A week ago, I was touring Montana public lands with my 13-year-old daughter. As we approached Yellowstone National Park, I explained how the slaughter of bison was largely to appease the livestock industry, pushed by a handful of ranchers who didn’t want bison migrating out of the Park. Bison, as it turns out, eat the same grass as cattle, and can carry the livestock disease brucellosis. Even though there has never been a documented case of cattle catching brucellosis from bison – not even one – in the Yellowstone ecosystem (all known cases were traced back to elk, according to the National Academy of Sciences), cattle producers fear losing “brucellosis-free” status which would make it harder for them to market their cattle. “It’s always the ranchers,” my daughter exclaimed.
Earlier in the week, we had visited the Thunder Basin National Grassland to see prairie dogs, a rare and sensitive native wildlife species and also the very linchpin of grassland wildlife diversity. Instead, we looked out on empty prairie dog colonies, decimated by lethal poisoning and sylvatic plague. The disease borne by fleas, was kept in check for years by conservation nonprofits who dusted the burrows with a flea-killing powder. But in 2017, the Forest Service started denying dusting permits to the conservationists, and stopped authorizing the non-lethal relocation of prairie dogs away from private land boundaries. Recently, the Forest Service caved even further in to politically-connected ranchers with an anti-prairie dog plan amendment for the national grassland that includes expanded prairie dog poisoning programs and more recreational shooting of the animals. The livestock boosters want prairie dogs killed by plague, poisons, and bullets – so their non-native cattle would have more grass to eat.
These examples are unfortunately representative of the livestock industry’s broader sense of entitlement to public lands. Rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers who have sued (and failed) in an attempt to take away the federal government’s ability to own public land and manage it for public access and public benefit. Agriculture professor Angus McIntosh of the Texas A&M University system has been barnstorming the West, exhorting ranchers to treat public land as their own private property. William Perry Pendley and Karen Budd-Falen, who spent their attorney careers representing the lunatic fringe of the livestock industry, who publicly aligned themselves with the Bundy movement, now work as officials within the Trump administration, dismantling conservation protections on public lands and putting ranchers in charge of “managing” public lands by deleting grazing regulations and limits that prevent overuse and ecological abuse.
In 2018, Wyoming rancher Mary Thoman wrote a plaintive opinion piece about how keeping grizzly bears on the Endangered Species list was threatening to end her sheep operation. Today, thanks to the courts, grizzlies have been back on the ESA list for two years. Not only has Thoman Ranches not gone out of business, as she supposedly feared, but instead is actively plotting to acquire additional grazing on public lands where the livestock permits – in grizzly country – were already bought out from willing sellers to solve livestock-wildlife conflicts. Thoman, in effect, is trying to snatch away the solution, and reinstate the problem.
It’s examples like these that put the lie to claims about the environmental “sustainability” of ranching. In fact, the livestock industry is responsible for propagating some of the biggest whoppers in the public lands debate: promoting fuelbreaks and juniper clearcuts as fire mitigation (which coincidentally produce more cattle feed in place of native tree species), promoting the false cure of cattle grazing to combat the invasive weed epidemics caused by livestock in the first place, blaming wild horses for rangeland degradation caused by their own cattle and sheep, spreading fake fears that wolves could somehow transmit COVID-19 to people, presenting overheated hyperbole about their losses to predators which are miniscule compared to weather’s role in cutting short cow and sheep journeys to the slaughterhouse. The industry keeps wanting the public to believe they are benevolent actors, when, in fact, livestock grazing has been a key part of the destruction of the West and the colonization of Native lands for over 150 years.
At the root of all of these moral failings and corrupt practices is the custom and culture of the livestock industry. A mix of entitlement and manifest destiny, it prescribes that nature exists to be dominated, subdued, controlled, and ultimately replaced by a dystopian and ecologically dysfunctional agricultural landscape. In this post-agro-geddon world, wildlife and native plants are tolerated only to the extent that they are compatible with maximum profits and minimal inconvenience for the livestock industry. They demand control of America’s public lands – National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands alike – for the maximum benefit of their private profits; healthy lands, native wildlife, trout streams, and public recreation be damned.
