Much of the western United States is made up of public lands. Unfortunately, much of this land is broken up into grazing allotments where cows cause a lot of environmental damage as an invasive species. Managed mostly by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, 98% of commercial grazing on public lands is in the 11 western states, where roughly 7 out of every 10 acres are barbed with wire fencing and grazed by mostly cattle or sheep. Even though, at best, cows that graze on public lands only provide about 2% of the U.S. beef supply, they’re responsible for a majority of the environmental damage in the West from livestock grazing.
Commercially owned cattle graze on federal, state, county, and city land, as well as national wildlife refuges, military reservations, national parks and monuments, recreation areas, and cows are allowed in designated wilderness areas. As a result, native wildlife are harmed on these lands for the benefit of industry.
For example, grasshoppers are poisoned en masse on public lands to make way for cattle to forage plants that are native to the grasshoppers and other wildlife. While spraying insecticide to kill the grasshoppers, agencies are also poisoning the food of native species like grassland birds, and further endangering vulnerable populations of western monarch butterflies.
Even “well-managed” grazing on public lands can cause problems. And too often, management of these allotments varies significantly and there aren't enough rangeland managers to make sure the cows aren’t overgrazing or trampling sensitive areas on grazing allotments.
Riparian zones — areas associated with streams, lakes and wetlands — are especially vulnerable to damage from grazing cattle. These ecosystems are habitat for an abundance of wildlife that depend on these zones for existence. For example, cows damage sage grouse habitat by devouring grasses where the sage grouse hide their eggs from predators.
Meanwhile, cattle trample and damage soils, consume vegetation, and significantly contribute to rising temperatures and water pollution. Cows compact the earth and reduce the ability of soil to absorb and store water, while also grazing vegetation that keeps stream banks intact, thereby worsening erosion and runoff.
These wetland zones filter water for cleaning and release it slowly during the year. But unlike other wildlife and native grazers, such as bison, elk, and deer, cattle congregate in the shade, vegetation and water of these sensitive areas. Cattle grazing is the leading land-use harm to streams and riparian areas.
Wildlife species that depend on water and riparian areas for habitat and food cannot compete with cattle. Fencing to protect these areas is often in need of repair, but fences also fence out wildlife like elk from native and natural water sources. Other smaller animals, like sage grouse, may not be able to cross into native habitat. Larger animals like pronghorns may collide with it.
When it comes to public lands like the Point Reyes National Seashore in California and the wildlife refuge in the Klamath basin, the conflict between ranching interests and wildlife interests becomes clear, with wildlife getting the short end of the stick more often than not.
At Point Reyes, native tule elk are fenced out from natural water sources on public lands by ranchers leasing that land; elk are also killed by the park service on behalf of ranchers. In wildlife refuges, toxic chemicals are sprayed on behalf of livestock production. Recent analysis shows a 34% increase in wildlife refuge acreage sprayed with agricultural pesticides.
This enormous environmental cost of grazing public lands comes with a cheap price tag for meat producers. Where the cost to graze on private western lands is $23.40 per animal unit month, producers can lease public land for grazing at just $1.35 per calf/cow pair.
Finally, public lands grazing is often justified with the claim that grazing prevents wildfires and eradicates weeds like cheatgrass. Despite being debunked — livestock like cattle are the leading cause of cheatgrass spread, which also worsens the spread of wildfire — these claims continue.
While some cattle ranchers work to coexist with wolves and other wildlife, many others don’t. Wildlife are put in the crossbow when public-lands managers prioritize private industry over native ecosystems. In addition to improving standards of grazing practices and improving standards for “wildlife-friendly” practices — including requiring and standardizing range riders who monitor grazing operations — public-lands managers should be held accountable for protecting wildlife and their habitat on public lands. By and large, cattle grazing is not compatible with western public lands. Systemic shifts in grazing policy, food production and dietary consumption patterns should protect and promote biodiversity.
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