CAPTION: Open space is not the same as good wildlife habitat. The hayfield shown here has limited wildlife value. The willows and other shrubs on the left are along a creek protected from livestock by a rural subdivision. The right side of the photo dominated by grasses and an entrenched streambed that is actively grazed by livestock. Which is better for wildlife?

A recent paper on the rewilding of Europe noted that wolves and grizzlies, not to mention lynx, moose, and other wildlife have greatly expanded their ranges on the continent. There are lessons for the American West here. If it were not for the ecologically degrading presence of ranching and farming, we could see a significant revitalization and restoration of native wildlife.

Americans might be surprised to learn that even as “crowded” as Europe may seem, approximately 10% of the land area is in towns, cities, and roads. Another 30% of the land is cultivated for crops, and pastures or heath and moorland cover another 15%.

As marginal Ag land is abandoned, wolves and bears are returning to European rural rewilded areas.

Note the same abandonment of rural marginal farm and ranch land is occurring in the US. In New England, as upland farms were abandoned and trees returned,  we have seen this “passive” restoration occur for the past century.  For instance, at one time in the 1800s, approximately 80% of Vermont was deforested for farming and logging. Today about 80-85% of the state is reforested. With the return of the forest, there has been a rewilding as bears, moose, lynx, marten, and other wildlife “restore” themselves.

Hindering this passive restoration are various AG programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, Ag subsidies, low land taxes on Ag land, free use of publicly owned water for irrigation; all which seek to maintain limited marginal Ag production.

Unfortunately, environmental groups promote the idea that we need to “save” ranches and farms” to save “wildlife.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Ag is by far the most significant source of ecosystem loss and degradation in the West.

Even if one concedes that urban environments, particularly major cities have limited value to wildlife, the physical footprint and the cumulative effects of Ag are many times greater.

Note that even in Europe only 10% of the land is urbanized and it is far less in the West.  By contrast, according to Geographic Analysis Project analysis, only 0.17 of Montana land is in subdivisions, malls, housing, highways, etc. Irrigated fields occupy over 5% of Montana. These are fields of exotic grass that have wiped out the native vegetation. Hayfields alone have destroyed far more of Montana’s riparian habitat than housing tracts by many folds.

I’m not promoting subdivisions as a panacea for wildlife restoration. If your goal is to protect wildlife habitat, you should focus on limiting BOTH subdivisions and Ag land use.

Most people notice the housing tracts, but ignore the hayfields, wheatfields, grazed lands, etc. that are biological deserts and occupy far more of the landscape than housing. Next time you pass a wheat field or hayfield consider that the acreage is primarily one plant species that is cut down annually. In many cases, Ag fields are also sprayed with pesticides, fertilizers, and if irrigated, use scarce western water to grow plants that can be grown in other regions of the country without irrigation.

Ecologically speaking Ag is far more destructive to our ecosystems than housing tracts, if for no other reason than the vast area they occupy.  Indeed, I can make the case that building a housing tract on a wheat field or hayfield has “increased” biodiversity. The typical subdivision with its landscaping offers far more diversity of plants, and thus habitat for wildlife than conventional wheat or hayfield.

If you must expand housing, putting homes on a hayfield, pasture or wheatfield on the edge of a town is a far better compromise than isolated developments far from city services.

Much of the western landscape occupied by Ag is marginal. Indeed, there are better places to grow wheat than in eastern Montana or raise cattle than arid Nevada. Production by farmers and ranchers in these regions is sold as part of the total US market. As a consequence, Ag production in drier parts of the West directly competes with farmers in other parts of the country trying to survive economically.

The other day I was driving from Jackson, Wyoming, up to Bozeman, Montana. I noted new housing tracts scattered about the highway corridor between Victor and Driggs in the Teton Valley. While I would prefer to see any growth on the edge of a community, the idea that this growth was a threat to Teton County’s wildlife is an exaggeration. Indeed, the existing ranching and farming industry is far more destructive to the county’s natural capital.

The Nature Conservancy, Teton Valley Land Trust (TVLT), Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and others all seek to halt land-use conversions in the Teton Valley as well as elsewhere by championing ranching and farming. Indeed, when you open the TVLT web page, you are treated to a photo of a combine cutting wheat.

As a group, most land trusts and the majority of regional environmental groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition ignore the real ecological impacts of Agriculture on our landscape. What they may be saving is “scenic bucolic vistas” which I like as much as anyone. However, in terms of “saving biodiversity” the existing Ag uses are likely far more destructive than a few more rural subdivisions.

Among these impacts are: the killing of wolves and grizzlies, the removal of bison from public lands, the dewatering of our rivers, the pollution of our waterways by non-point pollution from livestock feces or Ag fertilizers, soil compaction, the production of methane from livestock contributing to global warming, the spread of weeds, the spread of cheatgrass, the social displacement of wildlife like elk and pronghorn (by cattle), the transfer of disease (as with domestic sheep to bighorn sheep) and so on. These are only a few of the many negative impacts of Ag on our ecosystems.

