Whenever there is discussion about the impacts of livestock production that has been imposed on native predators, someone almost always brings up “predator friendly” livestock operations.   It is a way to have your beef and eat it too.  For some people giving up meat eating is something they can’t imagine, despite the many health and environmental costs of a meat diet, in particular, the mortality that predators suffer at the hands of livestock producers.  Some folks want to feel like it’s possible to be a meat eater and save wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes that are persecuted by the livestock industry.

Predator friendly sounds attractive.  Ranchers promise not to kill predators are then permitted to market their meat products at premium to consumers as friendly to predators.  Sounds like a win-win. The rancher gets paid extra for his meat, and the client gets a guilt-free hamburger.

Many conservation groups promote “predator friendly” implying it’s a viable model for “co-existence’ between livestock and wildlife.  However, there is no way to raise livestock without significant impact to predators and their prey base.  Thus predator friendly provides an illusion of guilt-free meat consumption, when the reality is that consuming beef, and to a degree lamb, is the worst dietary choice you can make for a host of reasons that goes well beyond predator survival.

If you think ecologically, one realizes that no livestock operation is truly predator friendly. Just because a rancher is not shooting a predator, doesn’t mean their livestock operations are harmless.

NO SUCH THING AS ENVIRONMENTAL OR PREDATOR FRIENDLY LIVESTOCK

While shooting a wolf or a bear is definitely a loss to the predator population, the impacts of livestock production on predators goes well beyond the killing of individual animals. In fact the collateral damage from livestock operations has a far larger impact on predator populations and distribution than whether any animal is killed by a rancher or the federal Wildlife Services agency.

While I will not get into other issues here, it is worth noting that livestock are one of the biggest contributors to global climate change,  damage to soils, pollution of water, and the fragmentation and destruction of wildlife habitat for pasture and forage production (hay, corn, etc.), excessive use of antibodies and pesticides,  among many other impacts.

SOCIAL DISPLACEMENT

Numerous studies have documented that the mere presence of domestic animals displaces native species.  For instance, when cattle are moved on to a public lands allotment for grazing, wild elk abandon the site. If one assumes the elk are residing in a particular because it’s good habitat, and that all good habitat is already filled by other elk, this displacement means that elk move to less productive habitat where perhaps they are more vulnerable to predators or the forage isn’t as rich. No matter what the situation, this means a reduction in elk numbers, hence native prey for predators like elk.

FORAGE COMPETITION

You simply cannot be putting the vast majority of all forage into domestic animals without affecting native wildlife populations in multiple ways.  On public lands, even in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem which has the greatest abundance of native herbivores (prey for carnivores) in the lower 48 states, the vast majority of forage on public lands outside of Yellowstone Park is allotted to domestic animals. In other words, the carrying capacity for native prey species, be it elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope or moose is reduced because much of the available plant production is scarfed up by cattle and sheep.

DEGRADATION OF HABITAT

Domestic animals often have severe impacts on the landscape. For instance, most of the West’s riparian zones are damaged and degraded by domestic livestock.  Cattle trample the stream banks, consume the streamside vegetation, and cause streams to widen and become shallower.  The majority of riparian areas on public lands are not what hydrologist’s term “proper functioning condition.”

Since riparian areas are the most productive plant communities in many arid landscapes, they get a disproportional amount of use by domestic animals.  But these same riparian areas are critical for many wildlife species with up to 80% of western species dependent on riparian areas for at least part of their life cycle either providing food, water, shelter or travel corridors.

How does this impact predators? Well grizzly bears for one spend a great deal of time foraging in riparian areas consuming spring time vegetation. Degraded riparian areas provide less nutrition. Good riparian habitat also provides hiding cover for predators—bears often use riparian corridors to travel safely through the landscape.

Other predators are also impacted. Damaged riparian areas support fewer fish. So other predators from bald eagles to river otter can suffer as a consequence of “predator friendly” livestock.

Cattle and sheep spread weeds and favor the establishment of exotic species like cheatgrass. This contributes to an overall decline in the productivity of the land, and its ability to support the prey species that predators like wolves and cougar rely upon.

HARASSMENT OF PREDATORS

In order to proclaim that their domestic sheep or cattle are “predator friendly” ranchers often employ harassment techniques to keep native predators away from their domestic animals. So it’s not uncommon to have range riders and other people not only guarding the domestic animals, but actively harassing them to scare them away.

Think about this for a minute. The public’s wolf or grizzly is wandering around on the public land minding its own business, trying to make a living, and some rancher and/or some so-called environmental group is out there blowing boat horns, setting off fire crackers or otherwise harassing the native animals, so the domestic animals can have a free lunch on yours and my public lands.