Leading livestock lobby groups – like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Public Lands Council, and Protect the Harvest – are so incapable of honesty that you can tell when they’re lying because their lips are moving. Yet it isn’t just the lobbyists perpetuating the myths: I’ve never seen a rancher pipe up in protest when outrageous lies are uttered by the lobbyists who represent them. By failing to police their own, every rancher who doesn’t speak up to object therefore owns the falsehoods uttered on their behalf.
Ranchers like to project the fiction that their custom and culture is the way of the West and that they are supported by the vast majority of westerners. This has never been the case. In western Colorado, they claimed that no one wanted to see the Gunnison sage grouse listed under the Endangered Species Act. But 2004 polling in the heart of Gunnison sage grouse country showed that 68% of locals agreed with providing the imperiled bird with ESA protections. After the Gunnison sage-grouse was listed, support for listing in 2016 stood at 66%. The same opposition was invented for the greater sage grouse, and West-wide polling again showed strong public support for invoking the ESA. Today, there is a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves to the western Colorado mountains, and independent polling showed that 84% of voters support wolves, in urban and rural areas alike. When ranchers tell us that they are the real Westerners, we should ask why they can’t manage to actually live here among the native wildlife that have been here since time immemorial.
The most fundamental, inescapable, and damning reality is that the livestock industry has an extinction agenda when it comes to native fish and wildlife. Trap the wolves. Shoot the grizzly bears. Poison the prairie dogs. Siphon away the trout streams into irrigation ditches. Burn off the sagebrush. Poison inedible native wildflowers. Replace the native grasses with forage species for cows but which wildlife avoid. Put private profits above the public trust, even on public lands.
It’s always the ranchers.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the West.
Erik Molvar's perspectives, opinions and world views are not necessarily reflected in the posts of other authors on this blog.
55 Responses to It’s always the ranchers
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I think people are beginning to understand that the mythic ranching mentality is an anachronism. The lies are losing ground as we lose more ground and the animals and systems that depend on them. We are in an arms race between the truth and lies. I’d like to see a piece like this in the NYT. Let’s make that happen.
Don’t get much done, do you? Years of complaining and taking in donations but not much done. The public should really understand that there is another industry they are paying for, the teary eyed non profits Who like to find tragedy but don’t do a damned thing shoot it. Stop donating to these monkeys
How exactly does the public pay for non-profits? Instead of attacking him why don’t you discuss the merits of his argument? Quit taking things from Trumps playbook, most of us are just plain tired of it.
Too bad you don’t understand Erik is trying to educate the public so that the extinction agenda of public lands ranchers can be stopped.
This is an excellent article .
Janet: Try reading the content of the piece. Think about the meaning of the words in the piece. Then think about how nonprofits are funded. They are funded with donations from thousands of people who agree with their work and mission. I can’t wait until republicans lose in November.
Janet, I noticed you’ve failed to contest a single point made in Mr. Molvar’s essay. I suspect that you’re either a) unable to grasp the points being made or b) unable to refute their veracity.
Either way, hurling insults and hyperbole is no way to sway anyone’s opinion except of you, and not in the direction you’d like.
Janet, you need to read up on Western Watersheds. The organization is consistently winning in court against efforts to degrade the environment. Lawyers cost money. A little research will pay off handsomely for you!
Self-entitled, unsustainable, anti-science. Enough with these MAGAT ranchers. Let them all attend Trump rallies without masks. The land will be better for it.
Who do you think kept this land open and wild? The ranchers! Guess you would rather it looked like New York.
Robin Peters, I’m guessing you don’t spend much time out here in the west?
Here are some facts about how ranching doesn’t keep the land open and wild:
Another good site:
Open and wild? By first murdering native people and stealing their homeland. By then demonizing and slaughtering native wildlife whose homeland it was and is, for eons, and continuing the demonization and slaughter in front of more and more people around the world who are onto all the destruction and death that non-native cows and their abusers have brought to every acre they have invaded and desecrated. Polluting the waters, destroying native plants, contaminating soil, killing anything that moves and is in the way. Our public lands will be truly open and wild, when every non-native cow is removed and these lands are allowed to heal and recover, the native wildlife allowed to return, live and thrive in their homeland and some of it returned to native people. Then it will be truly open and wild.
