Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West


False Hopes and Counterarguments: Ways to Stay Blind to the Critical Plight of Western Ecosystems

Cattle graze on public lands in the Animas Valley, Malpai Borderlands region, New Mexico.

There are few who would baldly deny that the West has been damaged by livestock grazing. Even most ranchers would probably acknowledge that abusive grazing practices were characteristic of the past and still occur in some places today. In response to mounting criticism, supporters of western livestock production have developed more sophisticated counterarguments. This section explains the current leading arguments in favor of maintaining livestock grazing on public lands and methodically rebuts each one.

"Holistic management"-an approach to problem solving as well as a particular set of livestock husbandry practices, popularized by Allan Savory-holds out hope that ecosystem protection and livestock production can occur on the same piece of ground. Among more "progressive" ranchers, holistic management has a strong following. Yet scientists have documented a great deal of damage occurring on rangeland where holistic management is applied. George Wuerthner explains why even "better managed" livestock grazing is destructive in the arid West.

Among many conservationists, there is hesitancy to advocate the removal of livestock from public lands because of an overriding fear that sprawl and urban development will inevitably follow on private lands. In fact, some environmental organizations strongly defend livestock grazing, believing it to be the last bastion against a perceived condo-ization of the West. But this belief is deeply flawed in its assumptions and logic. Read "Cows or Condos" if you are one of those people still of the mindset that ranching is the lesser of two evils.

The "cattle as bison" argument is basically an assertion that cattle fill the same ecological role as bison. Yet, the behavior and physiology of cattle and wild bison differ greatly, as do plants found in historic bison range versus those that evolved in the absence of bison. And most public lands occupied by cattle today fall outside the historic range of bison. Cattle, and their impacts on the land, are unprecedented and unnatural.

Finally, some livestock proponents claim that cattle grazing can be an important "tool" for achieving specific management goals, such as weed reduction. This view is not so much wrongheaded as it is extremely limited. For example, fire can also be used as a tool to control certain plants. Also, in focusing on one goal, range managers may lose sight of the numerous other, negative impacts of livestock.

These essays may seem to be largely about opposition to something-namely, public lands livestock grazing. However, this opposition arises because of things we are fundamentally in favor of: effective, long-lasting land protection, wise and conscientious use of the taxpayer's money, and whole, healed natural communities of native plants and animals.