Jennifer Molidor and Erik Molvar: Magical cows and the colonization of Western public lands

(Allison Batdorff | Billings Gazette via AP file photo) In this Dec. 28, 2004, photo, a bighorn sheep ram grazes along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, just off Wyoming Highway between Cody, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park.

In the debate over grazing in the West, there’s a trend toward magical thinking. In their Aug. 12 commentary, “If you like fish and birds, hug a cow” ranchers Pat and Sharon O’Toole indulge in unscientific flights of fantasy, claiming that irrigation and livestock are beneficial for native fish and wildlife.

Unlike cows, native wildlife in the West don’t need arid lands flooded with water to be productive. Prior to the agricultural colonization of the West (and its displacement of indigenous peoples and wildlife that made it possible), sage grouse flocked together by the thousands, and streams teemed with trout and salmon. America’s natural wealth of fish and wildlife hasn’t been sustained by the plague of cattle, sheep, and irrigated hayfields, it’s been decimated by them.

Cattle are ecological misfits in the arid West, so dependent are they on water. Huddling along streams and riverbanks, trampling and gorging on streamside vegetation, cattle cause a massive influx of sediment into formerly crystalline waters.

In fact, livestock are a leading cause of stream degradation and trout population losses in the West. Trout reproduce by spawning in loose gravel and burying their eggs to protect them from scavengers. The eggs depend on a constant flow of oxygen-rich water to survive, and when livestock-related sedimentation smothers the nests with silt, the eggs die. This widespread problem is only made worse by cattle wallowing in shallow streams and rivers, crushing the eggs themselves.

The Colorado River system from which the O’Toole operation draws water has four species of endangered fishes: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the bonytail and the humpback chub. Their survival hangs by a thread because of the damaging water withdrawals of irrigators, and because overgrazing by cattle and sheep denudes the land, allowing salty sediment to wash into the water that remains.

Thanks largely to excessive irrigation withdrawals, the Colorado River doesn’t reach the sea anymore, leaving its once-biodiverse delta estuaries at the edge of the Sea of Cortez an arid wasteland. Yet the O’Tooles dismiss recent studies showing the devastating impact of irrigation on Western rivers like the Colorado without offering a scientifically valid rebuttal.

The O’Tooles’ Ladder Ranch runs domestic sheep in the Huston Park Wilderness, where their domestic sheep can transmit disease to the native bighorn sheep in the imperiled Encampment Herd. The O’Tooles also run cattle on BLM grazing leases along the Powder Rim, which has the worst cheatgrass infestations in the Red Desert.

Like many livestock operators, they call themselves conservationists while causing major environmental problems.

And the damage goes beyond drought exacerbated by water withdrawals and streamside habitat destruction. The scientific community has called for a significant reduction in American livestock production to meet climate mitigation goals. In addition to methane emissions, grazing has a significant impact on the planet, causing desertification, spreading flammable invasive weeds, devastating rich streamside oases, polluting streams with fecal coliform, and wiping out native wildlife with deadly livestock diseases.

As professional wildlife conservationists, we are concerned.

We need to produce food in a genuinely sustainable way, not greenwash environmental degradation. Food production doesn’t have to rely on river-draining, habitat destroying irrigation. Nor is food security enhanced by unsustainable production. We need better regulation over our public lands instead of allowing private industry to act with impunity by skirting ecological protections.

If it were up to the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, the O’Tooles write, these public lands would become urban sprawl. Presenting this tired claim — that vital wildlife habitat on public lands would become rural sprawl if it weren’t for livestock operators ignores the reality that much of the West is public land, not subject to urban development.

Let’s be clear that if it was up to Western Watersheds and the Center, western public lands would be conserved for wildlife and natural habitats as they are entitled to be under the law. Natural habitats would heal, native wildlife would repopulate, trout streams would recover with the heavy-handed impacts of livestock removed.

Only 1.9% of the U.S. beef supply comes from public lands cattle. Yet the damage cattle bring to these lands is catastrophic. The idea that invasive cattle hold Western landscapes together is a fairy tale. The real story is that western livestock producers need subsidies, handouts at taxpayer expense, and irrigated water to turn a profit – and wildlife and natural habitats pay the price.

It’s time to stop indulging harmful livestock production and protect the wild spaces and native biodiversity of the West.

Jennifer Molidor

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity; she has a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and is a conservation writer.

Erik Molvar

Erik Molvar is executive director of Western Watersheds Project and is a wildlife biologist with 17 books on western public lands to his credit, as well as published scientific findings on the impacts of large herbivores on forage plants and ecosystem processes.