Can America’s West stay wild?
Policy on vast public lands has favored ranchers. Demographics and economics may alter that equation now.
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Given the stakes, why not just play it safe? Mr. Monda turns the question around: What’s the most conservative choice, to remove cows and thereby change conditions, or to keep conditions the same and leave cows on the land? “What’s the right answer? I don’t know,” he says. But “for multiple generations, the area had been grazed. And it was the last place that had rabbits.”Skip to next paragraph
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Ranchers are bulwarks to development
Ranchers view themselves as natural stewards of the land. Who knows and cares for the land better than they do? Often abutting public land, working ranches are bulwarks against out-of-control development, say pro-ranchers. Subdivisions – further habitat fragmentation – are worse for endangered species than are cattle, they argue. In recent years, this historically polarized debate has seen what Courtney White, cofounder of the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe, N.M., calls the emergence of “the radical center.” In an effort toward sustainability, “progressive” ranchers are seeking to apply lessons learned from ecological science.
But, say some, even if better management can diminish livestock’s harmful impact, cows, an exotic species, shouldn’t wander the semiarid western landscape for one simple reason: “There’s only so much biomass out there,” says George Wuerthner, coeditor of “Welfare Ranching.” “If the majority of forage is going into a cow, it’s not there for all the other life forms.”
The forebears of American cattle evolved in parts of Eurasia much wetter than the US West. They gather and loiter near water. Much of the damage caused by cattle, scientists say, is from their impact on waterways. They can denude riverbanks, leading to erosion and muddy water. The loss of shade-giving plants raises water temperatures. Native fish species that have evolved in clear, cold water may suffer. Nesting birds lose habitat.
Other species affected by cattle
Katie Fite, biodiversity director at Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group in Boise, Idaho, lists species that are among those negatively affected by grazing: the sage grouse, the willow flycatcher, the yellow-breasted chat. Reptiles and amphibians like collared lizards and spotted frogs also suffer, she says.
A 2005 report by the US Government Accountability Office found that grazing on public lands cost taxpayers $115 million yearly. Ranching critics say that the current grazing permit price – $1.35 per cow-calf pair per month – is at least an order of magnitude too low. This subsidy, they say, is greatly responsible for much of the degradation on public lands in the West. Humans get a little meat at the
expense of wolves, grizzlies, bison, birds, and trout – intact functioning ecosystems.
“We ought to leave the West mostly for wildlife,” Mr. Wuerthner says. “That’s where it does really well, and it can’t be substituted somewhere else.”
Others see a more complicated picture.