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Range Riders: Making Tom Sawyer Proud

Tom Sawyer would be proud of the “progressive” livestock producers who “love” predators.  These ranchers are continuously held up as a “win-win demonstrations” by collaborating so-called conservation groups who promote these operations as examples of how wildlife and ranching can co-exist.

You know the names, in part, because there are so few of them around the West that the same operations are continuously written up in the media and promoted by conservation groups-Malpai Borderlands group in Arizona and New Mexico, Lava Lake Land and Livestock Company in Idaho, JBarL in Montana’s Centennial Valley, and the Tom Miner Association adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

The problem is that all these feel-good examples have two problems.

One they are the exceptions, not the rule. In all cases, they are livestock operations owned by wealthy individuals or those who have some connection to wealth. As a result, they can implement management practices that cannot be scaled up across the landscape. The Malpai had the support of the late Drum Hadley, Anheuser-Busch beer heir. Lava Lakes is owned by Brian and Kathleen Bean, who live in San Francisco where Brian is an investment banker. The B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin is owned by Mary Ann Mott of Mott Applesauce fame. And the JBarL is owned by Peggy Dulany, heir to the Rockefeller fortune.

The sad thing about all these ranching operations is that the owners are wealthy enough that they don’t need to run livestock at all—likely it is a tax write off.  Indeed, if they were truly interested in helping wildlife instead of promoting the cowboy myth, they would volunteer to retire their public lands grazing allotments and contribute their vast fortunes towards retiring other grazing allotments.

Some of their holdings are substantial—the Bean’s Lava Lakes ranching operation includes 24,000 acres of private lands and controls over 900,000 acres of public lands allotments. Imagine if they retired their grazing allotments instead of running vast herds of sheep on them.

Instead, these “progressive” ranching operations are fawned upon by conservation organizations and receive numerous accolades and promotions of their livestock products (higher priced “grass fed beef and/or lamb). This includes groups like NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife (DOW), Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Montana Audubon, and the Nature Conservancy, among others.

All the while these conservation groups conveniently ignore and fail to inform their membership and media of the multiple ways that livestock production harms wildlife, and ecosystems, no doubt while receiving big donations for their silence. They are, thus, directly culpable for helping to continue the livestock hegemony and destruction of our public lands.

It would analogous to the American Cancer Society promoting filtered cigarettes arguing that they were slightly healthier than unfiltered smokes, and failing to acknowledge that cigarette smoking was a major cause of cancer.

To give an example of this collusion between ranchers and so-called conservation groups, I recently received an email about a “Range Rider” program at the Anderson Ranch in Tom Miner Basin.

For a mere $600 you can ride a horse around in the mountains, and for dinner eat grass fed beef of animals you helped to keep out of the mouth of a wolf or grizzly.

You will learn how to harass predators like grizzlies and wolves so the ranchers can continue to run livestock on our public lands with a minimum of losses from predators.

In addition, there is the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get knowing that, according to the ranch website, range riders help the ranch document predator losses so they can obtain more money from the state predator reimbursement program (again why do wealthy people need our tax dollars to maintain their ranching operations).

The people who fall for this gimmick no doubt believe they are saving predators. That is the message that supporting national organizations like NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife try to put forth.  Want to save wolves—come help harass public wildlife so that ranchers won’t kill them.

Unfortunately, the Anderson Ranch and supporting so called wildlife groups are perpetuating wildlife conflicts, not ultimately eliminating them.

Keep in mind that cattle and/or sheep grazing on public lands are consuming forage that would feed elk and other native wildlife which is the food base for native predators. Funny how TNC, GYC, DOW and NRDC and other groups never mention this as a cost of public lands livestock operations.

The mere presence of livestock socially displaces native wildlife like elk which avoid areas actively being grazed by domestic animals. And therefore, are pushed into less suitable habitat. Again, this harms the natural prey of predators like wolves and grizzlies. Again, no mention of this by the collaborating groups.

Nor do these so-called wildlife groups point out that you as a range rider are there to harass predators so someone’s private livestock (like the Anderson Ranch) can profit from public lands, while native predators like wolves and grizzlies are displaced from their natural habitat.