If any wolf supporters were to go out and blow boat horns to scare away sheep or cattle, they would be arrested for harassing livestock, but doing exactly the same thing to public wildlife is considered a “good” predator friendly technique.

DISEASE TRANSMISSION FROM DOMESTIC ANIMALS TO WILDLIFE

Yet another way that even “predator friendly” livestock can harm native predators is through disease transmission.  For instance, domestic bighorn sheep can transmit disease to wild bighorns, severely reducing and sometimes even causing the local extirpation of a wild bighorn herd. Loss of bighorn sheep removes one potential prey item from the diet of our native carnivores.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a disease originally transferred to wildlife from domestic animals (known as Mad Cow Disease in cattle) is also spreading across the West, and infects deer, elk, moose and other wildlife.  Animals with CWD eventually weaken and die, again reducing the prey base for wild predators.  In an effort to control CWD, some fish and game departments are implementing massive kill programs of deer in an attempt to slow the spread of this disease.

There is also the danger of direct transmission of diseases to native predator.  For instance, distemper and mange (scabies) are both diseases that wild wolves can get from domestic dogs.  Since many livestock operations use dogs for herding their animals, the risk of disease transmission to native wildlife like wolves, coyotes and fox is always present.

POLITICAL POLICIES

Ranchers, whether predator friendly or not, often support legislators and legislation that favors domestic animals over wildlife. For example, the killing of bison that wander out of Yellowstone are killed as a means of controlling brucellosis. Brucellosis can cause domestic cattle to abort—but there has never been a proven case of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to domestic cattle. Nevertheless, thousands of  Yellowstone’s genetically unique bison have been slaughtered or removed to appease the livestock industry. This has reduced the food available for grizzlies, wolves and even coyotes (which scavenge bison carcasses).

SUMMARY

The idea that any livestock operations are “predator friendly” demonstrates a poor understanding of the full ecological impacts of domestic livestock on our wildlife. Beyond the fact that very few ranchers are actually interested in practicing predator friendly operations and those that do are a small minority of operations means livestock production will always be a major impact on our native predators.

While non-lethal means of protecting livestock are desirable, one should never conclude that this makes livestock production “predator friendly.” It’s like suggesting that electronic cigarettes are “safer” than smoking a regular cigarette.  The best thing that anyone can do who wants to help predators, of the environment, as well as their personal health, is to eat less meat.

Bio: George Wuerthner is an ecologist, author of 38 books, including Welfare Ranching: The Environmental Destruction of the Arid West. He is a board member of Western Watersheds Project.

 

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

28 Responses to No Such Thing As Predator Friendly Beef

  1. avatar JohnR says:

    90,000,000 million cattle in US. They compete with, not coexist with wildlife. Should there be private cattle grazing in our National Forests, or public wildlife living in National Forests? My vote is for public wildlife. Years ago, I minimized the amount of beef I eat, for ecological and health reasons. Bison are shot outside of Yellowstone because cattle ranchers don’t want to share the land. They want to control the land for the sole use of cattle. The cow pies and stream-bank erosion from cattle trampling and grazing on public lands along riparian areas is massive through-out the West.

  2. This is excellent, George. Thank you. Sharing this on facecrack. Keep up the excellent work!!

  3. avatar Scott Slocum says:

    Yes, the best thing a person can do is eat less meat. Yes, for those who continue to eat meat in moderation, there are sources of meat with lower environmental footprints.

  4. avatar Professor Sweat says:

    I think this piece should be retitled “No Such Thing As Predator Friendly Beef from Public Lands Ranching.”

    Predator friendly beef can be raised in smaller-scale, private lands operation and I know this for a fact. I avoid beef for many of the same reasons others commenters on this site don’t eat it, so I’m not an apologist.

    I just think the title is hyperbole.

  5. avatar BOB says:

    Let us be honest the problem is not livestock but humans.
    There is no such thing as a predator friendly human.
    Numerous studies have documented that the mere presents of humans displaces native species.
    If you think ecologically no human diet or lifestyle is wildlife friendly.
    That is if we were honest.

    • avatar Mal Adapted says:

      Bingo, BOB. It may be better than nothing, but the best thing a person can do isn’t to eat less meat. No, the best thing a person can do for the sake of biodiversity is die, childless.

    • avatar Susan says:

      This looks like just an excuse to go on with your same beef-eating consumer habits despite the evidence Mr. Wuerthner presents.

      • avatar BOB says:

        I don’t need a excuse to eat beef, I can take you on a tour of Montana and show you more cows, ranchers, deer, elk, grizzlies and wolves than any park despite what you call george’s evidence.

  6. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    The sheer numbers of livestock now have changed the entire game. What may have been offset by a smaller human population, is magnified today, with our larger numbers and as we become more prosperous (which translates into even more meat consumption), and in the future. Just not sustainable.

