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by George Wuerthner
revised July 5, 2001



TRUTH: More 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 with wildflowers.

Over much of the West, whether publicly or privately owned, the land reflects not good stewardship unfortunately, but abuse, neglect, ignorance, desperation and greed.


TRUTH: 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 zones.

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 rangeland recovery.


TRUTH:  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 production.

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. 


TRUTH: Public 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.


TRUTH: 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.  


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 species.


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.

As 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 residents.


TRUTH: 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 housing tracts.

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. 

Furthermore, 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 housing? 

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 West.


 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.