Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

Good Livestock Production and Ecosystem Preservation Can Coexist

TRUTH

Cow-blasted riparian area, Elk Creek, Beaverhead National Forest, Montana.

Perhaps the biggest fallacy perpetrated by the livestock industry is the idea that if we would only reform or modify management practices, there would be room both for livestock and for fully functional ecosystems, native wildlife, clean water, and so on. Unfortunately, even to approach meaningful reform, more intensive management is needed, and such management adds considerably to the costs of operation. More fencing, more water development, more employees to ride the range: whatever the suggested solution, it always requires more money. Given the low productivity of the western landscape, the marginal nature of most western livestock operations, and the growing global competition in meat production, any increase in operational costs cannot be justified or absorbed. If the production of meat as a commodity is the goal, then an equal investment of money in a moister, more productive stock-growing region-such as the Midwest or the eastern United States-would produce far greater returns.

Even if mitigation were economically feasible, we would still be allotting a large percentage of our landscape and resources-including space, water, and forage-to livestock. If grass is going into the belly of a cow, there's that much less grass available to feed wild creatures, from grasshoppers to elk. If water is being drained from a river to grow hay, there's that much less water to support fish, snails, and a host of other life forms. The mere presence of livestock diminishes the native biodiversity of our public lands.

The choice is really between using the public lands to subsidize a private industry or devoting them to ecological protection and preserving the natural heritage of all Americans. On private lands, native species face an uncertain future. It would be a prudent and reasonable goal to make preservation of biological diversity and ecosystem function the primary goal on public lands. To suggest that we know how to conduct logging, livestock grazing, or other large-scale, resource-consumptive uses while sustaining native biodiversity is to perpetuate the greatest myth of all.