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Trouble in Paradise Valley

Paradise Valley, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Paradise Valley, Montana, is aptly named. The Yellowstone River flows north to Livingston, Montana, framed by the Absaroka Mountains on the east and the Gallatin Range on the West. It’s one of the most stunning landscapes in the entire West.

Due to its location immediately adjacent to Yellowstone Park and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, Paradise Valley has extremely high wildlife values. The Yellowstone River itself is a “blue ribbon” trout stream. In contrast, the adjacent uplands are frequented by elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, moose, grizzly bear, black bear, wolves, and other charismatic wildlife.

Some 49% of the valley is privately owned, primarily as ranchland. However, as in other high amenities, driven economies in the West, Much of Paradise Valley is subdivided into small parcels and rural sprawl.

Cattle in Paradise Valley. Photo by George Wuerthner.

A recent report on ranching in Paradise Valley Montana by Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) based in Bozeman, Montana, was featured in an article in Mountain Journal.

PERC is funded by corporations and others to promote private property ideas. PERC has long championed private lands and resource development, including the privatization of public lands like Yellowstone National Park as part of what they call Free Market Environmentalism.  This advocacy of private ownership as a solution to environmental issues is critical to understand their perceptive. PERC just published Elk in Paradise Conserving Migratory Wildlife and Working Lands in Montana’s Paradise Valley.

As is typical of advocates of the Free Market, they start with several flawed assumptions. One is that all resources would be well managed, and ecosystem values would be better protected if they were privately owned. The obvious flaw of this idea is easy to see when you view the private timberlands clearcuts owned by corporations like Weyerhaeuser in places like western Oregon and Washington.  The same is true of private grazing lands, which are often in worse ecological shape than adjacent ecologically similar public lands parcels.

With regards to ranching, PERC articulates what they see as the benefits maintained by private livestock operations or what they call “working landscapes” (as opposed to those lazy, unemployed lands like parks and wilderness). However, they conveniently ignore the many ecological costs of livestock production that are externalized or unaccounted. You can read their report to find out what they consider the values of ranching. Here, I want to discuss all the negative impacts of livestock grazing and “working landscapes.”

PERC reports that some 34 private landowners responded to a survey about ranching in the valley and the “problems” presented by wildlife—in particular, elk. Ranchers worry about the transmission of brucellosis by elk to their cattle, a disease that can cause abortion in livestock. The fear of brucellosis is one reason bison are shot when they leave Yellowstone Park.  Despite the fact, there is no documented instance of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle under natural circumstances; this hasn’t stopped the annual slaughter.

In their report, PERC has nine suggestions for improving tolerance for elk in the valley and retaining private ranchlands as an integral part of the landscape. Most of these suggestions include the public subsidy of ranch operations based on the presumption that improving the economics of the livestock operations will reduce the likelihood of subdivisions and subsequent sprawl.

For instance, PERC suggests an elk fund to compensate landowners for forage consumed by elk (but of course, nothing about the feed consumed by rancher cows on public lands which often drives elk to private areas), more publicly funded propaganda extolling the wonders of private lands ranching and its “benefits” for wildlife among other “incentives.”

Elk by Dome Mountain, Paradise Valley, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

It also ignores the fact that none of these economic incentives have ever worked. And this is one of the real failures of this approach. Consider that in California, which is home to the most expensive and most productive Ag land in the country, Agricultural properties are regularly subdivided into housing tracts.

Subdivision sign in Paradise Valley. Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

What PERC and other champions of ranching ignore are land prices.  Once land values exceed the value of Ag production, a point passed in Paradise Valley long ago, you can’t maintain a “working ranch” because part of being able to keep a ranch is the ability to buy additional land for a price you can pay off with Ag production. That is impossible In Paradise Valley and nearly all western Montana at this point.

There is some interesting statistical data that illustrates trends all around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. All larger landowners in Paradise Valley are involved in livestock production. However,  of the 34 landowners who responded to the survey, more than half (18) derive the majority of their income from sources outside of livestock production. In comparison, only 13 landowners obtain 80-100% of their income from ranching.

This trend is illustrative of the “amenity rancher” or wealthy individuals who are buying up ranches as an investment, showcasing their wealth, or for the recreational opportunities of fishing, hunting, and just the status of owning “spread” in Montana. Paradise Valley ranchlands are owned by everyone from movie actors like Jeff Bridges and musicians like John Mayer to wealthy individuals like Author Blank, of Home Depot, and Maryanne Mott. She owns the 15,000 acres B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin.

Many of these amenity ranchers likely continue to produce cattle to maintain the low Ag land tax benefits.  They also tend to be more receptive to placing conservation easements on their lands.

In many ways, this change in ownership is positive if you value native biodiversity. Most of these amenity ranchers do not have to graze or otherwise manage their lands as intensively as those whose sole income is derived from the production of livestock. They are often more tolerant of predators, will spend money improving fish habitat and other projects designed to improve the overall ecological health of the land. And most importantly, they are less likely to subdivide their properties and more likely to place conservation easements on them.

