Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West


Looking Across the Arid West: What's Wrong with This Picture?

Beaverhead County, Montana. Looking at fencelines is an easy way to begin seeing differences between land grazed by livestock and land that either has not been grazed or has been given time to recover.

One of the most problematic obstacles for those advocating an end to public lands livestock grazing is the subtle nature of livestock abuse. Unlike the clearly visible damage to the land in a clearcut forest, the effects of livestock production on rangelands are far less obvious to the untrained eye. While someone with no ecological background can be moved to tears by the destruction of centuries-old trees and the loss of a forest ecosystem, the equivalent devastation of a grassland or shrub ecosystem engenders no remorse, no sad commentary, no outrage. "Overgrazing" to most people may conjure up images of a Saharan wasteland. Yet only in the very worst situations does livestock grazing create a barren landscape, devoid of all vegetation. Rather, most changes wrought by livestock are gradual, with the effect on plants being the replacement, over time, of more desirable species (for wildlife habitat and food as well as, often, for livestock consumption) with less desirable plant species.

But the alteration of plant communities is only the beginning of what livestock grazing does to the land. Other, even more subtle effects include compaction of soils, leading to lower water infiltration and greater runoff; loss of hiding cover for small mammals and birds; and removal of flowers, seeds, and leafy vegetation that are food for such species as butterflies, birds, and herbivorous mammals. Other problems caused by livestock production are fencing that hinders wildlife movement; disturbance of plant communities that favors weed invasion; dewatering of streams that reduces the width of riparian areas; draining of wetlands to create hay fields; trampling of stream banks and degradation of fish habitat; development of springs and removal of water on which frogs, birds, and other native species depend; and other effects that are not apparent to the uneducated observer.

Yet for someone trained to "read" the landscape, the ecological wounds caused by livestock production are clear and abundant. George Wuerthner first presents a critical analysis of range management techniques, especially traditional rangeland health evaluation methods. His essay helps to explain why so many range managers tend not to perceive fully the damage caused by livestock. The photographs and text of the following "How to Look . . . and See" section amply illustrate, and will begin to train your eyes to see, what is happening on the West's arid lands. Once you can start to read the "unnatural history" of the West-a tragic tale of greed, ignorance, and malfeasance-you will see it is sadly ubiquitous. The story is written in the eroding gullies, the fishless streams, the river valleys converted to hay pastures, the dried-up springs, the crumbling riverbanks, the silent and abandoned prairie dog colonies, and the countless Grizzly Creeks, Buffalo Meadows, and Wolf Mountains, the names of which are the only reminders of the vibrant life that once graced our lands.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to laymen.
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949