I recently received a video titled Audubon Conservation Ranching: Hooves on the Ground, Wings in the Air from the Audubon Society. The video promotes beef production to save grassland birds.
The video is a slick production of happy talk featuring some urban cowboys. And it plays on the old, tired Condos vs. Cows argument. The idea being if you don’t want to see land subdivided, you must support cattle ranchers.
The numerous ways that livestock production negatively impacts the environment, from water pollution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions to soil erosion and displacement of wildlife, are never mentioned in the video. Promoting ranching as a way to protect birds is like encouraging alcoholism as a solution for heroin addiction.
There is no doubt that grassland birds are declining for a host of reasons. But far more important is the conversion of grasslands into ag lands—a fact never mentioned in the film. In much of the Great Plains, grasslands are being transformed to wheat and corn crop production—both sustained by Ag subsidies. Urban growth is a significant factor in some parts of California, but so is the change from rangelands to ag crops.
Urbanism is often not the most significant factor in the loss of grasslands. Instead, the changeover of grasslands to vineyards and other higher “value” crops is the biggest factor in some California counties. For instance, the city of Santa Barbara occupies approximately 12,000 acres, but vineyards occupy 20,000 acres in the county.
Not mentioned is that pastures and hayfields occupy much more acreage of California than all the urbanism put together. Some 51% of California non-federal land is used for pasture and range. By comparison, only 5% of California’s land area is urbanized.
A hayfield usually consists of exotic species like alfalfa that depend on irrigation. Irrigation for forage production to feed the cattle industry is the primary use of water in California.
Furthermore, if ranching is your primary conservation strategy, it sure hasn’t worked well. There is no evidence that ranching in the country has precluded subdivisions, but especially in California, where land values are among the highest in the country.
Most of the urban areas in California, the Gallatin Valley where Bozeman is located, the Wasatch Front of Utah, the Front Range of Colorado, the Snake River Valley near Boise, or the deserts between Phoenix and Tucson were formerly ranch or ag lands.
Promoting ranching doesn’t preclude the demand side of the equation. In places with attractive amenities like ski resorts, universities, outdoor recreation, suitable climates, and other features, the value of land creeps so high that you cannot make a living and pay the mortgage and other expenses raising cattle. Unless you are already very wealthy, ranching is more a lifestyle than a profitable business—which is the problem with the Audubon video.
The main character featured in the film, Joe Morris, grew up in San Francisco but inherited a ranch. He looks the part of a rancher like you might see in a Marlboro commercial, wearing a cowboy hat and jeans, but his clothes are way too new and clean. Same for his wife, Julie Morris, who looks like she just stepped out of a clothing catalog. He seems genuinely concerned about protecting his land as a refuge for birds. Nevertheless, like most ranchers, he ignores the real ecological impacts of the livestock industry.
The film features Joe and Julie plus others riding horses. This use of the mounted cowboy is the same trick that Marlboro commercials used to sell cigarettes. You have people riding horses out on the range to connect people with the cowboy myth of freedom and being “close to the land.”
This is not by accident.
Audubon is playing to America’s love of cowboys. But, of course, few ranchers ride horses anymore except in videos promoting ranching, since ATVs and pick-up trucks are the main transportation on working ranches. But that wouldn’t play well with the urban audiences that Audubon is trying to reach.
The problem with such productions is that nearly all of the ranchers featured by conservation groups are not “traditional ranchers.” Instead, they are urban converts, who want to play cowboy, and because they have sufficient funds from outside sources, they can buy a ranch.
I’ve seen this “movie” many times before. Peggy Dulany, a Rockefeller heir, owns the JBarJ ranch in Montana’s Centennial Valley lauded as an environmental rancher by Audubon, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and other conservation organizations. Though we don’t hear much about the Malpai Borderlands ranchers anymore, they were funded by Drum Hadley, who is now deceased but was heir to the Busch beer fortune. Brian Bean of Lava Lake Land and Livestock in Idaho is a San Francisco investment banker. A Silicon Valley hedge fund billionaire, Tom Steyer owns the TomKat ranch north of Santa Cruz, California.
