Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

Rangeland Conditions Are Improving

TRUTH

Spring trampled by cattle, Humboldt National Forest, Nevada.

Rangelands were so severely overgrazed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that most places just couldn't get any worse. Since then, there has been limited improvement, mostly because of a steep reduction in domestic sheep numbers. Yet it would be wrong to imply that our rangelands are seeing significant advances toward biological sustainability. Hundreds of millions of acres are still in an ecologically degraded condition. For example, according to statistics compiled by the Society for Range Management, 15 percent of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands are improving in ecological condition and function. However, 14 percent of BLM lands are continuing to decline. And although the vast majority of BLM holdings are rated "stable," a high proportion of the acreage in this category is in such poor shape that it cannot get much worse. Livestock proponents like to say that the majority of western rangelands are "stable and improving." Yet by combining the large percentage of "stable" lands with the smaller percentage of "improving" lands, what livestock advocates have done is to disguise the reality that most of these public lands are ecological disaster zones.

Most improvement on public lands has been on the uplands (areas upslope of valley bottoms and streams), because of the decreasing numbers of livestock there, while the devastation of biologically critical riparian areas continues. In fact, according to a 1990 Environmental Protection Agency report, riparian areas are in the "worst condition in history." And, as a 1989 General Accounting Office report found, livestock are the major source of riparian degradation on public lands in the West. It is possible for livestock proponents to claim that the range condition of a particular allotment is improving even while the riparian zones within it are worsening, because of the way official range assessments average all parts of an allotment together.

In most cases, improvement on an allotment is a consequence of lowered stock density or a shortened grazing season. In effect, fewer livestock means better range condition, and in nearly all instances, termination of all livestock grazing would result in much more rapid rangeland recovery.