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Zinke and the Welfare Ranchers: Subsidies for Us But Not for Thee

NASA just reported the drought in eastern Montana is so severe it is a once in a century event.

Not surprisingly, despite livestock grazing that some suggest could preclude large blazes, the drought in eastern Montana has spawned some recent wildfires, including the 270,000-acre Lodgepole Fire. The fire raced across grazed public and private pasture and rangelands.

Some ranchers who lost grass to the fire now must sell off their cattle, buy hay or seek out other private pastures for their cattle.

Unfortunately, some of these cowboys have requested the Dept of Interior to open Montana’s Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge (CMR) for grazing by their cows. And recently Secretary of Interior Zinke granted their wish and swung open the gate to grazing by their livestock.

It’s ironic that for the most part the livestock industry regularly belittles the government, welfare queens, and paying taxes—yet they are quick to call on the government to assist with taxpayer welfare.

I do not mind helping people who have been impacted by a natural event. That’s what government is for and should do—even people who complain about government all the time.

But allowing cattle to graze the CMR is the wrong solution. The CMR grass is needed more by native public wildlife than by privately owned cattle.

In a drought, wildlife must scramble to find food and cover. During drought, there is often as little as one third grass production. In addition, wildlife displaced by the Lodgepole Fire must also search further for food, and no doubt some will be heading to the CMR.

In addition, livestock grazing during droughts is more likely to help favor the spread of weeds by disturbing soils and consumption of drought weakened native places.

While the ranchers have other options from leasing other private pasture to buying hay to reducing their herds, wildlife has no other options.

Let’s give the ranchers affected by fire a helping hand—provide loans, give emergency assistance, bring in hay from other regions—but let’s not compromise the public’s wildlife by allowing cattle to graze the CMR.

These are public lands that belong to all Americans, and they should be managed to benefit all Americans. Allowing private businesses to expropriate the food and cover that otherwise is needed by the public’s wildlife is not in the public interest.

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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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