Clearing land for cattle is one of the key ways that widespread production and consumption of beef and dairy hurts wildlife and the environment. When it comes to deforestation, many people think of the damage being done to the Amazon. But cattle-driven clear-cutting of woodlands is right here in the United States, too.
Spreading across sections of California, Idaho, Oregon, nearly all of Nevada and much of Utah, the Great Basin Desert is home to the vast Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, punctuated by high mountains. It is a region of vital biodiversity.
Widespread damage, including clearcutting, herbicide spraying, plowing and prescribed fire on behalf of cattle grazers, is causing major ecological harm to hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in the Great Basin and further imperiling wildlife like the greater sage grouse and hundreds of other threatened and endangered species in the wider West — many of which are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. Such actions largely exclude the public and the scientific community across Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
Pinyon-juniper woodlands are climate-resilient, heat and drought-tolerant ecosystems set for destruction by the Bureau of Land Management on public lands. They’re slated for clearcutting projects to make even more room for cows, even though the Great Basin produces only a tiny fraction of the U.S. beef supply. Despite this, almost every acre of the Great Basin is grazed, making it the dominant land use in the Western United States.
The pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau include old-growth forests that provide food sources for Indigenous peoples and wildlife. Some juniper trees live up to 1,600 years and are native habitat for birds like pinyon jays, kestrels, hawks, warblers, chickadees and 70 other wild species.
This clearcutting is not based on science. The Department of the Interior further admits that proposed methods like “targeted grazing” for fire suppression are experimental and unproven. This ineffective approach basically uses cows as lawnmowers with no plans for long-term oversight or maintenance to avoid damage to native ecosystems
Solutions to the spread of cheatgrass, an invasive and highly flammable weed that worsens wildfires, are healthy soil crusts and native bunchgrasses. Cattle grazing destroys soil crusts and native bunchgrasses and increases the spread of cheatgrass. While the BLM claims deforesting the Great Basin will provide more habitat for sage grouse, it's clear that if we want to protect sage grouse and other wildlife in the region the best thing we can do is remove livestock, not add more.
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