by Debbie Coffey

In my opinion…

We need to find a fix for the unhealthy populations of non-native, domestic cattle and sheep on public lands.

Imagine a proposal to introduce privately owned livestock onto the public lands of the American West. The owners of the privately owned livestock would successfully gain use of 229 million acres of public lands in the West. The livestock would be owned by a politically powerful industry that attracted a passionate following — people who love using public lands for their private profit so much that they influence the federal management of their privately owned animals so that they would rarely, if ever, be restricted by law. Some of them would be so passionate that they would take over and occupy government buildings for 41 days, and end up costing taxpayers at least $9 million, including $2.3 million on federal law enforcement and $1.7 million to replace damaged or stolen property.

The downside of these privately owned livestock would be that they destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. After decades of livestock grazing, once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of some aquatic habitats; overgrazing of native fire-carrying grasses has starved some western forests of fire, making them overly dense and prone to unnaturally severe fires. Not to mention that predators like the grizzly and Mexican gray wolf were driven extinct in southwestern ecosystems by “predator control” programs designed to protect the livestock industry.

Livestock grazing of privately owned livestock on public lands is promoted, protected and subsidized by federal agencies. A new analysis finds U.S. taxpayers have lost more than $1 billion over the past decade on a program that allows cows and sheep to graze on public land. Last year alone taxpayers lost $125 million in grazing subsidies on federal land. Had the federal government charged fees similar to grazing rates on non-irrigated private land, the program would have made $261 million a year on average rather than operate at a staggering loss, the analysis finds.

Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands

Just imagine what would happen if this livestock industry continued to thrive while all other natural resources were exhausted and while wildlife starved, died of thirst or became extinct.

Clearly, this is a difficult scenario to support. Congress needs to overhaul the outdated livestock grazing program and reign in the use of livestock grazing on public lands. These “welfare ranchers” treat public lands as if they are their own private lands and don’t want to share public lands with wildlife (unless that wildlife can be hunted). The Bureau of Land Management is supposed to to “maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple use relationship” but it heavily favors the livestock grazing industry, even though livestock grazing has damaged 80 percent of the streams and riparian ecosystems in the West.

There are currently very powerful lobbying efforts using misinformation to convince Congress to “euthanize” (kill) or sterilize over 46,000 wild horses and burros in BLM holding facilities, and tens of thousands more on public lands. But what about the millions of privately owned cattle and sheep on public lands?

There was recently a secretive meeting (closed to the public) in Salt Lake City, Utah, called the National Wild Horse & Burro Summit. The only groups invited were special interest groups that promote livestock grazing, and academia/universities who rely on money from these special interest groups and government agencies who favor these special interest groups. The Summit focused on the supposed damage done by wild horses and burros on public lands, while ignoring the real source of the widespread and well documented damage to water and rangeland ecosystems: domestically owned livestock. Since they talked about killing our wild horses and burros, this conference was aptly dubbed the “Slaughter Summit.”

Cattle slurping up water in the West (photo: EPA)

Go to the websites of the livestock industry, and you’ll notice that there’s no mention that millions of domestically owned livestock graze on public lands and overgraze or harm wildlife species. There is no mention that cattle and sheep are not native to North America, since they arrived on Spanish and English ships about 500 years ago.

These extremists try to justify their interests by claiming they grow food, but only 3% of beef grown in the U.S. is grazed on public lands. Most privately owned livestock graze on privately owned land.

The wild horse & burro population estimates used by these special interest groups are compiled by the BLM and have been found to be scientifically impossible, since the BLM, per its own population estimates, has claimed some wild horse herds increased by as much as 750% or 1250% in only one year.

Fringe “cowboys” have been effective at lobbying for the slaughter of old, unadoptable – or really any – horses. The BLM has taken away over 22 million acres from Herd Areas, which were supposed to be the federally protected areas for wild horses and burros, and allows livestock grazing on most of the remaining, smaller Herd Management Areas (in addition to millions of other acres on public lands).

It’s easy for people in the other 40 states to be swayed by the livestock grazing extremists. They look like real cowboys. But many “ranchers” are large corporations. Their efforts are responsible for the current situation, in which taxpayers support their private businesses of grazing millions of privately owned livestock on public lands, leaving us with no end in sight, not in numbers, not in funding, not in ecological damage. What is a real-world solution?

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