It’s Always the Ranchers

A week ago, I was touring Montana public lands with my 13-year-old daughter. As we approached Yellowstone National Park, I explained how the slaughter of bison was largely to appease the livestock industry, pushed by a handful of ranchers who didn’t want bison migrating out of the Park. Bison, as it turns out, eat the same grass as cattle, and can carry the livestock disease brucellosis. Even though there has never been a documented case of cattle catching brucellosis from bison – not even one – in the Yellowstone ecosystem (all known cases were traced back to elk, according to the National Academy of Sciences), cattle producers fear losing “brucellosis-free” status which would make it harder for them to market their cattle. “It’s always the ranchers,” my daughter exclaimed.

She’s right.

Earlier in the week, we had visited the Thunder Basin National Grassland to see prairie dogs, a rare and sensitive native wildlife species and also the very linchpin of grassland wildlife diversity. Instead, we looked out on empty prairie dog colonies, decimated by lethal poisoning and sylvatic plague. The disease borne by fleas, was kept in check for years by conservation nonprofits who dusted the burrows with a flea-killing powder. But in 2017, the Forest Service started denying dusting permits to the conservationists, and stopped authorizing the non-lethal relocation of prairie dogs away from private land boundaries. Recently, the Forest Service caved even further in to politically-connected ranchers with an anti-prairie dog plan amendment for the national grassland that includes expanded prairie dog poisoning programs and more recreational shooting of the animals. The livestock boosters want prairie dogs killed by plague, poisons, and bullets – so their non-native cattle would have more grass to eat.

These examples are unfortunately representative of the livestock industry’s broader sense of entitlement to public lands. Rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers who have sued (and failed) in an attempt to take away the federal government’s ability to own public land and manage it for public access and public benefit. Agriculture professor Angus McIntosh of the Texas A&M University system has been barnstorming the West, exhorting ranchers to treat public land as their own private property. William Perry Pendley and Karen Budd-Falen, who spent their attorney careers representing the lunatic fringe of the livestock industry, who publicly aligned themselves with the Bundy movement, now work as officials within the Trump administration, dismantling conservation protections on public lands and putting ranchers in charge of “managing” public lands by deleting grazing regulations and limits that prevent overuse and ecological abuse.

In 2018, Wyoming rancher Mary Thoman wrote a plaintive opinion piece about how keeping grizzly bears on the Endangered Species list was threatening to end her sheep operation. Today, thanks to the courts, grizzlies have been back on the ESA list for two years. Not only has Thoman Ranches not gone out of business, as she supposedly feared, but instead actively plotting to acquire additional grazing on public lands where the livestock permits – in grizzly country – were already bought out from willing sellers to solve livestock-wildlife conflicts. Thoman, in effect, is trying to snatch away the solution, and reinstate the problem.

It’s examples like these that put the lie to claims about the environmental “sustainability” of ranching. In fact, the livestock industry is responsible for propagating some of the biggest whoppers in the public lands debate: promoting fuelbreaks and juniper clearcuts as fire mitigation (which coincidentally produce more cattle feed in place of native tree species), promoting the false cure of cattle grazing to combat the invasive weed epidemics caused by livestock in the first place, blaming wild horses for rangeland degradation caused by their own cattle and sheep, spreading fake fears that wolves could somehow transmit COVID-19 to people, presenting overheated hyperbole about their losses to predators which are miniscule compared to weather’s role in cutting short cow and sheep journeys to the slaughterhouse. The industry keeps wanting the public to believe they are benevolent actors, when, in fact, livestock grazing has been a key part of the destruction of the West and the colonization of Native lands for over 150 years.

At the root of all of these moral failings and corrupt practices is the custom and culture of the livestock industry. A mix of entitlement and manifest destiny, it prescribes that nature exists to be dominated, subdued, controlled, and ultimately replaced by a dystopian and ecologically dysfunctional agricultural landscape. In this post-agro-geddon world, wildlife and native plants are tolerated only to the extent that they are compatible with maximum profits and minimal inconvenience for the livestock industry. They demand control of America’s public lands – National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands alike – for the maximum benefit of their private profits; healthy lands, native wildlife, trout streams, and public recreation be damned.

