Protecting Wildlife on U.S. Public Lands
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Fact: The opposite is true—there are too few wild horses and burros on our public lands, and unless their numbers grow, the survival of these special animals is in jeopardy. During the 1800’s, it is estimated that there were more than two million wild horses and burros roaming the West. These animals, along with countless wildlife species ranging from bison to wolves to prairie dogs, were the victims of ghastly extermination efforts, primarily to make way for private domestic livestock grazing. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 wild horses and burros remaining on millions of acres of our Western public lands. Tragically, the interests of these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” are being forfeited for those of the livestock industry and other commercial operations.
Many wild horse and burro herds are being managed at such dangerously low numbers that their long-term health and genetic viability are seriously imperiled. In 1999, the federal government sponsored a wild horse and burro population viability forum in which several leading scientific experts including Drs. Gus Cothran, Francis Singer and John Gross, participated. One of the main issues discussed was that smaller, isolated populations of fewer than 200 animals are particularly vulnerable to the loss of genetic diversity when the number of animals participating in breeding falls below a minimum needed level. This scenario sets the stage for a host of biological problems associated with inbreeding including reduced reproduction and foal survival, reduced adult fitness and physical deformities. Only about one quarter of the herds under active management have a population objective of greater than 150 animals, much less 200. Numerous herds are being managed at levels between 40 to 70 animals and some even fewer. Either geographical or artificial barriers isolate many of these herds. Rather than address this grave problem by increasing population targets for these animals, the agencies charged with their protection, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (FS), have decided to further reduce wild horse and burro numbers by half to a shocking 22,000 wild horses and 2,700 wild burros.
Fact: While the BLM argues that wild horses and burros are being rounded up for their own good to keep them from dying of starvation or dehydration in areas affected by fire and drought throughout the West, animal advocates have frequently found that herd areas stricken by so-called “emergency conditions” weren’t nearly as bad off as the BLM claimed. Not only were wild horses and burros doing just fine, but livestock often remained in the same areas or were returned to the areas in short order. Of course, once the wild horses and burros are gone, they are gone for good—moving in the direction of achieving the overall objective of drastically reducing populations as quickly as possible. By attempting to justify extra removals as “emergencies,” the BLM is able to tap into emergency funds from other programs and go over and above their allocated budgets to meet this goal.
Tragically, many wild horse and burro herds suffer needlessly due to the fact that they have been unable to roam freely throughout their entire herd areas because of fences and other impediments that have been constructed to accommodate livestock. Hence, they are unable to access forage and water to which they are legally entitled. Wild horses and burros have survived droughts and fires in the past and will survive them in the future, just as do other wild animals, if they are treated as wild animals and left alone.
Fact: Wild horses and burros, like any wildlife species, have an impact on the environment, but due to their natural behavior, their impact is minimal. In fact, wild horses and burros play a beneficial ecological role, for example, by dispersing seeds through elimination, thereby helping to reseed the landscape. They also blaze trails during heavy snowfall and break ice at watering holes, helping weaker animals to survive during harsh winter months. Wild horses and burros can also serve as food for predator species such as mountain lions.
That said, if BLM and FS officials would have the public believe that they are genuinely concerned about ecosystem health, then they must refrain from conducting business as usual—viz., turning a blind eye to the indisputably overriding cause of habitat degradation: livestock grazing and public encroachment. For years, the agencies have permitted extremely high levels of livestock use on public lands, resulting in soil erosion, water contamination and depletion, as well as deterioration of vegetation. While wild horses and burros may be blamed for these problems, the agencies’ own data indicate otherwise. Little has changed since the release of the 1990 US General Accounting Office Report, Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program, which concluded “… the primary cause of the degradation in rangeland resources is poorly managed domestic (primarily cattle and sheep) livestock.” Unlike cattle who tend to congregate and settle in riparian areas, wild horses and burros are highly mobile, typically visiting watering areas for only short periods of time. To make matters worse, livestock are concentrated in grazing allotments at artificially high densities during the critical growing season when vegetation is extremely vulnerable to permanent damage. This overgrazing sets the stage for habitat degradation that may not be immediately apparent, but can cumulatively cause massive vegetation die-off.
