Herding Cattle Off Public Land Hasn't Revitalized Environment


by Carroll Cox,

Myths and debates abound concerning western public lands, the environment, cows and wildlife. One of my favorite myths is that deer, elk and buffalo are "natural" and therefore never harm the environment, while cows are some kind of alien creature, possibly created in Frankenstein's lab, and are always destructive. Actually, deer, elk and buffalo all have hooves, they all graze and they all defecate, just like cows. They can all benefit the environment by pruning grass, clearing underbrush and breaking and fertilizing the capped crust of arid, humus-deficient soil. Conversely, too many of any of them for too long can certainly impact an ecosystem adversely, as have the elk around Yellowstone where cattle have been banned for many years.

Another myth is that deer, elk and antelope populations, crowded out by the ubiquitous cow, are "mere fragments" of their former numbers, as stated in a letter to your newspaper. In the last 30 years, the American Whitetail Deer population has tripled from 5 million to 15 million, elk and pronghorn numbers have each increased from 200,000 to almost 600,000 and the number of wild turkeys has exploded from less than a million to 4 million. These figures are provided by Douglas W. MacCleery, USDA Forest Service.

Furthermore, those wild critters like to hang around with cows, both for herd protection from predators and to share mineral blocks, molasses and rancher-provided water during dry times. Cutting elk out of a cattle herd is a routine event during a high Rim roundup. One retired rancher I know has an isolated 15-cow permit. Often, when he moves the cows to prevent overgrazing, they are accompanied by 50 or 60 elk.

If the health of western public lands is really the issue, then the goal of all people who claim to love them should be to determine for themselves what creates a soil that supports healthy biodiversity. This debate will never be resolved until there are fewer sideline debaters and more on-the-ground experimenters. "Overgrazing" is a term much used. It has certainly occurred and has definitely been destructive. But how does overgrazing come about? Will a thousand cows or elk on 40 acres for eight hours have the same effect on the land as two cows or elk on that same land all year? Most people who use the term have not the slightest idea. If all cows were consigned to the purgatory where many think they belong, would we magically have "seas of native grasses," "lush riparian growth" and "productive watersheds?"

Little concrete evidence supports this popular folk theory of a largely urban society. Cattle numbers on public lands have been systematically reduced for many years. Thousands of acres of cattle-free preserves have been set aside in the West for 30, 40 or 60 years. One such preserve is Three Bar on the east side of Four Peaks near Roosevelt Lake. Having been rested for nearly half a century, this wildland is a wasteland of impenetrable brush, clear evidence of a lack of organic matter that leads eventually to desertification. Following the Lone Fire of 1996, the creeks of Tonto Basin ran black with scorched topsoil from the cattle-free uplands. Evidence is shaping up that too much "rest" from the hooves and excretions of creatures that give life to billions of organisms that make healthy soil, has the same longterm adverse result as improper grazing. Someday, intellectually curious people will come to understand that the ecosystems of this area do not function the same as forests receiving an annual 60 or 70 inches of precipitation that quickly breaks down old plants to create organic matter for new growth. We are a land of extremes. A season of plentiful rain may produce heavy growth that cannot be sustained during the inevitable periods of drought. Brush and junipers are the toughest survivors when competition for water and nutrients becomes too severe.

We will see many ponderosas die this year, by fire, disease or starvation. There are far too many of them to be sustained healthfully in this arid, brittle environment.

Excessive, fire-dependent woody growth during almost a century of federal fire suppression policies -- not cattle -- have dried up our springs and creeks and incapacitated the watershed. Cattle have been gone from the hills around Payson for many years, but begging to differ with the letter writer, I have not been "witness to an incredible ecological recovery." Quite the opposite. Water-sucking junipers, scrub brush barricades and ghastly erosion of sterile soil are in. Grass and biological diversity are out.

Take a walk west and south of the new multi-event center and see for yourselves. In my opinion, "ecological recovery" would begin by running a thousand head of cattle over the hills for a couple of days to take out brush, level erosion and fertilize and break the soil. After that, I would take out two-thirds of the junipers, which inhibit native grasses and cause hay fever, leaving only the best trees of various ages. Payson's own miniwatershed would then function much more efficiently, fire danger would be greatly reduced, and the town's immediate environment would more closely resemble its days of old.

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