Cows or Condos? Neither!

Cows or Condos? Neither! By George Wuerthner. New West.

It must have been 15 years ago when I was visiting Wuerthner at his place in Livingston that he outlined to me the argument he makes in the New West guest opinion above.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, especially when I am out on the edge of the rural sprawl or in an especially nasty cow burnt, hell place, which may certainly be in the wide open spaces!

I think George is right on all counts. It is a false choice, especially if you are interested the conservation of wildlife. If you have to make the choice, it should usually be accept the development.



  1. Mike Avatar

    I agree it’s a false choice, but if I had to choose, it would be cows over development 100% of the time. You can revert cow damage. Good luck reverting sprawl.

    People who are from major population centers like Chicago, L.A. and Miami know this all too well.

    Driving from Chicago, I can tell you that the trashed ranch lands of western North Dakota are far more scenic and interesting than anything in Illinois. It’s a breath of fresh air.

    There’s no question in my mind which is worse. And anyone who would choose condos and vacation homes over open ranch land needs to take a visit to one of these sprawl cities…..

  2. cred Avatar

    Wuerthner writes: “…much of the ranching and logging in the West is marginal in productivity and easily replaced by reduction in demand through conservation of resources and other measures”.

    Such a cavalier dismissal of people’s income sources and choice of lifestyle. So typical of people who are against *use* of natural resources for just about anything. I dare say if the powers that be decided to cut off the income sources and lifestyle choice possibilities of city dwellers, there’d be hell to pay. But rural people just get run over, and over, and over.

  3. Mike Wolf Avatar
    Mike Wolf

    There are a great many flaws in George’s argument that I won’t even begin to discuss.

    Given the audience here, I’ll put it in terms most understand.

    Where are there more wolves? A developed place like Los Angeles, where I originally hail? Or, say, Latah County, Idaho; where I currently reside.


    There are some 9 million people in the Los Angeles basin; accounting for an area I’d guess to be about 3-4 times the size of Latah County. In Los Angeles county, at last count, there are 0 wild wolves. In Latah County, there are about 25 wolves. In the area surrounding, there are some 150-200 wolves.

    How much ranching is done in LA? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Granted, not a whole lot of it is range livestock.

    How much ranching is done up here? Actually, a lot less. There are fewer cows in this area than in the Los Angeles area.

    Now to the crux of the problem. Ranching has been here for some 200 years. Houses haven’t.

    Is it possible to make ranching friendly to wolves? Yes indeed. In fact, the impacts of ranching on wolves are minimal.

    How about development? Is it possible to make development friendly to wolves? Not on your life. The impacts of development on wolves are far greater than ranching has EVER been.

    Allow me to illustrate: We eradicated wolves in the continental US. But in 1995, having seen the errors of our ways, we reintroduced wolves into “a significant portion of their habitat”. Now, a significant portion of their habitat is a misnomer. Their historic habitat spanned about 80% of the US. Currently, they reside in less than 5%. Why? Well, ranching certainly hasn’t expanded to take up more habitat. So, what’s the answer?

    Oh yeah…DEVELOPMENT!

    Oh, and let’s discuss the outdoor recreation associated with development. People who move into those subdivisions are going to want to recreate. And those gun happy rednecks that are moving into Idaho want to hunt, to off-road, to four-wheel. Wait, haven’t those very things been discussed here as extremely detrimental to the environment? But wait, we can reform those activities, right? Hardly!

    So…it would appear that George is wrong, I’m sorry to say. He mentioned the decline of wildlife in Montana. But he failed to mention the increase in wolves in Montana. Sure, most wildlife can survive development. But wolves can’t.

    Oh, and by the way, there are 2500 or so wolves in N. Minnesota. Development? Not on your life; too swampy. Cattle…hardly any, but still they are there.

    I guess maybe the bumper sticker should read:

    Save 100 elk, Build a house

  4. Eric Avatar

    I hear you Mike. I disagree though. I think development can coexist, albeit not without consequences, but, I think, less damaging than what farming and ranching does. But a framework of conservation ethics and laws that predicts what the land can sustain must be written.

  5. d. Bailey Hill Avatar

    IMO I would choose logging over cows and condos. Boise and Weyerhaeuser are both concerned for the environment. Weyer., has been replanting since the mid 1930’s and Boise replants, and both also harvest from tree farms. Boise volunteered to participate in the Climate Leadership Partnership which is part of the EPA, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also make use of post-consumer waste paper.
    When the “logging rush” began not many people/companies were concerned about what they left behind and where they were cutting and the harm that would cause the environment and the wildlife.
    But fanatic tree huggers make a huge fuss because I think they have not bothered to study all there is to no before making a decision to support or not, sustainable forestry practices. These companies replanted because they knew there would always be a demand and they needed to make sure they would have to resourcses to meet the needs of a growing population.
    I could go on as I left out a multitude of info, but will not, as this is not my blog.
    I would encourage everyone to go to these companies web-sites and really study what you find.
    I will just list a couple areas on the Boise Paper web-site you might really want to go over. I found both B. and W.’s web-sites have extensive info and they can also be contacted for brochures and questions.