Brainwashing at it’s best.
I’m sorry Janice, are you saying that Robert Goldman is brainwashed because of his post? Which part? The historically accurate account of how the West was mauled? Or the accurate account of how the West is currently mismanaged for the benefit of a few, wealthy, welfare ranchers.
There is a legal reality to consider. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Public Range Lands Improvement Act of 1978.
These two pieces of legislation make grazing possible on public lands. Unless these laws are seriously amended or replaced not much will change. EG: Public Range lands Improvement Act, Sec 2(a) para 5 reads in part- under purposes of the act- “to prevent economic disruption and harm to the western livestock industry ….. .”
The “regulatory agencies” take the above line seriously under the watchful eyes of republican congressman who have long sided with the ranching community. So the grazing fee is archaic. It has remained at or near $1.35 per animal unit month of forage since 1934. If one compensates for inflation it is worth about 14 cents now.
There are also a number of subsidizing programs that ranchers can tap into. Western ranching may be the most subsidized business on earth but they have created quite a mythology about being the hard working heroes of the west.
It reminds me of the mythology created around Capt John Smith the so called early explorer who fell in love with Pochahantas. Smith was really a hired assassin and mercenary for Britain. He killed quite a few people for pay. So as the late fighter pilot Gregory Boyington once said “Show me a hero and I’ll prove he’s a bum”.
And so as our economy spirals into the black hole of run away capitalism we need to push the truth about this kind of misspent tax money into the faces of congress on a constant basis. No compromise.
Thank you, Beeline, for your vital and excellent information. Change is not possible until what must be changed is known.
What is being done right now to ensure that Pres. Joe Biden appoints Raul Grijalva and not another Ken Salazar as Secretary of Interior? What is being done right now to ensure that the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the BLM and US Forest Service are all headed and staffed by people who will serve the real wild West? What is being done right now?
+1 I wonder this as well. I guess as always, we’ll have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.
Ida, st some points in conservation history many groups, hundreds and sometimes thousands, (as revealed in Ken Burns’ The National Parks on PBS) would get together and pull in the same direction. That never seems to happen anymore and that is the main reason our side doesn’t achieve what we could for persecuted wolves and wild horses, etc and our abused public lands. Our side has power that never rises to its full potential. If it ever does, that’s when true restoration and protection will happen.
You feral horses do more to abuse the land than any ranchers cattle ever have. There are no wild horses in America. Just an overbred bunch of domestic mongrels that need to be managed but all the bleeding heart liberals that oppose that only contribute to the problem. As for the wolves, the Canadian grey wolf introduced into the Yellowstone ecosystem was never native to that environment and has done irreparable damage to the wildlife you say you want to protect.
Keith Moon, all the damage feral horses do does not even come close to the damage millions of cattle do.
As for the Wolf. You seem to think that the border is a place where wildlife are stopped. Untrue, there were Wolves coming out of Canada into Montana before any reintroduction. They were already considered an Endangered Species and, given time, would have colonized Montana etc.
But you are wrong at a fundamental level, they are all one species of Wolf. Or has science been completely neglected by you?
And VOTE in November, right?
I write as the lead scientist on the publication that described Gunnison Sage-grouse as a new species and as a person who has been involved with international, national, and local conservation and management efforts for the species and its ecosystem since 1988. While some in the ranching community historically misunderstood how grazing in arid environments was detrimental to the native plant and animal species, I have seen ranchers work hard on the ground across the private and public lands in the Gunnison Basin (home to almost 90% of the species) to change practices, place conservation easements on their valuable open space ranches, and sit through thousands of hours (not hundreds, but thousands) of discussion, debate, planning and action to work toward Gunnison Sage-grouse recovery. Not all of them do so for sure, but articles like this must be so discouraging to the ones that have placed conservation easements on their property, engaged in the fight against cheatgrass, and come to the table with ideas of improving the health of the ecosystem. The work is hard and the challenge during times of changing social, political and ecological environments is tiring, but many ranchers I personally know have not given up. Painting an entire group as villains is rarely a productive approach for any issue, including conservation issues.