And yes I could construct a similar list for impacts of subdivisions, but in terms of total land use, developments and cities occupy a fraction of the landscape.

But if you were to list the reasons why wolves, blackfooted ferrets, prairie dogs, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, kit fox, many native fish, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife are rare or at least much reduced in their natural geographical range, AG, not subdivisions would be the reason.

Like Montana, a tiny portion of Teton County is urbanized and developed. According to a 1915 report done by the University of Idaho “Assessment of Teton View Agriculture,” there are 287,000 acres in the county, with over 133,199 acres in farms (ranches). Approximately 4,300 acres of public lands in Teton County are grazed bringing the approximate total Ag production land use to 137,500 acres.

Even though Teton County is one of the “fastest-growing” counties in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (by percentage change, not actual population), only 4646 acres are land in farmsteads, homes, buildings, livestock facilities, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc.

Indeed, if Teton County had only subdivisions and towns, the county would be as wild as protected landscapes like Yellowstone Park and would support far more grizzlies, wolves, elk, etc. than it does at present.

In other words, subdivision and towns are not the threat to wildlife that is often portrayed—at least not in terms of the total land area influenced.  Yes, critical areas like migration corridors and essential “hot spots” for biodiversity can be negatively affected by any human development and activities whether housing tracts or wheatfields. But if you build a subdivision on a former wheatfield, I would argue you just increased local biodiversity.

In Teton County, it is public and private policy to promote Agriculture in the interest of “preserving” the county’s wildlands and wildlife.  The old and worn out “condos vs. cows” issue is supported as if the only choice is rural subdivisions or promoting Agriculture.

Rather than trying to preserve western livestock operations, we need to hasten, not slow, their demise.

Keep in mind that if promoting and subsidizing Ag was such a great conservation strategy, we would not be talking about subdivisions or the “condos vs. cows” debate. Ag is always a low-value use of land compared to other kinds of development. (I’m not saying converting a hayfield into a Walmart is higher ecological value, but it is a higher economic value).

That is why, even in California, which has the highest value Ag lands in the entire US, farmland is regularly converted into other uses. If the best and most economically valuable Ag land in the country cannot preclude housing tracts, how can anyone believe some marginal farming or ranching operation is going to prevent subdivisions in some of the West’s iconic valleys?  If promoting Ag as a land-use conservation strategy is your best plan, then one needs to rethink ones strategy.

If we stopped supporting marginal agriculture in places like Teton County (or most other western countries) we would see similar “rewilding” as is currently occurring in Europe. Much of the West has a good start in that large percentages of land are in public ownership which forms a base for rewilding. If marginal lands were abandoned and reabsorbed into the public lands base, we would see a “rewilding of the West as in Europe.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

11 Responses to Rewilding the West–reduce Ag land uses

  1. avatar Steven Childs says:

    Starting off with an oversimplified and biased view.

    Claiming housing tracts as less detrimental than Ag is laughable.

    It’s hard to take the author serious when he fails to support many of his assertions. Always working backwards from his aversion to public land grazing.

    • avatar Hiker says:

      Quote him accurately, it’s the size of AG lands that is the problem. They poison everything with they’re toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Yes, housing causes problems, but I lived in Teton County for over 10 years and I personally witnessed Moose, Elk, Deer, Coyotes, and so many birds, in and around town. The ranches had cows, period.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      I’m curious Steven, where do you live? I’ve lived in southwest Montana going on 30 years now and I’m in total agreement with George’s views because I’m able to see first hand the destruction not only to private lands but public lands, from cattle grazing. Just saying…

      • avatar Steven Childs says:

        Go ahead and agree with George. Its a free country. I see him offer very little evidence to support his claims.

        Here are some Ag facts for you on Montana. Surprisingly, southwest Montana has far less converted land than many other parts of the state.

        About 60 million acres of Montana’s gross 93 million acres is considered agricultural land – about 64 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census of Montana, about 18 million acres is cropland and 38 million is in pasture and range. Rangeland is generally defined as land on which the historic plant community is principally native grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs suitable for grazing and browsing. In most cases, range supports native vegetation that is extensively managed through the control of livestock rather than by agronomy practices, such as fertilization, mowing, or irrigation. Rangeland also includes areas that have been seeded to introduced species (e.g., clover or crested wheatgrass) but are managed with the same methods as native range. The remaining acreage is in woodland (some of which is grazed), ponds, roads, and wasteland.

        Of the 18 million acres (19.1% of state) in cropland, the census estimates about 8.75 million acres are harvestable in a given year. About 8 million acres are tilled and about 7.1 million are in seasonal fallow. About 50 percent of planted acreage is given over to wheat production. Hay is planted on about 30 percent and barley on about 9 percent of cropland.

        I think George is a big fan of exaggeration and hyperbole. Just saying.