Fact: Not so. The paleontological record shows that the cradle of equine evolution occurred in North America, beginning more than 60 million years ago. Conventional theories postulate that horses introduced by the Spanish more than 500 years ago were a different species than those horses who existed in North America prior to their mysterious disappearance approximately 10,000 years ago. However, mitochondrial DNA analysis of fossil remains indicates that E. caballus, the “modern” horse, is genetically identical to E. lambei, the most recent equine species to evolve in North America more than 1.7 million years ago. Hence, it can plausibly be argued that the Spanish actually “reintroduced” a native species, one which evolved on this continent and which has adapted and flourished both biologically and ecologically since its reintroduction. Interestingly, some scientists question the theory that all horses became extinct 10,000 years ago. They are only now beginning to analyze fossil remains that may eventually support this hypothesis.
Moreover, simply because horses were domesticated before being released is biologically inconsequential. Observing horses in the wild demonstrates just how quickly domesticated behavioral and morphological traits fall off. According to Dr. Patricia Fazio, “The key element in describing an animal as a native species is (1) where it originated; and (2) whether or not it co-evolved with its habitat.” By virtue of their evolutionary history, biology and behavior, these animals are native wildlife. In addition, the 1971 WFHBA rightfully recognized them as an “integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”
Fact: While some small family ranchers do depend upon livestock for their primary source of income, the top grazing permits on our public lands in terms of numbers of livestock are held by corporate interests including the Hilton Family Trust, Anheuser-Busch, Inc., Nevada First Corp., and Metropolitan Life Co. In 1992, the General Accounting Office reported that just 16 percent of the approximately 20,000 public lands grazing permittees controlled more than 76.2 percent of forage available on BLM lands and most of these were either very wealthy individuals or big corporations. These wealthy corporate interests are much more concerned with paper stock than livestock, and with preserving their tax write-offs than a way of life. For the most part, removing wild horses and burros translates into just one more form of corporate welfare.
Studies indicate that most ranchers are choosing to diversify their sources of income. Today, less than 3% of our nation’s beef is produced on public rangelands. Ranching on both public and private lands accounts for less than 0.5% of all income by Western residents. In 1994, the Department of the Interior concluded that the elimination of all public lands grazing would result in the loss of only 0.1% of the West’s total employment. Changing times and demographics, not a small number of wild horses and burros, are responsible for the decline of the ranching industry’s importance in the West. The time has come to help wild horses and burros and to assist ranchers who want to voluntarily transition from a profession that is taking its toll on their pocketbooks.
Fact: Small family ranchers, just as small family farmers, have far more to fear from corporate interests than they do from responsible federal lands management policy. In fact, about 70% of cattle producers in the West own all the land they operate and do not rely on public lands grazing whatsoever. It can reasonably be argued that those ranchers who benefit from ridiculously cheap public lands grazing fees and other government subsidies associated with federal grazing permits have a distinct advantage over those who do not. Many of these ranchers who now fancy themselves as modern day “cattle barons” are millionaires and billionaires who made their fortunes in other businesses—e.g., Texas oilman, Oscar Wyatt, Jr. former chairman of Coastal Corp., the late McDonald’s French fries supplier John Simplot, and Mary Hewlett Jaffe, daughter of William Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard fame. The top 10 percent of public lands grazing permit holders control a striking 65 percent of all livestock on BLM lands and 49 percent on FS lands. The bottom 50 percent of public lands grazing permit holders control just 7 percent of livestock on BLM lands and 3 percent on FS lands.
Because public lands grazing allotments require ownership of private base property and wealthy individuals and corporations own more private property (i.e., base property), they wind up with more federal grazing allotments. Hence, these wealthy operations benefit from numerous taxpayer subsidies, while small family operations struggle to make ends meet. These “cattle barons” and corporations are increasingly buying out small ranching operations—acres at a time. With rising operating costs and mounting debts, most small family ranchers are looking for work outside the ranch and a way out of ranching.
