There is no doubt that America is still in love with the iconic representation of the western cowboy. But what was once deemed a necessity to the continuation of western life, is now an outdated, slowly dying, eco-destroying endeavor that has far outlived its usefulness. Indeed, when the facts are examined closely, one cannot help but wonder how the practice of wide scale ranching has survived this long in today’s climate of starving people, ravaged environs and diminishing species. In the paragraphs that follow, we will examine some of the travesties caused by this industry, government subsidies that allow them to continue, and choices we can make, as Americans, to hasten an end to this destructive practice.
For decades there has been an undercurrent of tension between those cultures that obtain the bulk of their protein from red meat and those who choose fish and/or vegetable protein instead. The fact is – meat kills, and it does so in many ways. The first is perhaps the most obvious, and has to do with what red meat does to the human body. It increases one’s risk of heart disease, colon cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension and obesity, just to name a few (West). However, even worse than what meat does to those who consume it, is the unspeakable hardship it imposes on millions of poverty-stricken people across the globe – it results in their severe malnutrition and starvation. According to the Global Action Network, animals raised for meat have to eat about ten pounds of grain to produce about one pound of edible meat (“Eating Meat…”). It would only stand to reason then, that in consideration of all the starving people in the world, we would stop raising meat for food, and use that grain to instead feed the millions of starving people, therefore being able to sustain many more lives on the same amount of input.
This is not, however, meant to be a discussion of how meat kills. It is rather, a discussion of the damage ranching has done to the environment of and species health in the western United States. The meat for protein discussion is only provided to lend further evidence of how ludicrous the continuation of this practice truly is.
In its natural state, Western grazing land is marginally productive, to say the least. Add in several million head of cattle, diversion of many major waterways and the wholesale slaughter of competing predatory species, and you have an all out recipe for environmental disaster. To illustrate, consider that, “According to federal studies, 60 percent of the Bureau of Land Management’s rangelands are missing at least half their native plants and grasses…,” (Oppenheimer) and the damming of waterways and constant tromping of cattle through streams has all but wiped out local salmon populations. Our government also has a predator-control program, whereby they intentionally kill predatory mammals native to the rangelands that may pose a threat to cattle. In 1994, this program was responsible for the purposeful killing of 163 black bears, 293 mountain lions, 1,928 bobcats, 8,973 foxes and 85,571 coyotes (Oppenheimer).
In the western United States, more than 45 million beef cattle are grazed on about 870 million acres – an area that comprises more than two thirds of the total land area of our seventeen westernmost states. Much of this land is federally owned and leased to ranchers for a fee that has historically been less than a third of what they would have had to pay to lease privately-owned land (Oppenheimer). In addition, ranchers enjoy exemptions that lower their property taxes, and they are eligible for government drought relief, low-interest agricultural loans and emergency livestock feeding programs. Our taxpayer dollars also pay for much of the cattle fencing that sprawls across the western landscape (“Welfare …”). So in effect, we, the taxpayers, are economic accomplices to starving many of the world’s people, annihilating the natural environment and slaughtering dwindling species of mammals for doing no less than what they were designed to do – struggle to survive.
According to Bruce Apple, director of the environmental organization, Rest of the West, “The livestock industry is the last wildlife-genocide program in the United States. All-out war is declared on a diversity of species every day to benefit a single industry.” (Oppenheimer) The Western Watersheds Project adds, “No other human activity in the West is responsible for decline or loss of more species than is livestock production.” (“Livestock …”)
So why are we allowing this to continue? In one word: power. The ranching community possesses tremendous resources that combine to create powerful political influence. President Bill Clinton attempted, two years in a row, to increase the fees imposed to lease federally-owned grazing land, but was unsuccessful due to the good ole boy network fueled by the power of Western ranchers. Many experts believe that totally abolishing the ranging subsides would no doubt help the range, because it would force ranchers to work within true market conditions. Having to pay true market prices to lease land, and no longer having the emergency feed provisions, etc., would result in the grazing of fewer cattle, and thus, less damage to the environment. Rangeland and watershed consultant Ed Chaney says, “…with our subsidy, we’re just feeding the problem. The system now is slow attrition, grinding them out of the industry. The dollar cost of keeping them out there is mind-boggling.” (Oppenheimer)
Free market enterprise can be damaging to the environment in many instances, but in the case of cattle ranching it can help. We need to end government subsidies to this industry, which mainly benefits large, corporate-owned ranch operations rather than small, family owned concerns (“Livestock …”). Because this is a political task, it must be accomplished through the same avenues as any other political change: our letters, our e-mails, our votes. Be vocal. Let your elected officials know how you feel on this issue. Get involved. Check out the websites of environmental organizations and see what you can do, through them, to further this cause. You do not have to be a vegetarian to fight for the end of American ranching subsidies. You only need to be a concerned individual who is tired of subsidizing wealthy corporations in a way that also destroys our environment and drives species to extinction.
“Eating Meat Contributes to World Hunger.” GlobalActionNetwork.ca. 2008. 21 Sept. 2008 http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/wr_part5.htm>.
“Livestock: Myth & Reality.” WesternWatershedsProject.org. 2008. 21 Sept. 2008 .
Oppenheimer, Todd. “The Rancher Subsidy.” Atlantic Jan. 1996. Atlantic.com. 2008. 21 Sept. 2008 .
“Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West.” PublicLandsRanching.org. 2008. 21 Sept. 2008. http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/wr_part5.htm>.
West, Larry. “What Are the Negative Health Effects of Red Meat?” About.com. 2008. 21 Sept. 2008 http://environment.about.com/od/health/a/red_meat_mad.htm