This article originally appeared on High Country News.
Those who visit the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico these days have to deal with a number of dangers: rattlesnakes, extreme heat, bears, rough terrain, and of course, raging bulls. Between 50 and 150 head of cattle parade across the landscape, chewing native plants to the knot, trampling riparian areas to dust, eroding landscapes, damaging habitat, and oozing vast clouds of methane. oh and according to the US Forest Service.they are also playing bullfighters with unsuspecting hikers.
This type of behavior is naturally unacceptable to the Gila National Forest, which manages the land in question. So last summer, officials hired cowboys to round up the unruly cattle and evict them from the woods. After both the contractors and the cows were injured in the process, officials decided to take a deadlier tack, sending in helicopter gunmen in February to “attempt to eradicate them from the area,” as the agency put it. decision put it.
It may be the most important action the federal government has taken in at least two decades to mitigate the impacts of overgrazing on public lands. It even looks like the start of real grazing policy reform, something conservationists might have been pushing for since the 1970s. But there’s a catch: The only reason the Forest Service did anything this time is that the cattle in question are feral, the descendants of cattle abandoned by a rancher belly up in the 1970s. Think of them as the bovine version of “orphan” oil and gas wells, which similarly litter land and water and continually spew methane.
The Forest Service’s justification for its lethal response, in a nutshell, is: “Feral cattle are an invasive species that damage native habitats with their grazing behaviors.” That’s all well and good, but you could remove the “wild” from the front of that sentence and it would still be true. And yet the additional 1.5 million or so “licensed” cattle that are trampling public lands are getting away with it. The same goes for Cliven Bundy, whose own semi-feral cattle have been illegally grazing on public land in Nevada for about 40 years, and there are still no plans to eliminate them.
The Biden administration promised new grazing rules this spring, but early signs suggest we can expect another great burger. Several weeks ago, the administration Announced this year’s grazing fees, though he didn’t have to go through the hassle, as for the 27th year in the last four decades, the fee again amounts to just $1.35 per animal unit per month, the minimum allowed by law. . That’s all it takes to empower a half-ton cow and her calf to gobble up 600 to 800 pounds of fodder from the public per month, destroy cryptobiotic soil, and spew more climate-warming methane. Heck, you can’t get a cup of coffee for $1.35 these days!
Number of Animal Unit Months (AUM) for livestock authorized by the Bureau of Land Management for Western states in 2021. This does not include non-livestock or livestock grazing on Forest Service land.
233 pounds per year
Amount of methane emitted by a single cow-calf pair.
$6.10; $4.85; $20.10
Minimum AUM fee for grazing on Utah state land; country of the state of New Mexico; and non-irritated private land (estimated average), respectively.
The Bureau of Land Management says it uses market forces and other considerations to determine your grazing feeS. However, even though the cattle market has changed substantially in the last 40 years, grazing fees have not been budgeted for. In 2000, for example, the price of a pound of live cattle was $0.70; today it is $1.65. And yet, in both years the grazing fee was the same. One could argue that the low fees are necessary to prevent cheeseburgers from becoming a luxury item. But given that only about 5% of America’s 29 million beef cows graze on public land, the fee would have little impact on your tab at Blake’s Lotaburger, New Mexico’s favorite beef fast food. While it is, in some ways, much better to have cows in the range than confined to a feedlot, free range cattle are much tougher on the weather.
That is the conclusion of a study published last year, which found that free-range cows not only emit methane (via enteric fermentation) and nitrous oxide (in manure), as all cattle do, but also destroy native plants and soils enough to changing the landscape from serving as a carbon sink to becoming a source of greenhouse gases. And they emit more methane because the energy content of forage from public lands tends to be lower than alfalfa or grain fed to grazing cattle and feedlots. “Forage from public lands, especially when high in exotic grasses,” the authors wrote, “is the worst diet to feed livestock from a greenhouse gas perspective.”
Low fees are just one of the places the feds have dropped the ball on grazing. The data shows that the BLM fails to meet their own standards for grassland health. National monuments managed by the agency, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah and Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado, not only protect existing grazing, but allow for new leases, even when cow helmets are likely to damage cultural sites.
BLM revenue from grazing fees (for all livestock categories) in 2021.
Amount budgeted to the Department of the Interior for rangeland management in 2020, which means taxpayers are subsidizing grazing operations to the tune of $93 million per year.
Total amount of livestock subsidies paid by the federal government to ranchers and farmers in the 11 western states between 1995 and 2020.
Congress has also failed to pass legislation making voluntary grazing permit permanent retirements. That would allow conservation groups to buy a willing cattle operator’s permit, knowing that he would remain retired, something that appears to be a win-win, though still emphatically not. opposed by the Sagebrush Rebel crowd. As it is, withdrawn permits can be brought back into effect 10 years from now, which, as you know, defeats the purpose.
It is true that it is difficult to make significant reforms in this area. Doing so means rejecting the mythology of cowboy culture and the enormous political influence wielded by ranchers. Even the plan to shoot wild cattle in the Gila ran into this: the New Mexico Cattle Producers Association tried to stop the shooting, claiming it was animal cruelty. (A judge rejected the offer.) It’s an odd stance, given that the cattle industry advocates shooting wolves and other predators, ridding public lands of wild horses and, of course, ultimately eating the cows.
But then again, (almost) no one is suggesting that the feds start shooting “licensed” cattle. They’re just asking for some common sense reforms and maybe a grazing fee a bit more in line with the cost of a cheeseburger. This should not be so hard.