Some ranchers have expressed an interest in a proposal that would provide for their needs as they transition into other lines of work. If a rancher voluntarily relinquishes his/her federal grazing permit, the government would compensate the permittee $175 per animal unit month (the amount of forage necessary to graze one cow and calf for one month). Not only would such an arrangement help ranchers and be a huge cost savings to taxpayers (see last myth), but it would also allow forage to be reallocated to wildlife including wild horses and burros.
FACT ON LIVESTOCK GRAZING
10 Facts About Grazing
To clear up confusion and further counter myths that downplay environmental impacts and overstate benefits, here are 10 key facts about grazing to help put things in perspective.
Fact 1. Cattle Grazing Harms Wildlife.
Wildlife are harmed and displaced by even the best-managed grazing systems. The absence of cattle can be a much more effective conservation tool than the presence of managed cattle. A meta-analysis of 109 studies found that across all animals, livestock exclusion increased abundance and diversity.
Fact 2. “Marginal” Lands Are Wildlife Habitat.
The phrase marginal lands is an economic term, not an environmental one, rooted in an extractive approach. Such ecosystems are often home to some of the most biodiverse and climate-resilient wildlife and natural habitats, many of which are essential for healthy life on Earth.
Between 2001 and 2015, the conversion of forests to pasture resulted in five times more deforestation globally than for any other leading deforestation-driving commodities, with the bulk of forest replacement by cattle occurring in tropical forests.
Fact 3. Cattle Grazing Is a Leading Source of Conflict With Wildlife.
Cattle ranching is responsible for the direct killing of vulnerable wildlife like grizzly bears, gray and Mexican gray wolves, tule elk, black-footed ferrets and many other species, often through the USDA’s Wildlife Services program or legislative influence over wildlife-killing policy.
Fact 4. Cows Are an Inefficient Way to Feed People.
Compared to plant proteins such as beans, peas and lentils, beef requires six times more water, 20 times more land, and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of edible protein. One liter of cow’s milk emits three times more GHGs than one liter of soy milk and requires more than 22 times more water and 12 times more land. The amount of land conversion, habitat loss, water use and feed it takes to produce even a small amount of beef and dairy is not environmentally sound.
Fact 5. Cows Contribute to Climate Change.
All forms of cattle grazing result in substantial net increases in GHGs, particularly methane (which is 86 times more potent than CO2 in the short term) and nitrous oxide (which has almost 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide). Increasing cattle grazing outweighs any atmospheric GHG reduction resulting from soil carbon sequestrat
Fact 6. Cows Are Not Bison.
Bison graze differently from cattle under natural conditions, seldom regrazing the same site for long periods of time and do not cluster around water the way that cattle do. Bison were managed by natural predators in regular life cycles and regenerated into the soil.
Fact 7. Cattle Harm Grasslands.
Grassland ecosystems are important carbon sinks, helping to mitigate climate change, and are home to countless endangered and vulnerable species. Cattle are non-native species that did not evolve with the vegetation and ecosystems of the West and do tremendous damage to them.
Fact 8. Cows Damage Nature.
Grazing cattle destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. Once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of many aquatic habitats; overgrazing of fire-carrying grasses has starved some western forests of fire, making them overly dense and prone to unnaturally severe fires.
Fact 9. Cows Are Not Necessary for Healthy Ecosystems.
Grazing cows do not provide the same important ecosystem services that native ungulates like deer, bison, elk and antelope provide or once provided through natural herd movement cycles. Cows harm biocrusts resulting in increased erosion, reduced soil fertility, and non-native and highly flammable weeds. Livestock grazing frequently compacts soil, reduces water infiltration, and increases runoff, erosion and sediment yield.
Fact 10. Cows Degrade Public Lands.
In the arid West, cattle grazing on public lands comes with extensive ecological damage and is the most widespread cause of species endangerment. Despite these costs, cattle grazing continues to be promoted, protected and subsidized by federal agencies on about 270 million acres of public lands in the 11 western states.
SOURCE: Center For Biological Diversity
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Protecting Wild Equine & Wildlife on Public Lands