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An open letter by George Wuerthner, 3/19/01

To all Sierra Club members:

Before members is a ballot initiative that calls upon the Sierra Club to support an end to COMMERCIAL public lands livestock grazing. Some Sierra Club members oppose adopting this initiative. While there are genuine strategy concerns and other issues where supporters and opponents differ, many of the reasons listed by opponents inaccurately portray the goals of ballot initiative supporters and also provides some questionable arguments to support their position. This is likely due to poor wording and limited space available to present their position, nevertheless it's critical that all Sierra Club members recognize that many of the reasons given for opposing this ballot initiative do not provide a contextual framework for evaluating their importance.

FENCES. Those in opposition suggest that "fences needed to implement the policy could be a disaster for wildlife and a nuisance for recreationalists." While I think no one would dispute that fences are a disaster for wildlife and a nuisance for recreationalists, the major reason there are any fences at all on our public lands is to facilitate livestock production. Removing all livestock from public lands would significantly reduce the total mileage of fences not increase them as opponents imply. The only new fencing that might be necessary is perimeter fencing to keep livestock from private lands from wandering on to public holdings in open range states. In many cases, this perimeter fencing already exists, so there would be no net gain in total fence mileage for this purpose, while at the same time the majority of existing fencing including the interior fencing that exists to manage livestock allotments around springs and streams, to separate out rotational pastures, and the fencing along highways and other right of ways could be eliminated. It is truly disingenuous and inaccurate to suggest that fencing would increase if livestock were removed. In short if livestock were removed from our public lands, the total mileage of fencing would be dramatically reduced.

PRAIRIE DOGS. Next the opposition suggests that abruptly eliminating livestock grazing on the Great Plains could threaten biodiversity because they argue that species like the prairie dog benefits from grazing by large herbivores like cows. Again this argument distorts the ecological realities faced by prairie dogs. For a more complete discussion on prairie dog ecology and threats see my peer reviewed paper on prairie dogs in the Feb. 1997 Journal of Range Management-Blacktailed prairie dogs headed for extinction? Also keep in mind that I was one of the petitioners to have the prairie dog listed under the ESA, so I'm quite informed about prairie dog ecology.

In short, this argument like the previous one about fencing, takes a shred of factual information and completely twists the facts. Reduction in stubble height of tall grasses by livestock or bison grazing can benefit prairie dogs by facilitating predator detection and colonization of new areas by reducing tall grasses that inhibits prairie dog movement. But this is not the major factor contributing to the decline in prairie dog numbers. Two factors are primarily responsible for the 98% decline in prairie dog populations--persecution by the livestock industry and plague.

Reduction of stubble height in grasses by livestock is only a factor for a small portion of the remaining prairie dog colonies on the plains, primarily those few colonies found in the tall grass portions of the Great Plains in eastern South Dakota, North Dakota and other similar areas. Moreover there is virtually no public land in these regions, so a removal of livestock from public lands would have little affect on prairie dog numbers across this portion of their natural range.

It seems insincere to suggest that we need to maintain livestock grazing to protect prairie dogs when in fact the major reason for the demise of prairie dogs are control efforts done on behalf of the livestock industry.

ECOSYSTEMS REQUIRE GRAZING. The next statement in their reasons for rejecting the ballot initiative is also misleading and at best debatable. Opponents of a grazing ban, like the livestock industry itself, argue that some ecosystems require large grazers and livestock are a suitable replacement where native grazers can not be restored. This statement has all kinds of problems. For one continued grazing by livestock certainly reduces any incentive and indeed, creates a vested interest opposed to restoration of native herbivores on public lands.

It also implies that ecosystems require large grazers. There is a host of scientific evidence to suggest no rangeland systems require grazing, rather some are better adapted to tolerate grazing and respond to grazing events by compensating for the damage caused by livestock grazing.

Without going into all the literature, a major review of this issue by Dr. Joy Belsky and Dr. Elizabeth Painter found that only under growth chamber conditions where there is no competition along with unlimited supplies of water and nutrients, could plants compensate for biomass losses created by grazing without significant negative effects. Plants can compensate for losses due to grazing up to a point, but they don't require grazing to survive. This is an important distinction. Suggesting that grassland ecosystems require grazing by livestock to be healthy distorts the facts and is an argument borrowed almost verbatim from the livestock industry itself. It is very similar to the argument given by the timber industry to justify logging-i.e. that we can improve the health of forest ecosystems by getting rid of those old decadent and overmature forests. Logging does increase overall biomass of wood fiber, but that is an economic concern, not a biological requirement. The same basic concept applies to livestock grazing of grasses. Sierra Club members shouldn't mistake economic arguments for biological realities.

BALLOT ISN'T ABOUT ECOLOGICAL HEALTH: Perhaps the biggest distortion being perpetuated by opponents is the assertion that ending commercial livestock grazing somehow isn't about protecting and restoring biological health of the land and wildlife. That is the entire reason for trying to end commercial livestock grazing.

Nothing would produce a greater positive impact upon the West's wildlife and land health than ending livestock production. To suggest that this ballot measure isn't about restoring the health of the land is preposterous-that's the primarily reason for attempting to eliminate livestock from our public lands.

Furthermore they have set up a false dichotomy since the present ballot initiative does permit livestock grazing under some very limited circumstances. Recall this ballot only calls on the end of COMMERCIAL livestock production, thus it does potentially allow the use of livestock grazing in special situations where it can be demonstrated that grazing by livestock is necessary for ecological restoration or other similar purposes and is the only available management tool. But the ban on commercial livestock grazing would place the onus upon livestock proponents to demonstrate that livestock grazing is absolutely essential for ecosystem restoration, not merely a subsidy to private commercial users.