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for people who care about the West

A message to environmentalists from a wildlife biologist

  I should confess up-front that. although I'm an environmentalist and a wildlife biologist at a Western university, I admire ranchers. I should further confess that I live on a small piece of property near real ranches-- ones big enough to be home to cattle and the shy kind of wildlife you don't see on smaller places. My wife and I try to pay our dues for living among these large and beautiful pieces of land by helping our neighbors. We keep up our irrigation ditches, we keep weeds off our property, and we lease our grass and water to them.

I confess these things because I know that my corner of Colorado would be better off if our place were to be part of a larger piece of neighboring land. It would be less fragmented and more attractive to the kind of wildlife "- songbirds and carnivores "- that shuns land with roads and cats and dogs and houses and lights.

I make those confessions in the hope that my fellow environmentalists who are intent on pushing cattle off the West's 420,000 square miles of public land will make a confession of their own. I hope they will confess that their "cattle-free" movement has absolutely nothing to do with the health of the land and everything to do with their selfish desire to recreate on the public land. I would like them to also confess that through their short-sighted desire to walk on trails free of cow pies, they are helping to subdivide the West.

I am convinced that the cattle-free people have struck an unholy alliance with developers. Under their pious statements about "saving the land" and punishing "welfare ranchers," they are playing into the hands of the boomers who would turn the open spaces we love and prize into a sea of malls and roads and housing developments.

How can this be? The devil is in the details. Late each winter, the mother cows in the West drop their calves. Some of those cow-calf pairs, as they are called, spend the summer on private lands and are sold in the fall. But on the 21,000 cattle ranches that have federal grazing allotments, cow-calf pairs get trailed onto Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, where they spend summers and part of the fall.

During that time, the ranchers generally raise hay on their private, irrigated property. This is the property Westerners see every day. It is our best watered land, with the deepest soils. It is the land our most desirable wildlife prefers to use. Deer and skunks and raccoons will happily live in subdivisions. But bobcats and yellow warblers will only live on unfragmented land, such as ranches.

In the fall, the cows and their now 600-pound calves are brought back to the ranch. The calves are sold; the mother cows live through the winter on the hay raised the previous summer, and the cycle begins again.

The point of this story is that the 170,000 square miles of private ranchland and the 420,000 square miles of grazed federal lands are a unit. Drive cattle off the public lands, and you've driven them off the private lands. And once they're off the private lands, the ranchers can do nothing in most cases but sacrifice that land for development. Cows won't graze the clouds.

That's the argument. We need to keep the productive and private low-elevation lands in ranching to protect diverse wildlife. Our high-elevation public lands are beautiful. But for the most part, they are the leavings of the homestead era. The homesteaders took the land with the best water and richest soils, and left us the rest. Those leftovers can't support diverse wildlife by themselves.

What about subsidies for cattle ranchers? It's a fair question, since grazing permits are relatively inexpensive. But we should also ask: What about "welfare recreationists?" Recreation is the West's most subsidized activity. Even with the controversial federal-fee system, recreationists who climb mountains, who snowmobile, who gape at Yellowstone's wonders, who fish our streams, pay hardly anything for those activities.

Some recreationists pay back indirectly. They buy fishing gear and backpacks and snow machines, and food and gas and lodging in small towns near public land. Some of them, recognizing their responsibilities, build trails and pick up other recreationists' trash. They organize into groups to protest mining and logging and dam building. They pay their way, more or less.

In the same way, ranchers who have federal grazing leases pay their way. They keep their private land In open space for us to look at and for wildlife to live on. It's a more than fair trade. I hope that someday, before they've helped to destroy the West, the cattle-free environmentalists come to understand that.


ichard L. Knight is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a professor of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].