Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

PART IV

A Century of Trashing Public Lands: Ecological Impacts of Livestock Production in Arid Western Landscapes

This satellite photo shows Arizona's Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (top), which is fenced off from livestock, and adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands grazed by livestock (bottom). (The grass-dominated refuge is light-colored because of the abundance of dry stems of the previous season's growth. The BLM land is dominated by shrubs, and therefore is dark in color). Although the contrast between areas grazed and ungrazed by livestock is seen on a landscape level here, such opportunities are rare throughout the West, thanks to livestock's near ubiquity. When studying the effects of livestock grazing, most researchers utilize very small exclosures (an acre or less) as their "controls." This practice is far from ideal for scientific purposes, as the small exclosures are subject to many external influences from the surrounding livestock-grazed land. Nonetheless, research shows, among other things, that where abundant grass cover is retained-as it is on the Buenos Aires Refuge-soils are less subject to erosion and provide better growing conditions.

At the heart of this book lies the heart of our concerns: the land, the rivers, and the wild things that inhabit them. Here are the species for which public lands grazing policy may truly be a matter of life or death. Here are the rivers drying up, the water tables dropping, the soils washing away. Three hundred million acres of public land are at stake in the public lands livestock grazing debate. In this section, you will see and read in detail about what is to be found on these 300 million acres, and what has vanished from them.

The following essays attempt to redress the ways in which the harm done by livestock in the West have been obscured. Livestock-induced change tends to be visually subtle (at least, in comparison with other types of environmental alteration, such as clearcut logging or urban sprawl) and incremental. Throughout the arid western United States, livestock production is nearly ubiquitous (with the exception of a few protected areas and places extremely inhospitable) and has been going on for a century or more. Even areas ungrazed by livestock are affected because they have become islands in a sea of livestock production as well as other types of human use. They are subject to the problems typical of fragmented habitats, such as edge effect and genetic isolation. Altogether, the prevalence of livestock production means that most people accept the present look of the land as the norm and regard the diminished populations of many of the West's native species as "the way things have always been."

This set of essays on the ecological impacts of livestock in the West is led by a discussion on the nature of science itself-what science can tell us, and what it cannot. We feel it is important to acknowledge the limitations of science, as well as to harness its strengths, because ultimately policy change and restoration of the public lands will depend on much more than science alone. But before action must come understanding, and before understanding, a witnessing of the facts. And so, read on. The facts are here.