pumping for irrigation has already caused some desert fish to go extinct. 11

Dewatering of streams and aquifers has led to a shrinkage in riparian vegetation and naturally subirrigated lands (such as valley bottom meadows) around the West. This reduction in riparian habitat has serious consequences for wildlife, since an estimated 70 to 80 percent of all western species - plants and animals - are dependent on these thin zones of moisture for survival. 12

What is particularly ironic about livestock-caused stream dewatering is that it usually makes little economic sense. In much of the West, the value of leaving water in the river to sustain native fisheries or to provide for water-based recreation is often vastly greater than that of the beef produced with the same amount of water. 13 Leaving water in the river to support fishing may ultimately be far more beneficial to local economies than using it for irrigation. 14 Yet we regularly sacrifice the fish to produce beef - a commodity that is already produced more economically and with less environmental impact in other, naturally wetter, parts of the country.

In biology, it can be useful to categorize causative factors as either proximate or ultimate. In the arid West, livestock production is often the ultimate cause of species endangerment, though other factors, often more readily recognized, may be proximate causes. Thus, many dams in the West are proving to be ecological disasters, yet the dams themselves are only proximate causes of deteriorating aquatic ecosystems. Many dams would not have been built but for the demand for water storage for irrigation. Other uses, such as recreation or hydropower production, were often secondary rationalizations for dam construction. Without livestock production, it's likely that many fewer dams would exist in the West.

Dams fragment aquatic systems, preventing free movement of species such as salmon. Dams obviously flood habitat, too, making it unusable for many species. For instance, several species of Snake River snails are now listed under the Endangered Species Act because of dam construction and flooding of the river channel. The change in flow regime and water temperature occasioned by the construction of dams in the Colorado River system has led to the decline of the bonytail chub, the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, and the humpback chub. 15 Since most of these dams were constructed for water storage - with the bulk used for irrigation, mainly of livestock feed - partial blame for the decline in these native species lies with the livestock industry.

Taxpayers carry much of the burden for western water projects that benefit ranchers and the livestock industry. A review of Bureau of Reclamation water projects found that most western irrigation projects are subsidized in three ways. 16 First, irrigators often receive no-interest or extremely low-interest loans for project construction, with repayments scheduled over very long time periods - forty or fifty years or longer. Second, many project costs are forgiven and charged instead to taxpayers, since the projects are seen as having "public benefits," such as recreation. Third, Congress frequently legislates repayment relief.

In a 1996 review of 133 federally funded irrigation projects, the General Accounting Office found that for only 14 projects had irrigators paid, or were scheduled to pay, their entire allotted share of construction costs. In nearly 90 percent of the water projects, irrigation assistance and/or charge-offs accounted for payment or relief of some portion of the irrigators' repayment obligation. 17

And in a 1988 study conducted for Congressman George Miller, irrigators on the Vernal Unit of the Central Utah Project paid only $3.68 per acre-foot for water that cost the government $204.60 per acre-foot to deliver. 18 Such discrepancies between the cost of water storage and delivery and what irrigators ultimately pay are widespread throughout the West.

Livestock also produce actual, not merely economic, waste. Agriculture is the greatest source for nonpoint water pollution (that deriving from an extensive area, such as a farm field or a grazed hillside, rather than a single site, such as the waste pipe of a factory) in the United States. 19 Pollutants from livestock agriculture include sediments as well as animal waste. Nationwide, the output of livestock manure is more than 130 times that of human waste - yet most of the livestock waste enters waterways and groundwater untreated. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that of all rivers it has identified as "impaired" in some way, agricultural runoff, including animal waste, is the culprit in 60 percent of the cases. 20 And cattle are the biggest producers of livestock manure: more than 1.2 billion tons per year. 21

The heavy input of phosphorus and nitrogen from manure can elevate microbial activity in streams and lakes, consequently driving oxygen levels down and harming other aquatic organisms. 22 Animal wastes also carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans via water sources. Among the infectious diseases that can be acquired from livestock-contaminated water are salmonellosis, Johne's disease, leptospirosis, anthrax, listeriosis, tetanus, tularemia, erysipelas, and colibacillosis. 23 Again, neither the cost of treating domestic water supplies to make water safe for human consumption nor the cost of disease outbreaks caused by waterborne pathogens originating with the livestock industry are carried by livestock producers.