  7. avatar Scott Strough says:

    While everything you mentioned, from human health to ecosystem impact to global warming, including predators is true currently; none of it is necessarily so.

    The way humans manage livestock has a direct relationship to every one of the impacts. This is not just my opinion, it is backed by good science.

    For example: Human health and nutrition
    http://www.csuchico.edu/grassfedbeef/research/Review%20Grassfed%20Beef%202010.pdf

    Water cycle
    http://giscenter.isu.edu/research/projects/jae_soilmoisture.pdf

    Species diversity and habitat restoration
    http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/A3715.pdf

    Vegetation and soil health including the carbon cycle (effects AGW)
    http://www.grazingbestprac.com.au/research/grazing/AGEE3851%20Grazing%20management%20impacts%20in%20north%20Texas%20v12011.pdf

    Even methane
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0038071794903131

    Since about 97%+ of all animal foods are produced in the destructive industrial agricultural system. So George, you are 97% right.

    The problem is that you made a very strong dogmatic claim that absolutely there is “no such thing” as any way to change the production of beef to something healthy for both people and the environment, including predators. So by taking this extreme stance you marginalized yourself from being 97% correct to categorically wrong. There is such a thing, but it simply isn’t the way we currently raise our beef.

    Since corn chips washed down with high fructose corn syrup sweetened soda pop certainly is an unhealthy diet, and the real problem is the buffer stock scheme subsidizing the over production of corn, the real solution is quite a bit more complicated than personally choosing not to eat beef. The reason beef are raised in such a destructive manner is MOSTLY to maintain the “ever full granary” market manipulation by getting rid of a large % of that over produced corn. You eliminate beef, and don’t eliminate the ever full granary buffer stock scheme, and they will simply find some other way to get rid of the excess corn, even burning it if necessary. You haven’t solved a thing this way.

    A much wiser strategy is first change that 97% destructive production model to 97% regenerative production model by simply eliminating the buffer stock scheme on corn and replacing it with a buffer stock scheme on restoring native grasslands…..raising beef. The best land for this is the now extirpated and functionally extinct biome of the tallgrass prairie. That will pull these livestock off the marginal rangelands far more effectively than convincing 1 or 2 % of the population to give up their hamburgers.

    • avatar Patrick says:

      The cow-calf operations that might raise on grass, but then ship the cattle to feed lots to be fattened on corn are equally complicit in the destruction. But the reason this is done is based on economics…corn is cheap, it fattens cattle faster than grass, and so they are ready for market in shorter time and with less risk than fully grass-fed beef. I think the best way forward is regulatory…no more free range cattle grazing in public lands, period. This will force producers to private range, and the best land for raising grass fed cattle is in the tallgrass region of the US. I’ve driven through Iowa and seen a number of farms where previous crop ground has been converted to grass for cattle raising. If the producers can’t use public land, the game shifts to where you can raise the best grass on private lands. To me, that is the only viable solution.

      • avatar Scott says:

        Again, maybe you missed it, but the reason corn is cheap and plentiful is the ever full granary policy of subsidies and market manipulation. Without that grass is actually cheaper.

        I DO agree that the cow calf operations that later send the cattle to the feedlots are equally complicit. But once again because a farmer need not worry too much, any failing on range will be compensated by the feedlot later. To fatten that calf on grass to grade choice or better requires excellent forage.

        • avatar Patrick says:

          Agreed corn is artificially cheap, but my point was also that you can fatten cattle faster with less producer risk, so it’s not entirely clear that removing subsidies would be sufficient to tip the balance, especially considering fairly high land prices. So, perhaps we agree on a two-pronged approach…eliminate subsidies for commodity crops, and ban public lands grazing.

          • avatar Scott says:

            Well if it isn’t enough to tip the balance, using that same subsidy to subsidize grasslands restoration should.

            I suppose if you prefer a more heavy handed approach, you could ban feedlots entirely. And remove any livestock from public lands that are not actively using the livestock for ecosystem restoration. But as A GENERAL rule I am not in favor of bans like this. It fails to take into consideration local conditions and they generally do more harm than good.

            • avatar Patrick says:

              Well, one might reasonably argue that the best way to restore native grasslands is simply to remove the cattle and allow the native grazers and fire regimes to function naturally. There are some good examples of this. I certainly could support shifting the corn subsidies to facilitate grassland rehabilitation (eg invasive weed control) and animal migration patterns (eg removing fencing or replacing it with fencing that wildlife can pass under/over). Using these funds for seed grants to ranchers with displaced cattle to develop other business opportunities might also be reasonable. There are examples where cattle might be used to manage reconstructed tall grass prairie (eg TNC Platte River Prairies), but I don’t think this approach would be effective in more arid grasslands.

