Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2005     Vol. XII, No. 2     PDF ISSUE


The Case against Public Lands Livestock Production
By George Wuerthner

The public lands of the United States are part of the "commons" - lands that are held in trust by the government and to be managed for the long term benefit of all current and future citizens. Yet one human activity affects more of that public domain than any other-commercial livestock production. Livestock production occurs on nearly 90% of all BLM lands, 69% of all Forest Service lands, and even quite a number of national parks, national wildlife refuges, as well as state and county lands as well. Over 300 million acres in total or an area as large as all the eastern seaboard states put together from Maine to Florida, with Missouri thrown in as well. Despite this huge amount of land devoted to this activity, public lands only provide 2-3% of the forage consumed by domestic livestock nationally.

And while the profits from this commercial activity go to private individuals, the public commons are degraded and public values are compromised. We suffer these losses so a small minority of citizens can maintain a "death-style" not a lifestyle. Death style because there is no way to produce livestock in the arid West without a multitude of negative impacts including soil erosion and compaction, water pollution, fencing of open space, the spread of exotic weeds, spread of disease from domestic animals to wildlife, changes in plant community structure, interruption of natural nutrient cycles, disruption of natural fire regimes, degradation of riparian zones, destruction of "pests" like prairie dogs and predators like wolves and the nearly uniform domestication of our public lands with fencing, water tanks, pipelines, and other infrastructure designed to make our public lands better stock yards for the benefit of a very small sub-set of society; public lands ranchers.

To understand how much our public lands are compromised by the presence of domestic livestock, let's look at the issue of wolf restoration across the West. My goal as an ecologist and advocate for the public lands is to see the restoration of the ecological influence of wolf predation to the landscape. I do not believe that we should limit our vision to accepting a few "token" wolf packs here and there as some kind of museum pieces in a few national parks as adequate. I want to restore an ecological process - that wolves perform that is the influence of a top down predator. And there is absolutely no biological reason why wolves should not, and can not be restored throughout nearly all of their native range in the West but for one obstacle: livestock.

Despite the supposed "success" of wolf restoration in the northern Rockies, a closer analysis demonstrates that the only place where packs consistently survive without having their social structure disrupted by trapping and shooting or having entire packs wiped out are those wolves whose territories are found in livestock free areas like Yellowstone or the Central Idaho wilderness. On public lands leased for grazing livestock is not only given equal footing with the public's predators, but priority right. If a wolf kills a cow on public lands, it's usually going to wind up a dead wolf.

Even the so called "predator friendly" livestock operations are impacting wolves in three critical ways. The first is forage competition. There is no free lunch. Every blade of grass going into a domestic animal is that much less available for native species from voles to elk to consume. There are very few places in the West where native ungulates like bighorn sheep, deer, and elk are at their true biological carrying capacity because the bulk of forage is allotted to domestic livestock. Fewer elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn, and even bison, means that is that much less prey is available to sustain wolves.

But the mere presence of livestock affects wolves in other ways as well. Many wild species like elk are socially displaced by livestock. In other words, when cows are moved onto an allotment, the elk move someplace else. Again there is no free lunch. If these wild animals are being displaced from what would otherwise be suitable habitat to them they are being negatively affected.

Finally, while not well known by most of the public, state Fish and Game Departments often hold elk, deer, and other wild ungulates to "social" carrying capacity not biological limits to appease ranchers. So political pressure from ranchers not only limits the potential population of our native predators, but in many areas, our other native wildlife as well.

There are plenty of other reasons besides the restoration of wolves to remove livestock from the public lands, but restoration of wolf predation as a viable ecological process across the West is reason enough for me. If wolves can't be restored without constantly being harassed, radio-collared, moved, shot, and managed to death on our public lands, than tell me where can wolves be permitted to just be wolves? In my view, my public lands do not exist for the commercial private profit of any individual or group, and certainly not an activity that so degrades, compromises, and negatively impacts what I believe the public lands should be providing a home for native wildlife free from undue manipulation and harassment. As long as domestic livestock are on those lands, our public lands will never be providing their full potential as a public "commons."

George Wuerthner is a Western Watersheds Project advisory board member who lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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