        • avatar Hiker says:

          Cattle grazing is destructive to Western Ecosystems. Just saying.

        • avatar Nancy says:

          “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census of Montana, about 18 million acres is cropland and 38 million is in pasture and range. Rangeland is generally defined as land on which the historic plant community is principally native grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs suitable for grazing and browsing. ***In most cases, range supports native vegetation that is extensively managed through the control of livestock rather than by agronomy practices, such as fertilization, mowing, or irrigation”

          Sorry Stephen but I beg to differ with that assessment. Rangelands (especially in my area) are now being manipulated by ranching interests both on private and public lands.

          Fertilizers trucks in the spring are now the norm on many hayfields and the jury is still out on the damage that might be costing wildlife/wild plants down the road:

          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5369769/

          Sagebrush steppes are being plowed under due to the increase of cattle herds and the need for grazing areas:

          https://helenair.com/opinion/editorial/blm-sagebrush-and-juniper-removal-destroys-wildlife-habitat-and-increases/article_632be4ea-db80-5e8f-884e-79e3a457cf1a.html

          Cattle are being left longer, in the fall, on grasslands that use to support wild ungulates; trying to bulk up for the winter months.

          Can’t take a hike on public lands in my area from July to the end of Sept. without tripping over cows or cow pies.

          Just saying……..

          • avatar Hiker says:

            Thanks Nancy. Maybe that’s enough “evidence to support his claims”.

            • avatar Steven says:

              Believe what you want. Not sure how relevent the opinion piece you’re relying on is. There seems to be a difference of opinion on the effects of removing Juniper to assist sage Grouse. What does this have to do with my issue with the author not supplying evidence for his assertions?

              The study you quoted examined soil in England that is not the soil we’re talking about here. Context matters.

              Materials and methods
              Field site
              “Palace Leas Hay Meadow Experiment is located 30 km north of Newcastle upon Tyne, England at Cockle Park Farm, (55°13′ N, 1°41′ W, UK National Grid Reference NZ 202912). The soil was classified as a pelo-stagnogley.”

              The name of this hygroscopic soil derives from its gley dynamics. The nutrient-poor, often heavily acidified soil is poorly aerated and is not suited to arable use on account of the poor growth performance of cultivated crops.

              • avatar Hiker says:

                Steve, thanks for your permission to believe what we want. Ironic, since you then elaborate how wrong we really are. If we are so wrong in our beliefs how about posting a study countering them? Just have the courage to say “You are wrong and here’s why”. No, instead you say “your study supporting your argument is irrelevant” with no evidence to support YOUR side.

                Nancy’s links are both relevant to the topic of AG lands being misused and becoming toxic. Increasing fertilizer use is a problem, no matter where it’s used. Destroying habitat is a problem, period.

  2. avatar Steven says:

    Believe what you want. Not sure how relevent the opinion piece you’re relying on is. There seems to be a difference of opinion on the effects of removing Juniper to assist sage Grouse. What does this have to do with my issue with the author not supplying evidence for his assertions?

    The study you quoted examined soil in England that is not the soil we’re talking about here. Context matters.

    Materials and methods
    Field site
    “Palace Leas Hay Meadow Experiment is located 30 km north of Newcastle upon Tyne, England at Cockle Park Farm, (55°13′ N, 1°41′ W, UK National Grid Reference NZ 202912). The soil was classified as a pelo-stagnogley.”

    The name of this hygroscopic soil derives from its gley dynamics. The nutrient-poor, often heavily acidified soil is poorly aerated and is not suited to arable use on account of the poor growth performance of cultivated crops.

  3. avatar Nancy says:

    And I’m still wondering Steven, why you feel there is a “lack” of assertions by the author?

    Assert definition: If someone asserts a fact or belief , they state it firmly. …

    The western part of this country was “tamed” what a century ago? And IMHO, it has been in decline ever since due to too many (referring to ranchers here) now ignoring the long held belief of “Good Stewards of the Land” as it gets passed down to another generation that can’t help but see dollar signs $$, running their operations instead of the negative impact on wildlife and wild lands.

    That’s just the way it is but it doesn’t have to be 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOeKidp-iWo

    “In the article, Lifton explains, “Over the course of my work I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to endanger or kill large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue.”

    I would extend his realization to the natural world and explain that BLM’s justifications stand as their claims to virtue clearing their conscience before they murder millions of trees and the beings who live in them.

    The only way BLM can cut 30,387 acres of pinyon-juniper forests is to claim they are “protecting the public and firefighters” or “enhancing historic juniper woodland habitat” or addressing “threats to greater sage-grouse” so they do not have to face the truth of their violence.

    Whether they believe their false claims to virtue or not, is irrelevant for the thousands of acres of beautiful, ancient pinyon-juniper forests set to be destroyed by BLM. What matters is that we stop them”

    https://sandiegofreepress.org/2016/01/pinyon-juniper-forests-blms-false-claims-to-virtue/#.XU3GoWdYY5s

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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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