Some conservation groups become ranchers — baaad idea!

The WWP blog has a good take on a fairly recent, and continuing development. Conservation groups are buying ranches and assuming the grazing permits on adjacent public land, and in their words showing how running livestock can be done right.

Wrong. The lands of the Western United States did not evolve with cattle grazing them, and cattle do not take the place of bison, elk, deer, etc.

1. Consider that cattle are today completely artificial animals. There are no wild cows. The ancestors of cows no longer exist. They are extinct.

2. While the Texas longhorn cattle used in the early days of the West were much more capable animals at survival, they have long been replaced by tender cows like Angus.

3. Grasses and forbs did evolve under the pressure of grazing, but not grazing by cows. They were grazed variously by elk, deer, bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, all large ungulates to be sure, but they graze differently than cows. They were, and still are also grazed by rodents and insects.

4. In the more arid areas, there was little to no grazing by large ungulates, but only by rodents and insects. Here the introduction of cattle was especially obnoxious and damaging, e.g., the deserts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming.

5. If a conservation group takes over grazing of cattle, the best they can do is to graze in in less damaging way. If a conservation group wants to improve the West, they should buy a ranch and retire if from cattle, sheep, goat, and pig grazing. The land will still be grazed. It will be grazed by native animals. The job of a conservation group running a ranch should be elimination of non-native plants, including truly devastating invaders like cheat grass, and the restoration of the watersheds

6. The place to graze cattle is fenced pasture where there is ample water, and native vegetation has been converted to something artificial (meaning human made forage) that will support this artificial animal. In fact, most of the beef production in the United States occurs this way and in feedlots. The grazing of cattle on hundreds of millions acres of non-irrigated Western lands, relying on native forage contributes little to the beef supply. Furthermore, in my view, it is almost entirely what economists call a negative externality — unintended costs of an economic activity that are passed onto other parties (by-standers), including the environment.

7. The notion that cattle and the West go together is the creation of the myth of the cowboy; first by dime novel writers, and later by Hollywood. Euro-American settlers did bring and rely on cattle, but that is because they did not know better. In doing so, they transformed the West, damaging it greatly.

8. Elimination of grazing on the semi-arid and arid lands of the West will have almost no discernible effect of the price of beef. What will and is having an effect on beef and the price of many foods is the conversion of millions of acres to corn to ethanol production, which will very soon prove to be one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of Agriculture because it produces almost no net energy — it converts food grown with massive amounts of petroleum into an approximately equal amount of another combustible hydrocarbon — ethyl alcohol. Had it been said 30 years ago that when we run out of oil, we will use vodka (actually Everclear) everyone would have seen the absurdity.

Update: Today Idaho political pundit Dan Popkey joined in the celebration of some conservationists and ranchers holding hands (courtesy) and taking from the Idaho taxpayer to save land from second homes by means of tax credits. The credits shovel yet another subsidy to ranchers so they will voluntarily keep their land as ranches (at least until they find it in their economic interest to subdivide). Trouble is there is little evidence that this has worked anywhere to protect land from subdivision (except where there is no economic incentive to subdivide anyway). (Celebratory blather by Dan Popkey). Dan Popkey: Help keep Idaho one of the last best places to live. Idaho Statesman.

Note: the real check on second homes is (will be) the rising cost of energy. Second homes in rural areas really drain energy and will cost more and more relative to building where there is already an infrastructure.

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  1. Mike Wolf Avatar
    Mike Wolf

    Ideally, I think this might be true.

    But the reality is, the possibility of this happening is about the same odds as all births ceasing, and human population returning to the 2 billion mark…

    I adamantly oppose this entire notion on the basis that removing rangeland grazing will ONLY result in, eventually, utilization of those same lands, or the ranches where such grazing is based, for development or other, more harmful purposes.

    The ranching industry, as it stands, is not sustainable. But at the same time, noble projects such as WWP, are also unsustainable in the long run.

    First, the ranching industry remains a hugely powerful lobby in the west. To take them on with the intent of simply removing them from the west will fail miserably. I believe that instead, working on an internal transformation of the ranching industry is a much better solution.

    In order for the lands currently owned by ranchers to be maintained as undeveloped; they must be utilized. Failure to do so will, in the long run, result in development of the land for useful projects. Conservation groups will not be able to maintain the lands forever; not without federal protection. And I hardly see such organizations ever gaining enough clout to win such protections, at least, not in enough time to save many of the lands they intend to try to save.

