MYTH AND REALITY
ARE GOOD STEWARDS OF THE LAND
than 410 million acres of U.S. rangelands—public and private—are in
unsatisfactory ecological condition, according to an estimate by the Natural
Resource Conservation Service. This
is an area four times the size of California, or 21 percent of the continental
United States, and nearly all of it is in the West.
These lands are severely damaged, with at least 50 percent of the
desirable plant species eliminated, high erosion and weed invasion rates, and
riparian areas unable to function normally.
Although public lands usually get more attention from the media,
statistics compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service indicate that
more total acres and a higher percentage of private lands in the West are in
unsatisfactory condition, as compared to public rangelands. What is particularly
egregious is that private lands tend to be more productive and better watered
than public lands—hence more resilient to livestock abuses.
In truth, ranchers are fighting an impossible battle against the natural
limitations of the landscape. The West is not only an arid region, but one where
annual precipitation varies widely. The amount of precipitation that falls in a
year is directly reflected in the amount of grass production, meaning that
forage quantity varies widely from year to year as well. This makes it very
difficult for a rancher to maintain a stable business operation while also
managing his herd so as to not damage the land.
To be a good steward, ideally, one not only has a sense of
responsibility and care for the land—as many ranchers do—but also treats the
land in a way that conserves its fertility, productivity, diversity and beauty
for the future. Yet, by growing domestic animals that demand large quantities of
water and forage in a place that is dry, and by favoring slow-moving, heavy, and
relatively defenseless livestock in terrain that is rugged, vast, and inhabited
by native predators, ranchers have actually put themselves in a position of
constant warfare with the land. They funnel most of the grass into their own
animals, at the expense of the wild herbivores. They divert water from rivers to
grow hay and other crops to feed cows, while fish and other aquatic life are
left with hot, shallow trickles. Ranchers allow their cattle to graze and
trample riparian areas—habitat upon which 75-80 percent of all wild animal
species in the West depend. Ranchers' cattle pollute waterways with their
manure, and add excessive sediments to the water from their trampling and
denuding of the land. And while "beauty is in the eye of the
beholder," it's arguable whether most people would prefer a place where the
grass is chewed down to stubs and the ground is littered with cow pies, over a
grassland of tall and waving stems, dotted
Over much of the West, whether publicly or privately owned, the land
reflects not good stewardship unfortunately, but abuse, neglect, ignorance,
desperation and greed.
CONDITION IS IMPROVING
Rangelands were so severely overgrazed in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, most places just couldn't get any worse. Since then, there has been
limited improvement due to a steep reduction in livestock numbers. Yet it would
be wrong to imply that our rangelands are seeing significant advances towards
biological sustainability. Hundreds of millions of acres are still in an
ecologically degraded condition. For example, according to statistics compiled
by the Society for Range Management, 15 percent of BLM lands are improving in ecological condition and function.
However, 14 percent of BLM lands
are continuing to decline. And while the vast
majority of BLM holdings are rated "stable,"
a high proportion of the
acreage in this category is in such poor shape, it cannot possibly get worse. Livestock
proponents like to say that the majority of western rangelands are "stable
and improving." Yet, by combining the large percentage of
"stable" lands with the smaller percentage of "improving"
lands, what they've done is
disguise the reality that most of these public lands are ecological disaster
Most improvement that has occurred on the public lands has been on the
uplands (areas upslope of valley bottoms and streams) due to decreasing numbers
of livestock there, while the devastation of biologically critical riparian
areas continues. In fact, according
to a 1990 Environmental Protection Agency report,
riparian areas are in the "worst condition in history."
And, as a 1989 General Accounting Office report found,
livestock were the major source of riparian degradation on public lands
in the West. It is possible for livestock proponents to claim that the range
condition of a particular allotment is improving even while the riparian zones
within it are worsening, due to the
way official range assessments average all parts of an allotment together.
