Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

Ranchers Are Good Stewards of the Land

TRUTH

Cattle at water trough, Bureau of Land Management Lands, eastern Oregon.

More than 410 million acres of U.S. rangelands-public and private-are in unsatisfactory ecological condition, according to an estimate by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is an area four times the size of California, or 21 percent of the continental United States, and nearly all of it is in the West. These lands are severely damaged, with at least 50 percent of the desirable plant species eliminated, high erosion and weed invasion rates, and riparian areas unable to function normally.

Although public lands usually get more attention from the media, statistics compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service indicate that more total acres and a higher percentage of private lands in the West are in unsatisfactory condition as compared with public rangelands. This is particularly egregious in that private lands tend to be more productive and better watered than public lands-hence more resilient to livestock abuses.

In truth, ranchers are fighting an impossible battle against the natural limitations of the landscape. The West is not only an arid region but one in which annual precipitation varies widely. The amount of precipitation that falls in a year is directly reflected in the amount of grass production, meaning that forage quantity varies widely from year to year as well. This makes it very difficult for ranchers to maintain a stable business operation while also managing herds so as not to damage the land.

To be a good steward, ideally one not only must have a sense of responsibility and concern for the land-as many ranchers do-but also must treat the land in a way that conserves its fertility, productivity, diversity, and beauty for the future. Yet by raising domestic animals that demand large quantities of water and forage in a place that is dry, and by favoring slow-moving, heavy, and relatively defenseless livestock in terrain that is rugged, vast, and inhabited by native predators, ranchers have put themselves in a position of constant warfare with the land. They funnel most of the grass into their own animals, at the expense of the wild herbivores. They divert water from rivers to grow hay and other crops to feed cows, leaving fish and other aquatic life with hot, shallow trickles. They allow their cattle to graze and trample riparian areas-habitat on which 75 to 80 percent of all wild animal species in the West depend-polluting waterways with manure and adding excessive sediments to the water as they denude the land. And although "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," it's arguable whether most people would prefer a place where the grass is chewed down to stubs and the ground is littered with cow pies, over a grassland of tall and waving stems, dotted with wildflowers.