I give credit to some of these folks like Tom Steyer for his commitment to reducing climate change, but ironically, he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to livestock’s contribution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
While I would agree that in most instances, these individuals do a better job of managing their property than traditional ranchers, they are hardly representative of the “average” rancher’s attitudes and values because all grew up in urban environments. Plus, they have the financial resources to do things that other ranchers cannot afford to do.
But the promotional propaganda like the Audubon video never makes this distinction. Instead, Audubon’s video suggests that these kinds of wealthy ranchers are “representative” of what ranching is about.
Worse, the Audubon video has some questionable assertions about livestock production. For instance, the opening statement of the video suggests that livestock production helps maintain “clean water.” Yet, nearly every study of livestock and water has demonstrated that livestock is one of the West’s major sources of water pollution. Indeed, one of the streams that drain Point Reyes National Seashore (which should be renamed National Livestock Park) has some of the worse pollution found anyplace on the California coast.
The narrator says livestock protect “clean air,” ignoring that livestock produces a significant amount of methane through its digestion which is one of the biggest sources of pollution.
It goes on to say that “cattle graze the habitat birds utilize.” That could only come out of the mouth of someone who doesn’t know much about bird ecology. Grazing does favor a few bird species that benefit from the near elimination of vegetation like the mountain plover. Still, most birds need the cover provided by grasses, the riparian vegetation destroyed by cattle, and the plants consumed by cattle. For instance, if you are a sage grouse chick, you feed on forbs (flowers), which cattle remove in grazing. If you are a ground-nesting species like lesser nighthawk or mourning dove, you need tall grass to hide the nest from predators.
However, that is just the beginning of the misinformation and mythology that Audubon promotes. One has to wonder how much these ranchers donate to the Audubon Society to make them sell out the environment for a contribution.
The video goes on to list four benefits of ranching. They include maintaining wildlife habitat, increasing plant diversity, capturing carbon, and providing a livelihood for rural communities. Unfortunately, while there is a grain of truth in all these assertions, most of it is hyperbole.
For instance, far more wildlife is negatively impacted by livestock production than is helped. Several reviews of endangered species in the West find that livestock production is the number one source of endangered species status. Predators like wolves, coyotes, bears and cougars are regularly killed by livestock producers.
The increase in plant diversity is often a consequence of livestock production, promoting exotic plant species that thrive on disturbance. For instance, cheatgrass, a typical annual found in many parts of the West and thrives on the destruction of soil biocrusts created by cattle hooves.
As for capturing carbon-this is yet another questionable assumption, especially if you do a full accounting of the carbon cycle since methane emitted by the cattle gut fermentation process is one of the most significant contributors to global climate warming.
As for providing a livelihood for rural communities, numerous studies have documented that ranching largely depends on the economic opportunities in rural communities rather than the community dependent on ranching. In other words, for most ranchers these days, it is the alternative job opportunities provided by a town, whether driving the county snowplow or working at the local bank or school, that keeps most ranchers financially afloat.
The evidence suggests that promoting livestock production will not alter the downward trend in grassland bird populations. Audubon promotes a false narrative that somehow ranching is benign land use.
The single best way to preserve grassland habitat is to eliminate livestock from public lands where the bulk of grassland habitat in the western states is located. Beyond that, state-wide zoning can protect grasslands. In Oregon, for instance, the entire state is zoned. One cannot subdivide Ag land that is located outside of the urban growth boundary. A third approach would be to tax ag land for its real value (most Ag land is highly undervalued in tax formulas) but reduce the tax based on the percentage of lands put into a conservation easement.
In other words, there are many alternatives to simply promoting cows as a solution to the decline in grassland birds. The message promoted by Audubon does a disservice to conservation.