In most cases, improvement on an allotment is a consequence of lowered
stock density or a shortened grazing season. In effect,
fewer livestock means better range condition, and in nearly all
instances, termination of all livestock would result in even more rapid
Hundreds of species across the West are in danger of extinction primarily
due to livestock production. Species as varied as the Bruneau Hot Springs snail,
the Southwest willow flycatcher, and the Bonneville cutthroat trout are
endangered as a consequence of habitat loss or degradation due to livestock
grazing and its associated activities. No other human activity in the West is
responsible for the decline or loss of more species than is livestock
Predator and pest control has extirpated many species,
from wolves to prairie dogs.
Dewatering of rivers for irrigation has contributed to the decline of many
aquatic species, including many native trout. Livestock trampling of riparian
areas, wet meadows, seeps and springs has harmed habitat for a great variety of
creatures, from song birds to frogs. The consumption by livestock of grass and
other vegetation decreases hiding cover for many animals, making them more
vulnerable to predators. Disease transmission from livestock to wildlife, as has
frequently occurred with domestic sheep and bighorn sheep,
can diminish or eliminate certain wild animal populations. Most forage on
public rangelands is allotted to
livestock, leaving little food for native species to consume.
A few species have increased with the spread of livestock production.
Yet, just as one could demonstrate that rats and pigeons flourish in the city,
and thereby incorrectly assert that wildlife benefit from urbanization, so too
is it false to point to the proliferation of deer, Canada geese, cowbirds, and a
few other opportunists, and suggest that livestock
production enhances conditions for wildlife in general.
Several big game species, such as elk, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn
sheep, have increased from early 20th century lows,
when market and subsistence hunting nearly drove them to extinction. The
rise in the numbers of these species is a consequence of
intensive game management including adoption of strict hunting seasons,
reintroductions, and habitat acquisition, rather
than any inherent compatibility with livestock.
Indeed, many of these
animals are still limited by competition for
forage, water, and space with domestic livestock.
Livestock advocates suggest that water developments, such as troughs and
stock ponds, benefit wildlife. While some animals undoubtedly use these
facilities, they tend to lack adequate vegetation around them for hiding cover,
nesting habitat, foraging, and other needs. Thus, these structures are almost
useless to most wild species, and they exist at the expense of
natural seeps, springs and streams that would support far more native
creatures if left intact.
PUBLIC LANDS GRAZING SUPPORTS THE
lands grazing subsidies, like most agricultural subsidies, disproportionately
benefit large landholders. According to a recent GAO profile of BLM permittees,
the largest 500 permittees, out of nearly 20,000 total, control 36 percent of
the public lands forage. Just 16 percent of all permittees control 76.2 percent
of the AUMs (animal unit months—a measurement of forage)
available on BLM lands. Most of these permittees are big corporations or very
wealthy individuals. The smallest 2,000 permittees control less than 0.13
percent of BLM forage.
This inequality is a result
of the process for assigning public lands allotments. Access to permits
requires ownership of private base operations. Since wealthy ranchers own more
land, and thus more base property, they wind up with more federal lands allotments.
In addition, few ranchers depend entirely upon their public lands
allotments to meet all their forage needs. Although the percentage varies from
operation to operation and state to state, most ranchers get the majority of
their annual forage needs from private lands. Only the largest operations
actually use public lands for a significant amount of their livestock's forage.
If the public lands were to become unavailable to these large ranches, most of
their operators could reasonably afford alternatives for grazing their stock.
Alternatively, most smaller ranches today represent status or lifestyle
choices for their owners. This includes the vast majority of ranchers who use
public lands. The preponderance of all western ranches do not depend exclusively
on livestock for their income, or for even an important fraction of their
income. Growing and selling livestock is usually a break-even enterprise, at
best. Jobs in town or other business ventures are what allow families to
maintain their status and appearance as "ranchers," not running cattle
or sheep on the range. If these ranchers chose to give up, or were forced to
relinquish, their public lands allotments, most would adjust through reducing
their herd size to match their private holdings, or leasing the private grazing
lands of other landowners. They
might also continue to diversify their income—as many are already
doing—either with new enterprises on the ranch (e.g., guest ranches, guided
fishing and hunting), or with other work off the ranch.
HAVE REPLACED THE BISON
Although cattle and bison have a common evolutionary ancestor, so do the polar
bear and black bear. Yet we would
not suggest that these two bears can inhabit the same type of landscape, or are
ecological analogues of one another. Cattle evolved in moist woodlands in
Eurasia and are poorly adapted to arid regions.