If the title were “It’s Always Some of the Ranchers” would that solve the problem? I don’t think that enlightened ranchers would be at all discouraged by this letter if only because its truth is what led them to make changes in the first place. Suggesting otherwise is a strawman.
With great respect. Please read the last line.
Your last line, or Erik’s last line? All I was trying to say is that the ranchers who are “working hard” to clean up their act likely aren’t going to take offense to the article. Please lmk if I’m still missing your point.
Good share, Jessica. But what does it mean that there are some well intentioned, good people who ranch, among the many who are not, and when such heart and spirit breaking massive ecological destruction and death of the real wild West has been going on for 150 years and continues in full force to this day? Non-native cows do not belong anywhere on our Western public lands.
“I’ve never seen a rancher pipe up in protest when outrageous lies are uttered by the lobbyists who represent them. By failing to police their own, every rancher who doesn’t speak up to object therefore owns the falsehoods uttered on their behalf”
This is the quote from Erik’s article. Unless and until these ranchers who ARE walking the walk start TALKING the walk – no one will truly believe there IS another side to this!
Now I live in NYS – not a rancher, obviously BUT it stands to reason (& common sense) that putting livestock – cattle or sheep – in an arid area certainly has to be an extremely uphill battle. AND the attitudes of far too many livestock “producers” who claim these allotments that WE, the taxpayers, pay the difference between that $1.35 per cow AND CALF per month & what the actual cost of an allotment IS – quite frankly is NOT their RIGHT, but a privilege that they lease from the federal government! The idea that said cow & calf’s grazing is equal to a wild horse that likely weighs maybe 600-700 lbs? An adult cow alone weighs 900-1000 lbs at LEAST – PLUS the calf by her side! Equal? dont think so.
You are right about one thing, Living in NY doesn’t give you any real understanding of the difference between the grazing habits of cattle and that of feral horses. As for your assessment of the rights of the ranchers, those grazing allotments are rights that are paid for and for many of those ranchers preceded the Government encroachment in most of the western states.
Wrong again Keith, that land was Federal before any ranchers. No rancher has a RIGHT to graze on public land. They pay a fee which has never been increased. In other words while everyone else has to deal with rising costs, the basic cost for the privilege to graze on OUR land does not go up and taxpayers pay the difference. What a sweet deal for ranchers.
By the way, have you ever hiked on a trail through a meadow where cattle have grazed? It’s disgusting, literal sh*t everywhere.
Nope – NOT a “right” – a privilege. The lease of a grazing allotment – lease! And then there are the various subsidies. But the actual COST of these allotments is much more than what livestock producers pay – so we, the taxpayers, no matter WHERE we live, make up the difference – millions! The thing is, yes I live in NYS but near a small town with farms close by – I KNOW the difference between grazing habits of cattle & horses (domestic-wild-feral).
Thanks Maggie, and even if you live in one of our biggest cities your voice matters. We are talking about public land, OUR land, and how it’s managed.
Very pleased to hear that some of the ranchers in Colorado (Gunnison Basin) are using some ecological/sustainable practices. I live in Beaverhead County Montana. Based on my observations, it is not happening here? Erik describes the entitlement mindset, linear thinking and destructive land practices I see in this county. So depressing to see this war on wildlife and the landscape.
I know that at least some ranchers over in the Centennial are wising up and making coexistence efforts (carcass removal, range riders), but what efforts they are making to mitigate destruction of public lands is for someone else to say.
Of course there are good ranchers out there trying to do the right thing for the land & the animals that live there, but maybe not being vocal about it? Its the others that seem to be making the noise.
