Category Archives: Cowboy Myth

Cow Crud

Journalist and Torrey House Press author Jonathan Thompson publishes The Land Desk, a superb commentary on the West. You should subscribe. Even though I am familiar with the ongoing, nonsensical destruction of our public lands by private cow, I am still dismayed when I see the facts and the magnitude of this existential farce as Jonathan presents below.

Read on:

Data Dump: Cows, cows, cows…
… on the aridifying public lands

“The vast San Juan ranges, with a plentiful supply of choice feed, were not to remain such for many years. Like everything else that goes uncontrolled or without supervision these ranges were used selfishly with the present only in mind [leaving them] in an almost irreparable condition.”

—Franklin D. Day, “The Cattle Industry of San Juan County, Utah, 1875-1900”

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A couple of years ago, my wife Wendy and I traveled to Lake Kerkini, a reservoir on the Struma River in Greece near the Bulgarian border, known for the abundance of migratory birds. It wasn’t until we arrived that we found out it was known for something else, too: water buffalo. Everywhere we went people were selling buffalo milk, cheese, ice cream, and even meat, all of which were delicious. 

Finally, while trying to get a gander at a flock of flamingoes on the reservoir, we encountered a herd of the buffalo meandering up a canal, murky water up to their haunches, chomping away on thick forage along the water’s edge. They looked like fat, four-legged, breathing hunks of obsidian. And while I’m no reader of bovine minds, they also looked pretty damned happy. 

I didn’t think about those buffalo and their happiness again until this spring, as I drove through a dust event on the drought-addled Great Sage Plain in southeastern Utah. Not far from the road a herd of cattle stood in the hot sun, eating what appeared to be a lunch of fine dirt seasoned with a pinch of cheat grass. The landscape around them, having been grazed year after year for decades without rest, was thrashed. And it occurred to me then that these critters were something like cousins to those Greek buffaloes that got to spend their days wallowing in water and mud and feasting on actual grass and I thought, Damn, maybe these cows don’t belong out here in the desert? 

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Yet, lest someone wants to frame me as a cattle-mutilator, let me be clear: I’m no cow-hater. Not even close. I like a juicy burger as much as the next person, my grandparents were dairy farmers in the Animas Valley, my cousins run a slaughterhouse and meat market, and seeing a few cows lazing around in a tall-grass pasture makes me happy. 

But on the public lands of the arid West there really are no such pastures, in part because it’s dry, but also because a century-and-a-half of relentless livestock grazing has denuded the landscape of its native grasses. When you combine that with the aridification of vast swaths of the West, you get an ecosystem in peril and a bunch of cows that appear to be yearning to take a trip to a lake in Greece, or at least to some grassy field in Iowa. And if they can’t find that they’ll be drawn to the closest simulation of that: a sensitive desert riparian system, to which they will quickly lay waste. 

I’ll let you wrangle over whether we should stop eating beef altogether or whether livestock grazing should be banned from all public lands, some public lands, or just managed in a more sustainable fashion. But to help inform your wrangling, the Land Desk has rounded up a herd of statistics and crowded them into the data corral so that you can throw your mental lasso around the ones you like. 

AUM = Animal Unit Month = one cow and her calf for one month

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1,000 pounds: The weight of an average beef cow. Some ranchers in the Southwest prefer smaller breeds more suited to the desert, such as corrientes or criollos, which weigh around 800 pounds. 

80: Percentage of a cow’s body weight the cow will eat in one month. This can increase in desert environments in which a cow must walk further to reach forage.

20 million: Number of cattle and calves (of all breeds) in the 11 Western states. 

4.4 billion: Pounds of methane emitted by all of those cows each year.

$2.5 billion: Total amount of livestock subsidies paid by the federal government to ranchers and farmers in the 11 Western states between 1995 and 2020. 

8.07 million: Number of AUMs for cattle authorized by the Bureau of Land Management for Western states in 2019. This does not include grazing on Forest Service lands or non-cattle livestock. 

