Cattle Grazing and the West's Wasteland

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Cattle Grazing and the West's Wasteland

By Anai Rhoads

When we think about threats to wildlife in the West, hunting, logging and encroachment often top our lists. But most of us don't realize there is a much greater threat, one supported by the United States government and paid for by taxpayers' dollars - federal public lands ranching.

Public lands ranching is one of the most destructive practices committed by humans in the western U.S. Each year, ranchers graze millions of cows and other animals on public lands - to the detriment of the native wildlife, taxpayers and the environment.

Public lands ranchers have been responsible for some of most atrocious acts ever committed against wildlife. Wolf eradication, the round up of wild horses and burros, and the obliteration of prairie dog towns have all been carried out to benefit these ranchers.

By far, the largest users, and abusers, of natural resources in the West are public lands ranchers. A 2005 report issued by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) showed that in fiscal year 2004, the federal government allowed 22.6 million animal unit months (AUMs) on about 235 million acres of federal lands for public lands grazing. An AMU is the amount of vegetation a cow and calf (or five sheep) eats in one month. Grazed lands include national forests, designated wilderness areas, national parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, national monuments, wildlife refuges, national conservation areas and military bases.

Given the vast tracks of land used and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year, some may be surprised to learn that public lands ranching makes up less than 3 percent of all beef production in the U.S. Yet the United States continues to aggressively fund and support this outdated and destructive industry – despite the consequences.

"Welfare" Ranching

Public land ranchers are often referred to as "welfare ranchers" because of the millions of taxpayers' dollars spent each year to keep the industry afloat. According to the GAO, the federal government spent at least $144 million in 2004 to support public lands ranching. The GAO admits that its conservative figure does not include other costs directly related to the industry, including the round up of wild horses and burros, restoring areas damaged by grazing and predator "control."

Of the taxpayers' funds spent on public lands ranching each year, only a small fraction (about $21 million in 2004) are collected back in grazing fees. The majority of grazing fees collected are not reinvested into the general fund, but are instead diverted to pay for fencing and other grazing-related infrastructure projects.

In 2009, public lands ranchers paid only $1.35 per AMU to graze, far less than the fair market value of $15.90 for comparable private and state lands. This is actually a reduction in the price public lands ranchers were paying in 2005.

Because of all of the taxpayers' money spent, it would seem plausible that public lands ranchers are significant contributors to the West's economy. Well, in fact, they are not.

In Arizona, public lands ranching make up a fraction of 1 percent of the state's economy. The majority of public lands ranchers don't even rely on their ranching businesses to survive. Half are classified as "hobby" ranchers, most have been in business less than a generation, and many public lands grazing permit holders are banks and large corporations.

Interior Secretary Salazar - A Public Lands Rancher's Best Friend

According to his official bio, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar comes from a long line of cattle ranchers, and considers himself to be a "champion" of the industry. Since being confirmed as Interior Secretary, Salazar has taken that champion role to heart, making a number of decisions benefiting public lands ranchers at the expense of wildlife and the public.

In March of 2009, Secretary Salazar pushed forward Bush administration plans to delist the grey wolf from the Endangered Species Act in most of the Northern Rockies. And in an unexpected move, he also gave Idaho and Montana authority over the wolf populations in their states - to the cheers of public lands ranchers. With Salazar's blessing, both states quickly implementing wolf hunts.

Secretary Salazar is also stepping up the war against wild horses and burros, who are seen by public lands ranchers as competitors for food and water.

His appointment is definitely seen as a step backwards by opponents of public lands ranching, especially since one of his predecessors, Bruce Babbitt, has been a vocal critic of the practice.

Salazar's War Against Wild Horses

For years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has rounded up wild horses and burros, in violation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The federal government has also taken away tens of millions of acres of public lands Congress explicitly designated for these free-living animals.

Once rounded up, wild horses and burros are confined in holding pens, where many spend the rest of their lives. Most are sterilized, and some are sold to private interests. Now, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has proposed a plan that would expand the capture and confinement of wild horses and burros. Tens of thousands of additional mustangs (mares and neutered stallions) would be rounded up and sent to holding facilities in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. - essentially government-run zoos. The plan would eliminate many of the wild herds that currently exist and mandate the "aggressive sterilization" of the remaining wild horses and burros.

According to American Herds, there are fewer than 15,000 horses and burros are left in the wild, while over 36,000 are confined in BLM holding pens. Every month the government spends more than $3.3 million to hold these animals. Salazar’s plan would add an additional $42.5 million to the taxpayers’ tab over the next few years - all to benefit public lands ranchers.