They use more water than bison, spend more time in riparian areas, and
are less mobile. They are poorly adapted to
dry western rangelands—one reason why livestock grazing has been so
detrimental to these ecosystems.
Bison feed in one place for a few days, then move on, while cattle tend to “camp out” in the same
location for weeks, overgrazing the landscape in the process. Bison survive on
available, native forage. Cattle require extra feed to survive northern winters,
which typically means hay production and accompanying dewatering of streams.
Cattle are poorly adapted to dealing with predators, being rather slow and
unintelligent. Bison retain their wild instincts for avoiding and fending off
wolves, grizzlies and other carnivores.
Wild bison functioned within ecosystems in ways that livestock do not.
For example, their bodies served as food for predators, and were also scavenged
upon by animals such as ravens, coyotes, and magpies.
What was left of their carcasses decomposed, and was returned to the
soil. Bison were a part of, and contributed to, a great diversity of life.
Livestock, on the other hand, represent a large net loss of energy and biomass
to an ecosystem, as their bodies are removed for human consumption elsewhere.
Despite the simplistic claim that cows
merely replace bison, it’s not
just bison that have been replaced by this exotic, domesticated species. On most
rangelands today, cattle are the only
major herbivore. Yet, in the days before livestock, an entire suite of species
fed on the grassland plants, from
grasshoppers and sage grouse, to
prairie dogs and pronghorn.
Substituting this diverse group of herbivores--with different dietary
preferences--for a single species results in over-use of
some plant species, and grants competitive advantage to others. These
other plants are often invasive and less palatable to many native herbivores.
MUST BE GRAZED TO STAY HEALTHY
TRUTH: Much of
the area that is now public land in the West supports native plant communities
that evolved largely in the absence of grazing
herd animals. Between the Sierra Nevada—Cascade crest and the Rocky Mountains
is the arid "interior," composed of areas such as the Great Basin,
southwestern grasslands, Palouse prairie, and the various deserts of the
Southwest. Bison were mostly confined to the Great Plains east of the Rockies,
and even the herds of pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep,
elk and other herbivores found in the interior West tended to be small
and widely distributed. The plant species and soils of this region not adapted
to continual removal and trampling, as occurs with domestic livestock.
Yet, some livestock proponents persist,
arguing that while no large herds of grazing or browsing animals occurred in the
interior West in historic times, during the last Ice Age great numbers of wild
horses, mastodons, giant sloth and other herbivores
roamed these lands. Thus, they claim,
cattle are merely filling a niche
left empty since the extinction of these Pleistocene mammals. The problem,
however, is that climatic
conditions were very different during the Ice Age as compared with the present,
and subsequently plant communities were much different in
composition. Higher precipitation during the Ice Age also resulted in
greater productivity than today. Cattle are not filling some long vacant
ecological role; they are an exotic
animal that has dramatically altered native plant communities of the arid West.
Even where large herds of bison, elk and pronghorn were common, such as
on the Great Plains, the plant species do not need to be grazed. Rather,
many Great Plains grasses tolerate grazing.
These plants can compensate for losses in leaf and stem materials through
additional growth. However, they do so at some cost. The plants move
carbohydrates up from their roots to produce new leaves, but this may slow root
growth, or inhibit seed production. Only plants with unlimited access to water
and nutrients and no competition
(conditions found only in a growth chamber), can withstand repeated cropping
without harm. In nature, plants
repeatedly munched by livestock
suffer from diminished root mass, which can be a lethal situation for the plant
in the event of a drought. Of course, this is common in the West, including
the Great Plains.
