On predators, ranchers and public land grazing


Jim Eischeid’s letter to HCN in the November 24th edition pointed out the irony that “the large majority of those ranchers get sweet subsidized deals on the use of the public lands for grazing, and yet they vilify the efforts to restore the wolf on those very same lands.” Eischeid then goes to the heart of the reason why public land grazing is environmentally destructive. It is the failure of ranchers to maintain the tradition of riding the range and moving the herd that results in these cattle hanging out in riparian areas where they munch willows and aspen as well as grass, deposit their waste directly into the streams and trample stream banks.

This is also true of Northern California where I live. In the old days, ranch teenagers spent months in the mountains each summer moving the herds and protecting them from predators. Often they were alone in the wilderness for weeks on end. These real cowboys developed a deep bond with the wild lands – the very bond which livestock organizations still talk about but which is increasingly rare in ranching communities. If the government agencies required range riding and other active management practices necessary for grazing to be done in an environmentally responsible manner we would not need to buy out grazing permits because many ranchers would abandon their permits as not “penciling out” – i.e. not worth the cost of management. Undoubtedly those ranch families which really cherish the Old West lifestyle would once again begin riding the range – or having the teenagers in the family take on the job.  Perhaps this would result in a new generation of ranchers who value wild lands and wild critters like those old timers who have now mostly passed on.

One of Jim Eischeid’s suggestions that would not work in Northern California, however, is replacing cattle with bison. Bison were not native here but elk where.  While they survived on the coast, elk were wiped out in most of interior Northern California during the gold rush when they were hunted to provide meat to the mining camps. It was only when the elk were wiped out that enterprising former-miners began bringing in cattle to feed the mining camps.

Elk were reintroduced to the Klamath Mountains in the 1980s and they are now flourishing in areas that are not in cattle allotments. These elk support a solid sport hunting economy.  But elk have not recolonized those parts of the Klamath Mountains where cattle grazing dominates.

Economic studies comparing the costs and benefits of cattle grazing v elk hunting in the Klamath Mountains have not been done. And I have never heard of elk ranchers running elk on the open range; I suspect that would not work well. But studies have been done demonstrating that public land cattle grazing in Klamath Country is having a significant impact on biodiversity.  A bird presence-absence study financed by the Forest Service and Partners in Flight some years ago found that certain species – one was the Willow Flycatcher – were almost always present in mountain meadows that were not grazed but were completely absent in nearby meadows that were grazed. That study was conveniently forgotten last year when the Forest Service considered whether to continue a grazing allotment in the area of the Marble Mountain Wilderness where year after year the most conflicts between recreators, cattle and the ranchers which run the cattle occur. The grazing allotment was reauthorized even though recreator-rancher conflicts have at times verged on violence.  

A voluntary buy-out program will likely prove the most effective way to end destructive public land grazing. But getting the agencies to require range riding and the other active management practices needed to protect western backcountry might provide the extra incentive needed to convince ranchers to accept buy-outs.  Requiring backcountry cattle management might also reduce opposition to grazing by recreators. I know my reaction as a backpacker has been much more positive when I hiked the one allotment in the Klamath Mountains where the rancher still rides the range and moves the cattle regularly than it is when I hike allotments where the ranchers put the cows in and then forget about them until late fall.  Finally, requiring range riding could help produce a new generation of ranchers who don’t exhibit the “sheer hate” of predators and all things wild of which Jim Eischeld writes. And that may lead in turn to the survival of public land grazing where it is ecologically appropriate and where ranchers are willing to ride the range on a regular basis.

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