Livestock affect water quality and quantity through their impact on vegetation and soils. Trampling compacts soils, reducing water infiltration, which in turn leads to greater overland flow and flooding. 24 Trampling also can reduce late-season stream flows by as much as half. The removal and destruction of streamside vegetation by livestock increases bank erosion and allows the current to increase speed and downcutting capability. 25 Livestock damage to watersheds is the most serious cause of excess sedimentation (that is, above the levels of natural erosion) in much of the West. Sedimentation hurts trout and salmon, as well as many lesser known aquatic species, such as freshwater snails. 26

According to a 1998 study, dams and other water developments are responsible for the endangerment of 30 percent of all species listed as threatened or endangered in the United States. 27 Therefore, it should not be surprising that half of the fish species found west of the Continental Divide are listed, or are candidates for listing, under the Endangered Species Act. 28 Of course, livestock production isn't the only reason for these declines, but it plays a major role in many cases. In addition to the livestock impacts to water and streams enumerated above, livestock can threaten fish species indirectly, by degrading habitat to the point that nonnative fish gain competitive advantage.

In the moisture-limited West, raising water-loving livestock makes about as much sense as raising oranges in Alaska. If you can get most of your costs subsidized, and if you and society are willing to ignore the environmental consequences, it can be done. However, as more of the true costs of western livestock production are realized, including the cost in precious water resources, society may want to reconsider this folly.


1. M. Reisner and S. Bates, Overtapped Oasis: Reform or Revolution for Western Water (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1990).

2. Ibid.

3. Montana GAP Analysis (CD-ROM) (Missoula: University of Montana, Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, Wildlife Spatial Analysis Lab, 1998).

4. W. B. Solley, R. R. Pierce, and H. A. Perlman, Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 1990, USGS Circular 1081 (1993).

5. J. Cobourn et al., Nevada's Water Future: Making Tough Choices (Reno: University of Nevada, 1992).

6. W. L. Minckley and J. E. Deacon, eds., Battle Against Extinction: Native Fish Management in the West (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991).

7. T. Palmer, The Snake River: Window to the West (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991).

8. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, "Dewatered Streams List" (Helena, 1991).

9. Minckley and Deacon, Battle Against Extinction.

10. Reisner and Bates, Overtapped Oasis.

11. Minckley and Deacon, Battle Against Extinction.

12. U.S. General Accounting Office, "Public Rangelands: Some Riparian Areas Restored but Widespread Improvement Will Be Slow," GAO/RCED-88-105 (Washington, D.C.: USGAO, 1988).

13. J. W. Duffield, T. C. Brown, and S. Allen, Economic Value of Instream Flow in Montana's Big Hole and Bitterroot Rivers, Research Paper RM-317 (Fort Collins, Colo.: Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, 1994).

14. J. W. Duffield, J. B. Loomis, and R. Brooks, "The Net Economic Value of Fishing in Montana" (Helena: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 1987).

15. Minckley and Deacon, Battle Against Extinction.

16. U.S. General Accounting Office, "Bureau of Reclamation: Information on Allocation and Repayment Costs of Constructing Water Project," GAO/RCED-96-109 (Washington, D.C.: USGAO, 1996).

17. Ibid.

18. A. Melnykovych, "In the West, Subsidy Begets Subsidy Begets Subsidy," High Country News, 11 April 1988.

19. See Figure 9 in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Water Quality Inventory: 1998 Report to Congress, EPA 841-R-00-001,

20. Ibid.

21. U.S. Senate Committee, Animal Waste Pollution in America: An Emerging National Problem, report by Minority Staff of the United States Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forests (Washington, D.C., 1997).

22. M. Strand and R. W. Merritt, "Impacts of Livestock Grazing Activities on Stream Insect Communities and the Riverine Environment," American Entomologist 45, no. 1 (1999): 13-21.

23. R. E. Larson, et al., "Water-Quality Benefits of Having Cattle Manure Deposited Away from Streams," Bioresource Technology 48 (1994): 113-118.