The list of subsidies public land ranchers receive includes not only the usual cheap grass and other commonly known freebies but also subsidized research at land grant universities; reduced price hazardous chemical disposal by
state agricultural agencies; escrow wavers when selling ranches encumbered by loans; cheap irrigation from government financed water projects; commodity buy backs to prop up falling prices. These and common political bullying add up to a a rural version of organized crime-The Bovine Moofia.
Exactly, Paul. It’s a criminal enterprise, where guv’mint hating federal welfare queen ranchers, give the rest of us the finger while taking and taking from nature and from our treasury. Western ranchers are the ultimate thieves and it all began with thievery and death, stealing the land of native people.
Robert the U.S Army took the land from the native people not ranchers. Also in one of your other post you speak of wild horses which of course are non-native to western public lands as well.
Thanks for this truthful and caring article, Eric. Your daughter saw clearly what the root of the problem is:the unbridled selfishness and greed of the public lands ranchers who refuse to come clean, accept responsibility and learn a much better way of life that respects rather than despoils all the great Rest of Life.
How eloquently and accurately spoken, Erik. I am grateful that someone can finally speak the truth in light of the extensive greed and disregard that these ranchers are truly guilty of. This has got to stop but as long as people continue to thrive on hamburgers, this practice will be more difficult to challenge when we work our way down the food chain. The battle will continue, regardless.
There is a large movement in the AG world to restore the soil. Regenerative agriculture is quickly becoming the only way to be profitable in ranching or farming. Organizations like the Savory Institute and American Grassfed Association are leading a environmentally healthy charge. Monoculture crops destroy soil health and require an obscene amount of money to fertilize. Conventional grazing practices require large amounts of feed pulled off of the monoculture fields. The new generation of people in the AG world want to see natural species of plants and animals return to the land. Those species are what made the land healthy to begin with. I would suggest conducting a little research into regenerative agriculture. I’m sure you will see change is coming and it’s good for all parties involved.
It’s amazing to me that, although this situation with the ranchers feeling entitled to use our land like it just belongs to them, and everything else be damned, has been going on for as long as I can remember, everyone wants to blame Trump.
People blaming Trump for everything that is wrong and has been wrong with the world will get you nowhere.
I agree that it is wrong but this problem was started way before Trump.
What does it matter as long as the human population continues to skyrocket the planet is fubared. Stop reproducing and then you can stop whining
Im a hunter and can relate to the ranchers. I have hunted in Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. I know there are good and bad hunters as well as good and bad ranchers. Most hunters are good conservationists as well as ranchers. I have met some ranchers who are excellent conservationists taking care of wildlife along with their livestock. As for the buffalo, I always hear everything but the truth. It was the United States government that ordered the slaughter of the buffalo. It was done to control the Native Americans to open up the land for westward expansion and force them on reservations. Our leaders have not always done the right thing. But the biggest threat to our western lands and wildlife is now overpopulation. Many places I hunted back in 1980 are now cut down into 35 acre ranhettes. Or stacked with wind generators that spoil the beauty of the west. Both situations are bad for wildlife. And its not getting any better.
Excellent article! As wildlife advocates fight here in Boulder Colorado to stop the slaughter of over 30,000 prairie dogs at the request of the agricultural industry. These farmers and ranchers believe they own these lands because they have been on them for so many year in welfare leases, just pennies on the dollar to destroy public lands and deplete water resources. Now they demand the City of Boulder kills thousands upon thousands of native animals. Please do a story on this issue!
John, The army stole the land, under pressure from and on behalf of European Americans who were violent towards the natives and agitated for invasion and theft. That agitation was a pattern that repeated itself again and again, from the Wallowa Valley to the Black Hills. Even when US presidents intended to honor some of the signed treaties, greedy and violent settlers would agitate and agitate, for invasion and theft by the army. And as for wild horses, you are obviously not aware that archeology has revealed that horses began their existence on earth right here in North America. They did disappear here for awhile. Amazingly, horses were returned to their original homeland in North America by the Spanish. It is so revealing that so many ranchers would demonize one of the most magnificent animals on earth and want to remove them from our public lands where they grace the land with such beauty. The cattle industry beings violence, death and destruction of wild nature wherever it invades.