Leading livestock lobby groups – like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Public Lands Council, and Protect the Harvest – are so incapable of honesty that you can tell when they’re lying because their lips are moving. Yet it isn’t just the lobbyists perpetuating the myths: I’ve never seen a rancher pipe up in protest when outrageous lies are uttered by the lobbyists who represent them. By failing to police their own, every rancher who doesn’t speak up to object therefore owns the falsehoods uttered on their behalf.

Ranchers like to project the fiction that their custom and culture is the way of the West and that they are supported by the vast majority of westerners. This has never been the case. In western Colorado, they claimed that no one wanted to see the Gunnison sage grouse listed under the Endangered Species Act. But 2004 polling in the heart of Gunnison sage grouse country showed that 68% of locals agreed with providing the imperiled bird with ESA protections. After the Gunnison sage-grouse was listed, support for listing in 2016 stood at 66%. The same opposition was invented for the greater sage grouse, and West-wide polling again showed strong public support for invoking the ESA. Today, there is a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves to the western Colorado mountains, and independent polling showed that 84% of voters support wolves, in urban and rural areas alike. When ranchers tell us that they are the real Westerners, we should ask why they can’t manage to actually live here among the native wildlife that have been here since time immemorial.

The most fundamental, inescapable, and damning reality is that the livestock industry has an extinction agenda when it comes to native fish and wildlife. Trap the wolves. Shoot the grizzly bears. Poison the prairie dogs. Siphon away the trout streams into irrigation ditches. Burn off the sagebrush. Poison inedible native wildflowers. Replace the native grasses with forage species for cows but which wildlife avoid. Put private profits above the public trust, even on public lands.

It’s always the ranchers.

More articles by:

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.

August 12, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s War On Arms Control and Disarmament
P. Sainath
“We Didn’t Bleed Him Enough”: When Normal is the Problem
Riva Enteen
Kamala Harris? Really? Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Kenneth Surin
The Decrepit UK Political System
Robert Hunziker
Freakish Arctic Fires Alarmingly Intensify
Ramzy Baroud
The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis
Sam Pizzigati
Within Health Care USA, Risk and Reward Have Never Been More Out of Kilter
John Perry
The US Contracts Out Its Regime Change Operation in Nicaragua
Binoy Kampmark
Selective Maritime Rules: The United States, Diego Garcia and International Law
Manuel García, Jr.
The Improbability of CO2 Removal From the Atmosphere
Khury Petersen-Smith
The Road to Portland: The Two Decades of ‘Homeland Security’
Raouf Halaby
Teaching Palestinian Children to Love Beethoven, Bizet, and Mozart is a Threat to a Depraved Israeli Society
Jeff Mackler
Which Way for Today’s Mass Radicalization? Capitalism’s Impending Catastrophe…or a Socialist Future
Tom Engelhardt
It Could Have Been Different
Stephen Cooper
Santa Davis and the “Stalag 17” Riddim
August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid
Binoy Kampmark
Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under
Mike Garrity
Emperor Trump Loses Again in the Northern Rockies in Big Win for Bull Trout, Rivers and the ESA
Alex Lawson
34 Attorneys General Call to Bust Gilead’s Pharma Monopoly on COVID Treatment Remdesivir
August 10, 2020
Gerald Sussman
Biden’s Ukrainegate Problem
Vijay Prashad – Érika Ortega Sanoja
How the U.S. Failed at Its Foreign Policy Toward Venezuela
Daniel Warner
Geneva: The Home of Lost Causes
Mike Hastie
The Police Force Stampede in Portland on August 8, 2020 
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s Executive Orders: EOs as PR and FUs
Rev. William Alberts
Cognitive Without Conscience
David Altheide
Politicizing Fear Through the News Media
F. Douglas Stephenson
Is Big Pharma More Interested in Profiteering Than Protecting Us From Coronavirus?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Money Plague
Howard Lisnoff
Revolutionaries Living in a System of Growing Fascism
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump is Defeating Himself
Lynnette Grey Bull
The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Human Rights Emergency is Not a Photo-Op for Ivanka Trump