The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

By Howard G. Wilshire; Jane E. Nielson et al. | Go to book overview

3
Raiding the Range

Livestock grazing has proven to be the most insidious and pervasive
threat to biodiversity on rangelands
.

Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider, Saving Nature’s Legacy

“Home on the Range” evokes a western landscape “where the deer and the antelope play.” But even at the song’s debut in the 1870s, deer and antelope were declining in numbers and cattle grazing was degrading rangelands across the American west. In their natural state, arid North American lands are robust and productive, but they recover exceedingly slowly from heavy grazing.1 By 1860, more than 3.5 million domesticated grazing animals were trampling arid western soils, causing severe erosion and lowering both water quality and water supplies in a water-poor region. The early start and persistence of grazing over such a long period of time invaded every nook and cranny of the public lands, making livestock grazing the most pervasively damaging human land use across all western ecosystems.2

Today, grazing affects approximately 260 million acres of publicly owned forest and rangelands, mostly in the 11 western states—about equivalent to the combined area of California, Arizona, and Colorado. Those acres include Pacific Northwest fir and ponderosa forests; Great Basin big sagebrush lands; the richly floral Sonoran Desert; magnificent high-desert Joshua tree forests; varied shrub associations in the low-elevation Mojave, Great Basin, Chihuahuan, and other southwestern deserts; and extensive Colorado Plateau pinyon–juniper forests stretching from northern Arizona and New Mexico to southern Colorado and Utah and decorating the arid inland plateaus of Washington, Oregon, and northeastern California.

Proponents of public lands grazing argue that cattle have not changed anything. They just replace the immense herds of hooved native herbivores—bison, deer, antelope, and elk—that once dominated western ranges. But in pre-European settlement times, natural forces, including unlimited predators and limited fodder, effectively controlled the native animal populations. Unlike cattle, the herds of deer, antelope, and elk wintered in generally snow-free lowland areas and used much less than their full range each year. And those animals were easier on the land, especially the rivers. Immense bison herds ranged over vast areas, never

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