These groups also don’t mention the collateral damage from livestock. The spread of weeds. The soil compaction. The pollution of waterways from manure. The destruction of biocrusts. The spread of disease from domestic animals to wildlife. The trampling of riparian areas. The fences that block wildlife migration. The hay fields that require irrigation which drains our rivers and destroys aquatic ecosystems.

And I have yet to see any of these groups drawing the connection between livestock methane production and global warming.

Indeed, I would venture to bet that these so-called “wildlife friendly” ranch operations have these impacts—which overall are far worse for the ecological health of our public lands than the loss of an occasional wolf or bear—regrettable as that may be.

And don’t expect these organizations to get into the harm that promoting red meat consumption has for human health.

None of these impacts is mentioned because that would likely make any thinking person question why they are riding around on horses trying to scare predators off the public lands to protect the profit of private ranching operations.

Now I will admit that these ranch owners, and the conservation groups that support them likely believe (read have deluded themselves) that they are demonstrating a way for ranching and wildlife to co-exist, starting with the premise that livestock operations are here to stay, so might as well make it less damaging to the land and wildlife. But they can only do so by ignoring a lot of the collateral damage from their operations.

The fact that our predators are second-rate citizens on the public lands, while private ranchers and their livestock are given priority should outrage any thinking person.

The opposite premise dominates in our national parks. If you were to leave a picnic basket out where a bear or coyote or wolf could find the food, you would receive a fine or at least a stern lecture about the individual responsibility to avoid conflicts by keeping your food away from predators.

Similarly, you are required to avoid hiking or disturbing predators in areas of high use with periodic closures or other tactics designed to minimize altering predator natural use patterns.

Not so for ranchers using our public lands as a feed lot. Instead of giving priority to public wildlife, we allow what are essentially four-legged picnic baskets to roam the land unfettered. If a predator happens to find these moving picnic baskets and consumes one, we kill or move the predator instead of moving the cattle or sheep.

Instead of being incensed by this starting premise and seeking to challenge such assumptions, groups like NRDC in Montana and Defenders in Idaho have, of course, made millions of dollars in donations while they claim to “save” predators like wolves by organizing range rider and wolf harassment programs. But by not questioning grazing privileges on public lands, they reinforce the idea that livestock should have priority on our public lands.

Undoubtedly the ranchers who are inclined to implement livestock management techniques that reduce predator opportunity and the conservation groups that support them will respond that saving a few wolves and grizzlies is better than none. However, in the end, this is a finger in the dike.

These management techniques cannot be replicated across the landscape for a host of reasons, including that most ranchers cannot afford such practices, and furthermore, are not inclined to do anything to promote predators. So, in a sense, when conservation groups promote these ranching operations as a “solution” for ending conflicts and a “win-win” for wildlife, they are selling Kool-Aid.

One wishes that DOW and NRDC instead of harassing public wildlife were using range riders to chase domestic livestock from public lands, not harassing wolves. They could use their big budgets to bail out defenders of wolves.

Of course, the real irony is that if one harassed livestock and chased them off public lands, one would be arrested, but range riders, ranchers, and even wolf supporters can legally harass public wildlife in the name of livestock protection. There is something very wrong with this picture.

No doubt NRDC and DOW will claim that saving a few wolves is better than none—but what they don’t admit is that they are ultimately helping to perpetuate continued conflicts on public lands by legitimizing the assumption that privately owned domestic livestock have priority over public wildlife.

It is no different than the groups who opposed abolition organizations and refused to question the legitimacy of slavery and opted to work with slave owners for better housing and work conditions for slaves.

If these groups were truly interested in protecting predators, not enhancing their fund-raising coffers, they would be working to end public lands ranching, not doing everything they can to sustain it. They would be arguing that if there were some conflict between a public lands ranching operation and predators, the cows/sheep should be moved, not the predators. They would be arguing that harassing public wildlife to promote private livestock operations is unethical.

And if they really wanted to end conflicts, they’d use the millions they have raised on the backs of wolves and grizzlies to buy out public lands grazing allotments and end livestock grazing permanently.

There would be no need for range riders—but I guess that is not as romantic as riding a horse around in the mountains to protect someone’s cows. And if you are cynical, you might even think these organizations do not want the conflicts to end, because how would they raise funding if wolves and bears were automatically granted priority on our public lands?

Tom Sawyer would be proud of the ranchers who are able to get others to mind their livestock for them and actually pay for the opportunity.

More articles by:

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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