How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Re-Wilding of America

Gray wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A recent paper on the rewilding of Europe noted that wolves and grizzlies, not to mention lynx, moose, and other wildlife, have greatly expanded their ranges on the continent. There are lessons for the American West here. If it were not for the ecologically degrading presence of ranching and farming, we could see a significant revitalization and restoration of native wildlife.

Americans might be surprised to learn that even as “crowded” as Europe may seem, approximately 10% of the land area is in towns, cities, and roads. Another 30% of the land is cultivated for crops, and pastures or heath and moorland cover another 15%.

As marginal Ag land is abandoned, wolves and bears are returning to Europe’s rural rewilded areas

A similar abandonment of rural marginal farm and ranch land is occurring in the US. In New England, as upland farms were abandoned and trees returned,  we have seen this “passive” restoration occur for the past century.  For instance, at one time in the 1800s, approximately 80% of Vermont was deforested for farming and logging. Today about 80-85% of the state is reforested. With the return of the forest, there has been a rewilding as bears, moose, lynx, marten, and other wildlife “restore” themselves.

Hindering this passive restoration are  various Ag programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, Ag subsidies, low land taxes on Ag land, free use of publicly owned water for irrigation–all which seek to maintain marginal lands in Ag production.

Unfortunately, many environmental groups promote the idea that we need to “save” ranches and farms” to save “wildlife.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Ag is by far the most significant source of ecosystem loss and degradation in the West.

Note that even in Europe only 10% of the land is urbanized and that percentage is far lower in the West.  By contrast, according to Geographic Analysis Project analysis, only 0.17 of Montana land is in subdivisions, malls, housing, highways, etc. Irrigated fields occupy over 5% of Montana. These are fields of exotic grass that have wiped out the native vegetation. Hayfields alone have destroyed far more of Montana’s riparian habitat than housing tracts by many folds.

I’m not promoting subdivisions as a panacea for wildlife restoration. But if your goal is to protect wildlife habitat, you should focus on limiting both subdivisions and Ag land use.

Most people notice the housing tracts, but ignore the hayfields, wheatfields, grazed lands, etc. that are biological deserts and occupy far more of the landscape than housing. Next time you pass a wheat field or hayfield consider that the acreage is primarily one plant species that is cut down annually. In many cases, Ag fields are also sprayed with pesticides, fertilizers, and if irrigated, use scarce western water to grow plants that can be grown in other regions of the country without irrigation.

Ecologically speaking Ag is far more destructive to our ecosystems than housing tracts, if for no other reason than the vast area they occupy.  Indeed, I can make the case that building a housing tract on a wheat field or hayfield has “increased” biodiversity. The typical subdivision with its landscaping offers far more diversity of plants, and thus habitat for wildlife than conventional wheat or hayfield.

Much of this Ag is marginal. Indeed, there are better places to grow wheat than in eastern Montana or raise cattle than arid Nevada. Production by farmers and ranchers in these regions is sold as part of the total US market. As a consequence, Ag production in drier parts of the West directly competes with farmers in other parts of the country trying to survive economically.

The other day I was driving from Jackson, Wyoming up to Bozeman, Montana. I noted new housing tracts as I passed through Victor and Driggs in the Teton Valley. While I would prefer to see any growth on the edge of a community, the idea that this growth was a threat to Teton County’s wildlife is an exaggeration. Indeed, the existing ranching and farming industry is far more destructive to the county’s natural capital.

The local environmental groups like the Teton Valley Land Trust seek to halt land use conversions by championing ranching and farming. Indeed, when you open their web page, you are treated to a photo of a combine cutting wheat.

As a group, most land trusts and the majority of environmental groups ignore the real ecological impacts of Agriculture on our landscape. Among these impacts are: the killing of wolves and grizzlies, the removal of bison from public lands, the dewatering of our rivers, the pollution of our waterways by non-point pollution from livestock feces or Ag fertilizers, soil compaction, the production of methane from livestock contributing to global warming, the spread of weeds, the spread of cheatgrass, the social displacement of wildlife like elk and pronghorn (by cattle), the transfer of disease (as with domestic sheep to bighorn sheep) and so on. These are only a few of the many negative impacts of Ag on our ecosystems.

And yes I could construct a similar list for impacts of subdivisions, but in terms of total land use, developments and cities occupy a fraction of the landscape.

But if you were to list the reasons why wolves, blackfooted ferrets, prairie dogs, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, kit fox, many native fish, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife are rare or at least much reduced in their natural geographical range, AG, not subdivisions would be the reason.

Like Montana, a tiny portion of Teton County is urbanized and developed. According to a 1915 report done by the University of Idaho “Assessment of Teton View Agriculture,” there are 287,000 acres in the county, with over 133,199 acres in farms (ranches). Approximately 4,300 acres of public lands in Teton County are grazed bringing the approximate total Ag production land use to 137,500 acres.

Even though Teton County is one of the “fastest-growing” counties in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (by percentage change, not actual population), only 4646 acres are land in farmsteads, homes, buildings, livestock facilities, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc.

Indeed, if Teton County had only subdivisions and towns, the county would be as wild as protected landscapes like Yellowstone Park and would support far more grizzlies, wolves, elk, etc. than it does at present.

In other words, subdivision and towns are not the threat to wildlife that is often portrayed—at least not in terms of the total land area influenced.  Yes, critical areas like migration corridors and essential “hot spots” for biodiversity can be negatively affected by any human development and activities whether housing tracts or wheatfields. But if you build a subdivision on a former wheatfield, I would argue you just increased local biodiversity.

In Teton County, it is public and private policy to promote Agriculture in the interest of “preserving” the county’s wildlands and wildlife.  The old and worn out “condos vs. cows” issue is supported as if the only choice is rural subdivisions or promoting Agriculture.

Rather than trying to preserve western livestock operations, we need to hasten, not slow, their demise.

Keep in mind that if promoting and subsidizing Ag was such a great conservation strategy, we would not be talking about subdivisions or the “condos vs. cows” debate. Ag is always a low-value use of land compared to other kinds of development. (I’m not saying converting a hayfield into a Walmart is higher ecological value, but it is a higher economic value).

That is why, even in California, which has the highest value Ag lands in the entire US, farmland is regularly converted into other uses. If the best and most economically valuable Ag land in the country cannot preclude housing tracts, how can anyone believe some marginal farming or ranching operation is going to prevent subdivisions in some of the West’s iconic valleys?  If promoting Ag as a land-use conservation strategy is your best plan, then one needs to rethink ones strategy.

If we stopped supporting marginal agriculture in places like Teton County (or most other western countries) we would see similar “rewilding” as is currently occurring in Europe. Much of the West has a good start in that large percentages of land are in public ownership which forms a base for rewilding. If marginal lands were abandoned and reabsorbed into the public lands base, we would see a “rewilding of the West as in Europe.


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