The Feds are fighting wild cattle

This article was originally featured on High Country News.

Those visiting the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico these days must contend with a number of dangers: rattlesnakes, extreme heat, bears, rough terrain and, of course, raging bulls. Between 50 and 150 cattle march across the landscape, chopping native plants to the ground, trampling riparian areas into dust, eroding landscapes, destroying habitats and dripping huge clouds of methane. Oh, and, according to the US Forest Service, they also play bullfights with unsuspecting hikers.

This kind of behavior is, of course, unacceptable to the Gila National Forest, which manages the land in question. So last summer, officials hired contract cattle rustlers to round up the rampaging cattle and drive them out of the forest. After both contractors and cows were injured in the process, officials decided to take a more lethal approach and, in February, sent snipers by helicopter to “attempt to eliminate them from the area,” as the agency’s decision put it.

It may be the most consequential action the federal government has taken in at least two decades to mitigate the effects of overgrazing on public lands. It might even look like the start of real grazing policy reform, something conservationists have been pushing for since the 1970s. But there’s a catch: The only reason the Forest Service has done anything this time is because the the cattle in question are feral—descendants of cattle abandoned by a rancher in the 1970s. Think of them as the bovine version of “orphaned” oil and gas wells, which similarly pollute land and water and constantly liquefy methane.

The Forest Service’s justification for its lethal response, in a nutshell, is: “Wild cattle are an invasive species that damage native habitats with their grazing behaviors.” That’s all well and good, but you could remove “feral” from the front of this sentence and it would still be just as valid. And yet the 1.5 million or so additional “licensed” cattle that tread public lands are disembarked untethered. So is Cliven Bundy, whose semi-feral cattle have illegally grazed public lands in Nevada for nearly 40 years and there is still no plan to remove them.

The Biden administration promised new grazing rules this spring, but early signs suggest we can expect another big nothing-burger. Several weeks ago, the administration announced this year’s grazing fees, although it hardly needed the trouble, since for the 27th year in the last four decades, the fee is once again just $1.35 per animal unit – the minimum allowed by law. That’s all it takes to allow a half-ton cow and her calf to gobble up 600 to 800 pounds of the public’s food a month, destroy cryptobiotic soils, and release more climate-warming methane. Hell, you can’t get a cup of coffee for $1.35 these days!

8.09 million
Number of animal unit months (AUMs) for cattle authorized by the Bureau of Land Management for western states in 2021. This does not include non-cattle animals or cattle grazing on Forest Service lands.

£233 a year
Amount of methane emitted by a single cow-calf pair.

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

The Bureau of Land Management says it uses market forces and other reasons to set grazing fees. However, although the cattle market has changed substantially over the past 40 years, grazing fees have not. In 2000, for example, the price for a pound of live cattle was $0.70. today it’s $1.65. And yet both years the grazing fee was the same. One could argue that low fees are necessary to keep cheeseburgers from becoming a luxury item. But since only about 5 percent of America’s 29 million beef cows graze on public lands, the fee would have little effect on your tab at Blake’s Lotaburger, New Mexico’s favorite fast-food beef joint. While in some ways it is much better to have cows out in the range than to be restricted to feed, open range cattle are much harder on the climate.

That’s the conclusion of a study published last year, which found that free range cows not only emit methane (via intestinal fermentation) and nitrous oxide (in their manure), like all cattle, they also destroy native plants and soils quite to shift 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 public land forages tends to be lower than alfalfa or grain fed to pasture and cattle. “Forage from public lands, especially when rich in exotic grasses,” the authors wrote, “is about the worst diet for feeding cattle in terms of greenhouse gases.”

Low pay is just one of the places where the feds have dropped the ball. The data shows that the BLM is not meeting its own standards for rangeland 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 have grandfathered existing grazing, but allow new leases, even when cow hooves are likely. to damage cultural sites.

$12.77 million
Income to BLM from grazing fees (for all livestock classes) in 2021.

$105.9 million
Amount budgeted to the Department of the Interior for rangeland management in 2020, meaning taxpayers are subsidizing grazing operations to the tune of $93 million annually.

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

Congress also failed to pass legislation making voluntary grazing permits permanent. This would allow conservation groups to buy a willing animal handler’s license, knowing he would remain retired, which seems like a win-win, though still strongly opposed by the Sagebrush Rebel crowd. As it stands, retirement leaves can be brought back into play 10 years later, which, you know, defeats the purpose.

Admittedly, it is difficult to make substantial reforms in this area. To do so is to counter the mythology of cowboy culture and the enormous political influence that ranchers wield. Even the plan to shoot wild cattle in the Gila faced this: The New Mexico Cattlemen’s Association tried to stop the shooting, claiming it was animal abuse. (A judge rejected the bid.) It’s an odd stance, given that the livestock industry advocates shooting wolves and other predators, ridding public lands of wild horses and, of course, eventually eating its cows.

But then again, (almost) no one is suggesting that the feds start shooting “authorized” cattle. They’re just asking for some common sense reforms and maybe a grazing fee a little more than the cost of a cheeseburger. It shouldn’t be that hard.

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