              • avatar Scott says:

                Patrick,
                You said, “but I don’t think this approach would be effective in more arid grasslands.”

                Well they can be. Right now there isn’t enough bison deer bighorn sheep antelope or other large herbivores to even restore most arid grasslands in the US. So for a while we would need to use other livestock as proxies until the herbivores and their associated predators make a comeback.

                But as a general rule you are correct. Arid grasslands are fairly poor at actually fattening cattle. And you really need to know what you are doing, because it is easy to either overgraze or undergraze.

                So except for grassland restoration being used to restore habitat for returning wildlife, the majority should be reclaimed corn soy and wheat fields beyond what we need anyway for our grain. Right now we produce at least triple what we need for food. So a very large area of the best land could be restored and is good enough land to fatten livestock. Then if the majority of the rest were used in pasture cropping (grain production and permanent perennial pasture combined on the same land at the same time), that would be an even bigger benefit.

    • avatar JohnR says:

      Didn’t understand what your point was.

  8. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    Everywhere livestock raising has been introduced is threatening predators and has put them in decline – lions in Africa, Australian wildlife. In Japan, who once revered wolves, they are extinct due to the introduction of Western, anti-wolf agricultural practices, of guns, traps, bounties, and strychnine poisoning:

    http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2013/01/22/lost-wolves-new-england/

    I shudder to think of what will happen to Arica’s lions and others and the world continues to grow and require more food. I hate to see those photos of lions with smoggy cities looming in the background. Bad news for wildlife!

    • avatar Ida Lupines says:

      Sorry, Africa’s lions.

      I’ve posted the article above everywhere and it is one of my very favorites.

    • avatar Dr. Brad Bergstrom says:

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure lions co-existed with nomadic, cattle-grazing pastoralists in Africa for millennia (e.g., the Maasai). And so did lions’ natural prey populations. What’s killing off Africa’s lions is cultivation, development, and diseases transmitted by domestic dogs.

  9. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    When TR created the vast majority of the national forests in the US (234 million acres), his main object was “the making of a prosperous nation”. That is why the national forests are managed using multiple uses such as timber harvesting, grazing, mining, and recreation among others.

    If you want all of the livestock removed from public lands, then work to change the laws under which the forests were created. If you want to eat beef, then support ranchers that don’t call Wildlife Services and instead use non-lethal practices, fence off streams and wetlands and use the latest environmental protection standards.

    We have learned a great deal of information on the number, breed and timing of livestock that should be allowed to graze on each allotment. If environmental degradation is occurring on public land, then report it until it is corrected. As many of you know, I worked for the BLM and I can tell you, when we received public complaints, all hell broke loose and remedies were swift.

    Personally, I eat bison from a local ranch that is predator friendly, otherwise abstain.

    • avatar Zoe Berger says:

      Do you think the same happens today at BLM – that they actually listen to complaints from the public? Do you have any tips and/or who to contact there? I’ve written several times and gotten no response at all.

      • avatar Gary Humbard says:

        Yes the same thing happens and in fact with the takeover of the Malheur WR, the agency is probably even more sensitive to the general public.

        Contact the local BLM office and ask for the Field Manager or District Manager and if you do not get a call within a week, contact the BLM state office and ask for the State Director. Explain that you have not received a return phone call and it’s not acceptable. Bottom line is you need to provide specific information (what, why, when, where and who) and if possible send photos via e-mail of your concerns.

  10. avatar Larry Keeney says:

    George, splendid and outstanding common sense with a good dose of science stirred in for a rich flavor. Now will you put that in pill form and label it Tea Party biblical manna? We need to air drop it over the Repub convention. Otherwise it’s just more stuff you, I and others here already subscribe to. I read your great article and visualize what those riparian areas should look like and the huge lazy trout hanging out in those undercut banks on the pristine meandering streams. Then dismay sets in ’cause it won’t happen without legal action. Hooray for WWP, Legal Defense Fund and other groups of environmental lawyers.

  11. avatar Jerry Black says:

    Oh my, George….bet Defenders and Ms Stone just love you!!

  12. avatar Craig says:

    Our ranch is “Predator Friendly” certified. We do nothing with predators. Our bison are on their own. Our ranch has an abundance of wildlife on it including deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, black bears coyotes and wolves. Predator Friendly is an attempt to help fit large predators back into a human dominated landscape. If you think a vegan diet is environmentally benign please take a look at the San Joaquin Valley where your vegetables are grown and north central Montana where your wheat is grown. Both areas have been ecologically devastated, have tremendous soil erosion, and chemicals coming into the fields by the semi truck loads. Now compare this to our ranch that is relatively ecologically intact.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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