This may be one reason that as the land ownership in Paradise Valley has changed towards amenity ranching, the number of elk has also risen. Keep in mind that the most subdivided western state—Colorado–has the largest elk herds in the country. As older ranch operations have been acquired by amenity buyers or sold off for housing tracts, there is a higher tolerance for wildlife like elk.

Furthermore, the idea that subdivisions are always detrimental ignores geography. Why? Because most of the land that has been subdivided hasn’t been elk habitat or habitat for much of anything else except for exotic grasses and animals for a century. I acknowledge there are vital ranches–mostly the ones that are up against the mountain foothills. However, that is a small percentage of the ranches that might have critical elk habitat.

The idea that we are going to “save” ranches in Paradise Valley or anyplace else by promoting livestock production is absurd. When you consider that nearly all communities in the West are built upon former Ag lands, the belief persists that Agricultural production can preclude housing tracts,

Unless rich people like Author Blank buy them, all these ranchers will go out of business. You cannot run cattle and make a profit in the arid West. The only way you make a profit is by externalizing all your costs to the public. And it is these externalized costs that PERC and other advocates of “working landscapes” typically ignore.

One of the common faulty assumptions is that OPEN SPACE IS NOT THE SAME AS GOOD WILDLIFE HABITAT. Coal strip is “open habitat,” but no would say it’s good for wildlife. That is an extreme example, but I do think it’s germane. A hayfield or a wheat field is poor habitat, even if you occasionally see a deer in them.  Hayfields are dominated by one or a few exotic grasses like smooth brome or alfalfa. Exotic grasses do not support native insects, and therefore, fewer native birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Sure, you might see elk or deer in these fields, but elk and deer are not biodiversity.

Hayfield in Paradise Valley. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Agriculture by any real accounting if far more destructive to the West’s landscape than subdivisions, if for no other reason than they dominate the land. Get up in a plane and fly over the Gallatin Valley, and what you see is not subdivisions, but mostly Ag fields, and mostly hay or wheat fields. Collectively these fields represent a biological degradation far worse than your average neighborhood.

Although done more than two decades ago, a GAP analysis of Montana found that all human development, including highways, housing tracts, and all the rest occupied only 0.17% of the landscape. In contrast, irrigated fields, primarily for hay production, occupied approximately 5% of the state. Throw in the rangelands grazed by livestock, and perhaps up to 70% of the state is used for livestock production.

Thus, in simple numbers, livestock production’s physical footprint far exceeds the impact of subdivisions and rural sprawl. I want to be precise. I am not a proponent of developments, but I think PERC makes the opposite mistake of assuming that just because subdivisions have impacts, that ranching is more desirable.

Years ago, I did a quick survey of my urban block in Livingston and noted all the bird species there. Just in numbers and species of birds, there were far more than in a similar size hayfield. In my yard alone, I have native plants like chokecherry, serviceberry, snowberry, mock orange, plains cottonwood, mountain ash—all of which are used by native insects, and thus support the numerous bird species. Larger mammals like elk are not going to live in urban settings, but one should not assume that elk represents “wildlife” or “biodiversity.”

Most of the Gallatin Valley is a biological desert created by agricultural lands. Photo by George Wuerthner.

The center of Paradise Valley or the near-by Gallatin Valley, where Bozeman is located, hasn’t been home to elk for at least a hundred years. A subdivision collectively with their landscaping, often with at least some native plants, INCREASES biodiversity compared to hay or wheatfield. Hayfields are biological deserts.

That is critical to understanding the situation. The fact is that ranching is highly destructive. I’m not suggesting subdivisions are better, but let’s not fool ourselves. Ranches and cattle grazing is one of the most damaging land uses in the West. According to the USGS, ranching is the most significant contributor to endangered species in the West.

In my book Welfare Ranching, I list hundreds of species that are in decline due to livestock production. This review includes 159 species listed or candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act that the US Fish and Wildlife Service noted ranching on a contributing factor in their demise.

I would posit that people dislike subdivisions because they represent change, and they do bring different issues like traffic congestion, higher taxes, and so forth. But they are not necessarily worse for wildlife and ecological processes. The ONLY thing that works is zoning, like in Oregon. I’ve seen it work wonders there. But ranchers are some of the biggest opponents to land use zoning and planning. There are exceptions, of course, but as a rule, most ranchers have the absurd idea that it’s my land and I can do what I want with it.

And while subdivisions sometimes damaged riparian areas, far more are destroyed by livestock than housing tracts. As you know, riparian areas are the most critical habitat. I recently canoed the W and S Missouri, where for more than 100 miles, the riparian habitat is nearly gone. Why? Not houses, but from cows. I can attest that the riparian habitat in Paradise Valley is far better–with all the subdivision than on the Missouri where there are no houses—just cows.

And then there is water pollution from cows. There are leaky septic tanks in subdivisions, of course, but the average cow poops out the same waste daily as 50 people. I have no idea how many cows are in Paradise Valley, but I am willing to bet they contribute more to the pollution than leaky septic tanks.

