From pollinators to prairie dogs, biodiverse ecosystems are vital to all life on earth. Healthy ecosystems maintain clean air, safe water and healthy soils. But these natural ecosystems are often harmed by cattle grazing, which degrades the landscape, pollutes water sources, and displaces wildlife. Commercial grazing is one of the key threats endangering species and causing global biodiversity loss.
Cattle alter wild habitats by eating vegetation, spreading seeds, and polluting water through manure, trampling and horn rubbing. Grazing cattle not only trample soils and delicate ecosystems but often spread invasive weeds like cheatgrass, which damages ecosystems, reduces forage and cover for wildlife, and creates more potential for wildfire. Some operations still rely on supplemental feed crops, which use enormous amounts of land, water and pesticides and contaminate air, soil and water with toxic manure.
Biodiversity Loss and Extinction
Whether from Wildlife Services, individual operators or other killing programs, the direct killing of wildlife for the livestock industry has driven keystone predators like California grizzly bears and Mexican gray wolves extinct in their ecosystems. Other species face impending extinction today.
Unlike native grazers like elk, bighorn sheep, deer and bison, which disperse and wander great distances, nonnative cattle mostly concentrate near waterways for long periods of time, grazing on grasses and trampling on most vegetation. Overgrazing also reduces the height and ground cover of grasses, removing bird’s refuges from predators and favorable habitats for roosting and nesting. This loss of grasses and shrubs eliminates important cover for deer, antelope fawns and elk calves, as well as amphibians, sage grouse and other birds who use riparian areas for nesting.
Meanwhile studies have shown removing livestock helped with restoration of riparian tree species. Cattle are a non-native species that didn’t evolve in the landscapes of the American West. They have very different grazing and behavioral patterns from native bison and cannot serve as a natural replacement grazer to the ecosystems that were once home to bison.
Today many wild species — including the desert tortoise, Sonoran pronghorn, sharp-tailed grouse, bison, bighorn sheep, deer and elk — face competition with domestic cattle over water, land and vegetation. Meanwhile forest ecosystems are consumed by livestock, leaving little residual cover or food for native wildlife. Cattle, sheep and goats consume the vast majority of all U.S. wild vegetation. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 90% of the forage on public lands is allotted to domestic livestock, even though this region also has the greatest concentration of native, wild herbivores left in the country and is the last substantial, nearly intact ancient ecosystem in the United States.
Perhaps the most well-known conflicts cattle create are with keystone predators like wolves and grizzly bears. Meat producers nearly eradicated wolves in the United States in the 20th century and exterminated North American grizzlies from the Southwest and California. Denying conservation science, the livestock industry remains the leading opponent of otherwise popular efforts to reintroduce species like the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest and gray wolves in Colorado.
Yet predation impacts on cattle are largely overstated, and evidence suggests indiscriminate killing of individual carnivores does not reduce depredation. In fact, in the case of coyotes, it can increase populations.
But cattle grazing affects other carnivores, too. For example, the ecosystem of the Mexican spotted owl, a federally listed species, is threatened by grazing livestock, which in turn affects the owl’s supply of prey. The Forest Service failed to implement its own grazing standards and guidelines to protect the owl on approximately 75% of Southwest grazing allotments.
Wildlife Spotlight: Mexican Gray Wolf
Mexican gray wolves are among the most endangered mammals in North America, and the meat industry remains the leading opponent to their recovery efforts in Arizona and New Mexico. Between 1915 and 1972, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service poisoned and trapped almost every single wild Mexican gray wolf. Since then the livestock industry has repeatedly urged the government to trap or kill the remaining wild Mexican wolves. In 2015, the Mexican gray wolf was protected under the Endangered Species Act. Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service has continued to kill Mexican gray wolves and issue kill permits to cattle operators. As a result, the major threat to this federally protected endangered species is the federal program tasked with its protection.
Wild plants are essential components of natural ecosystems. Native plants harvest the energy of the sun via photosynthesis and provide both food and diverse habitat for other native wildlife, including insects, pollinators, birds and larger animals. This vegetation improves the ability of soil to store water and effectively reduces flooding and runoff.
But wild plants are also vital to agroecological food systems. Wild crops can increase systemic food security, agricultural integrity and environmental health. Deforestation is a leading cause of many population losses of wild relatives of fruit, nuts and other industrial crops like tomatoes, squash and corn. Wild relatives of cereal crops in arid landscapes are especially harmed by overgrazing and desertification. Yet more than ⅕ of wild plant species are threatened, and overgrazing is a major contributor to this problem.
Grasslands are among the country’s most degraded habitats. In recent years, the Great Plains of the United States and Canada have seen an annual conversion rate of more than 2 million acres with 53 million wild acres lost to agricultural expansion since 2009. Converting grasslands can decrease half the carbon sunk in the surface of the soil. Many so-called native grasslands were actually forests or woody savannas in recent history, home to more wildlife and carbon storage. 42% of global grasslands, a significant share used as pastureland, used to be forests and if we can return the original forests on that land, the carbon storage would increase by 265 GtC from its present value.
