October 10, 2014
The average American consumes about 270 pounds of beef every year, happily patronizing an industry that has grown dramatically over the last century. In the Western United States 70% of land is grazed by livestock–that’s approximately 270 million acres of public land, including wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national forests, and even national parks. If you have hiked even some of the most remote wilderness areas of the Western United States, you have probably noticed the tell-tale signs of cattle ranching. Unfortunately, the effects from cattle grazing on public lands have exacerbated the threat to endangered plant and animal species and have polluted a huge portion of water sources in the West. The lush ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests that covered a great portion of the Western United States, and the species that rely on this habitat to survive are literally being trampled by domestic livestock. Meanwhile, cattle ranchers and law men have become embroiled in an armed old-western standoff over the issue.
The recent court ruling and subsequent civil dispute between Clive Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in U.S. v. Bundy, highlights the contentious nature of the debate regarding the rights to livestock grazing on public land. Currently in the United States, livestock are permitted to roam free and graze on a huge portion of public land, providing the cattle rancher pay a permitting fee of $1.35 per cow, per month (a figure which has hardly changed since its inception in 1978). That’s less than it would cost the average pet owner to feed their goldfish, and 7 times less than the cost of feeding a house cat for a month. Mr. Bundy, however, refused to pay these fees and after nearly 20 years of court proceedings the BLM finally notified Mr. Bundy of the intent to remove his cattle from public lands, sparking the armed standoff between authorities and supporters of free-roaming cattle. Endangered species, such as the desert tortoise, which have been threatened by Mr. Bundy’s cattle grazing, represent a microcosm of this larger macro problem of livestock-induced habitat degradation across the Western United States.
So what are the measurable effects of livestock grazing, and why is this an important issue for species protection and restoration ecology efforts? “Grazing has contributed to the demise of 22% of federal threatened and endangered species.” (Wilcove et al.) That’s the same as the detrimental effects of logging and mining combined. Livestock grazing affects 33% of endangered plants and results in the consumption of 88% of available forage food. Ranching in the 20th century has all but eliminated prairie dog towns and threatened the 170 species who depended on them and their burrows. In addition to species loss, domestic livestock ranching is the most potent desertification source, with 225 million acres reported in the U.S.
Domestic livestock waste and disease has also contaminated 80% of streams in the arid West. Beyond the pathogenic bacteria introduced into streams and water sources, there exists a litany of other negative impacts to streambed hydrology, morphology, vegetation, aquatic life, and riparian ecosystems.
Furthermore, tens of millions of dollars are spent every year to kill predators, such as bobcats, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and bears, which are deemed threatening to the existence of livestock. This is ironic given that the fact that only 4.7% of cattle and calf losses are attributed to predation, and domestic dogs kill as many livestock as mountain lions, bobcats, bears, and wolves combined.
Although some studies have shown that livestock grazing can help to eliminate chaparral (shrubland plant) growth and therefore reduce fire danger, there are other studies to show that the invasive growth and weeds which follow livestock grazing also contribute to higher fuel loads.
Another argument sites the efficacy of livestock grazing to control invasive species, such as the introduction of goats to eat Kudzu (Pueria lobata) in the South Eastern United States, but this argument is also a double edged sword as invasive species often flourish in over-grazed lands. Conservation grazing is an initiative that attempts to find middle ground amidst the opposing debaters, and it is often cited by ranchers as proof that free range cattle can be beneficial to the environment. This particular approach regulates the amount of grazing allowed in a particular area, controlling the height and density of grasses which allows many shorter wildflower species the opportunity to flourish. This process requires careful controls over the duration, quantity, and range of grazing in order to succeed.
Over 100 million federal taxpayer dollars are spent every year to directly subsidize cattle ranching on public lands. But, how much money will need to be spent to restore our rapidly degrading ecosystems? The propagation of livestock for personal and commercial purposes is an American tradition that dates back well before the revolutionary war. Yet, will our insatiable appetite for beef contribute to the loss of thousands of native species? The U.S. government currently spends over a billion dollars on endangered species protection and millions on ecological restoration, but the source of destruction must be addressed first if restoration efforts are to hold any ground in the future.
Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J Dubow, A Phillips, E. Losos. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States: assessing the relative importance of habitat destruction, alien species, pollution, overexploitation and disease. BioScience 48(8): 610.
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