“[T]he human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually
every major category of environmental damage now threatening the
human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and
water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the
destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.”
– The World Watch Institute
Grazing has its place in just about every agricultural system that involves livestock. This includes cows bred to produce “organic” dairy products, or those set to become “grass-fed beef,” who will graze for two to three years before slaughter, or cows bred for their flesh or milk in the factory farming system who will graze for up to one year before being transported to feedlots.
However the particular breeding, feeding and killing operation is conducted, humans are introducing large numbers of grazing cattle into areas where cows were not previously found. This has an enormous impact on native ecosystems – so much so that grazing cattle now have the character of an invasive species.
After habitat loss, which is caused by clearing and consuming natural resources for human use, invasive species are listed as the second largest threat to biodiversity in North America. In the continental United States, 41 percent of all land is currently grazed by livestock.
Operations that seek to protect the interests of the cattle industry are responsible for the mass extermination of wolves, the roundup of wild horses, deforestation, and shocking loss of biodiversity, while the act of grazing itself contributes to desertification and erosion of soil and land. Let’s take a look for a moment at the many ways the introduction and proliferation of grazing cattle has earned them the title of “invasive species.”
The Mass Extermination of Wolves
Wolves are often portrayed as the “invasive” species, a predator that is capable of wiping out entire populations of prey when introduced to a new region. However, in their current state wolves don’t fit this criteria.
The Center for Biological Diversity notes that some populations of grizzly bears and wolves have already been driven extinct by the livestock industry, while an additional 175 species are currently threatened or endangered. The Mexican Grey Wolf has already gone extinct in southwestern ecosystems due to “predator control systems” crafted to protect livestock.
So what threat do wild wolves and other large carnivores pose to livestock? For one, they compete for scarce resources made more scarce by overgrazing. Second, they threaten livestock directly, in large part because their natural prey has been eliminated.
Despite the widely held belief that wolves pose a significant threat to animal agriculture’s bottom line, critics suggest that wolves pose a relatively low risk to livestock. Nevertheless, they’ve been targeted in a mass extermination campaign sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to make way for cattle interests.
Hunters were hired to kill wolves en masse prior to 1930, leading some populations to become extinct. It wasn’t until the Endangered Species Act of 1973 that conservationists began working hard toward rehabilitation. But these efforts were met with a changed landscape, degraded by decades of grazing. The imposition of huge numbers of cattle resulted in the destruction of watersheds and vegetation; grasslands were turned into eroded deserts.
This remains the situation today, where the conflict continues to take place on 270 million acres of public land, where grazing rights have been cheaply purchased by the industry. These rights are granted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service and, despite being for-profit operations, are subsidized by taxpayers.
The Roundup of Wild Horses
The wild horse is another alleged grazing livestock competitor being devastated in the name of industry. The wild horse population (despite being only tens of thousands relative to millions of cattle) had been decimated so heavily by the cattle industry that the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRHBA) was established in 1971 an attempt to protect them from impending extinction. However, despite this relative “protection,” wild horse numbers have dwindled down to 40,000. Their situation is so dire that advocates are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect wild horses under the Endangered Species Act.
Notwithstanding the act’s attempt to protect horses from capture and slaughter, and the fact that cattle outnumber horses fifty to one, the BLM continues to perform roundups of wild horses. Cattle ranchers argue that this ostensible “maintenance” of the wild horse population is needed to keep their population in check. Meanwhile, the BLM doesn’t want to miss out on the livestock grazing tax it collects from cattle ranchers. Wild grazing horses just aren’t profitable.
Deforestation Driven by Grazing
Outside of the United States, the world’s biodiversity takes another hit dealt by the cattle industry in the form of rainforest deforestation. Cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon, and Latin America’s other rainforests are also under siege. In a double-hitter, the cattle industry is responsible for deforestation in these areas to make room for grazing cattle and to make room to grow crops that will be turned to animal feed. Between 40 and 60 acres of rainforest are clear-cut every minute to graze cattle and grow monocropped soybeans to be used in animal feed.
This staggering amount of clear cutting, which destroys the oxygen-producing, carbon-storing giants of the planet, results in one football field of tropical rainforest being destroyed every six seconds to produce the equivalent of 257 hamburgers.
To put this into perspective, the average car produces three kilograms of carbon dioxide per day, while clearing rainforest to produce just one hamburger creates 75 kilograms of carbon dioxide – not to mention the additional non-rainforest related carbon footprint of about 25 kilograms of carbon dioxide per one pound of burger meat.