Drylands are also affected by livestock, and grazing is a leading cause of species endangerment in arid western areas. Cattle grazing is a leading factor in dead soil, where soil dries and erodes and vital soil becomes dust. When livestock graze vegetation to the roots, plants grow short, unsustainable roots and eventually stop growing, leaving areas with no vegetation. Where the soil is exposed to the elements, it dries and becomes dirt. More than 8.4 billion acres are grazed globally, 73% of which are degraded, with 24 billion tons of fertile land lost annually, particularly in arid landscapes like the American West, with fragile ecosystems that did not evolve with non-native cattle.
Wildlife Spotlight: American Bison
Wild bison roam less than 1% of their historic North American range, driven to the brink of extinction in this region by slaughter and habitat destruction in the 19th century. The vast majority of their range is now used by the meat industry or for urban development. Today bison are threatened from genetic contamination by cattle and disease, domestication, habitat destruction and federal herd-management programs. In Yellowstone National Park, bison that stray outside the boundaries are often culled by the National Park Service at the behest of the livestock industry for fear of infecting cattle with brucellosis, even though there isn’t a single documented historical case of bison transmitting this disease to cattle. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to protect bison under the Endangered Species Act. Better solutions to the commercial interests of cattle grazers are paramount to protecting wildlife like bison.
Bighorn sheep have suffered substantial population declines throughout their range due to pneumonia received from domestic sheep. Brucellosis, a disease that can cause abortion in cattle, is now found widely in elk. Chronic wasting disease, which causes deterioration in the brain similar to mad cow disease, originated in domestic sheep and is now widespread in deer and elk around the West.
Often overlooked harms from grazing include direct killings at the behest of or by cattle and sheep operators. Species are killed en masse including wolves, coyotes and also prairie dogs, who are regularly poisoned by the livestock industry. Similarly, grasshoppers are poisoned even on public lands because they eat grass, which the industry appropriates for livestock. Fewer grasshoppers mean less food for birds, rodents, fish and other species. The loss of prairie dogs, ground squirrels, grasshoppers and other native species has negative consequences up the food chain.
Grazing impacts vary by region, soil and climate but also by a region’s evolutionary history. The evolution of a natural habitat alongside large, hoofed mammals that exert pressures on native plants and ecosystems can determine which areas have greater resilience to livestock grazing. Although not all large, hoofed mammals are the same — native wild bison are not cattle for example, and behave differently on the landscapes — there is significant variance in cattle grazing impacts east and west of the Rockies, for this reason.
Fences and other developments used to maintain cattle operations have harmful impacts on native species by blocking access to water and impeding natural wildlife migration. Fences can ensnare animals that get tangled in the wires or suffer from collisions with fences. Fence posts also may provide perches for birds of prey to attack imperiled species like the sage grouse.
Wildlife Spotlight: Greater and Bi-State Sage Grouse
Every year sage grouse travel to ancestral mating grounds where males create special sounds using wing motions and inflatable air sacs on their chests as part of an elaborate dance to attract females. Because of livestock grazing, development, off-road vehicles, barbed wire fences and other threats, the sage grouse is disappearing from the West. Sage grouse are particular about their habitat for mating and nesting, so when livestock grazing alters the plant composition, it’s often no longer suitable for the birds. Meanwhile fencing hinders their ability to migrate. Without federal protection, sage grouse populations have declined by as much as 70%. Yet the sage grouse is still not protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Cattle grazing removes grasses, allowing tree seedlings to become established, leading to greater tree densities. Grazing also leads to the spread of invasives like cheatgrass — a highly flammable annual grass that increases fire frequency, negatively affecting native grasses and shrubs.
Grazing hurts migratory birds and changes the ecological balance of their natural habitats. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, grassland birds are undergoing more widespread declines than any other bird group. Meanwhile so-called “cowbirds” that follow herds of cattle, and lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, have increased dramatically as a result of the expansion of cattle grazing. Cowbirds have caused declines in populations of other birds, such as southwestern willow flycatchers, in areas where cowbirds were once uncommon.
Cattle create conflicts for wildlife by grazing in, on, or near public lands. Tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore, for example, are hazed and shot by the National Park Service on behalf of private ranchers using the park to graze livestock. Another example is the wild bison culled regularly by the Park Service in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem due to perceived potential conflict with neighboring cattle.
Wildlife Spotlight: Tule Elk
A flagship subspecies, the tule elk is crucial to one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots in California, the only place native tule elk are found. This elk is essential to the restoration of California’s native grasslands, oak woodlands and landscape connectivity. At Point Reyes National Seashore — a national park — cattle operators, who enjoy heavily subsidized grazing leases on these public lands, have pressured the Park Service to remove or fence out the free-ranging elk. As a result, hundreds of tule elk have thirsted to death.
