Public Land Use, Ranching, Politics and What We Eat

    Public Land Use, Ranching, Politics & What We Eat

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“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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Public Land Use, Ranching, Politics & What We Eat

by Steve Hall,
Adirondack Wildlife Refuge

Ranching in Arid Western States

Western ranchers represent a small fraction of the people living in western states, and the ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands are themselves a minority among ranchers, but they wield a virtual stranglehold on the 300 million acres of federal lands, ranging from BLM lands, to US Forest Service lands, and US Fish and Wildlife Lands. These politically connected ranchers graze livestock on ninety percent of these lands, paying the government (through a cost per “animal unit”) less than fifteen percent of the fair market price they’d pay if they leased privately owned lands.

The damage caused by trampled vegetation, soil erosion, and its consequent stream destruction and water pollution, has a devastating impact on the land, not to mention the removal or exclusion of native animals, such as wild horses, bison, elk, deer, bear, prairie dogs, coyotes, wolves, cougars, etc. Most people are not aware of the fact that it is much more efficient to raise cattle east of the Mississippi, which averages much more rain, such that a rancher in Nevada, for example, needs 230 acres annually to support one cow, while those in New York, Vermont, Mississippi and Missouri need only one acre.

Then there is the matter of government subsidies beyond the below market rates the taxpayer realizes when the land is rented for grazing. Why, at a time when we are being told that the government is broke, does Wildlife Services, a seemingly unaccountable unit of the USDA, spend millions of taxpayer dollars every year to kill predators on federal land, which specifically benefits ranchers, who appear to be unfamiliar with the phrase, "the cost of doing business"? To make matters worse, methods of killing are not restricted to shooting predators on the ground, or by the staggeringly expensive shooting from aircraft, but extend to traps and poisons, which may target predators, but invariably kill pets and other non-target animals, including some of the livestock who accidentally trigger such devices, as well as those predators involved in natural rodent control, such as birds of prey.

Why do "open range laws" in many Western states allow ranchers to let their cattle roam free, and why is it up to the average citizen to fence in their property to prevent destruction by free ranging cattle? If your vehicle strikes a cow which has wandered onto a highway in an open range state like Idaho, you are responsible for both the damage to the cow and to your vehicle.

Small ranchers tend to be conscientious citizens, following good neighbor policies, and are guilty of nothing more than trying to make a living by continuing a family tradition in a business where profitability, as in many other modern business models, is increasingly tied to consolidation, growth and cost cutting. In fact, the reality is that most small farms and ranches in today’s economy are run by folks with supplementary job incomes, who struggle to make ends meet.

Most of the taxpayer borne subsidies noted above, accrue to the largest western ranch operators. Of the 18,000 BLM permittees, for example, the top 500 control nearly 50% of the land allocated for grazing. About 30% of all livestock graze mainly part time on these federal lands, while 70% graze exclusively on private lands.

These largest and most politically connected ranchers are often among the most conservative political voters in the country, and the first to brand other folks as "socialists". Right leaning media has done an effective job of frightening many of their followers, by blurring the distinction not only between communism and socialism, for folks who wouldn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx, but more importantly, between socialism and a social democracy, which latter best describes the United States, where almost all social services from police to public schools, and from the interstate highway system to our armed forces, are examples of socialism at work. They may say that they do not want “socialism”, but the last thing these big ranchers want is actual "capitalism".

The Bundy Bunch & The Land Grabbers

The reason the feds own so much land out west is that the historical process of gaining land through seizure (from Native Americans, for example), wars and cessions (Spain and Mexico) and purchasing (Mexico, France and Great Britain), was followed by the process of setting up states, ceding lands for homesteading, land grants and sales, a process which slowed down because of the remoteness, inaccessibility and, from a private business perspective, not worth the effort or expense, save for tourism and recreational use of much of these lands. "Right of way" access to land locked lands, mines and other privately run enterprises is still a matter of great contention out west. Those screaming for state control of these lands seem to forget that the states would then take on the substantial administrative costs currently borne by the federal taxpayer, which could be hundreds of milliuons of dollars per state.

But this isn't what the Bundys want. When they pose as "The People", what they want is to exclude other peoples, particularly other races, nationalities, and those of different political persuasions, and they want the lands turned over to their ranching businesses, for free, without any oversight. When they wave the flag, which many of us actually fought for, and therefore find really offensive, they are simply using the oldest distraction in the book, patriotism as a symbol of self interest, and an emotive way of disguising their true intent.