This means that eating just one hamburger has the same carbon footprint as driving a car everyday for a month. In just 24 hours, deforestation releases as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as eight million people flying from London to New York.
The total negative cost of deforestation includes the loss of biodiversity; the loss of carbon-storing trees, which contributes to global warming; water depletion and pollution; and soil degradation and erosion.
Grazing Land Vulernable to Soil Erosion
In an article published in Environment, Development and Sustainability, David Pimental establishes soil erosion as one of the most serious environmental and public health problems facing human beings today. This is because soil is being degenerated 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of renewal, “imperiling future human food security and environmental quality.”
Approximately half of the earth’s land surface is used for agriculture. Twenty-six percent of this is devoted to grazing livestock, while 33 percent is devoted to growing crops used to feed to livestock. Of all grazing land in the U.S., more than half is now overgrazed and subject to high erosion rates.
Erosion significantly impacts biodiversity. When the organic matter in soil is diminished, the overall biomass decreases, as does its potential to produce more life. This impact is felt on plants, animals, and microbes or, in short, on the entire ecosystem.
These erosion rates also affect world food production. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that food availability per capita has been declining for two decades, measured in cereal grains that comprise 80 percent of the world’s food. Although some would like to believe this is not an issue since productivity yields per hectare are increasing, the fact is that while some areas of productivity increase, the soil is eroding, causing irreparable damage alongside a growing human population that is placing higher demands on a finite and diminishing amount of arable land.
So, Which is the Invasive Species?
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the ecological costs of grazing livestock are greater than any other form of land use in the West. In the arid Southwestern United States, livestock grazing is the leading cause of species endangerment, while also contributing to desertification and soil erosion.
While the industry tries to paint an idyllic picture of pastures of ranchers raising livestock in a traditional and sustainable manner, while merely protecting their livelihood by “maintaining” other invasive species, further investigation reveals that it is in fact the grazers who are the invasive species. It turns out that the purported threats are not ecologically invasive, but financially invasive for the pockets of the BLM and the cattle industry.
Lead image source: CTVNews, Matt Lavin/Flickr, crustmania/Flickr, WNMU.FM
Just a note: Where the wild horses are 50 to one animal unit is only on 2% of the federal land that was set aside for the horses to reside principally. They did have upto 5% of fed. land but that is shrinking daily. In some herd areas the cattle are upto 25000 animal units with the horses allowed number reduced to 200 max. population.
above message put a long string of numbers instead of a percent sign. 2 percent and 5 percent
How refreshing it was to finally see the truth in print! Cattle not only produce more greenhouse gases than all the vehicles on the planet, they drive the relentless destruction of rain forests that will never grow back. Animal agriculture, as we practice it, is not sustainable. As it turns out, the choices we make in our diets may be more important than those we make in our housing and transportation.
A good step would be to fire every single employee of the BLM and start over.
First it was goats that was ruining the land and now its cattle – and not only that, they generate methane. Picking on the animal is a characteristic of numerous self-educated critics that have grasped a faulty paradigm and raised it to a near religious doctrine. Humans have, for more than 10,000 years, bred animals for their own use – the animals had precious little choice in the matter. With respect to methane, all grazing animals produce some methane, ungulates a little more than other grazers – a fact seldom mention is that about half of the human population (about 3.5 billion or so) also generates methane – but that’s not considered a problem.
As far as destroying the range or grasslands, to say that the animals are responsible either demonstrates ignorance of farming practices or else proclaims a hidden motive of the accuser. Cattle and sheep only have teeth on the lower jaw, they do not have upper teeth. Their method of eating is to sweep the forage in with their tongue over the lower teeth and then a slight raise of the head tear the forage off. To graze pastures lower than an inch in height is extremely difficult for cattle, simply because of the size of their jaw. Horses, on the other hand, have both uppers and lowers and can and do graze to ground level if allowed to. Semi-wild cattle, like bision, take a bite and move on, and given sufficient area do not return to the same patch until some time has passed which allows the site to freshen – that is until the urine and feces are degraded and/or incorporated into the soil. This is a natural trait and is one of the reasons that grazing animals are so difficult to “house break.” If this natural instinct is throttled and the animals are forced to remain within a pasture for a lengthy period of time the pasture becomes spotty – areas show up that are repeatedly grazed severely while other areas are allowed to grow rank. New growth is prematurely grazed before it can replenish root reserves and the older forage allowed to become less desirable. Over grazing does not happen all at once; it is one plant at a time being graze prematurely until it dies. Eventually the desirable species are gone, the animal is force to eat less nutritious forages until they also disappear.
