The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use. In the arid Southwest, livestock grazing is the most widespread cause of species endangerment. By destroying vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and disrupting natural processes, livestock grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike — causing significant harm to species and the ecosystems on which they depend.
Despite these costs, livestock grazing continues on state and federal lands throughout the arid West. Livestock grazing is promoted, protected and subsidized by federal agencies on 270 million acres of public land in the 11 western states. Federal-lands livestock grazing enjoys $100 million annually in direct subsidy; indirect subsidies may be three times that. On the Tonto National Forest in Arizona in 2004 and 2005, ranchers were subsidized under just one federal program to the tune of $3.5 million for “range improvements.”
Cattle destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. After decades of livestock grazing, 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 some aquatic habitats; overgrazing of fire-carrying grasses has starved some western forests of fire, making them overly dense and prone to unnaturally severe fires.
Keystone predators like the grizzly and Mexican gray wolf were driven extinct in southwestern ecosystems by “predator control” programs designed to protect the livestock industry. Adding insult to injury — and flying in the face of modern conservation science — the livestock industry remains the leading stodgy opponent to otherwise popular efforts to reintroduce species like the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.
It isn’t simply the direct subsidies and federal assistance programs that public lands livestock operators rely on. The federal grazing fee is unreasonably low, creating a de facto subsidy for cattle owners. The western livestock industry would evaporate as suddenly as fur trapping if it had to pay market rates for the services it acquires free of charge from the federal government.
Private, unirrigated rangeland in the West rents out for an average of $11.90, while monthly grazing fees on federal lands are currently set at a paltry $1.35 per cow and calf. Despite the extreme damage done, western federal rangelands account for less than 3 percent of all forage fed to livestock in the United States. If all livestock were removed from public lands in the West, in fact, beef prices would be unaffected.
Since our founding, the Center has led efforts to reform overgrazing on public lands in the West. Our work protecting endangered species has removed cattle from hundreds of vulnerable riparian areas in national forests in Arizona, New Mexico and California over the years; in 1999 and 2000 alone, we brought pressure and lawsuits resulting in cows and sheep being removed or restricted on more than 2.5 million acres of habitat for the desert tortoise, southwestern willow flycatcher and least Bell’s vireo in the vast California Desert Conservation Area. We’re now in court to increase the federal fee for livestock grazing on public lands to an amount that’s fiscally responsible and less ecologically harmful. Center legal action has compelled the Forest Service to do an environmental impact statement on the impacts of grazing on more than 13 endangered species; in the late 1990s, our work persuaded the Bureau of Land Management to remove cattle from all or part of 32 allotments along the middle Gila River and the Forest Service to remove cattle from 250 miles of streams on 52 allotments in the upper Gila.
The Center also played a leading role in the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, including drafting of a report criticizing the proposed “Ranch Conservation” element of Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and promoting alternative recommendations to stop grazing in critical habitat for imperiled species. In 2010, Center work helped stop domestic sheep grazing on 7,500 acres in and around the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to protect grizzly bears, lynx, wolves and bighorn; we also halted grazing on a quarter-million acres of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest to protect steelhead trout. In 2011, Center appeals stopped grazing on 33,000 acres of national forest land in Arizona.
The Center and allies sued the federal government to compel it to fix agency budget woes by reforming or eliminating the grazing program, which loses money just as rapidly and consistently as it destroys habitat. Unfortunately, in 2014 the Obama administration announced it would refuse to increase grazing fees to levels reflecting grazing’s true financial and environmental costs.
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