Our Public Lands:
Wildlife Habitat or Cattle Pasture?

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Our Public Lands:
Wildlife Habitat or Cattle Pasture?

By Mike Hudak, ©2001
Reprinted with permission May 2010

Imagine returning home to find strangers living there. You complain to governmental authorities, but they ignore your pleas to evict the intruders. Your only recourse is to spend your money to bring a lawsuit against the intruders to prove that you have a right to live there and they don’t. That’s much the situation that dozens of wildlife species face on our western public lands today.

A bit of background. Ranchers moved their domestic cattle and sheep into the Southwest almost 400 years ago and into the rest of the West about 150 years ago. After 1850, as the cattle industry boomed, ranchers put as many cattle and sheep on the land as they could afford, and the more livestock there were, the less food remained for wildlife. The large number of cattle and sheep also caused long-term damage to grasslands, deserts and streams rendering them less suitable for many species of reptiles, birds, fish and mammals. Ranchers further contributed to the decline of wildlife populations by shooting, trapping and poisoning animals they regarded as a threat to their livestock. Mountain lions, wolves, grizzly bears and even prairie dogs became their targets.

Today most wildlife populations in the West are greatly reduced from the days before livestock. For example, the prairie dog population is only about 2% of its size at the beginning of the 20th century, and the bighorn sheep population is estimated at 1% of its size prior to the introduction of livestock.

Also, more than seventy wildlife species are now listed as Threatened, Endangered or are proposed for listing by the federal government. And a major reason for these listings is the livestock industry. Not only does its cattle damage wildlife habitat, but the industry, or the government working on its behalf, builds fences (which hinder wildlife movement), diverts water from streams and reseeds areas with non-native grasses unpalatable to wildlife.

Since the early 1900s our federal public lands have been managed by governmental agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which we expect to uphold laws protecting the wildlife under their jurisdiction. Yet in many cases these agencies will not act until environmentalists bring a lawsuit on behalf of a species that has been listed as Endangered. Many such lawsuits have been won on behalf of wildlife, but lawsuits are expensive, and several years may pass before a judgment is rendered. In the meantime many species continue to decline while they wait for their day in court. If some species are to avoid extinction we need to protect them from the livestock industry in a more effective way.