Federal Public Lands: Wildlife Habitat or Cattle Pasture?
By Mike Hudak
Livestock production has turned much of our western
lands into degraded vestiges of their past glory. Some of that land
is private and its owners are under no obligation to change their use
of it. But much of the West is federal public land, and the grazed portion
of it constitutes a region larger than eight times the area of New York
stateroughly 260 million acres. As U.S. citizens we have a voice
in how these lands are managed. Yet, the voices of the 26,300 ranchers
who hold the grazing permits on these lands are heard above all others.
These ranchers political clout brings them roughly $500 million
annually in taxpayer subsidies, allowing them to off-load many of their
business expenses, such as providing water, protection and forage for
their livestock. But the real tragedy of their enterprise is the suffering
and death that it brings to millions of animals. Cattle are certainly
the most obvious victimsroughly 3.2 million each year whose short,
often unpleasant, lives in deserts or other hostile landscapes lead
only to foul feedlots and, ultimately, to slaughter. But the greatest
harm of the public lands ranching industry is visited upon the native
wildlife of numerous species: fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
Some, like the coyote and mountain lion are targeted by the livestock
industrys hired guns, the government agency known
as Wildlife Services. At taxpayer expense, roughly 300 mountain lions,
1,700 bobcats, 85,000 coyotes and several thousand other animals are
shot, trapped or poisoned every year to make our public lands safe
for the livestock industry.
As bad as this soundsand it does sound a lot like murder, what
happens to many other wildlife species looks more like genocide. Not
necessarily intentional genocide, or more accurately speciescide,
but its de facto equivalent resulting from habitat degradation stemming
from practices of the livestock industry. Whether it is the diversion
of waters that deplete streams, the construction of fences that thwart
migration, the manipulation of forage that removes a natural food source
or the many other actions that make livestock production profitable
on public lands, the livestock industry is at the root of actions that
One significant measure of livestock industry impacts are the number
of wildlife species on public lands that have been listed as Threatened,
Endangered or proposed for listing and that are known, or suspected,
to be harmed by practices of the livestock industry. In Montana: it
is 17 species, Utah: 19, Colorado: 20, Idaho: 23, Oregon: 38, New Mexico:
66, California: 71, Nevada: 75, and in Arizona: 86.
In Arizona, bird species such as the southwestern population
of the bald eagle are harmed by the suppression of cottonwood regeneration
and the resultant loss of nesting trees. The Southwest willow flycatcher,
a neotropical migratory dependent upon healthy stream-side (riparian)
vegetation, has also suffered as these areas are degraded.
Mammals arent immune to the effects of heavy livestock grazing:
in Colorado, the riparian-dependent Prebles meadow jumping mouse,
which inhabits dense riparian vegetation, is one of the many small mammals
that has seen a dramatic decline in population.
Although one may think of deserts as wastelands devoid of life, they
each have their own unique ecosystems with dependent wildlife. In Arizona,
the Sonoran pronghorn has declined as livestock have removed sparse
desert vegetation. And the desert tortoise, a species that has been
around for about three million years, is now listed as Threatened in
California, Nevada and Utah.
In Nevada, Lahontan cutthroat trout, as well as more than two dozen
unique desert fish species of dace, springfish and chub are also imperiled
as riparian areas are degraded. In addition, at least six different
invertebrate species have likely declined as sediment from grazing-trampled
streambanks chokes streams. Even public lands in the Northwest are affected:
in Oregon, shrubsteppe/grassland-dependent birds, such as the Western
sage grouse and the Colombian sharp-tailed grouse, have declined as
a result of heavy grazing pressure.
Throughout the West several species, including the masked bobwhite,
desert pupfish and black-footed ferret, would already be extinct except
for the intervention of captive breeding programs. And the future is
not bright: unless the activities of the livestock industry are significantly
curtailed on public lands, within the next couple of decades other species,
including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, will likely disappear.
Toward preventing this tragedy, a national campaign to end the federal
grazing program is currently being organized. One aspect of the campaign
is litigation. Although the agencies managing our federal public lands
should be protecting endangered species from the livestock industry,
they usually dont because of political pressure to protect the
interests of ranchers. Consequently, the principle method of insuring
that the agencies act on behalf of wildlife is to sue them under the
Endangered Species Act. Such litigation has typically been initiated
by Western regional environmental organizations, such as Forest Guardians
or the Center for Biological Diversity. The amount of litigation is
expected to increase in coming years as the campaign gains strength.
Another aspect of the campaign will be legislative action to prevent
Wildlife Services from engaging in lethal predator control on behalf
of the livestock industry. As the campaign develops there will be additional
legislative efforts to curtail or end large segments of the federal
Public education underlies all facets of this campaign. As one part
of that effort I have assembled a Livestock Photo Gallery online at
Consisting of images selected from my travels throughout the West, the
gallery provides an excellent visual introduction to many of the issues
raised in this article.
Mike Hudak, PhD, is Director of Public Lands Without Livestock,
a project of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs. To learn more about
these issues and activities, visit the Rangebiome website: http://rangebiome.org.