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Why Predator-Friendly Beef Isn’t So Friendly, After All

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Whenever there is discussion about the impacts of livestock production that has been imposed on native predators, someone almost always brings up “predator friendly” livestock operations.  It is a way to have your beef and eat it too. For some people giving up meat eating is something they can’t imagine, despite the many health and environmental costs of a meat diet, in particular, the mortality that predators suffer at the hands of livestock producers. Some folks want to feel like it’s possible to be a meat eater and save wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes that are persecuted by the livestock industry.

Predator friendly sounds attractive. Ranchers promise not to kill predators are then permitted to market their meat products at premium to consumers as friendly to predators. Sounds like a win-win. The rancher gets paid extra for his meat, and the client gets a guilt-free hamburger.

Many conservation groups promote “predator friendly” implying it’s a viable model for “co-existence’ between livestock and wildlife. However, there is no way to raise livestock without significant impact to predators and their prey base. Thus predator friendly provides an illusion of guilt-free meat consumption, when the reality is that consuming beef, and to a degree lamb, is the worst dietary choice you can make for a host of reasons that goes well beyond predator survival.

If you think ecologically, one realizes that no livestock operation is truly predator friendly. Just because a rancher is not shooting a predator, doesn’t mean their livestock operations are harmless.

NO SUCH THING AS ENVIRONMENTAL OR PREDATOR FRIENDLY LIVESTOCK

While shooting a wolf or a bear is definitely a loss to the predator population, the impacts of livestock production on predators goes well beyond the killing of individual animals. In fact the collateral damage from livestock operations has a far larger impact on predator populations and distribution than whether any animal is killed by a rancher or the federal Wildlife Services agency.

While I will not get into other issues here, it is worth noting that livestock are one of the biggest contributors to global climate change, damage to soils, pollution of water, and the fragmentation and destruction of wildlife habitat for pasture and forage production (hay, corn, etc.), excessive use of antibodies and pesticides, among many other impacts.

SOCIAL DISPLACEMENT

Numerous studies have documented that the mere presence of domestic animals displaces native species. For instance, when cattle are moved on to a public lands allotment for grazing, wild elk abandon the site. If one assumes the elk are residing in a particular because it’s good habitat, and that all good habitat is already filled by other elk, this displacement means that elk move to less productive habitat where perhaps they are more vulnerable to predators or the forage isn’t as rich. No matter what the situation, this means a reduction in elk numbers, hence native prey for predators like elk.

FORAGE COMPETITION

You simply cannot be putting the vast majority of all forage into domestic animals without affecting native wildlife populations in multiple ways. On public lands, even in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem which has the greatest abundance of native herbivores (prey for carnivores) in the lower 48 states, the vast majority of forage on public lands outside of Yellowstone Park is allotted to domestic animals. In other words, the carrying capacity for native prey species, be it elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope or moose is reduced because much of the available plant production is scarfed up by cattle and sheep.

DEGRADATION OF HABITAT

Domestic animals often have severe impacts on the landscape. For instance, most of the West’s riparian zones are damaged and degraded by domestic livestock. Cattle trample the stream banks, consume the streamside vegetation, and cause streams to widen and become shallower. The vast majority of riparian areas on public lands are not what hydrologist’s term “proper functioning condition.”

Since riparian areas are the most productive plant communities in many arid landscapes, they get a disproportional amount of use by domestic animals. But these same riparian areas are critical for many wildlife species with up to 80% of western species dependent on riparian areas for at least part of their life cycle either providing food, water, shelter or travel corridors.

How does this impact predators? Well grizzly bears for one spend a great deal of time foraging in riparian areas consuming spring time vegetation. Degraded riparian areas provide less nutrition. Good riparian habitat also provides hiding cover for predators—bears often use riparian corridors to travel safely through the landscape.

Other predators are also impacted. Damaged riparian areas support fewer fish. So other predators from bald eagles to river otter can suffer as a consequence of “predator friendly” livestock.

Cattle and sheep spread weeds and favor the establishment of exotic species like cheatgrass. This contributes to an overall decline in the productivity of the land, and its ability to support the prey species that predators like wolves and cougar rely upon.

HARASSMENT OF PREDATORS

In order to proclaim that their domestic sheep or cattle are “predator friendly” ranchers often employ harassment techniques to keep native predators away from their domestic animals. So it’s not uncommon to have range riders and other people not only guarding the domestic animals, but actively harassing them to scare them away.

Think about this for a minute. The public’s wolf or grizzly is wandering around on the public land minding its own business, trying to make a living, and some rancher and/or some so-called environmental group is out there blowing boat horns, setting off fire crackers or otherwise harassing the native animals, so the domestic animals can have a free lunch on yours and my public lands.

If any wolf supporters were to go out and blow boat horns to scare away sheep or cattle, they would be arrested for harassing livestock, but doing exactly the same thing to public wildlife is considered a “good” predator friendly technique.

DISEASE TRANSMISSION FROM DOMESTIC ANIMALS TO WILDLIFE

Yet another way that even “predator friendly” livestock can harm native predators is through disease transmission. For instance, domestic bighorn sheep can transmit disease to wild bighorns, severely reducing and sometimes even causing the local extirpation of a wild bighorn herd. Loss of bighorn sheep removes one potential prey item from the diet of our native carnivores.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a disease originally transferred to wildlife from domestic animals (known as Mad Cow Disease in cattle) is also spreading across the West, and infects deer, elk, moose and other wildlife. Animals with CWD eventually weaken and die, again reducing the prey base for wild predators. In an effort to control CWD, some fish and game departments are implementing massive kill programs of deer in an attempt to slow the spread of this disease.

There is also the danger of direct transmission of diseases to native predator. For instance, distemper and mange (scabies) are both diseases that wild wolves can get from domestic dogs. Since many livestock operations use dogs for herding their animals, the risk of disease transmission to native wildlife like wolves, coyotes and fox is always present.

POLITICAL POLICIES

Ranchers, whether predator friendly or not, often support legislators and legislation that favors domestic animals over wildlife. For example, the killing of bison that wander out of Yellowstone are killed as a means of controlling brucellosis. Brucellosis can cause domestic cattle to abort—but there has never been a proven case of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to domestic cattle. Nevertheless, thousands of Yellowstone’s genetically unique bison have been slaughtered or removed to appease the livestock industry. This has reduced the food available for grizzlies, wolves and even coyotes (which scavenge bison carcasses).

SUMMARY

The idea that any livestock operations are “predator friendly” demonstrates a poor understanding of the full ecological impacts of domestic livestock on our wildlife. Beyond the fact that very few ranchers are actually interested in practicing predator friendly operations and those that do are a small minority of operations means livestock production will always be a major impact on our native predators.

While non-lethal means of protecting livestock are desirable, one should never conclude that this makes livestock production “predator friendly.” It’s like suggesting that electronic cigarettes are “safer” than smoking a regular cigarette. The best thing that anyone can do who wants to help predators, the environment ,as well as their personal health, is to eat less meat.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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