    Again, ideally, I believe that elimination of wildland grazing should be pursued, and I’m glad someone is doing it. But I don’t believe shutting out a generation of ranchers is the way to do it. I think a solution created cooperatively by those concerned, minus development interests of course; is the ideal and will be the truly functional solution.

    And given that my organization is one that plans to “buy a ranch and show how grazing can be done right; I will continue on my path; with the fullest respect for WWP, and its principals, including you Ralph. My beliefs in what should be done will not determine my attitude towards those who do not share my beliefs. I never make claim to knowing the answers. I could be wrong, and am fully willing to accept finding out that I wasted many years of my life pursuing an idea that wasn’t the right way to go. But at the same time, I won’t just blindly accept that someone else’s idea, no matter how eloquently described, or well supported by others, is the right way to go either.

  2. Eric Avatar

    Very insightful points Ralph and Mike. Fascinating issue. I have to read more.

  3. Monty Avatar

    The Owyhee is the poster child of the mythology of the “cowboy west”. This desert, prior to the European, did not support an abundance of indigenous wildlife & yet we are trying to “milk it” for as many AUM’s as possible. After all we are not in the position of some African desert countries like the Sudan, where every last blade of grass must be utilized to prevent starvation.

    Out entire culture grows without any thought about the concept of “margin of error”. In other words leave some “money in the bank for a rainy day”. Jarod Diamond’s book “Collapse” would benefit all of those who believe in “Mammon”, the perpetual growth machine.

  4. kt Avatar

    Monty- Yes, the Owyhee is the poster child for the mythology of the cowboy – and the cowboys there are killing the land, the streams and the fish.

    Just got back from the Juniper Mountain, Red Canyon, Squaw Creek country – utterly trashed, cows wandering around everywhere, ranchers apparently off posing at the rodeo, maneuvering for handouts from the Owyhee Initiative, or something …

    These are the same ranchers who were Helen Chenoweth’s best buddies and always have been idolized by Larry Craig, and who Crapo is now smitten with — They claim to be fierce private property rights advocates, too – yet they show total disregard for the public’s property and any limitations on their exploitation of public lands. Bottom line: Ranching is the culture of destruction and death of the land. And Owyhee county public lands ranching epitomizes that culture.

  5. Monty Avatar

    The cliche: “to increase knowledge is to increase sorrow” defines my feelings. As Edward Abbey wrote: “be a part time environmental fanatic & the rest of the time get drunk”. When I read about all of this negative “stuff”, I don’t wheather to spit or go blind or bury my head in the sand & stop reading this stuff.

    Another cliche: 10% of the poplulation create 90% of the problems; however, the 10% grows as our population expands. I spend a lot of time hiking on National Forest lands & observe the “mountain of litter”(and other abuses) that is daily & annually is deposited therein. I ask myself, how do you reach selfish “brutish ” people who don’t respect or care for anything & I have no answers.

  6. SAP Avatar

    Ditto what Mike Wolf wrote. I share his outlook, and am not blind to the problems ranching creates or faces.

    Really, I think our whole system of food production in the US is a mess. Massive concentration, massive transportation inputs, maximum processing and preservatives, minimal connection to natural, sustainable “foodsheds,” huge health problems.

    Our macro-culture suffers from an inter-related web of maladies: consumerism, physical sloth (paradoxically, while we work longer hours than most anyone else on the planet), obesity, alienation, environmental degradation . . . I could (but won’t!) go on and on.

    I’m not going to say that our system of producing and delivering food is the root of all this. But I think it plays a major role in making us fat and unhappy.

    Western beef production is inextricably tied into this system. Near as I can discern, it always has been — the first big cattle drives were to railheads in Kansas, to ship live cattle to Chicago.

    While in a certain sense “sustainable” (the grass grows back every year, although perhaps with declining abundance and vigor in many cases) compared with mining and logging, livestock production in the West is also an “extractive” industry, in that we export all the production out of region. Under this system, we are not producing beef as a bioregional food for bioregional consumption — it’s an export commodity.

    Thus, we have a lot more (maybe five times more) calves being born here than could ever be consumed here. They go from here to feedlots, then they’re slaughtered and packed in Greeley, Garden City, Omaha, Sioux City, and a smattering of smaller factory towns throughout the cornbelt.

    [To see good maps depicting the concentration of feedlots, see:

    Maybe we should aim for a future in which people eat less beef overall, with most of it coming from less than three hundred miles from home, with little to no grain being fed to them. Eating grassfed beef from close to home has more advantages than I want to go into here, but it’s healthy for the consumer and better for the planet.