The culprit is not the animal – it’s the human that’s managing the land that’s the problem. Back when goats were considered the problem the average goatherd was typically poor, ignorant, half-starved and often downtrodden – obviously overgrazing was not their fault – as in most cases they couldn’t do anything about it even if they wanted too. However, with cattle the image of the “Cattle Baron” is alive and well – even if facts speak otherwise. Today there are ways to avoid overgrazing, but they require education, a bit of ‘out-of-box’ thinking along with a few innovative methods/changes of livestock production and perchance marketing.
A brief word about horses. The digestive system of a horse is not as efficient as that of a ruminant (cattle, sheep, deer, bison, etc). Comparatively, if a horse were to weigh as much as a cow then it would require about half again as much forage. Along with their ability to take a desirable plant to ground level, the damage they can do, if not properly managed, occurs much faster than with a comparable live-weight of cattle. It should also be remembered that the wild horses in this country were brought here, initially by the Spaniards – they didn’t arrive here under their own power, like the bison or prong horn antelope.
The BLM and USFS is pushing the non native status regardless to the fact that science has proven that the horse species is native to the North American Continent. As opposed to the opinion of many, the wild horses and burros are native species of the United States and Canada. Fossilized evidence in many places, point to the fact that the wild horses were here, not only well before the Spanish arrival, but at the time of their arrival. In addition, there is much evidence that the African zebra, wild asses, etc, all originated here, and migrated to other points of the world. In addition, they have filled an absolutely necessary niche in ecological balance.
"E. caballus is genetically equivalent to E. lambei, but no evidence exists for the origin of E. caballus anywhere except North America. Domestication has nothing to do with basic biology – although deniers continually bring this up. "The key element in describing an animal as a native species is where it originated; and whether it co-evolved with their habitat.” Equines did both. The species originated in North America, fossils and DNA evidence prove this and it is also indigenous to the ecosystem of the North American Continent. People and agencies, e.g., BLM and USFWS deny the native status of equines, because they no longer have any economic value to them.
"All branches of the horse family (Equidae) share an ancient evolutionary origin and long-standing duration in North America, having evolved here for ca. 60-million years ago. Few other mammalian families can lay as much claim to native status and belonging on this continent. Two other extant families in the Order Perissodactyla are the tapir and the rhinoceros families, and both are similarly rooted in North America"
"The horse family has branched out to all continents except Australia (prior to the arrival of whites) and Antarctica. These animals have contributed positively to our planetary communities, and they continue
to do so in many ways and on many levels today
In Jan 2013, the BLM website stated the Wild Horse and Burro population was at 36,000 then over the course of the next 11 months, they removed over 7,000 from the lands that the FRWH&B Act of 1971 states they are to be "Principally" managed on, then at the BLM Advisory Board meeting in April 2014, it was stated on record that the population was at 22,000, in May 2014 the BLM website states the population was at 33,000 and now the website states as of June 2014 the population is at 49,000 ( aerial studies are only done every 2-4 yrs and deaths on the rangelands are not recorded or subtracted from the population numbers in the HMA\’s) but many biologists and wildlife experts believe the actual numbers are less than 20,000 The REAL numbers for WILD horses on the range and the BLMs figure for a 4 year reproduction rate means roughly each member of the national herd regardless of age or sex would have to have 2-3 foals per year, requiring a population explosion of 125% yearly, something that defies the very laws of nature and has never happened in any wild life species! In addition with the aggressive use of PZP, mortality rates of the wild horses and burros overwhelmingly out weigh reproductive rates. Mortality can be between 14% to 50% for the 1st year, and 5% to 25% for adults. This means mortality for any given year can be between 19% and 75% based upon density independent and density dependent inhibition. Couple with this the thousands rounded up. #\’s are closer to the low teens than twenties. They are close to extinction, closer than people realize!
Biologists state to maintain the genetic viability of any species, a minimum of 2500 members are needed, EVERY HMA has less than 2500 members, a handful allow for a maximum of 1500 members, most only allow a maximum of 300-900 members and several allow less than 100 members.