Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

Livestock Benefit Wildlife

TRUTH

Bighorn sheep ram.

Hundreds of species across the West are in danger of extinction, primarily because of livestock production. Species as varied as the Bruneau Hot Springsnail, the southwestern willow flycatcher, and the Bonneville cutthroat trout are in jeopardy as a consequence of habitat loss or degradation due to livestock grazing and its associated activities. No other human activity in the West is as responsible for the decline or loss of species as is livestock production.

Predator and pest control has extirpated many species, from wolves to prairie dogs. Dewatering of rivers for irrigation has contributed to the decline of many aquatic species, including many native trout. Livestock trampling of riparian areas, wet meadows, seeps, and springs has harmed habitat for a great variety of creatures, from songbirds to frogs. Livestock consumption of grass and other vegetation decreases hiding cover for many animals, making them more vulnerable to predators. Disease transmission from livestock to wildlife, as has frequently occurred with domestic and bighorn sheep, can diminish or eliminate certain wild animal populations. Most forage on public rangelands is allotted to livestock, leaving little food for native species to consume.

A few species have increased with the spread of livestock production. Yet, just as one could demonstrate that rats and pigeons flourish in the city and thereby incorrectly assert that wildlife benefit from urbanization, so too is it false to point to the proliferation of deer, Canada geese, cowbirds, and a few other opportunists and suggest that livestock production enhances conditions for wildlife in general.

Several big-game species, such as elk, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep, have increased from early twentieth-century lows, when market and subsistence hunting nearly drove them to extinction. However, the rise in the numbers of these species is a consequence of intensive game management-such as adoption of strict hunting seasons, reintroductions, and habitat acquisition-rather than any inherent compatibility with livestock. Indeed, many of these big-game animals are still limited by having to compete for forage, water, and space with domestic livestock.

Livestock advocates suggest that water developments, such as troughs and stock ponds, benefit wildlife. While some wild animals undoubtedly use them, these facilities tend to lack adequate surrounding vegetation for hiding cover, nesting habitat, foraging, and other wildlife needs. Thus, these structures are almost useless to most wild species, and they exist at the expense of natural seeps, springs, and streams that would support far more native creatures if left intact.