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It’s pretty well-known that factory farming is harmful to the environment. Urine and feces from these facilities are funneled into “waste lagoons,” which often leak or overflow into our water supply, contaminating it with dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution, and drug resistant bacteria. And while we like to think swapping our car for a hybrid or electric car or even a more gas-efficient one, the truth is animal agriculture is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions and if we want to lower our carbon footprint, hopping on the plant-based (or at least mostly) bandwagon is a surefire way to do that.

But, what about free-range cattle who graze? A lot of well-meaning people suggest that by eating grass-fed cattle who led a life grazing in the pasture they are somehow not causing harm to our planet. Is that true, though? Is cattle-grazing really the best alternative?

With a little digging, it’s was to see that no, cattle-grazing is not the best option. In fact, cattle-grazing comes with it’s own host of problems, making it a less than friendly solution.

So How Much Land is Used for Cattle-Grazing? 

According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 155 million acres of public land is used for livestock-grazing. Keep in mind, though, that is is public land. The 48 states continental U.S. makes up about 1.9 billion acres of land and about 788 million acres, 41.4 percent, is grazed by livestock. To put that into perspective, “this is an area the size of 8.3 states the size of Montana.”

Developed land in the U.S. makes up a total of 3 percent of the total land and is home to 75% of the population, while rural residential land makes up 6.1 percent of the total. Given that sprawl is makes up such a small amount of the total land use in comparison to cattle-grazing, the Western Watersheds Project argues that livestock grazing is having “by far the biggest impact of the American landscape.”  So what are these impacts, exactly?

Degradation of Natural Resources

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has found and reported the negative impacts of cattle grazing on the habitat of native species in the East Bay area in California. The CBD cites a comprehensive study that includes “a survey of over 140 peer-reviewed studies on the biological and physical effects of livestock on western rivers, streams, and riparian areas.” Researchers conducting the survey specifically searched for literature covering peer-reviewed experimental studies showing the positive effects of cattle-grazing, but could not find a single one.

What they found in this survey was that the negative effects of cattle-grazing are vast and far-reaching. Cattle-grazing affects the water quality in the the East Bay area, increasing levels of certain nutrients, bacteria, and protozoa. Water temperature changed, sediment load increased while oxygen levels often decreased. Not only is the water itself affected, but the plants in the water are too, as scientists have found that algae increases, while instream higher plants and streambank decline.

This change in the ecosystems balance leads to habitat loss for native amphibians and reptiles. Take the California red-legged frog, for example: “Sedimentation of creeks due to the erosional impacts of grazing mentioned above and trampling of undercut stream banks eliminates the deep pools and other cover habitat needed by frogs.”

Eggs are often smothered by sedimentation and the deep pools are filled in. These factors have led to a major decline of the red-legged frog, even causing their populations to decline. The red-legged frogs are just one of the many species endangered  due to the effects of cattle grazing. Others include the steelhead trout, Alameda whipsnake, California tiger salamander, and California horned and legless lizards, just to name a few.

Wild Horse Round-Ups

In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed “to require the protection, management, and control of wild free- roaming horses and burros on public lands.” Despite the fact that the BLM claims these roundups are necessary to “keep herds from multiplying beyond a sustainable population” and to save them from starvation and dehydration “as they compete for limited range and water resources with other wild animals and livestock,” it’s hard not to wonder if these roundups are really a way to further the interests of ranchers and the BLM itself.

Wild horses only live on about 26.6 million acres or 11 percent of the BLM’s public land, while the BLM leases out 157 million of the 245 million total acres to ranchers who pay a tax for each animal or animal pair.

Even though wild horses occupy a small percentage of the BLM’s land,this land is included in the 157 million acres allocated to ranchers. To keep the horse populations from competing with the ranchers’ livestock, massive roundups are conducted each year. There is more money for the BLM to make by leasing out the horses’ land and to round them up, then to simply leave them alone.

According to In Defense of Animals, “The roundups are physically tortuous and indiscriminate as the young, old, and pregnant are forced into a violent stampede over rocky and dangerous terrain.” The horses who do not collapse in exhaustion or become injured are corralled into holding pens for life, adopted out, or sold to questionable buyers. Some of these buyers include slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

Harm to Other Animals

Wild horses and burros aren’t the only animals who suffer in order to protect cattle-grazing land.  Project Coyote reports some of the gruesome methods used for killing these animals are poisons, steel-jaw leghold traps, strangulation neck snares, denning (the killing of coyote pups in their dens), hounding, shooting, and aerial gunning, “Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program, (formerly called Animal Damage Control) kills more than 2.4 million animals each year, including more than 120,000 native carnivores at an annual cost to taxpayers of over $115 million.”

The question that begs to be answered is, “Are these methods effective?” Research indicates that the answer is no. While coyotes and other carnivores are continually killed, conflicts between ranchers and native carnivores continues while livestock loss hasn’t diminished. The reason, as Project Coyote points out, is because killing the carnivores doesn’t address the actual problem, the problem being the presence of an “attractive prey,” the livestock themselves.

In fact, lethal control of these animals only results in short-term reductions. Social hierarchies of the packs shift and “pack members…disperse…allowing more females to breed.” In the long run, killing these animals has the opposite of the desired effect. Females in these exploited populations end up having larger litters due to reduced competition. At the end of the day, the animals are still being killed in horrific ways, yet the problem is far from solved. As Einstein put it, insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

What We’ve Learned

Though we would like to believe that free-range cattle who live “happy” lives full of fresh air, sunshine, and plenty of grass for grazing is the miracle alternative to factory farming, the fact remains that it’s not. Grazing cattle contribute to Climate change, loss of natural resources, and the cruel wild horse roundups.

If we truly want to make better choices for the planet, it seems that ditching meat, or even eating significantly less of it, is our only option.

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Image source: EPA/Wikimedia Commons