Let’s be Honest About Cattle, Wild Horses, and Climate Solutions

Photograph Source: R Boed – CC BY 2.0

The global COP26 agreement opened a few new doors for addressing climate change, but the omissions speak volumes. Collective commitments to reduce CO2 emissions and to limit warming to 1.5° Celsius by 2030 went missing. The pledge to phase out coal production was vetoed by India, with China’s support. Meanwhile, the role of livestock in climate disruption was given a free pass. While the Biden Administration is wholly unwilling to discuss – much less address – livestock’s role in the climate crisis, they seem more than willing to use climate change as a justification to remove wild horses from western public lands.

Despite the Biden Administration’s pledge to cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030, during the Glasgow Summit Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack voiced categorical opposition to reducing livestock. Sen. Grassley (R-IA) conceded that cattle are a significant source of methane emissions and raised concerns that livestock producers could be asked to be part of the climate solution. In response, Secretary Vilsack told the Iowa Capital Dispatch, “With due respect to the Senator, this administration is not going after animal agriculture.” He repeatedly insisted that the administration has no plans to shrink livestock populations.

But on western public lands, the administration is on a mission to slash wild horse populations, and is not afraid to use climate change as an excuse, despite the fact that cattle and sheep are the ones strongly linked to climate impacts.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is leading the disinformation campaign with its proposed 2022 budget appropriation increase of $35 million to remove “excess” wild horses and burro populations, with the stated purpose of making federal rangelands healthy and resistant to climate-driven changes and prevent rangeland degradation contributing to climate change. This proposal couples with a Strategic Research Plan to fund $1 million to research the impacts of climate change on wild horse habitats. While wild horses and burros – and other wild herbivores like elk and deer for that matter – potentially affect the climate, the overwhelming majority of climate impacts come from domestic livestock. Nonetheless, a research focus on the climate implications of cattle and sheep or their impacts on western public lands is nowhere to be found.

This isn’t only a theoretical omission, it’s active dereliction of the agency’s duties to address reality. Recent “emergency” roundups of wild horses have been followed immediately by massive influxes of livestock, illustrating that the Bureau of Land Management removes wild horses only to make way for commercial herbivores. Case in point: In the Sand Wash Basin of Colorado, the Bureau rounded up 501 horses — over 60 percent of this storied herd — under the pretext of emergency drought conditions, despite calls for a halt by Governor Jared Polis, Representative Joe Neguse, and numerous wild horse advocacy and environmental organizations.  Weeks after the roundup ended, more than 5,000 sheep were released to graze the same “drought-parched” land.

In Wyoming, the BLM is now removing over 3,500 wild horses from 4 million acres in the Red Desert Complex, including the wild horses of the Salt Wells watershed with curly pelage, a rare genetic variation. These lands are already meeting the “thriving natural ecological balance” legal standard according to BLM, even with the present 5,600 wild horses present before the roundup. Total roundup cost: $175 million. Chief beneficiary: the Rock Springs Grazing Association, which turns out mass quantities of cattle on public lands at the cut-rate cost of $1.35 per cow-calf pair per month, a fraction of the $23.40 a month average charged for private land grazing.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Just about everything. The Bureau’s scapegoating of wild equids for ecological damage – and climate impacts – caused by cattle and sheep allows the agency to continue to ignore the real cause of land degradation and its genuinely serious climate consequences. This failure to engage the real issue extends and deepens the climate crisis.

Of course, the Bureau’s 2022 budget proposal, boasting of “significant funding increases in support of the Administration’s commitment to address climate change,” contains nothing to reduce the hordes of cattle and sheep that graze on the same public lands as wild equids, nor to address the climate impacts of domestic livestock. Indeed, the words “livestock” and “cattle” aren’t even mentioned in the budget request. Yet cattle and sheep are seriously damaging to rangelands, due partly to their overwhelming abundance: At most recent count, cattle animal-months outnumbered those for wild horses 14.5 to one. Cattle concentrate along the fragile streamside habitats that are disproportionately important to native fish and wildlife, while wild horses spread their impacts much more widely and forage more like bison. From a climate standpoint, overgrazing by cattle and sheep is the primary cause of the destruction of deep-rooted perennial grasses native to the West, and their replacement with shallow-rooted and flammable annual weeds: cheatgrass, medusahead, and now ventanata. And when the annual weeds burn, sagebrush is lost. That all adds up to converting mature, healthy shrubsteppes that sequester massive quantities of soil carbon to soils that hemorrhage carbon into the atmosphere.

To top it all off, swapping out large herbivores with simple digestive tracts for ruminants that belch large quantities of methane is a bit like converting wind farms to coal-fired power plants.

These are real climate problems, with well-understood causes, but the Bureau doesn’t seem to want to grapple with them, or even acknowledge they exist.

Congress should send the BLM’s budget request, in particular the Wild Horse and Burro chapter, back to the drawing board.  Public land livestock reductions, and the conservation of native species, must be an integral part of the Administration’s climate action plan and commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of America’s land and water for biodiversity by 2030.

It’s time for the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to stop covering up the livestock industry’s role in exacerbating climate change, and start telling the truth about livestock, wild equids, and climate change. Anything less is a charade.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds across the American West. Charlotte Roe is founder of the Wild Equid League of Colorado and Science Advisor to The Cloud Foundation