    Anyway, there are three areas you should go to on the Boise site. 1}, Boise Climate Change Principles. 2}. Environmental Policy. And 3}, Wood Procurement Policy.
    You may be able to get info from the U of WA’s Forest Resources Management Program.

    I believe there is much more info that everyone should know and consider before making a decision about what to support. After all, the west isn’t getting any larger…
    And yes, I am a research fanatic who really likes painting on watercolor paper and “Hardbord”.

  6. jimbob Avatar

    I think what Wuerthner was going toward is the economic realities that drive sprawl realistically provide more limitations to development, thus leaving more land open and unused, whereas there is little control over the damage to open space when grazing is the primary land use, considering the environmental cost of ranching. I’d liken the choices to “Do you want to be shot, hung, or die of an extremely long, painful illness?”

    I think the point is lost that toeing the line between all these concerns in the political landscape causes any number of problems in today’s political climate. “Multiple Use” is the most common term, but wildlife is usually the lowest use, if considered at all. I

  7. cred Avatar

    I am totally amazed that people would think ranching is a highly abusive use of the land. I live in one of the largest counties in the west (7000 square miles), most of which is used for ranching. We have the biggest elk in the United States, we have “endangered” and “threatened” species which are thriving and multiplying (not counting Mexican wolves, most of which aren’t wild and shouldn’t even be considered an endangered species). We have tall grass, you should see the wildflower show in late summer, and our watersheds are still producing water in spite of overgrown forests which suck it up. If ranching was so abusive, then why is this place such a paradise?

    Have any of you who make blanket claims about how ranchers are not concerned about the environment actually spoken with a *real* rancher? I haven’t met one who hasn’t been voluntarily working with government agencies to improve the range, to support habitats, and to generally better conditions for wildlife, which, not so coincidentally, makes for better conditions for ranching.

    I think what is really happening is all of the people with extra money want to move to paradise too, and they figure if they can force ranchers out of business, there’ll be more land for them to clear, scrape roads out of, put up inappropriate large energy-consumptive pre-fab homes, plant with non-native species, and light up at night.

    You know what really would fix almost all the problems in today’s world? Population control. How many children have you put on this planet, hmm?

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    Oh I know ranchers and ranching well. I will make no blanket claim about them all.

    Not all ranchers are the same. 1. traditional ranchers; 2. corporate ranchers; 3. hobby ranchers; 4. a smaller number of new progressive ranchers.

    You are probably in category one.

    Area matters too. Your description tells me you are from Idaho County, not Owyhee County. The forage and landscape of the two counties have little in common.

    You no doubt don’t like newcomers moving in, but probably believe a person can use their property rights to sell to who they want. If so, that’s a big contradiction.

  9. JB Avatar

    Cred said:

    “You know what really would fix almost all the problems in today’s world? Population control. How many children have you put on this planet, hmm?”

    Agreed, my tally is zero (age 34), though my wife and I do have a lovely German Shepherd and two cats (yes, they’re indoor only).

    I also agree with you that ranching/grazing is not necessarily bad for the land–though it certainly can be. The truth–or at least part of it–is that ranchers are political powerhouse in the West and their interests are not always compatible with the interests of environmentalists who rightly feel ranchers have too much power or control, especially where public lands are concerned.

    IMO, Ranching is only really a “problem” because there are so many pressures on the land: some want them to be used for grazing, others for timber harvest, still others are for mining, or recreation, or development, or conservation, etc. Meanwhile, you have a drought and mounting pressure from an increasing population. Something has got to give.

    Someone wiser than me once said that the “solution to pollution is dilution.” We have reached a point in the west where the number of uses (or in this analogy, pollutants) cannot be diluted any longer without negatively impacting someone’s interests. Thus, we argue it out as to whose interests are the most important.


  10. catbestland Avatar

    Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. This my expeience with planned developements. I live adjacent to a huge modern upscale depelopment in the Colorado Rockies. The devolpment was once the summer range for a huge cattle opperation. During the time of the cattle opperation, there were few elk and mule deer because they were destroyed (much to the chagrin of CDOW) at every oppertunity as they were considered competition for grazing. I knew this area well and can attest to this being the case myself. When the entire 6000 plus acre ranch was purchased by the developer, the cattle were removed and the deer and elk returned. There were some years before the development began.

