Watersheds Messenger Summer 2001 Vol. VIII, No. 2 PDF ISSUE
Not Cattle, Belong in the West
Shortly after sunrise on a
morning in mid-June, I stood with a group of people on a little hill in Lamar Valley in
Yellowstone National Park. We looked down on the winding Lamar River, and across it to the
broad alluvial plain where small bunches of bison and pronghorn antelope grazed. Some of
us searched the valley with binoculars, or adjusted the half-dozen spotting scopes that
stood on tripods nearby, aimed at the morning's main attraction: a sow grizzly bear and
her twin cubs, feeding on the remnants of an elk carcass.
A hundred yards or so beyond the
bears, a bull bison rubbed his ponderous head against a fallen cottonwood log. Seated a
respectful distance from the bears were six wolves. Ravens and magpies fluttered and
stalked around them.
To see wolves and grizzlies
together is not that common in Yellowstone, so there was a hushed excitement in our little
group. We watched the scene for
The wolves moved in, gnawed the
white ribs for a while, rolled and played a little, then rose and trotted off, past the
unconcerned bison and antelope. A coyote appeared out of nowhere and moved in cautiously
to grab what
This was the high point of our
weekend trip. A close second was the opportunity to see Yellowstone's famous bison and
observe their grazing behavior. Bison don't seem to graze heavily on the edges of ponds
and wetlands. The small streams meandering through Yellowstone's wet meadows are bordered
by undisturbed sedges and rushes; the bison graze away from the water, while cattle would
have been right down on the stream
It's not the fault of the cows.
They are what their evolutionary history in the humid woodlands of Europe has made them.
They are browsers as well as grazers, creatures who once boasted formidable horns and
could back into a thicket to protect their calves against predators. Even in the New
World, they ran wild and multiplied in the mild climate of eastern Texas. They never asked
to be turned into polled meat factories and abandoned on the range to the mercies of harsh
winters, cancer eye, larkspur poisoning and snakebite.
In all the states surrounding
Yellowstone, for instance, cattle simply cannot survive - on or off public land - without
extensive human assistance. This assistance continues to exact a fearful price on the
area's land and water.
But things are changing, on
several fronts. Eating breakfast later that morning at Mammoth Hot Springs, I read two
I doubt that these two events are good news for cattle prices. The economics of "traditional" ranching are about to converge with a growing public awareness of the ecological damage inflicted on the West by cattle. When the two meet - and I am confident that they will - the West's native ungulates will be there, waiting in the wings.