Wasting the West

How Welfare Ranchers and Their Livestock Are Damaging Public Land

Twenty years ago, much of the public land around the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona resembled the barren and desolate landscape found in a Sub-Saharan desert. For years, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had granted grazing permits to ranchers for thousands of acres of fragile land along the San Pedro. At any given time 10,000 cows were grazing in the area, trampling the river’s banks and causing it to widen out and become precariously shallow. The cows also devoured native grasses and shrubs near the river, transforming the once-healthy landscape to little more than a vista of dry earth, lumps of cow pies and sparse vegetation.

Livestock grazing in the west is gaining recognition as an important issue, thanks to thorough documentation of damage wrought by cattle on sensitive rangeland.©George Wuerthner

In 1987, the BLM declared a moratorium on nearly all cattle grazing on its San Pedro River allotments. (Today, three livestock allotments are still in operation, but each is limited to a small number of cows.) The following year, Congress designated the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a nature preserve of 58,000 acres, stretching along 40 miles of the river from the border with Mexico to St. David, Arizona.

Now the San Pedro’s troubled past as a cow-damaged ecosystem seems a distant memory. The river has grown narrow and deeper, providing a home for longfin dace, desert sucker and other fish. Native grasses and bushes have re-established themselves along the riparian area, as have dense groves of Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willows. In 1999, beaver were re-introduced to the river, and they have built numerous dams, slowing the flow of the river and creating pools of water.

The preserve currently supports 350 species of birds, including many that migrate, 81 species of mammals, a half-dozen species of fish, and more than 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, says Bill Childress, the conservation area’s manager. Each year tens of thousands of birdwatchers flock to the preserve, which boasts nearly half of all known breeding species in North America.

Unfortunately, ecological success stories like the San Pedro are rare in the West. Much of the region’s public land is still used as the San Pedro once was—like a private feedlot for heavily subsidized ranchers. However, the good news is livestock grazing on public lands in the West is gaining recognition as an important issue, due to regional organizations such as Western Watersheds Project, based in Hailey, Idaho, and national organizations such as the Sierra Club. The striking, large-format book Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West (Island Press) documents the enormous destruction caused by livestock.

Today, cow and sheep ranchers lease approximately 300 million acres of public land in 11 Western states. As Welfare Ranching authors George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson report, "The combined area is as large as the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida, with Missouri thrown in!" Approximately 90 percent of BLM land and 69 percent of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service is leased to livestock producers. Federally leased public land includes numerous national parks, wildlife refuges and other nature preserves.

It’s called "welfare ranching" because livestock ranchers are heavily subsidized with taxpayers" dollars. County, state and federal property is routinely leased to ranchers at well-below market prices. The federal grazing fee, for instance, "is notoriously underpriced, often eight to 10 times lower than fees charged on comparable private grazing land," says Wuerthner. "For many years, the federal grazing fee has been set at $1.35 [per animal per month]—less than it costs to feed a gerbil for a month."

In addition to dirt-cheap grazing fees, livestock ranchers are also the beneficiaries of low-interest farm loans, and taxpayers support them with emergency bailouts and other state and federally funded programs.

The ecological price tag for welfare ranching is steep, with many environmentalists and scientists now calling it the single most destructive use of public land in the country. "If you look at the cumulative effect of livestock production, no other human activity has a larger negative impact on the environment in the West," says Wuerthner, who cites the effect on water quality, soil erosion, exotic plant invasions, and endangered or threatened animal species.

Given its arid climate and rough terrain, much of the public land in the West is generally unsuited to large-scale, ongoing cattle grazing, critics say. In states like Nevada, for instance, it may take 250 acres to support one cow for a year, while in Mississippi or Missouri a cow can be sustained on a single acre.

Cattle tend to congregate close to streams and rivers and gradually pollute and destroy them. With the resulting water and soil damage, wild species start to decline. Grasses and shrubs are eaten or die out, removing shelter and food for birds, small mammals, and other wildlife. Over time, the landscape is slowly transformed into a barren wasteland, like the San Pedro once was.

Healthy riparian habitats are increasingly rare in the West. As the U.S. General Accounting Office reported in 1988: "Poorly managed livestock grazing is the major cause of degraded riparian habitat on federal rangelands."

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which did not return repeated calls for comment, has consistently argued that ranchers are good stewards of the Earth. "Ranchers depend on healthy natural resources for their livelihood, and therefore, place a high value on stewardship of the land," states the NCBA website. "They have learned that environmental practices that conserve and improve natural resources and the productivity of the land make good business sense."

As for the future of public-lands ranching, it depends on the outcome of the forthcoming Presidential election, says Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. "If a Democrat is elected President, things could get dramatically better," says Marvel. "If Bush is re-elected, things could get dramatically worse. Of course," he adds with a grimace, "in some places things can’t get worse."