Not all grazers are 'welfare cowboys'

  Dear HCN,

I'm writing in response to the article "Zero-Cow initiative splits Sierra Club" (HCN, 2/26/01: 'Zero-Cow' initiative splits Sierra Club). Before I left New Mexico to pursue a graduate degree, I worked for several academic, nongovernmental, and federal entities as a field biologist. This work took me all over the Southwest, and to my ecological eye, the damage caused by livestock grazing is nearly omnipresent. I've seen the muddy downcut streams, lined only with salt cedar, Russian olive, and cow pies. I've seen the mesquite dune fields of southern New Mexico, which were described by early railroad surveyors as having lush grass at the end of the 1800s. I've cored ponderosas in the Jemez Mountains and seen doghair pines decades old, the result of inadvertent fire suppression when cows ate the grass which had historically burned and thinned these stands. I've seen fences designed to keep livestock out of a public nature preserve cut, and salt licks placed in the sensitive riparian areas. Finally, I've surveyed the scientific literature for data on the effect of livestock grazing on wildlife and seen that for the majority of species, there is simply no information on the results of this large-scale, uncontrolled experiment we are conducting on 90 percent of Western public lands.

When I left the Southwest, I felt entirely hostile to the Western livestock industry. I still feel that grazing on public lands is, in general, indefensible on ecological, economic and political grounds.

However, on a return trip last June, I went hiking with a friend in Canones Creek, near Abiquiu, N.M. The banks and canyon bottom were lush with willows, mertensia, columbines and native clematis. Along the creek we saw an American dipper and a Mexican spotted owl. Rio Grande cutthroat were numerous in the cold, clear water. Also there were a couple of dozen cattle. But the stream was just fine, beautiful.

Back at the trailhead, we encountered the rancher in a dusty early-'80s sedan. He was an older Hispanic man, whose name I can't remember. We conferred about the stream, how nice it was down at the bottom of the canyon. He asked after his cattle, and was on his way to account for them himself. It was an entirely pleasant conversation. This was a man who cared about his animals, who took the time to check them, and I feel sure that his oversight was in part responsible for the preservation of this stream.

This article pointed out a valuable distinction, one which I learned myself on this hike: The grazers of northern New Mexico do not deserve to be painted with the same brush as most "welfare cowboys."

Norm Douglas
Durham, North Carolina