    The downside for today’s ranchers is that such a system would mean far fewer cattle around — there’s not enough grass for that. Maybe price-per-pound would go up a lot (as it should) but probably not enough to keep everyone in business.

  7. kt Avatar

    Grass fed beef from close to home in the arid West – just like those grassfed sheep from close to home – has tremendous impacts on watersheds, and results in losses or reductions of perennial clean water flows.

    Essentially, when you eat public lands beef or sheep, you are really eating “ground riparian zone”. Any savings in transport energy is more than made up for by the devastation caused to springs, seeps, and streams critical to native fish,. Its production has resulted in loss of wildlife and likely dead predators. Plus, the food those cows or sheep are fed in the winter likely comes from alfalfa or hay raised on irrigated lands – an incredibly wasteful use of the region’s scarce waters.

    Public lands livestock production is an inconsequential part of the nations’ food, and uses/abuses/wastes tremendous amounts of water.

    Why in the world not just say No to public lands Welfare Ranching Beef and Sheep, and eat lower on the foodchain?

  8. SAP Avatar

    Why in the world would I not eat lower on the food chain?

    Well, if you want to pry, it doesn’t agree with me. I run better with some red meat in my tank. I prefer elk and deer, and that’s mostly what’s in my freezer.

    Eating red meat from my own bioregion provides me with the nutrition I need, without all the transportation costs and lack of connection with my food that comes with eating veggies from California, Mexico, Argentina.

    I doubt we have seen all the same places. I have seen places where grazing is a disaster, and I’ve seen places where it’s benign. I think there are places on public land that shouldn’t be grazed, especially places that are definitely arid — having seen only photos of the Owyhee, I’d say that looks pretty unsustainable.

    But I could show you some montane environments in Montana and Wyoming that are a different story. It’s all a matter of precipitation, soil type, and management.

  9. KO Avatar

    How many Conservation groups are out in Idaho fighting our wildfires. Burning in the nice long grasses not grazed and forest lands not kept clean of dead trees by logging. I know alot of you do good, but I am watching my state and a Mountain I loved go up in flames. Maybe if the cattle could be graze more or more logging to thin out the trees. They say gazing kills the land, well I hope a lot of conservation groups have a lot of time on their hands. Why ? Because Idaho is going to need money and people to help replant. And they say grazing kills the land. Sure cattle kill small areas here and there. NOT the Hundreds of thousands acers now blacked and dead. How much wildlife is going to die this winter because of no cover? I for one think it is to big of price to pay. Maybe because I live here not in some city or eastern community that thinks ranchers and loggers kill the land. Without caring for the land the ranches do not live. What I have seen Conservation do is let wildfires have their way and now the soil is black and dead waiting for the rain to come and wash it all away. Exposing any plant life left to winter kill. I know some may not agree with my view point, but you see what I have seen this year makes me very sad.

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    You are new to this blog. This is your first post.

    Keep reading and you will find that we most of us live in the West, have lots of outdoor experience, and do not live in big cities. Some of us have experience fighting fires. My spouse edited a book on fire tower lookouts (Go Tell it on the Mountain), using her experiences with fires and gathering the writings of other lookouts.

    Previous threads have discussed grazing and range fires in detail.

    As for conservation groups fighting fires, neither groups, nor individuals are allowed to engage in freelance firefighting. That has been a point of controversy because some people in central Idaho set backfires on their own, only to make the fires worse.

    Most people feel sad when a favorite place is burned, but it is most important to know that the permanent damage or healing depends on what is or isn’t done after the fire is out.

  11. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    100 years from now some one will go through a totally recovered forest in these burn areas and have the fleeting thought that there was once a fire here. (global warming notwithstanding)

  12. Mike Wolf Avatar
    Mike Wolf

    KO: Fires are a natural occurrence. Grazing is often used as a management tool to keep grass down in our artificially thinned forests effectively; but nevertheless, they are going to happen, they are going to destroy what we perceive as long term beautiful sites. The whole Lemhi Valley area near Salmon, Idaho is an example in a way; as that was once all forest that burned, I believe, in about 1910ish. The forest hasn’t regrown; but this is natural.

    What we consider to be permanent sites are but blinks of an eye in terms of nature over time. What is a forest this century may be a vast grassland next and vice versa.

    Try to keep these things in mind when thinking about these issues. It helps.


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Ralph Maughan