The West is a powerful place. Soaring mountains. Vast plains. Boisterous rivers. Huge spaces.
But one attribute defines the West more than any other—aridity.
Aridity imposes limitations and costs on human enterprises. Nowhere are the limitations and costs of aridity less apparent, yet reaping more degradation and destruction than the failed attempt to create a viable livestock industry in this dry region.
Livestock production–which includes not only the grazing of plants, but everything it takes to raise a cow in the arid West including the dewatering of rivers for irrigation, the killing of predators to make the land safe for cattle, the fragmentation of landscapes with hay fields and other crops grown to feed livestock, combined with the pulverization of riparian areas under cattle hooves, and the displacement of native wildlife–is by far the worse environmental catastrophe to befall the West.
Though the resulting biological impoverishment is less obvious to the average person than say the impacts of logging or a mine, its ecological wounds are greater. No other activity affects more of the West in more ways than livestock production.
If this sounds a bit like hyperbole consider the following. Livestock production occurs on more than 850 million acres of public and private land in the West— one third of the US land area! More importantly this is by far the driest, most fragile third of the country. Given the vast amount of land affected, and the fact that most livestock production is anything but benign, the biological impoverishment caused by the livestock industry is potentially staggering. Although no full accounting of the true cost of livestock production has ever been undertaken, we do know that livestock production is responsible for some superlatives.
It is the single greatest cause of soil erosion in the West. It is the number one source of non-point water pollution. It is the major consumer of scarce western water, and the major factor in the extirpation of many native species from the wolf to the grizzly bear. It is the reason that the West’s wide open spaces are fragmented, fenced, and domesticated. Not surprisingly given all the above, it is also the leading cause of species decline and the major factor in the listing of more western endangered species than any other cause.
Most of these problems are ultimately traced to aridity. Since there is little we as humans can do to effectively change the natural limitations of western geography, any proposals to make ranching somehow less destructive and more benign soon run into these non-negotiable conditions.
Aridity has its cost. Low precipitation and frequent drought accounts for the West’s limited productivity. By comparison in many parts of the moist and humid East one can raise a cow year round on a single acre of ground. In many parts of the arid and rugged West 100-200 acres or more are necessary to sustain a cow. Such vast expanses require more investment in fencing, water developments; more gas in the pick up truck and just time spent gathering stock. Not surprisingly Louisiana produces more beef than Wyoming—the Cowboy State. And despite the fame of Georgia peanuts and fruit, the peach state produces more cattle than Nevada.
The wide open spaces that the West is famous for also means that livestock are far more vulnerable to predators. Most ranchers simply put their animals out on the range and allow them to fend for themselves for weeks or months at a time, giving predators plenty of opportunities for a free lunch. But in the moist East where most livestock are grazed on the back forty, one can readily monitor livestock daily and even put them in a barn or corral each night for protection. In the West, the nearly universal response has been to extirpate the predators.
And while in the moist East the grass two hundred yards from a stream is just as green and lush as along the waterway, in the West, nearly all green lush vegetation is concentrated in the thin green line of riparian vegetation. Here cows congregate and trample streambanks, pollute waterways and destroy the riparian habitat that is essential to the survival of 75-80 percent of the West’s wildlife.
In the moist East where it rains you can grow hay or other water-loving crops for animal feed without irrigation. In the West we destroy rivers by damming them, and draining them to grow hay. And with the destruction of rivers, we place into jeopardy fish as diverse as the Bonneville cutthroat trout to the Sacramento smelt. And so it goes. If you want to grow livestock in the West you can only do it by subsidizing the livestock operation with environmental degradation—and not surprisingly as the many federally funded irrigation projects, predator control, and other state and federally funded projects demonstrate—a great deal of taxpayer money as well.
I am not trying to make a case for raising beef in the East—even in the East livestock production is a very ecologically costly endeavor. Rather I am suggesting that the West is a totally inappropriate place to raise cows. That is not to say there are not better or worse ways to ranch, and some ranchers are more conscientious than others, but all must ultimately face the reality of geography. And aridity results in livestock induced ecological costs and places economic constrains on what ranchers can afford to spend to mitigate the problems created by geography and the use of a water-loving, slow-moving, dim-witted domestic animal for stock. The western livestock industry is built upon a poor foundation—the domestic cow—and like a house built upon a steep eroding hillside, you can not ultimately fix the problem by continuously prompting up the industry.
What will a West freed from the yoke of cows be like?
For starters many species currently at low numbers or restricted distribution will see their populations grow to fill the great spaces of the West. Wolves may again howl beyond the city limits of Boise and Salt Lake. Salmon once again may jam the spawning beds of the Salmon, John Day and Powder rivers. Bison could roam the prairie just beyond the city limits of Casper, Denver and Billings. Rivers will run clear and full.
This rejuvenated West won’t be some throw back to the times of Lewis and Clark—we have crossed too many ecological thresholds and we have too many people for that to be a reality any time soon. But this new livestock-free West will nevertheless almost certainly will be more ecologically productive, more beautiful, and wilder than at present. And that is plenty good enough for me.
EDITOR’S NOTE: George Wuerthner is a writer, activist, biologist and photographer whose pictures can be seen at George Wuerthner Photography.