Wasting the West: How Welfare Ranchers and Their Livestock Are Damaging Public Land

By Rosenberger, Jack | E Magazine, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Wasting the West: How Welfare Ranchers and Their Livestock Are Damaging Public Land


Rosenberger, Jack, E Magazine


Twenty years ago, much of the public land around the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona resembled the barren and desolate landscape found in a Sub-Saharan desert. For years, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had granted grazing permits to ranchers for thousands of acres of fragile land along the San Pedro. At any given time 10,000 cows were grazing in the area, trampling the river's banks and causing it to widen out and become precariously shallow. The cows also devoured native grasses and shrubs near the river, transforming the once-healthy landscape to little more than a vista of dry earth, lumps of cow pies and sparse vegetation.

In 1987, the BLM declared a moratorium on nearly all cattle grazing on its San Pedro River allotments. (Today, three livestock allotments are still in operation, but each is limited to a small number of cows.) The following year, Congress designated the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a nature preserve of 58,000 acres, stretching along 40 miles of the river from the border with Mexico to St. David, Arizona.

Now the San Pedro's troubled past as a cow-damaged ecosystem seems a distant memory. The river has grown narrow and deeper, providing a home for longfin dace, desert sucker and other fish. Native grasses and bushes have re-established themselves along the riparian area, as have dense groves of Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willows, in 1999, beaver were re-introduced to the river, and they have built numerous dams, slowing the flow of the river and creating pools of water.

The preserve currently supports 350 species of birds, including many that migrate, 81 species of mammals, a half-dozen species of fish, and more than 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, says Bill Childress, the conservation area's manager. Each year tens of thousands of birdwatchers flock to the preserve, which boasts nearly half of all known breeding species in North America.

Unfortunately, ecological success stories like the San Pedro are rare in the West. Much of the region's public land is still used as the San Pedro once was--like a private feedlot for heavily subsidized ranchers. However, the good news is livestock grazing on public lands in the West is gaining recognition as an important issue, due to regional organizations such as Western Watersheds Project, based in Hailey, Idaho, and national organizations such as the Sierra Club. The striking, large-format book Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West (Island Press) documents the enormous destruction caused by livestock.

Today, cow and sheep ranchers lease approximately 300 million acres of public land in 11 Western states. As Welfare Ranching authors George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson report, "The combined area is as large as the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida, with Missouri thrown in!" Approximately 90 percent of BLM land and 69 percent of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service is leased to livestock producers. Federally leased public land includes numerous national parks, wildlife refuges and other nature preserves. …

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