I grew up in Montana, went away for a while and am back for good. I have numerous Facebook friends in Montana, and I enjoy your posts. I wish I could pass the gist of your posts on to my friends, but I struggle to come up with something concise, and often just give up. Could you give your readers a summary sentence at the end of each article to help us pass your articles along to our friends? It might expand your reach as well. Thanks!
Every time I read one of Erik’s posts (or anyone’s attempt to address the folly of ranching on public lands), I think of a line in one of George Wuerthner’s posts: “There is no right way to do the wrong thing.” Somehow I don’t think it will be enough for your friends, but it’s a good starting place!
Hi Max! I’m kind of fond of this quote which is at the bottom of each thread here on TWN:
“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
Hi Nancy. I am a great admirer of Abbey and have long found inspiration in his words. But we must each fight the fight in whatever way we can. Abbey did it his way; Thoreau with his. Though all our methods may differ, I have to hope that together we will prevail.
I prefer the Ed Abbey as expressed in Desert Solitaire than the fictional The Monkey Wrench Gang. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with opposing and fighting the corrupt system that degrades and destroys the real wild West, but tossing trash out the window, rolling tires (which he stupidly did) into the Grand Canyon and sending construction equipment to the bottom of a lake (which he did not do) are all examples of adding to the human garbage that afflicts and pollutes the earth. Abbey certainly desired and wrote of what was best for the West, wild nature – honored, respectfully explored, loved and protected.
Yes, I agree, Abbey had his way; Thoreau had his too. I
I always wonder which is worse, a ranch or a permanent housing development, or ski resort expansion, recreation.
People also have to examine how important eating meat is to them, because that has given meat producers the influence they have.
What a scathing article of a life style you know very little about. It’s as if you wrote it 30 yrs too late. Many ranches in the west are adopting conservatives approaches to grazing. They do care about the land and their stock. For those of us that grew up in the west, it’s a valuable and iconic industry that has supported many communities. I would recommend visiting a working cattle ranch for yourself.
Joe are you seriously saying that Bison and Prairie Dogs are not slaughtered to appease ranchers? What about Wolves? Bears? Coyotes? The list goes on. If you haven’t noticed this site is called Wildlife News, not Hey, Great, Ranchers aren’t as Bad Anymore. We care about Wildlife on OUR land. Why do ranchers get to graze for pennies on OUR land. I’ll go to a working ranch when you admit the damage done for over a century.
I think a lot of folks here in the states see animal species through the “American melting pot lens”. They connect with romantic, fantasy images of certain species like horses and cows and mistakenly believe that all these animals plus indigenous animals can live on lands that have lost much of their productivity and vegetative structure.
So the government throws some wolves out onto lands that are already impoverished and expects them to survive. That would be like saving under privileged black kids and replanting them to a ghetto. There is just too much continuous damage going down on public land.
According to the wildlife society there are well over 80,000 feral horses on public lands and they are quite damaging. Couple this with cattle grazing, mineral leasing, deforestation, off road vehicle use, predator control, pipeline corridors, herbicide/pesticide programs etc and what can we really expect but slow extinction of our indigenous species. Which is exactly what has been happening.
I stopped reading after the first 10 comments. Sorry if I offend anyone. I live in eastern Colorado where I raise about 10 Belted Galloway’s for food because I don’t trust the meat from any grocery store. About a month ago one of my belties stepped in one of your precious prairie dog holes and busted his leg. You could say the prairie dog was here first and you wouldn’t be wrong but seeing that steer with his bone snapped I killed all the prairie dogs I could. Now almost every one out here raises beef for you pieces of crap that still live at home with mommy and daddy you come out west never leaving the interstate and become an instant expert on what goes on and what we do for a living. I challenge anyone of you pansy ass tree huggers to try this and see what it takes I’ll even take you in for 6mos or more really learn what it takes. You flat lander’s that live east of the Mississippi really really haven’t a clue as to what goes on to put food on your weaselly ass tables. And before you cry your liberal ass eyes out I vote democrat soooo be careful how or even if you answer. Thanks for the rant