The Effect of Public Lands Grazing on Wildlife and the Environment

Welfare ranching supporters claim that public lands ranchers have made the West what it is today. To a certain degree, they are correct. Federal and state governments, at the behest of ranchers, carried out one of the most systematic extermination campaigns ever committed against of free-living animals. Between the early 1900's and 1970's, the federal government hired hunters and trappers to eradicate scores of wolves, jaguars, grizzly bears and other predators seen as impediments to the ranching industry.

These eradication programs had a devastating effect on wildlife and the environment of the West, completely wiping out wolves and other predators.

Even today, the federal government still carries out eradication programs against predators, as well as other wildlife thought to compete with grazing animals for food. Ninety-eight percent of prairie dog communities have been eliminated for cattle ranching since the beginning of the 20th century.

The killing of prairie dogs and other wildlife for public lands ranching has gravely affected the natural balance of the West. For example, the black-footed ferret relies almost solely on prairie dogs for its survival. The decimation of prairie dog communities has made this animal one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

The massive environmental damage caused by public lands ranching is truly unfathomable. Ranchers like to say that they are 'stewards' of the land. But the truth is, most of today's public lands ranchers have never seen the areas they graze in a natural, healthy state. Generations of grazing has destroyed entire ecosystems, imperiling the wide-range of animals who depend on them. Soil erosion, the introduction of invasive plant species and the loss of ground cover are all attributed to public lands ranching. And because his practice occurs mostly in arid regions of the West, where water and rain are scarce, it can take decades for these ecosystems to recover.

In addition, cows grazed by public lands ranchers consume the vast majority of available grasses, which would otherwise be eaten by native wildlife. These ranchers have also destroyed 80 percent of sensitive waterways in the West. Seventy-five to eighty percent of wildlife species in arid regions depend on these streams and rivers for survival, including endangered fish, mammals and birds. In southern Arizona and western New Mexico, public lands ranching is the number one threat to endangered species, and is one of the top five threats to endangered species in four other western states.

Citing its catastrophic environmental effects, in his 2005 book Cities In The Wilderness: A New Vision Of Land Use In America, former Interior Secretary Babbitt said that public lands grazing "is the most damaging use of public land."

Public Lands Ranchers and Wildlife Today

Public lands ranchers are some of the most vocal opponents of programs designed protect endangered species and reintroduce wolves, bears and other predators to their natural habitats. It is wildly understood that the elimination of predators has caused immeasurable damage to the ecosystems where they once lived. And while wolf predation on livestock amounts for only a fraction of the losses ranchers see each year (and is usually caused by poor ranching practices), these "welfare" recipients have impeded the wildly popular reintroduction programs at every opportunity – even resorting to violence. Since the federal government reintroduced the Mexican grey wolf into the Blue Range Wilderness of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 1998, at least 31 have been illegally shot and killed. To put this number in perspective, in 2009, there are only 42 reintroduced Mexican grey wolves and their offspring in the wild.

The states of Idaho and Montana have implemented hunts following Secretary Salazar's decision to delist the wolf, in large part to appease public lands ranchers. More than 500 wolves have been killed in these states alone since the delisting - 257 by hunters, and roughly 250 by state and federal agents in the name of "livestock protection."

Wildlife are not the only animals suffering at the hands of public lands ranchers. The cows, sheep and other animals that are grazed often suffer the harshest treatment. Much of the public grazing land is arid desert, populated by cacti, scrub brush and other sharp plant life. Temperatures in these places can reach well over 100 degrees for months on end. Not the picture most people imagine when told about "free-range" ranching.

Time to Let the Sun Set on Public Lands Ranching

Public lands ranching is clearly not worth the price - considering the catastrophic effects on wildlife, the billions of taxpayers' dollars spent to prop up the industry and the millions of acres of land destroyed in its wake.

Innovated efforts to "retire" grazing permits and pay ranchers to removal cows from public lands have seen success, and are gaining acceptance in Washington, D.C. But Congress and the Obama administration must do more to end this costly and damaging practice.

A simpler, and cheaper, solution would be to remove the livestock from public lands. But given his ties to public lands ranchers, it is doubtful that Secretary Salazar will even consider this option.


Anai Rhoads is the Founder and Executive Director of AnaiRhoads.org, a non-profit media group est in 1996. A prominent vegan and advocate for human and animal rights since 1991. Her work was featured in the Organization of the Islamic Conference Annual Report on Islamophobia in 2007, UNAIDS Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, Iranian-American Council, and she has been quoted in the New York Times, Seattle Times, the Associated Press, Pacifica and dozens of other prominent media outlets.