Those reluctant to abandon a pro-livestock stance cling to arguments
such as livestock are necessary as "management tools." They say cows
and sheep can help in the curbing of weed outbreaks, or the elimination of
"decadent, overmature" grasses. These claims ignore the fact that
livestock have been shown to be the most important cause of weed invasion; that
most native plants are fine, if not healthier,
without "pruning" of older leaf material; and in almost all
cases, there are other, more beneficial and natural means for achieving the same
goals. Prescribed fire, for instance, removes plant material, but
non-selectively—unlike livestock—and therefore is not only lighter on the
land, but also does not risk granting further competitive advantage to weed
IS THE FOUNDATION OF RURAL
TRUTH: 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. In all of
Nevada, there are less than 800 permittees that graze on public lands. And in
the entire state, less than 2,000
people are engaged in any kind of agriculture, including farming. One casino in
Las Vegas employs more people than Nevada's entire agricultural sector. Although
other states may have higher numbers of people involved in ranching,
proportionally, livestock production is 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. This
helps to explain the rather interesting finding of one University of Arizona
study, in which 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 the income from positions as schoolteachers,
local civil servants, store clerks, salespeople, etc., 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
many will indeed complain!). Therefore, it can be argued that rural towns would
likely survive without ranchers, but most ranchers would be hard-pressed to
survive financially without the towns.
ranching is relatively unimportant in local economies, it is even less important
on state and regional scales. According to the Department of Interior’s 1994 Rangeland Reform Environmental Impact
Statement, the elimination of all public land 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 one-half of one percent of all income received by western
IT'S EITHER RANCHING OR
Livestock advocates always try to silence critics by suggesting that reducing or
eliminating livestock from our public lands will lead to subdivisions. Yet,
supporting the livestock industry--even increasing its subsidies--will not stop
the parceling out of ranchland into
Ranching in the West has always depended on the availability of large
acreages of inexpensive land. Western ranchers have competed with stock growers
in more productive regions of the country through an economy of scale: using
more space. However, when land
prices rise, expansion of the ranch is no longer an option. Ranchers cannot make
livestock production profitable because they have lost their one
advantage—inexpensive land. Today on a per acre basis, wetter, more equitable
areas will produce more cattle more cheaply, than western rangelands.
subdivision is a market-driven phenomenon. A supply of millions of acres of land
for sale (as is the case in the
Great Plains), does not alone draw buyers, even if the land is cheap. The land
must have other qualities if it is to be attractive to developers, and eventual
buyers of homes and lots. Jobs, outdoor amenities, cultural offerings, good
schools, a pleasant climate, beautiful scenery—these attract people, and
therefore stimulate subdivision.
It is a falsehood to state that availability of public lands grazing has
or will prevent subdivisions anyplace in the West.
Sprawl has gobbled up farmland in California’s Central Valley
and the Los Angeles Basin, despite the fact that these are some of most
valuable agricultural lands in the world. How can anyone expect marginal ranches
and rangelands in the West to compete economically against the demand for
The threat of subdivisions needs to be put in perspective. Ultimately,
population growth is the problem. In the meantime, however, livestock production
has a physical footprint far greater than urban and suburban areas. In
California, the most populous, most urbanized western state,
less than five percent of the land
area is devoted to cities, towns, subdivisions, etc.
Yet agriculture--including farming and ranching—dominates more than 70
percent of the state's acreage. In other western states, the fraction of land
occupied by housing and urban/suburban development is even smaller.
Fortunately, there are at least three proven ways to protect open space,
wildlife habitat and other environmental values on private lands: zoning,
conservation easements, and outright fee purchase. Of the three, fee purchase
provides the strongest long-term protection. If we devoted the same amount of
money we currently throw away on subsidies to the livestock industry, including
paying for environmental damage brought about by livestock production,
we could easily purchase most of the critical wildlife habitat in the
MYTH: GOOD LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION AND
ECOSYSTEM PRESERVATION CAN CO-EXIST
TRUTH: Perhaps the
biggest fallacy perpetrated by the livestock industry is the idea that if we
only reform or modify management practices, there's room for both livestock and
fully functional ecosystems, native wildlife, clean water and so on.
Unfortunately, to even approach this, more intensive management is needed, and
this adds considerably to the costs of operation. More fencing, more water
development, more employees to ride the range: whatever the suggested solution,
it nearly 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 can not be justified or absorbed.
With the production of meat as a commodity being the goal, an equal investment
of money in a moister, more productive stock-growing region—such as the
Midwest or eastern U.S.--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, it’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, it’s that much less water
to support fish, snails, and a host of other lifeforms. 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.