    One of the first things that happened was the removal of hundreds of miles of barbed wire which, I’m sure contributed to the survival rate of fawns and elk calves. I know the developer personally and I know that he is bending over backwards to ensure that his project meets or exceeds CDOW and Forrest Service guidelines. This is a view in contrast to the that of many cattle ranchers. Part of the attractin to this development is the abundant wildlife. Which by the way, even old time ranchers agree was not the case when the ranch was a cattle opperation. I am not saying that I am in support of all development, but I believe it is a reality that we are going to have to deal with and control as best we can to see that it is done with as little destruction to the ecosystems and wildlife population as possible.

    Most, not all, developers view the abundance of wildlife as an attraction to their projects and at least try to accomodate them with green zones and wildlife viewing areas. At least there is a willngness to try and preserve some of the habitat. I have not seen this in the case of most ranching opperations. The proof seems to be in the pudding. There are more deer and elk in this area than when it was strictly a cattle opperation.


  11. catbestland Avatar

    I also agree with Cred, population control is of utmost importance. If we don’t take the inniative ourselves, nature will. We’re long overdue for a reduction in population due to some plague or disease caused by overpopulation.


  12. Mike Avatar

    The comments favoring 100’s more ATV’s, light pollution, air pollution , roads, noise , and sewer systems over open spaces amaze me. Are we trying to justify our desire to have a home on 5 acres near the national forest?

  13. d. Bailey Hill Avatar


    In the November issue of Smithsonian, is a story that addresses the issues of “Cows over Condos”, grazing practices, overgrazing, wilderness areas, buying land for wildlife refuges, etc., in the West. I was not expecting so much info as the title of the story is; “Jaguars: Back in the USA”. It covers other wildlife and all the issues discussed on this blog. Also, the author writes about the problems created by the border fence, especially the effects it will have on the natural re-establishment of the jaguar. Definitely a worth while read!!!

  14. cred Avatar

    Yes, herbivores will move into developed areas. But what’s to stop the predators that move in after them? I read all the time about cougars and bears that are killed because they’re near people’s homes. What ever happened to the notion that when one species (e.g. human) encroaches on another species, there will be competition for resources? Are humans with houses, outbuildings, septic tanks, well after well after well sucking water out of the ground, paved roads, cars, trucks, bikes, snow mobiles, ATVs, traffic, engine noise, etc. not encroaching on the space of wildlife when developments are built?

    I don’t know about some of you, but I sure would rather see a cow in open space (and work with a rancher to keep the open space healthy) than a house anywhere, any time. The argument that putting homes in place of cows will somehow contribute to healthy wildlands and wildlife is pretty darn weird, if you ask me.

  15. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    This is not a direct reply to Cred, but just a reminder that both George Wuerthner and myself both said “cows versus Condos” is a false choice, one that is being promoted among the public and activists by folks with a political agenda.

  16. be Avatar

    “I don’t know about some of you, but I sure would rather see a cow in open space (and work with a rancher to keep the open space healthy) than a house anywhere, any time. The argument that putting homes in place of cows will somehow contribute to healthy wildlands and wildlife is pretty darn weird, if you ask me.”

    nobody needs to suggest that condos are better than cows ~

    it is up to the folk who purport that cows are better than condos to demonstrate that this is the actual choice ~ it is not ~ nor has it ever been.

    tocqueville is one who initially described this condition (for those interested:
    Democracy in America – Chapter III: Social Conditions Of The Anglo-Americans – The Striking Characteristic Of The Social Condition Of The Anglo-Americans In Its Essential Democracy – RE: partible inheritance mid-section). land is more valuable when sold in smaller pieces. people die – and considering estate law divides equally among descendants – kids sell… initially it was a unique condition in america ~ one which kept aristocracy at bay…

    bottom line :

    ask a rancher to put their “open space” in perpetuity as such and proponents watch their argument dissolve with the answer recieved.

  17. Mack P. Bray Avatar
    Mack P. Bray

    be said “ask a rancher to put their “open space” in perpetuity as such and proponents watch their argument dissolve with the answer recieved.”

    be, this is EXCELLENT.

    Friendly modification:

    Ask a rancher to keep their “open space” in perpetuity in the form of a GIFTED conservation easement and watch their argument dissolve with the answer received.

  18. JB Avatar

    I’d never really drawn the connection before, but in some respects, the strong property rights attitude that prevails among westerners is the very reason the West is so attractive to developers. Beautiful views, cheap prices, and little regulation–who can blame them? While westerners fight tooth and nail to ensure they can do whatever the hell they want to with land, the developers sit back, laugh and watch the cash roll in.

  19. Barb Avatar


    Your response is a good reminder that not all ranchers are the same — what about lethal predator control? How do you feel about that?

    That is what I see as the biggest abuse of the land; the native predators have been displaced by cattle (an “invasive” species).

    When ranchers choose to use non-lethal methods of dealing with that, I salute you!


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan