By Vickery Ekhoff, Forbes
Before his stand-off last week with the Federal Government—staged, aptly, during tax time—Bundy was a Nevada rancher who illegally grazed his cattle for 20 years on thousands of acres of public land, owing $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
But when The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the land, showed up to remove his 900 cattle, a modern-day whiskey rebellion broke out. Dozens of mounted Bundy supporters advanced on a handful of BLM agents in SUVs, guns at the ready, carrying banners. The BLM retreated and returned Bundy’s cattle, minus several killed during the round-up.
Dramatic as this was, the Bundy-BLM dustup shouldn’t obscure the underlying issue that’s at stake here for taxpayers: the huge costs of the grazing program into which Bundy refused to pay.
Across the west, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service manage 13.3 million AUMs (Animal Unit Months) on 250 million acres of public land. One month of grazing one cow/calf combination or five sheep (the definition of an AUM) costs $1.35—a fee that’s substantially below the present-day cost of $16-$20 per month to graze livestock on private land (BLM evidence of this disparity is noted here. The direct loss to taxpayers, according to Wild Earth Guardians’ interpretation of GAO data, is huge: at least $123 million a year. Indirect but related costs push the total to as much as $1 billion, all to produce less than 3% of the nation’s beef supply.
The ultimate losers in this equation are wild horses and the increasingly shrinking western lands they roam that belong to the public. To create space for this taxpayer-funded cattle program, the BLM, according to its website, deploys helicopters, rounding up 8,255 wild equines in 2012 and 4,288 in 2013. The roundups, according to The Cloud Foundation, cost an average of $750 per head. Some equines are adopted out for $125; the others are warehoused at a cost of $1.35 a day. Total cost for last year’s Wild Horses and Burros program: $71.8 million (according to the BLM).
The BLM undertakes this removal based on the claim—advanced by ranchers—that horses are overpopulated and degrade the land upon which the cattle graze. David Miller, head of the Iron County Commission, has gone so far as to threaten that the Commission would remove wild horses on its own if the BLM did not act with an immediate plan. The western media routinely mentions “horse overpopulation” as if it was an established fact.
But nothing could be further from the truth. The BLM’s count of 33,780 free-roaming wild horses and 6,825 burros still pales in comparison to the millions of cattle and sheep that graze at the public’s expense. Furthermore, according numerous environmental analyses, the BLM allocates 18 % of forage for wild horses while allocating 82% for cattle and sheep.
The rangeland is certainly suffering, but the reason is a historically devastating drought exacerbated by the overgrazing of cows and sheep. The only thing horses are harming is the ranchers’ boondoggle.
In fact, horses could be used to ameliorate the damage caused by welfare ranchers. According to wildlife ecologist Craig Downer, wild horses are flight animals that exist in family bands, ranging widely from diverse riparian areas, where they drink before moving on to forage in areas sometimes as many as 15 miles away, avoiding precisely the trampling that ranchers say causes so much damage in sensitive areas. There’s a reason helicopters are needed to round them up.
In addition to their environmentally efficient migratory patterns, wild horses (again according to Downer) repair western ecosystems by not lingering in riparian areas, consuming dry forage that would otherwise ignite destructive brush fires, and distributing undigested seeds through their manure, which reseed grassy plains, deserts and mountains. Additionally, their feces add significant humus to the soil, making it more nutrient-rich and water-absorptive.
Cattle, by contrast, are far less suited to this form of natural restoration. As ruminants, they tend to hydrate and forage in the same space, thus defecating and urinating in sensitive riparian zones. Whereas horses nip grass with clean cuts, cattle wrap their tongues around it and yank grass into their mouths, destroying root systems. Cattle also digest their food more thoroughly, breaking down the seeds of plant species to the point where they become non-viable. Add in the methane released through cow manure and flatulence, which contributes overwhelmingly to global warming. And let’s not forget about sheep, which are also ruminants and can graze in large groups of 500-1,000 animals, causing even greater damage.
Still, ranchers, including the commissioners of Iron county in Utah, are pushing the BLM to round up what they term “an excess of wild horses” competing with their cattle for forage.
Their reason for doing so? It’s another Bundy-style protest against the government agency, which asked area ranchers to voluntarily cut back on their livestock in order to minimize damage from overgrazing. And why are Iron County ranchers focused on removing wild horses instead of grazing cows and sheep, given that the horses are doing little damage to begin with? Easy: taxpayers pick up the tab for helicopter roundups of wild horses—just as they picked up the estimated half-million dollar tab for rounding up Cliven Bundy’s cattle.
Given this scenario, it’s clear which animals should have access to western land—if repairing it is in fact what we really care about.
So as Bundy and his posse exploit the symbolism of the American West to become heroes on FOX News, they might remember that the spirit of expansion that animated the Wild West was embodied in the very beasts ranchers want to destroy.
If there is an invasive species, here, it’s cattle and sheep. Wild horses, as early fossils show, originated here—and they’re a lot better suited to restoring the landscape than the cowboys and federal grazing program that’s looking to get rid of them—with the help of unwitting but fleeced taxpayers.