Legally, Cliven Bundy and his sons are thieves, who stole from the American taxpayer, and were supported by right leaning media sources, along with several current presidential candidates, until the senior Bundy began offering embarrassing and unsolicited observations on blacks and other minorities, at one point suggesting that blacks were "better off under slavery". As an amusing example of situational outrage, it is now coming out that the Bundys have availed themselves of a number of government programs, from small business loans to the grazing permits for which they refuse to pay.

Bundy’s reasoning on the federal land question seems to be that he should be allowed to graze his livestock on public lands without cost to him, because his family had done so without paying for decades. The fact that the taxpayer subsidizes eighty five percent of the cost of allowing ranchers who do pay grazing fees, to use the federal lands, is somehow not a factor in Bundy’s reasoning, even if it is extremely aggravating to those of us who run successful businesses without any federal or state subsidies.

If you follow such notions to their logical conclusion, we should turn the land back to its original human users, Native Americans and the Clovis hunters, before kicking them all back across the Bering Land Bridge, and turning the continent over to mammoths, mustangs, bison, elk, bears, coyotes, cougars and wolves. But such reasoning belongs in comedy, and Bundy's supporters seem unable or unwilling to think through the implications of those positions, and further want to make it appear that ranchers represent "The People", an assertion, just in terms of the number of people actually employed in ranching, completely ludicrous on its face.

The Livestock Interests and Congress

The final irony is that your congressmen and senators, ever mindful of which political contributions ensure their reelection, do not want you to know where your meat comes from, or which cocktails of antibiotics and hormones your livestock ingested before the resulting junkie steer winds up on  your dinner plate. Livestock in America consume four times as many antibiotics as people do, which, along with hormones, allow unnatural growth rates, such that the steer you eat today came to market in only about 14 months, while the steak your parents ate took 4 years to get to the table.

All cattle were originally bred from a grass grazing Pleistocene ungulate called aurochs. Perhaps consuming all these antibiotics compensates for the fact that the young steer spends his last five months in severely overcrowded feed lots, eating unnatural cattle food ranging from corn to the actual remains of dead steers, while standing and wallowing in their own feces.

The greenhouse emissions from livestock raising, chiefly methane, exceed all emissions from trucks and autos combined, but just as Congress has banned using federal funds to study any connection between firearms, violence and crime, so have they made it illegal to use federal funds to collect information on greenhouse gas emissions in raising livestock, and have just recently added meat imported from other countries to the list of products which do not require country of origin labeling on their packaging.

Ever wonder why politicians want you to completely focus on social issues whose partisan adherence requires only your outrage? Could it be that they're afraid you may discover issues actually relating to the health of your family and loved ones, never mind the health of Americans as a whole? Want to learn about these issues? Read the "Omnivore's Dilemma", or watch any of the documentaries on Netflix, for example, “Food Inc.”, about where your food really comes from.

Healthy Eating, Hunting & Nature

At Adirondack Wildlife, we try to make a practice of never buying unlabeled food, and always, when possible, buying locally grown, naturally raised food. You can’t even trust government labels like "organic" and "free range", as their definitions have been so watered down by congress, thanks to relentless lobbying by the food industries, and over the strenuous objections of companies which actually produce organic foods. By the time Congress is finished rewarding their major corporate donors, the legal terms "organic" and "free range", have no relation to what you think they mean, and they qualify almost all food as "organic", even when vegetables have had rodenticides and pesticides applied, or in the case of livestock, had antibiotics routinely administered in food amd water to all animals, whether they are sick or not, thus encouraging the growth of antibiotic resistent bacteria, which may end up on your plate, if the food itself hasn't been irradiated. Find out specifically where your food comes from and what they've done to it. You can buy real free range bison at the grocery store, as well as elk and other wild game on line.

We’re fortunate living up here in the High Peaks region, as we have natural food stores like Nori’s in Saranac Lake, Green Goddess in Lake Placid, Rivermede in Keene Valley, and Rivers Edge in Jay, not to mention many farms and farm stands where we can get fresh vegetables and drug free meat, Ben Wever Farm in Willsboro, Essex farm in Essex, Mulvey’s Farm Market and the Little Super Market in Wilmington, Pray's farm markets in Plattsburgh and Keeseville, Fledging Crow in Keeseville, as well as the Adirondack Buffalo Company in North Hudson, west of exit 29 of the Northway.