Tule elk, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo credit: Jennifer Molidor
Livestock compact and trample soils, reducing filtration, creating higher runoff and more flooding and erosion. Cattle destroy biocrusts that bind soils and capture beneficial free nitrogen. Damaged soil harms the food chain from the bottom up, making it harder to support plant life that provides food and habitat for myriad other species. Trampling of riparian areas negatively affects 75%-80% of the West’s wildlife species.
The slaughter of wildlife at the behest of the meat and dairy industry is notoriously ineffective. Not only does it fail to stop predation — indiscriminate traps and poisons kill threatened and endangered species they’re not aimed at, from eagles and condors to wolves and black-footed ferrets. They’ve even harmed children and domestic pets. Wildlife Services has used reckless methods often found in violation of National Environmental Policy Act regulations that are often environmentally toxic, which disrupt biological diverse systems and reduce the ecological integrity of the landscape.
Wildlife Spotlight: Black-Footed Ferret
One of the most endangered mammals in North America, the black-footed ferret once numbered more than 5 million in population, roaming the grasslands and basins from southern Canada to Texas. There are now 340 wild ferrets on the brink of extinction. In addition to urban development and habitat loss from oil pipelines, one of the reasons this species faces extinction is that it has been targeted by Wildlife Services, and its primary food, prairie dogs, have been aggressively slaughtered by the meat industry.
Grazing threatens amphibians by degrading riparian areas, which are vital to the survival and breeding of frogs and toads, particularly in the arid West. The degradation of streams decreases vegetative cover around amphibian breeding pools. Such degraded habitats expose frogs to predators and desiccation and reduce insect prey populations. Cattle trampling amphibian breeding sites can leave egg masses trapped in small pools where the eggs may freeze or the tadpoles dry out. In streams, increased water flows from loss of vegetation eliminate still pools important for breeding sites of such species as the Columbia spotted frog, a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing.
One major impact of high-density cattle grazing is the loss of vegetative cover. Poorly managed cattle grazing leads to overgrazing too frequently in the same areas, trampling, or grazing the plants too close to the soil. As cattle graze plants to the crust, this weakens root systems and exposes and compacts the soil. By degrading soil quality, cattle increase soil erosion and — combined with nutrient losses from pastures — can pollute surface and subsurface waters.
Recent studies show significant impacts on Western watersheds from cattle grazing and supplemental feed crop irrigation and forage production like hay, draining waterways like the Colorado River that dozens of fish, birds and other species depend on. Irrigation of cattle-feed crops is the greatest consumer of western rivers, and beef and dairy consumption are the leading drivers of water shortages and fish imperilment in the West.
Water in many springs and streams are diverted into ponds, troughs and pipelines to distribute water to cattle and sheep. In removing water from these natural systems, many water-dependent species are harmed: native land snails, aquatic insects, fish and wildlife dependent on those species, such as swallows, bald eagles and otters.
Wildlife Services is a federal taxpayer-funded program that contracts out wildlife destruction primarily on behalf of cattle and sheep operators. Millions of wild animals, from prairie dogs to mountain lions, are slaughtered annually by Wildlife Services to protect private industry interests, with little accountability. The rogue program has received wide criticism for its rampant lack of oversight and reporting, alongside legal investigations of its employees and subcontractors.
What is clear is that a substantial reduction in cattle grazing is vital to the health and well-being of our planet. This includes reducing U.S. overconsumption of beef and dairy at a systemic level.
Vastly overstated claims by the meat industry about the benefits of their products overlook the ways cattle negatively impact wildlife. Grazing degrades, damages and destroys habitat, and fencing removes water, land, grasses, trees and wildflowers needed for native wildlife. Even the best grazing models would require significantly more land to support biodiversity. With 93 million cattle in the United States, there's not enough space to meet the current demand for beef with these models, and we’re running out of time to protect wildlife.
For more than a century, wildlife and biodiverse ecosystems have been obliterated in pursuit of ineffective “predator control.” Modern conservation science shows that nonlethal predator control methods such as range riders, removing bone piles, and using fladry, lights, sounds, dogs and other hazing tactics have significantly more success when properly implemented. Even in the best models, it’s not clear what standards determine species protection and environmental health in these systems — pastures may be grassy with non-native grasses, but wildlife is eradicated, limited or harmed until it cannot be considered biodiverse.
So in addition to all these steps (substantial reductions in beef and dairy production, strengthening environmental and endangered species protections through the legal system, setting standards for nonlethal wildlife management, and bringing regulatory clarity about the actual impact of beef and dairy production on the environment in the marketplace) we need to make sure we have the the facts and a clear understanding about the effect of grazing on the planet in order to build effective paths forward and coexist with wildlife.
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