This article originally appeared on The Daily Pitchfork.
Livestock have been severely depleting public rangelands for decades. They do so by trampling vegetation, damaging soil, spreading invasive weeds, polluting water, increasing the likelihood of destructive fires, depriving native wildlife of forage and shelter and even contributing to global warming - all of which has been noted in study after study. Global studies. Peer-reviewed studies. Government studies. Lots of studies going back many years.
So why do people get up in arms about drilling for oil in the Arctic national wildlife refuge, demolished forests and polluted streams, but accept cattle trampling wildlife refuges and national parks, forests and grasslands as if that's a productive use of our nation's shared landscape?
Why does that damage - amounting to as much as a one billion dollar subsidy to a very small slice of the livestock industry every year - go unmentioned by a media that so eagerly condemns climate change deniers and proponents of fracking? (Read The Daily Pitchfork's analysis of the destructive economics of public lands ranching here.)
Everyone can recognize an oil-soaked sea bird, a clear-cut forest, a stream that's been ruined by industrial pollutants and extreme drought and other destructive weather. But few Americans visit the nation's public grass and forest lands; fewer still know what livestock damage actually looks like on them.
This is something that the media's present fascination with grass-fed beef being good for everyone (not just people, but cattle and western grass and forest land) has directly abetted with the help of western politicians, the beef industry and livestock producers themselves.
The media, it turns out, comfortably quotes ranchers on conservation issues but not scientists. Not surprisingly, the immense negatives of ranching in the arid West seldom make their way into mainstream media.
You can thank all that for conditioning the public to see ranchers as trusted stewards and cattle and sheep as native grazers of one million square kilometers of public land in 11 western states where livestock receives preferential treatment at great cost to everyone but livestock operators. That photographs of cattle impacting sensitive Western ecosystems don't make the news shouldn't surprise anyone.
That's what makes the newly published study in Environmental Management - "Restoration of Riparian Areas Following the Removal of Cattle in the Northwestern Great Basin" - so important. It shows what devotees of grass-fed beef and rotational grazing (Allan Savory) spend so much of their careers glossing over: visual proof of what livestock damage looks like - in this case, within a wildlife refuge in Oregon.
The study assessed the effects of livestock in riparian systems at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon, 23 years after the removal of cattle grazing, using 64 before and after photographs.
To see them is to be impressed by how badly cattle are suited to the arid public lands of the West, and how long it takes these sensitive ecosystems to recover once cattle are removed.
Riparian areas are critically important ecosystems located along the banks of rivers, streams, creeks, or any other water networks where cattle congregate (because public lands are mostly arid and not irrigated).
To damage a riparian area isn't just to despoil it for cattle; it's to despoil it for every critter dependent on that ecosystem: fish, frogs, birds and native populations of elk and antelope, among other species.
The Environmental Management report cites numerous scientific studies in painting a graphic picture for the American public:
Cattle grazing can indirectly cause a significant decrease in bird species abundance and diversity, largely by removing shrubs that are important habitat for many bird species. Altered stream cover, water depth, and bank stability due to cattle grazing can all affect fish populations. Cattle grazing can accelerate stream bank erosion, causing streams to become shallower and wider, which can result in higher water temperatures.
Other water quality issues that can result from the presence of cattle include pollution from excrement and increased sedimentation from trampled banks. Decreases in both the density and height of woody plants have been documented with grazing activity along with increases in exotic species ... Although grazing can sometimes lead to greater species richness and diversity, this often occurs due to the introduction of invasive species and the suppression of vegetation cover. Other documented effects of cattle include loss of native biodiversity, interruption of nutrient cycling, and destruction of biotic soil crusts.
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