Cattle grazing on much of the Western landscape makes no ecological sense, and further, has little economic relevance

August 20, 2018

In the summer of 2000, in the midst of one of the most intense droughts in the Southwest in decades, I was radicalized by fire. During an 11-day backpack across the Gila Wilderness, my companion and I came across one of the rarest events in the cow-burnt landscapes of the West – a gentle fire, dancing slowly through an old-growth ponderosa pine forest.

McKenna Park, the area where the fire burned quietly for more than two months without generating so much as a whisper from the Western political establishment, has been off limits to domestic livestock for nearly half a century. As a result of the exclusion of cattle and sheep, knee- and waist-high fescues and other native grasses blanket this rolling parkland, while beavers dam mile after mile of trout streams bordered with dense thickets of cottonwood and willow.

That experience was just one in a long line of ecological epiphanies I have had since moving to New Mexico in 1994. They have each led me to a simple conclusion: Cattle grazing on much of the Western landscape makes no ecological sense, and further, has little economic relevance.

Beavers and fire are two critical ecological agents that will continue to be marginalized by the rancher-centric worldview promoted in Ranching West of the 100th Meridian, edited by Richard L. Knight, Wendell Gilgert and Ed Marston. The book is a collection of essays that celebrate and eulogize ranching and the rural culture that has grown up around it in the last 140 years.

At the center of the book’s worldview is the belief that ranching, with slight ecological modifications, can save the West from the looming onslaught of development. This pervasive view, echoed by the book’s many contributors, is the product of a popular cultural mythology that refuses to see the ecological wounds that scar the Western landscape, and grow deeper every year.

The editors of Ranching West of the 100th Meridian promote the false dichotomy that Westerners must choose between either cows or condos; between flood-irrigated alfalfa pastures or another Wal-Mart. For the same reason that I disagree with President Bush for framing the post 9/11 geopolitical situation as one of either good or evil, I reject the notion that we can only have either cows or condos.

The dichotomy doesn’t work for two basic reasons.

First, ranching in an arid landscape is not economically vibrant enough to prevent sprawl. It is, and always has been, an economically marginal activity. Ranchers regularly lose money. This financial reality is only acceptable because of a seemingly endless list of direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies to ranchers on the order of $500 million per year.

Ranchers have been selling out to developers for a century or more, not because of pesky and persistent environmentalists or because they couldn’t get along with their local BLM range con, but because ranching, as a business, stinks. And it’s not getting any better.

If Westerners are serious about preventing sprawl from destroying private lands that are important wildlife corridors or biological hotspots—and we should be—then we can’t hide behind the cowboy myth. We must place much greater priority on conservation easements, land-use planning and private land acquisition.

As it is now, we’re getting the worst of both worlds—ecologically damaging cattle grazing and largely uncontrolled sprawl. Our public lands are being held hostage by ranchers who angrily oppose wolf reintroduction, persecute prairie dogs and continue to allow their livestock to destroy streams, even after they’ve sold their private lands to become the latest “Elk Meadows” subdivision. Second, the editors of Ranching West of the 100th Meridian routinely fail to consider the true ecological impacts of livestock grazing and production in the West.

As narrowly framed by Marston, Knight and Gilgert, the ecological debate about ranching in the West is little more than a conflict over how to manage grass. It’s not surprising then that the editors cite a 1994 National Academy of Sciences report to defend their position that livestock grazing is, at worst, ecologically benign. Yet that report, which used inconclusive evidence to determine whether range conditions have improved or worsened in recent decades, completely ignores the reams of evidence from the non-agriculturally oriented scientific community that implicates livestock production in the endangerment of hundreds of imperiled desert, grassland, aquatic and even forest species.

The Academy of Sciences report and Ranching West of the 100th Meridian also ignore the role that cattle grazing—by removing grasses that fuel low-intensity fires—has played in disrupting natural fire regimes across the West’s drier forests. Likewise, they fail to openly admit that the sole reason wolves are embattled refugees on the Western landscape, and that federal agents kill almost 90,000 coyotes per year, is to make the West’s open spaces safer for sheep and cattle.

And what of the continuing war against prairie dogs and beavers, keystone species whose loss has resulted in the near collapse of Western stream and grassland ecosystems? Or the hundreds of Western creeks dammed and diverted for the purpose of flood-irrigating alfalfa to sustain cattle in the winter or to fill stockponds on land where cattle could not otherwise exist? Streams, the arteries of life in the arid West, are not only routinely clogged with cattle, but have also been literally removed from the landscape to sustain cattle.

Perhaps the greatest failing of those who embrace the ranching culture is their unwillingness to envision another rural culture that has a wholly different relationship to the Western landscape and its wild inhabitants.

Like Knight, Gilgert and Marston, I too believe that we are working, as the late author Wallace Stegner once said, to find “a society to match (the West’s) scenery.” What I and other cattle critics have in common with some of those who seek to sustain ranching on public lands, is an abhorrence for the homogenizing influences that are slowly seeping into our distinctive Western culture and landscape.

From there, our visions part radically. The society we seek is one that doesn’t endlessly persecute the West’s wildlife, glorify gun violence, arrogantly presume a right to divert an entire creek’s flow, or turn desert grasslands into scrub.

There is another culture—even in the West’s rural outposts—that rejects consumerism, Wal-Mart, and the senseless sprawl that is sterilizing our precious Western heritage. The culture waiting to flourish as ranching inevitably wanes across the arid West is one that embraces the West’s wild heart, its droughts, fires, wolves and all of the extremes of this stark and beautiful land that we call home.

John Horning

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

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