Mill Creek a major tributary to the Yellowstone River completely dewatered for hay production. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Another ecological impact ignored by PERC and most “working lands” advocates is the loss of aquatic habitat. Nearly every stream that enters the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley is dewatered annually for irrigation to make the hay consumed by cattle in winter. This water removal impacts the trout for which the Yellowstone is renowned (mostly because most of its summer flow comes from Yellowstone Park where there are no withdrawals for irrigation) and impacts other wildlife depended on aquatic insects like birds and bats.

While the ranchers in the PERC report worry about the transmission of brucellosis to their livestock, the report ignores that bison are killed annually primarily to protect the local ranchers from brucellosis.  And domestic animals also transmit the disease to wildlife. Domestic sheep, for instance, can send pneumonia to their wild cousins and are responsible for the loss of bighorn sheep herds throughout the West.

Bison in Paradise Valley. Photo: George Wuerthner.

Then there is the social displacement of native species like elk by domestic livestock. Elk avoid areas actively being grazed by cattle. This is especially critical when domestic cattle are moved from private lands to summer pastures on public lands. Cows come in; elk move out. Since one must presume the reason elk are found in any particular area is due to the fact that the land meets their biological needs, they often being displaced to a more marginal habitat.

Livestock are also the primary vector for the spread of weeds. And many public agencies and publicly funded Ag support systems like County Extension Services plant exotic grasses like crested wheatgrass that are favored by livestock to the detriment of native wildlife.

Lest we forget, many ranchers are intolerant of native predators. Wolves, coyotes, cougars, and bears are killed by Wildlife Services, a federal agency that uses taxpayer dollars to reduce predators for the livestock industry. The loss of predators has many adverse ecological effects. Predators help to maintain healthy ungulates herds by eliminating sick animals, including those with Chronic Wasting Disease, which ultimately results in the death of infected animals.

Fences are another problem with livestock production. Fences block migrations and are used by avian predators of sage grouse and other nesting birds. Collisions with fences are responsible for up to 29%-30% of sage grouse mortality in some areas.

Native rodents like prairie dogs are poisoned to favor the consumption of grasses by livestock. Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species. While prairie dogs are not found in Paradise Valley in other parts of the West, massive poisoning programs to reduce or eliminate prairie dogs have been implemented to the point where they are in danger of extinction. For example, on the Thunder Basin Grasslands in Wyoming, the Forest Service is preparing to poison most of the prairie dogs’ colonies there.

Water developments for livestock often tap into springs and seeps, funneling the water to troughs for cattle to the detriment of native species from birds to frogs to snails that depend on these natural water holes.

Frogs and other amphibians rely on wet meadows, seeps and springs for habitat–much of which is destroyed to facilitate livestock production. Photo by George Wuerthner.

There is the destruction of biological crusts, which are critical to precluding the spread of cheatgrass, a highly flammable exotic grass taking over the sagebrush ecosystems of the West. Cattle and sheep, destroy these crusts due to their higher densities than typically found in native herds, facilitating the spread of the cheatgrass.

In many parts of the West, the federal agencies are destroying juniper and other native plant communities, in part, to favor livestock grazing.

WHAT DOES WORK?

If your goal is to preserve wildlife biodiversity and ecological values, the best way to do this is not to promote livestock or “working landscapes.” For all the money we annually pump into the Ag economy, including programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, predator control, and all the other “assistance” we provide to ranchers, a far wiser choice would be to spend that money buying private lands. For all its faults, federal management is typically better overall than what we see on private lands. At the very least, all citizens, in theory, have a say in the management of these lands.

In Paradise Valley, tens of thousands of acres have been acquired over the years, including places like the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area, the Slip and Slide Ranch, and other lands that ultimately has a higher value to wildlife than private ranchlands.

Beyond the public acquisition of private lands, implementation of statewide or at least county-wide zoning can direct growth towards areas with fewer impacts, and help preserve valuable properties like wildlife migration corridors, wetlands, winter range, and other lands critical for wildlife.

Oregon has statewide zoning. It was directing all communities, including the small towns, to develop an “urban growth boundary” where future development will occur. Urban growth boundaries prevent rural sprawl, but it helps communities and saves tax dollars by locating growth in areas close to existing infrastructure. Since one where new homes and stores will be found, you can plan to have sufficient roads, parks, and schools to accommodate this growth.

I have friends who tell me that in “conservative” Montana, you could never get zoning ordinances passed, in part, because of the resistance from ranchers. The irony is that Oregon’s law was passed in 1972 by a Republic governor and legislature when it was primarily dominated by natural resource extraction industries like logging and ranching.

One of the other factors overlooked by those promoting livestock production as an antidote for sprawl is that ranchers (who always claim to love the land—until they sell it off) can place their property in a conservation easement. Alternatively, they can sell to a buyer who is not interested in subdividing. They do have a choice.

In any event, the idea that promoting ranching is good for biodiversity is a flawed assumption. So is the belief that we can preclude subdivisions by subsidizing and ignoring the real costs of Agriculture, especially ranching.

Time to uncover the myths and expose that the Emperor has no clothes.