24. A. J. Belsky, A. Matzke, and S. Uselman, "Survey of Livestock Influences on Stream and Riparian Ecosystems in the Western United States," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 54 (1999): 419-431.

25. Belsky, Matzke, and Uselman, ibid.; Strand and Merritt, "Impacts of Livestock Grazing Activities"; USGAO, Public Rangelands.

26. T. J. Frest and E. J. Johannes, Interior Columbia Basin Mollusk Species of Special Concern, final report (Walla Walla, Wash.: Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, 1995).

27. D. S. Wilcove, et al., "Quantifying Threats to Imperiled Species in the United States," Bioscience (1998): 607-613.

28. Minckley and Deacon, Battle Against Extinction.

Ranching Myths: Good Livestock Production and Ecosystem Preservation Can Coexist


Good Livestock Production and Ecosystem Preservation Can Coexist


Perhaps the biggest fallacy perpetrated by the livestock industry is the idea that if we would only reform or modify management practices, there would be room both for livestock and for fully functional ecosystems, native wildlife, clean water, and so on. Unfortunately, even to approach meaningful reform, more intensive management is needed, and such management adds considerably to the costs of operation. More fencing, more water development, more employees to ride the range: whatever the suggested solution, it always requires more money. Given the low productivity of the western landscape, the marginal nature of most western livestock operations, and the growing global competition in meat production, any increase in operational costs cannot be justified or absorbed. If the production of meat as a commodity is the goal, then an equal investment of money in a moister, more productive stock-growing region-such as the Midwest or the eastern United States-would produce far greater returns.

Even if mitigation were economically feasible, we would still be allotting a large percentage of our landscape and resources-including space, water, and forage-to livestock. If grass is going into the belly of a cow, there's that much less grass available to feed wild creatures, from grasshoppers to elk. If water is being drained from a river to grow hay, there's that much less water to support fish, snails, and a host of other life forms. The mere presence of livestock diminishes the native biodiversity of our public lands.

The choice is really between using the public lands to subsidize a private industry or devoting them to ecological protection and preserving the natural heritage of all Americans. On private lands, native species face an uncertain future. It would be a prudent and reasonable goal to make preservation of biological diversity and ecosystem function the primary goal on public lands. To suggest that we know how to conduct logging, livestock grazing, or other large-scale, resource-consumptive uses while sustaining native biodiversity is to perpetuate the greatest myth of all.

Ranching Myths: Ranching is the Foundation of Rural Economies


Ranching Is the Foundation of Rural Economies


Many livestock supporters attempt to portray public lands livestock production as an essential element of rural economies. It's easy to see the fallacy in this argument if you think about the numbers involved. For example, in Nevada there are fewer than 800 public lands grazing permittees. And in the entire state less than 2,000 people are engaged full-time as farmers or ranchers. One casino in Las Vegas employs more people than work in agriculture in all of Nevada. Although other states may have higher numbers of people involved in ranching, livestock production is proportionally a small part of the economic picture in all western states.

Ranching and associated activities provide very few jobs. Furthermore, most ranch operations, except the very biggest, are not highly profitable. Both of these truths help explain the rather interesting finding of one University of Arizona study: that instead of rural towns being dependent on the livestock industry for their economic survival, the reverse was true. Ranch families depend on nearby towns and cities to provide full- or part-time jobs that help keep the ranch financially afloat. Without family income from such positions as schoolteachers, local civil servants, store clerks, salespeople, and so forth, ranch ownership would be impossible. The vast majority of people who call themselves ranchers enjoy the lifestyle and the prestige, but they are not choosing a lucrative pursuit (as indeed many will complain!). Therefore, it can be argued that, financially, rural towns would likely survive without ranchers, but most ranchers would be hard-pressed to survive without the towns.

As ranching is relatively unimportant in local economies, it is even less important on state and regional scales. According to the Department of the Interior's 1994 Rangeland Reform Environmental Impact Statement, the elimination of all public lands livestock grazing would result in a loss of 18,300 jobs in agriculture and related industries across the entire West, or approximately 0.1 percent of the West's total employment. Natural resource economist Thomas Power has calculated that all ranching in the West, on both public and private lands, accounts for less than 0.5 percent of all income received by western residents.