Speaking of natural organic meats like venison and elk, if you're in suburbia or rural America, get your hunting license, and harvest some truly wild game, animals which actually had a life outside the feed lot, before being consumed. An odd thing about modern culture, with its emphasis on visual, freeze frame media, rather than reading, or doing what we used to call research: we want to see snippets of life, rather than the process of life, and the more out of the ordinary, the more we prefer it.

We always seem to focus on the death of the animals we eat, and hardly ever on their lives. So we try to humanize the manner in which our livestock are slaughtered, ignoring the fact that for most livestock, particularly chickens and hogs throughout their lives, and cattle for the last 5 months of their lives, living in cramped and severely confined quarters, is the norm, a life consisting of stress and strife. In fact, chickens on huge poultry farms often have their beaks cut off to minimize the damage from the fighting caused by having barely enough room to turn around.

Of course, we also tend to paint an Elysian version of nature, wherein animals prance around the meadows, soaking in that freedom, and living long lives without much stress. For the most part, wild animals don’t die of old age. It only seems that way to us, because at the end of a visually and spiritually rewarding day of hiking, fishing or skiing, we go to the kitchen to make dinner, then sit in the hot tub, or before a roaring fire, and sip brandy. What is strange about our relationship to nature, is that while we absolutely depend on nature (and how we treat her) for our survival as a species, we generally don’t experience nature that way on an individual or family basis. We turn on the tap to get water, adjust the thermostat to get heat, and then drive to the market to get food. If we feel ill or become injured, there are doctors, dentists and emergency rooms.

Wildlife do not have any of these options. Most commonly, animals, even the greatest predators, starve, or die because they are starving, and are no longer fast enough to catch prey, escape predation, or strong enough to defend themselves. The bear that wanders into your campsite or back yard after the summer berry crop fails, or the moose suffering from jaw necrosis, who can no longer feed itself, and staggers around waiting for the local wolf pack to smell his disability. Still, no one argues that it would be better for animals to live in zoos.

We caused the explosion of white tailed deer by exterminating their main source of control, gray wolves. Today, subsistence hunting is the number one cause of mortality among deer, but we kill nearly as many deer with our cars (6 million a year in the U.S.), as do predators, and nearly as many starve to death, particularly in areas where major predators have been removed, and the deer over browse their natural foods, while adapting to eating invasive species, as well as what we grow in that ultimate safe haven, our gardens, where local firearm safety regulations forbid us from discharging weapons so close to houses. But at least wildlife has the experience of freedom, dreadfully challenging though that freedom may sometimes be.

What to do with our Public Lands

Here's a novel thought: why don't we inject a little capitalism into the livestock market, and charge ranchers the fair market value for grazing their animals on public lands, and in those areas where ranchers fail to comply, or choose to no longer use public lands for grazing, allow the natural recovery of the land for use by wildlife and people, allowing American citizens to use those lands for outdoor recreation. This would also improve the setting up of natural safe corridors between wilderness areas like Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff and Jasper, or between Algonquin, the Adirondacks, and Catskill Parks, allowing wildlife to move around between parks, thereby ensuring better health through genetic diversity in our wildlife populations.

The National Parks system has been called the greatest idea anyone ever had, and public visitation in national Parks has seen a steady rise, even during the electronic age, when our kids have their noses buried in games, iPhones and social media.

Expand the National Parks system, and partition public lands for outdoor recreation, be it camping. kayaking, wildlife viewing and photography, four wheeling, snowmobiling, hunting and fishing. Expanded tourist, sportsman and outdoorsmen revenue generally, would benefit and create entire support communities of restaurants, hotels, outdoor sports equipment stores, naturalist, hunting and fishing guides, etc.

When ranching dominates an area, you get the opposite, a thin economy with low employment and land devastated by livestock, along with the exclusion of the wildlife. Because the percentage of livestock grazed on public lands is low, and because even these animals tend to be part time grazers, the impact on ranching as a whole would be minimal. Oh... and finally shut down the USDA's Wildlife Services, which spends millions to benefit a very small interest group.

The return of wolves to Yellowstone, in the nineties, to control the elk, who were severely over browsing riparian vegetation and impacting a wide range of species from song birds to beaver, created an annual average of over $35 million in additional revenue to Gardiner, West Yellowstone, Silvergate and Cooke City, and other tourist towns surrounding Yellowstone, a fact you will never learn from conservative western media and politicians, who tend to be in the pockets of wealthy ranching and mining interests, and now that Bundy claims he’s on a mission from god, he’ll get support from all those Americans who seem to forget that all terrorists claim to be on a mission from god.

Steve Hall

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