$1.35 per AUM: Current grazing fee for federal lands and the minimum possible under federal law. In other words, that’s how much it costs a rancher to put one cow and calf out on public lands for a month, during which they will eat between 600 and 900 pounds of forage. 

$6.10; $4.85; $20.10: Minimum fee per AUM for grazing on Utah state land; New Mexico state land; and non-irrigated private land (estimated average), respectively. 

$15.9 million: Revenues to the BLM from grazing fees (for all livestock categories) in 2020.

$105.9 million: Amount budgeted to the Department of Interior for rangeland management in 2020, meaning the taxpayers are subsidizing grazing operations to the tune of $90 million per year. 

15,300: Number of cattle, including calves, in San Juan County, Utah, at the beginning of this year. 

15,308: Number of people living in San Juan County, Utah, as of July 2019. 

106,645: Number of AUMs in effect within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument when it was established in 1996.

106,202: Number in effect 20 years later. 

50,469: Number of AUMs in effect across 20 separate grazing allotments in Bears Ears National Monument when it was established in 2016. The monument proclamation not only grandfathered in all existing grazing leases, but also left the door open to new ones. 

15,000: Acres of public land in Harney County, Oregon, that will be sprayed by air with diflubenzuron, a pesticide, to kill mormon crickets and grasshoppers to improve livestock grazing—on the taxpayer’s tab.

62,537: Number of coyotes killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Program in 2020, often because the coyotes threatened livestock. 

11,732: Number of “events” recorded by Wildlife Services in which wildlife threatened beef cattle and calves in 2020—usually resulting in the death of said wildlife, such as: Badgers, Bats, Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Beavers, Blackbirds, Bobcats, Feral cats, Coyotes, Crows, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Foxes, Mountain Lions, Porcupines, Skunks, Feral Swines, Gray/Timber Wolves, and Mexican Gray Wolves. 

25,400 beavers; 685 bobcats; 276 mountain lions; 381 Timber/gray wolves; 5 Mexican gray wolves: Number of each species killed by the Wildlife Services Program in 2020 for all reasons.  

943: Number of feral chickens killed. 

Oh, yeah, and then there’s that alfalfa in the drying Colorado River Basin problem to consider.

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Flummoxed by the dark

From a recent letter to a conservationist friend:

Our recent time with you in the cow trashed wilds has me thinking. All the time. I have tied myself into a knot.

I am working on writing some short pieces on economics and on the cowboy myth for a grazing coalition’s new website. I piled up and reread many of my sources on the subjects, particularly economics, going all the way back to Bernard DeVoto in Harper’s from the 30’s. I have discovered nothing new, but I am feeling paralyzed by the absurdities. Economically, nobody directly involved wins on public lands livestock grazing. Not even the rancher. And economically public lands livestock grazing is utterly unnecessary to the nation. But reading all the material has vividly brought home that despite the absurdity, nothing has changed in 25 years, not even in 75 years. In fact, it is getting worse. The extractors have gained power.

Look what the cowboy has done to our land. Makes me wonder appreciatively what people are doing to the cows.

Looking at this fight from a distance, I would not want to be in the ranchers’ place. They produce nothing of significance. They require immense subsidy. They do much more damage than good. They are a puny minority working against the interests of the vast majority, a majority whom they depend on to subsidize their absurdity. And yet they prevail with an ever-tighter iron fist.

From our point of view, we need to reconcile to the fact that it is the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.

We must do something different. I don’t know what it is.

Not that I know what to do about it, but it is slowly becoming clearer to me that, as in so many other areas, the hidden, unseen problem is the amount of power we have ceded to corporations in the last 100 years. In this case, it is the extractors powered by the likes of the Kochs, and the rural banks using escrow waivers dubiously based on public lands grazing permits to shore up their balance sheets (as you point out). I feel a little like astronomers must have when they realized there is something big out there that we are not seeing. They called it “dark.”

Shit, man.

Mark Bailey