Pat and Sharon O’Toole: If you like birds and fish, hug a cow

Sharon and Pat O’Toole | Writers on the Range

You don’t hear this from former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt or the usual suspects whose goal is to end many water diversions from the Colorado River, but it’s true. Rural landscapes and wildlife need ranching and irrigated agriculture to survive.

Without irrigation, think high desert. Without irrigation in this time of extended drought, less late water will be there for fish, birds and other riparian-dependent species. Wildlife habitat would be traded for urban growth if groups like Western Watersheds and the Center for Biological Diversity have their way.

How can this be when the drumbeat narrative says that without cattle or irrigated crops such as hay, the stressed river could recover? If you believe The Guardian newspaper, “U.S. rivers and lakes are shrinking for a surprising reason: cows.” Another British publication, Nature, wrote that in the Western United States, cattle are responsible for 23 percent of water use — or 32 percent, depending on the article — and more than 50 percent in the Colorado River basin.

Reputable scientists disagree. Leonard Bull, animal science professor at North Carolina State University, says, “The question that needs answered is how much water is used? And how do you ‘charge’ that water use if it falls on grazing land that is not suitable for alternative food production?

“Livestock consume water, excrete most of it, and meat has about 72 percent water in the lean portion. Does the water excreted in exhaled breath, urine and manure get a credit for recycling against consumed? This is sort of like chasing carbon,” he said (from personal interview with Bull on July 9, 2020).

Irrigation is likewise under attack. In reality, irrigation in the Western river valleys plays a key role in sustaining wetlands and riparian areas season-long. The green ribbons of irrigated pasture and hay land provide important habitat connectivity for sandhill cranes and other birds on their epic annual migrations. These agriculturally sustained wetlands also provide habitat for many other wildlife species.

Migratory birds are the true canary in the “buy and dry,” or just “dry” schemes proposed by the anti-cow vigilantes. Though an assessment reported in Science blames habitat reduction for the loss of nearly 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, how much more would be lost if irrigated lands become ephemeral streams?

If irrigation is eliminated, a cascade of negative events could result. Instead of flooded fields recharging underlying aquifers, a dry landscape would hold no water. No longer would groundwater feed springs and discharge water in the late season when fish and other riparian species need it most. Early water left in the river does not necessarily benefit fish, as that water flows away with the snow runoff, which climate change is bringing earlier in spring. Most of the early flows would end up in Lake Mead and Lake Powell for storage.

And that is the real point of Babbitt’s proposal to buy up some irrigation rights and fallow lands primarily in western Colorado. That “new” water would go to growing cities.

Cities and industry have real needs, but agriculture should not be sacrificed for either one. Food production and food security are critical to this country, something we became very aware of during the virus pandemic.

Somehow a narrative has become accepted that if more people — especially Americans — stop eating meat, the planet will magically improve. This is a false narrative. In the Rocky Mountain West, as elsewhere, it is ranchers and farmers who hold the landscape together, who provide open space and beauty, and for wildlife, crucial habitat.

Raising cattle has value in its own right. Eighty-five percent of grazing lands — think sagebrush steppe or high desert landscapes — are not suitable for any other type of food production. The much-maligned hay and alfalfa grown to feed beef cattle and dairy cows provide us with high-quality protein and nutritious dairy products. With inputs of grass, sunshine and water, we receive steaks, hamburgers, milk, cheese, yogurt and a long list of other byproducts.

Before you buy that impossible meat substitute, with its lower-quality protein, remember that you might consume a weird concoction, dependent on chemicals and ingredients imported from China, with its own environmental costs.

Let’s never forget the wisdom of ecologist Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Sharon and Pat O’Toole are ranchers and conservationists who are contributors to Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org). Their ranch straddles the Wyoming-Colorado border. He is president of the Family Farm Alliance; she is an award-winning writer.